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January 19 – February 18

2018 Norton Lectures in Cinema: Frederick Wiseman

It was first as a teacher of criminal law that Frederick Wiseman (b. 1930) ventured down the shadowy corridors of the institutions he would later conscientiously illuminate on film. His inaugural foray into documentary cinema, the seminal Titicut Follies, proved so shocking in its unadorned rendering of a state mental institution that it remains the only American film to have been completely censored for reasons other than obscenity or national security. Yet the controversy in no way deterred Wiseman from continuing to maneuver through similar halls, uncovering the unruly humanity and institutional psyche within them.

From court, hospital, school, public housing development and military base, to monastery, meat-processing plant and even the entire town of Belfast, Maine, most of his films comprise a dramatic social chronicle of the American Institution—in all of its variously rigid and amorphous manifestations. Whether revealing corners of society hidden from view or enlarging the perspective on those too familiar to be seen, Wiseman’s panoramic views of social microcosms offer both vital records of American lives and ideologies and artful expositions of the human condition.

In line with the “direct” and “observational” movements in documentary filmmaking, Wiseman invented his own technique of what he half-jokingly calls “reality fiction”—acknowledging his subjective, yet remarkably evenhanded, act of interpreting reality. Exceptional even among his like-minded contemporaries, Wiseman keeps dramatic manipulations, filmmaker intervention and judgment to an absolute minimum and includes no narration, music, explanatory intertitles or interviews. Recording sound while longtime collaborator John Davey (and before him, William Brayne) shoots 16mm film, Wiseman then spends a long, intensive and monastic period editing the footage—abandoning standard narrative structure in favor of a more intuitive, dynamic placement around the accurate portrayal of his central protagonist: the place.

Time seems to unfold naturally, patiently immersing the viewer into the middle of the drama on the same footing as those filmed. Lengthy scenes expand into a comprehensive yet undefined view where multiple, minute revelations can erupt within the most mundane of situations. Apparently guided by a moral obligation to both his subjects and his viewers, Wiseman refuses exploitive manipulation and voyeuristic titillation. Instead, all are respectfully invited to navigate humanity’s complex web on their own. Steering clear of the sensational, saccharine, and patronizing tone of “expert” commentaries, the audience is activated into paying attention to the nuance and details where the critical questions, arguments, laughter, anxiety, silence, discomfort and heartache reside.

Wiseman’s cinema is a consummate and caring witness to the full spectrum of human heroics and follies – from the inarticulate to the eloquent, the convoluted to the beautiful, dark to light, the ordinary to the extraordinary. Drawn to both the well-worn stage of everyday life and that of the professional performance, Wiseman later traveled across the Atlantic to document the dancehalls and theaters of Paris, where he also filmed The Last Letter (2002), a fictional excursion—and an exhaustive contemplation of London’s National Gallery. Returning to his ongoing mosaic on American life, Wiseman has recently completed In Jackson Heights (2015), At Berkeley and his latest, much acclaimed epic Ex Libris about the New York Public Library. In these, as in all of his work, Wiseman gently wrings the heart of the most unassuming situations in order to reveal the myriad constellations of beliefs, laws and lifestyles that together comprise the soul of a nation. – Brittany Gravely

The Harvard Film Archive welcomes Frederick Wiseman back to accompany a second retrospective after his first here in 2011. Joining Agnès Varda and Wim Wenders as 2018 Charles Eliot Norton Professors in Poetry, he will deliver two of this year’s Norton Lectures on January 29 and February 5 at Sanders Theatre.

Co-presented with the Mahindra Humanities Center, Harvard.

All film prints courtesy Zipporah Films.

Special thanks: Homi Bhabha, Steven Biel, Sarah Razor, Mary Halpenny-Killip—Mahindra Humanities Center; the members of the Norton Lectures Committee: Haden Guest, Sylvaine Guyot, Robin Kelsey, Robb Moss, Richard Peña, Eric Rentschler, Diana Sorenson, David Wang, Nicholas Watson; and Jennifer Ivers—FAS Office for Faculty Affairs, Harvard.


