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Trumpland Follies

Frederick Wiseman, Errol Morris, and the weight of documentary’s responsibility in 2018

Fredrick Wiseman standing in front of an American flag and rural American scenery Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Here is a partial list of the documentaries that Frederick Wiseman has made over the past five decades, or—for the sake of brevity, since he has made one almost every year—a partial list of just the ones he’s made about places: Hospital; Juvenile Court; The Store; Boxing Gym; Racetrack; Central Park; Zoo; Aspen; Belfast, Maine; National Gallery; In Jackson Heights; At Berkeley; Public Housing; and, perhaps most universally beloved, High School.

Those titles alone tell you something about the stark, no-nonsense economy of his worldview and the roving range of his curiosity. Wiseman has a way of making the banal seem engrossing and the familiar seem strange and surreal; his films do not have “subjects” so much as objects of meditation. He has remarked that he considers his work about the institutions of American life to be “all one film that is 50 hours long.” Except that the interview when he said that took place in 1983, and in the three and a half decades since Wiseman has stayed as busy as ever. His ongoing film about America has only gotten longer, weirder, and much more complex.

In the 51 years since his debut feature, the controversial Massachusetts mental asylum exposé Titicut Follies (which, after a lengthy court battle, was banned from being shown in public until 1991), Wiseman has remained remarkably consistent in his process: He visits a location having done very little previous research, spends several weeks shooting somewhere between 100 and 150 hours of fly-on-the-wall footage with a skeleton crew (at 88 years old, he still holds the boom mic himself), and then holes up by himself in an editing suite to piece the film together. “It’s really interesting to see the film emerge, even though it takes a long time,” he told the Paris Review earlier this year. “It’s like I’m a sculptor finding the statue under the stone.” The finished product, A Frederick Wiseman Film, is a unique apparatus that allows the viewer to both zoom in on the everyday details we tend to take for granted and, at the same time, to observe more widely how they fit into a greater, if imperfect, whole. “America is hard to see,” Robert Frost once wrote. Wiseman’s camera helps.

Wiseman’s latest film—his 44th—is called Monrovia, Indiana. The town (population: 1,443) is unremarkable, which makes it an ideal setting for him to work his ordinary magic. “Wiseman’s camera looks intently at the aspects of daily life that, exactly because they are so common, we in fact often overlook,” the film critic Barry Keith Grant writes in Voyages of Discovery, his book about Wiseman. His documentaries “present us with aspects of [American] life that we assume we know” and then, in the gentlest and most gradual way possible, prove to us that we were wrong. This all might sound like dry homework, but once you settle into the rhythm of a Wiseman film it is oddly compelling and sometimes downright hilarious. (He has said that his films are “Marxist, but more Groucho than Karl.”) I do not know that I have laughed harder at a movie this year than I did during a scene in Monrovia, Indiana when Wiseman’s camera captures some people shopping for mattresses: An overzealous salesman hands a couple a jar full of yellowish liquid and tells them, to their horror, that this is how much the average human sweats during a night’s sleep. Mutters the prospective buyer, “Gross.”

Monrovia, Indiana moves leisurely from cornfield to combine auction, from the somnolent rhythms of midday grocery shopping to a surprisingly heated town meeting about fire hydrants. Elderly men at a diner trade war stories of postsurgical physical therapy (“They put you in the pool yet?”) while, at a town fair, a cheerful saleswoman evangelizes about hemp and CBD oil (“I truly believe God gave us plants on this earth to be able to utilize in medicine”). At times, it plays like a slow-TV version of Parks and Recreation.

During one town meeting, a man suggests in passing that a developer might be “in some kind of collusion” with the town’s zoning commission. Another man in the room picks up on this dirty word: “Collusion?! I’d call it cooperation.” When I saw Monrovia, Indiana play at the New York Film Festival (culturally speaking, one of the furthest points from Monrovia, Indiana, imaginable), this familiar word got a huge, knowing laugh. But this is the closest anyone comes in the film to dropping the T-word, or bringing up national politics at all. Still, this hasn’t stopped critics from interpreting Monrovia, Indiana as a red-state ethnography. “Frederick Wiseman goes to Trump Country,” read Indiewire’s dispatch from Venice, where the movie premiered. This week, ahead of its wider release, the The A.V. Club ran a review under the headline: “Right now, even Frederick Wiseman shouldn’t get away with an apolitical look at small-town America.”

At the NYFF last month, Monrovia, Indiana played alongside another veteran documentarian’s latest offering, Errol Morris’s American Dharma—a searching and combative portrait of Steve Bannon that has been met with controversy and harsh criticism. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody panned the film as “an aesthetic failure” that “lets Steve Bannon off the hook”; Variety’s Owen Gleiberman wrote, “It’s hard to escape the feeling that Errol Morris got played.” Morris—an accomplished, Oscar-winning filmmaker and usual critical darling—was surprised by the extent of the backlash. “I was apprehensive,” he said recently, “but I could never imagine that people would say I was promoting Stephen K. Bannon or endorsing his views.” Still, by the end of its festival run, American Dharma had not been picked up for distribution, and it is unclear whether it will see a wide release.

