The most respected living American documentary maker—though not the best known, a distinction held by Ken Burns—Frederick Wiseman made his debut with a still-horrifying exposé of the everyday treatment of inmates at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgeport, Massachusetts. The controversy and changes engendered by Titicut Follies (1967) presaged a career of muckraking docs, but the Yale Law grad proved to be the antithesis of a sensationalist.
Wiseman found his métier in low-key, long-form observational studies of public institutions, in high schools and courtrooms and museums and meat-packing plants. His immersive films achieve their power by capturing, through the accumulation of diverse yet unmistakably representative scenes, an organization’s underlying philosophy and the effect on its employees and “customers.” Wiseman’s work is lucid and dynamic, building to insights and revelations without relying on gotcha moments.
The Boston native’s extraordinary career is celebrated in the BAMPFA mini-retrospective, Frederick Wiseman on Documentary (Sept. 13–30, highlighted by the filmmaker’s sold-out illustrated lecture on Sept. 27). Although his films were funded by and made for PBS broadcast, a theater setting—where your phone won’t distract you—offers the best venue for submersing one’s self in the inner workings of the Paris Opera Ballet (Sept. 13, 21), the New York Public Library (Sept. 22), a Philadelphia public high school (Sept. 28, with Wiseman in person) and a New England port town (Sept. 30).
Although there’s nothing old-fashioned about them, Wiseman’s lengthy films are at odds with Twitter-size attention spans. Ah, now there's an idea: Silicon Valley is due for the Wiseman treatment.