Friday January 19 at 7pm

High School

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1968, 16mm, b/w, 75 min

From the chaos and controversy of Titicut Follies, Wiseman moved on to the comparatively placid hallways of public high school for his second film. Yet from his fragmented sequences, visual puns, unsympathetic close-ups, and witty cuts, he produces an ultimately scathing evaluation of North East High School in Philadelphia, considered one of the top schools in the city at the time. Droning an incessant message of control, repression and conformity to a generally listless student body, teachers and administrators prowl the hallways, ridicule independent thought, dictate, manipulate, confuse and simply bore the teenagers into submitting to a generic existence. By the film’s end, the familiar institutional languor and disciplinary monotone of public schools offers a shockingly smug confirmation of its own moribund purpose.

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Friday January 19 at 9pm

Hospital

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1969, 16mm, b/w, 84 min

Rather than an excoriating review of Metropolitan Hospital in New York City, Wiseman’s film mainly depicts a tireless crew of healthcare workers humanely managing a chaotic center of stress, pain, confusion and trauma—at times with great humor. The doctors and nurses wear multiple hats—acting as social workers and health care advocates for a financially and socially distressed population. A nurse contemplates taking home for the night a little boy who has neither a hospital bed nor a responsible parent; a psychologist basically supports a troubled man’s gay lifestyle—despite its illegal aspects; a female doctor patiently counsels an older man embarrassed by his intimate issue. Many of those who grasp the complexity of the human situation fight against bureaucrats in an office on the other end of the phone. Overwhelmingly, most of the cases on view—alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, negligence—represent the deeper afflictions of a dysfunctional civilization with few safeguards in place for their poor, elderly or mentally ill.

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Saturday January 20 at 7pm

High School II

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1994, 16mm, color, 220 min

A possible solution to the problems witnessed in Wiseman’s first visit to a public high school comes in the form of his second visit—this time to New York City’s Central Park East Secondary School. An untraditional educational system founded on the “Five Habits of Mind”—skills for critical, open-minded thought—this institution successfully handles its racially diverse, inner city student body with respect, honest communication and a collaborative learning environment. Unlike the earlier High School, the standard here appears to be one-on-one interactions with students, patiently listening to students and their parents, and actually helping those in crisis—as when a fifteen-year-old mother wants to return to school—rather than detaining or suspending them. Filmed during a charged time shortly after the Rodney King incident, their encouragement of “political citizenship” and positive conflict resolution is readily apparent: from the organization of student-led protests to a mediation session held by older students with younger children who were fighting. Wiseman also includes an extended, candid and stereotype-shattering conversation among a group of teenagers discussing the realities of their challenging lives. Says an administrator of their high, but realistic, ambitions: “We want to change the world but we also want to prepare kids to be able to live in the world.” With most of their graduates accepted into college, this seems attainable.

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Monday January 22 at 7pm

Primate

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1974, 16mm, b/w, 105 min

Riddled with scenes reminiscent of both horror and science fiction films, Primate displays behavior of both the human and non-human kind at the Yerkes Primate Research Center. However, it is the latter who are housed like prisoners and subjected to an endless barrage of tests and invasive procedures. Even intimate moments—such as an orangutan with her newborn—and the occasional affection, play or cute nickname seem like cold compensation for an institutionalized existence. While repeatedly demonstrating that the creatures they have caged are intelligent, sensitive beings, the scientists carry on with experiments that occasionally veer into the bizarre. Wiseman allows the viewer to experience a confusion and fear similar to that of the lab’s residents: being injected with an unknown substance or anxiously awaiting whatever terrors or rewards are in store when a white-coated figure opens the cage. Regardless of the argument for or against animal testing, Wiseman’s harrowing record might be asking what else humans are sacrificing in this unsettling exchange.

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Sunday January 28 at 7pm

Boxing Gym

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 2010, 16mm, color, 91 min

The remarkably diverse clientele of men, women, children and families—sometimes with animals or babies in tow—exercise their physical, mental and spiritual muscles at Lord’s Gym in Austin, Texas. Former professional boxer Richard Lord oversees his domain with passion and compassion, adapting regimens to the wide range of individual needs and doling out a little fatherly advice on the side. Somewhat off the beaten path with an old-fashioned air, the tight space of the gym unfolds under Wiseman’s keen eye into an oasis taking many shapes, deepening in complexity as the film progresses. Eventually, the various sonic rhythms of the place—punching, bouncing, thumping and beeping—seem to symphonize the choreographic patterns of the preparation and the act. Among the film’s many revelations is fighting as camaraderie and connection—with even the experience of being beaten described by one young patron as exhilarating.