I do not have quite so negative a view of Morris’s film—I thought it aestheticized the information flow of the digital era in interesting ways, and that it gave me a greater understanding of how Bannon thinks and thus a clearer idea of how to subvert him and his ilk—but I am intrigued by the questions its reception raises. Do documentary filmmakers have particular, heightened responsibilities right now, as civilians might during wartime? Is there a version of American Dharma that would have been hard enough on Bannon, or was Morris setting himself up for failure in thinking that a documentary could enact the sort of change that Trump’s opponents want?

Perhaps part of the problem was that, in the past, Morris’s filmmaking has measurably moved the needle. In 1988, his landmark documentary The Thin Blue Line proved the innocence of Randall Dale Adams, a man on death row for a killing he did not commit. (Shortly after the film’s release, Adams’s case was reopened, and he was eventually released.) Even after the critical and moral success of The Thin Blue Line, though, Wiseman—who in the late 1980s was working on his four-part film series on the deaf, blind, and multihandicapped—was espousing a perspective far less optimistic than Morris. “I naively thought that all you had to do was show people how horrible a place was and something would be done about it,” he has said. “I learned from Titicut Follies that this is not the case.”

Wiseman, a graduate of Yale Law School, began his career as an attorney and law professor. While teaching criminal law classes at Boston University in the early ’60s, he would sometimes bring his students on field trips to the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, to give them an idea of where the people they’d be convicting might end up. The conditions were so appalling that Wiseman, in the interest of social reform, decided to make a film about Bridgewater. Titicut Follies is incredibly difficult to watch but it is a film of potent, declarative power. Such was its force that the state of Massachusetts immediately took legal action to have the film banned shortly after its premiere at the 1967 New York Film Festival; after a lengthy battle, the state won. The process disillusioned Wiseman, and given that more media attention was paid to the courtroom drama than the prison conditions, it made him deeply skeptical of documentary as a vehicle for social change. Documentaries, he remarked in 1984, were “like plays, novels, and poems … fictional forms that have no measurable social utility.” At the same time, these forms can influence and bleed into each other in unexpected ways. The cast and crew of Milos Forman’s 1975 film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example, repeatedly watched a bootlegged copy of Titicut Follies as research.

I have sometimes wondered how Wiseman could go on after such virulent, government-backed resistance to his very first film—let alone become as prolific a filmmaker as he eventually would. But maybe it was because of this initial political disappointment that he was able to separate documentary’s aesthetic goals from its social ones, or at least see filmmaking as something more ambiguous than a win-or-lose barometer of social change. “I like to think that I approach each subject with an open mind, because for me, there’s no reason to make a film if I already have a thesis,” Wiseman said, while editing Monrovia, Indiana. Perhaps this is unsettling to viewers who wish to be guided—through conventional devices that Wiseman has never once used, like talking-head interviews or voice-over narration—by a steadier and more authoritative hand. But a Wiseman film is hardly propagandistic: They’re compared to nothing as frequently as Rorschach tests. High School, he once said, “is very much dependent on the values, attitudes, and experience of the audience.” To some people, that probably makes it a kind of horror film.

Modes of critique, like cuts of jeans, move through circular life cycles. When, as Wiseman has, you have been working at your craft for more than 50 years, you have the unique experience of outliving the critical arguments once used against you and perhaps even seeing them come around again in new iterations. I was struck, when recently reading Grant’s 1992 book on Wiseman, that it was common for progressives to critique the filmmaker in the late ’80s and early ’90s—the time of the crusading Thin Blue Line and Michael Moore’s Roger & Me—for being “politically soft.” But Grant believes, conversely, that “Wiseman’s style in fact constitutes a political cinema in the truest sense. Consistent with his democratic values, Wiseman refuses to condescend to the viewer by assuming an authorial superiority. Rather, he seeks to position spectators so that they have an experience similar to his own while filming.”

I agree. When I walked out of the theater after seeing Monrovia, Indiana, I felt the way I often do after a Wiseman film: Like an alien covertly observing human beings, seeing our awesome and absurd existence for the very first time. How strange that we walk dogs, attend meetings, and blink our eyes! Seeing a Frederick Wiseman movie is like visiting an optometrist and leaving with a stronger prescription. That can be a political act if you are a political person—no one enacts change without learning how to properly pay attention to reality—but it can also just as easily be a visit to the optometrist or, even, a day at the movies. Monrovia, Indiana is a lesson in empathy without sentimentality, and in the mental freedom that comes when the world is not hemmed in by battle lines. This is not Trump Country. It’s Wiseman Country—which is to say that it is human and, like it or not, ours.