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Monday January 29 at 7pm

Titicut Follies

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1967, 16mm, b/w, 84 min

Still his most infamous work, Wiseman’s first film was banned until 1989 from being screened except under extremely limited educational conditions. Capturing the cruel environment of the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, this film—shot by ethnographic filmmaker John Marshall—may also be Wiseman’s most expressionistic and surreal. Evoking the grotesque beauty and existential comedy of the Theatre of the Absurd, the shock is that these are the inimitable follies of real people in a real place. Here, the cartoonishly inept psychiatrist makes less sense than his schizophrenic patient and, at times, the good-natured guard appears more like an inmate than his captive audience.  On this stark stage, humanity seems stripped down to its brutal, illogical, and extraordinary edges.

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Saturday February 3 at 7pm

The Store

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1983, 16mm, color, 118 min

With Model (1981) and The Store, Wiseman swerved over from investigations of generally stark, ethically compromised institutions into the glossier, more glamorous end of American industry. Though financially exclusive, the Neiman-Marcus department store and its headquarters in Dallas may seem like a more superficial and less concealed choice: its excesses are transparently promoted and world renown. However, in his multidimensional view of all facets above, behind and below Neiman-Marcus’ well-engineered, highly staged universe, Wiseman allows the viewer a fascinating ringside seat, not as a consumer but as sociological observer. Filmed during the 1982 holiday season, The Store may provide slightly quieter, less shocking revelations, but the banal, the comical and the seemingly trivial gestures accrue and coalesce into larger patterns of behavior that Wiseman has impeccably arranged. On particularly exquisite display are the entertaining array of performances—from those on both sides of the counter— at every stage of making the sale.

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$12 Special Event Tickets
Frederick Wiseman in Person

Sunday February 4 at 2pm

Near Death

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1989, 16mm, b/w, 358 min

Wiseman’s longest film is perhaps appropriately dedicated to the Great Inevitable— focusing on the medical workers, patients and relatives of those facing the end of life at the Medical Intensive Care Unit at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital. The duration of the film makes death no easier or more difficult to confront, but it does allow the viewer the space to fully contemplate exquisite slices of heightened reality where humans seem their most human. Featuring all the frightening, absurd, graphic, painful, tender, awkward and peaceful moments alongside the clinical, casual, mundane and chilling, Near Death is also a study in the delicate communication of death, the minute considerations and cautious preparation—which the medical staff approach with an admirably conscientious care. As for the film’s duration, time itself stretches or shrinks for those waiting, hoping, watching or, finally, saying “goodbye.” Watching the film, time loses meaning. It becomes about life, these particular lives, and the human and mechanical systems in place to determine whether to prolong or curtail.

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Sunday February 11 at 5pm

Public Housing

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1997, 16mm, color, 195 min

Dense social histories, desperate entanglements and thwarted dreams course through every interaction—from a drug counseling session to an exterminator visit—at the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago. Even the 24-hour circling ice cream truck and its unrelenting refrain epitomize the strange combination of an old-fashioned, if dysfunctional, familial camaraderie within an oppressive architecture of surveillance, vigilance and continual police presence. Surrounded by poverty, addiction, abuse, crime and unemployment, the advocates for change fight an uphill battle or, at times, a backwards one—as suggested by a condom demonstration to a room of teenage mothers and their crying babies—yet their gallant efforts toward inspiration and empowerment are unflagging. From police confrontation to sewing circle, it is the unending compassion and grace that astonishes perhaps more than the chronic frustration and hopelessness.

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Sunday February 18 at 6pm

At Berkeley

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 2013, DCP, color, 244 min

Wiseman’s panoramic portrait discloses the internal workings of a giant entity that not only exemplifies many fundamental American ideals at work, but also seems to come startlingly close to striking a balance between the human and the institution. Wiseman’s visit coincides with a fragile point when state funding was dramatically disappearing from the University of California at Berkeley’s coffers. Under this pressure, the university still manages to increase financial aid to a newly threatened middle class, admit the largest number of low-income students in their history, and persuade faculty to take pay cuts in order to save hundreds of lower-paid staff positions. Remaining influenced by the area’s famously freethinking Sixties heyday, the community at Berkeley appears to earnestly strive to be inclusive and egalitarian while retaining its academic rigor. The four hours clip along, moving from frank discussions on unconscious racism to PhD students troubleshooting their prototype for a machine that enables the paralyzed to walk. Mirroring Wiseman’s similarly lucid lens, Berkeley’s conscientious, progressive approach to education does raise the optimistic possibility that a number of these passionate thinkers may indeed change the world.

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