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The Uncivil Servant: A Frederick Wiseman Retrospective

Mitchell Abidor
September 5, 2017

FREDERICK WISEMAN has made forty-three films over the course of a career that began in 1967 with the brilliant Titicut Follies. He eschews explanatory titles, never giving us the names or professions of any of the people filmed. His works focus primarily on institutions (a mental hospital, a municipal hospital, a ballet company, a high-class girlie show, a welfare office) and the ways in which individuals make them work (or not).

In celebration of his forthcoming new film, Ex Libris, Film Forum will be screening the second part of its three-part retrospective of Wiseman’s works from September 6 to 14. Two of the films, High School II and Comédie Française, dealing with the antipodal institutions of a non-traditional secondary school on East Harlem and the greatest of France’s theater companies, both brilliant in their own ways, provide a primer on Wiseman’s methods.

High School II is a pendant to his 1969 High School, filmed in a mostly white Philadelphia high school. Far from the almost 100 percent white student body of the earlier film, High School II takes us inside a racially mixed (though largely Hispanic and black) high school where the faculty is called by their first names, where they are given the time to not only show but actually demonstrate real concern and knowledge of the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of their students.

Racial matters are frankly addressed, and this is perhaps one of the reasons why the students all show sincere respect for their teachers, however different their backgrounds might be. The students, even the surliest among them, all show glimpses of genuine interest and concern for their education, as well as for the outside world. The film was shot around the time of the Rodney King riots, and the students are allowed to organize their own demonstrations in protest against the verdict.

The students are treated like adults, and it is from among the student body that mediators are drawn to settle disputes between students.

High School II is a film of great optimism and hope, and its length (3:45) is not in the least a bother: Being in the presence of these kids and teachers, their hopes, worries, potential, fills the time beautifully, though Wiseman’s opting for length allows him to include a lengthy faculty meeting that is as interesting as any work meeting, i.e., not at all.

Comédie Française gives us a back stage, back office, and spectator’s view of the glorious company founded in 1680 by Louis XIV. No inner-city children are to be seen here, but rather the cream of French theatrical performers. This film, too, is 3:45, which allows for administrative meetings to go on for too long, but also allows for thrilling discussions of performance technique, of characters and the content of plays under rehearsal and ultimately, in performance.

We see the pre-performance nervousness of even the most experienced actors, their routines, their tics, their warm-up exercises, their vacant looks as they want for the play to begin.

But Comédie Française, and the Comédie Française, is not just the people the public applauds. It is also those who stitch the costumes together, who make the wigs, who carry out the lighting cues. Wiseman gives everyone his or her time in his spotlight.

It is impossible not to be impressed with the director of the company, who must confront constant headaches with government budgets, with union demands, all the while lovingly and beautifully and movingly and intelligently explicating the plays put on.

Again taking advantage of the extreme length of the film, Comédie Française includes large excerpts of the plays we’ve seen in rehearsal. In its depiction of the artistic, financial, and administrative life of a great theater company, Comédie Française is near perfection.

WISEMAN’S LATEST FILM, a portrait of the New York Public Library, Ex Libris, does not live up to his earlier works. Clocking in at 3:17, it lacks everything that makes a Wiseman film great, and is a grinding, monotonous series of long, boring meetings of administrators discussing ad nauseum the successes of their “public-private partnerships,” of the need to increase internet access, of the library’s educational goals. All of this is unquestionably admirable, but this is, after all the library. A European architect speaks mockingly of the notion that libraries are “storehouses of books,” and Ex Libris kills that notion by almost never dealing with the relationship between libraries and books. In fact, it’s not until almost three hours into the film that the administrators actually discuss acquisitions of what libraries have always existed for.

If the amount of time dedicated to the discussion of providing internet access for those in the digital dark is any indication of the concerns of the NYPL, then it should just be replaced with internet cafes and let’s be done with it. Wiseman’s choice was to show the New York Public Library as the organization that fills in all the gaps in our society, the failures of our education system, that helps all those left behind by our economy. It’s important it do this; it’s important we be made aware of it; it’s sad this should be the case. It doesn’t make for interesting cinema. As in his recent In Jackson Heights (which also relied excessively on endless meetings) , there’s a strain of preachiness about Ex Libris that becomes wearisome.

We see job fairs, lectures, concerts, talks by stars like Richard Dawkins and Elvis Costello, all of which gives us a notion of the ways in which the library works to expand its audience, an audience, we notice, whose ethnic makeup varies with the event: job fair attendees are black and Hispanic; lecture attendees largely white.

For perhaps two minutes we see the process of returned books being distributed to the correct branch; for another two or three we see staff digitizing documents. But this heart of a library, the unseen work of the thousands of people who make it work as a library is largely absent from Ex Libris.

Wiseman probably made this film at the wrong time. It was shot in 2015, when the magnificent main reading rooms were closed after a ceiling collapse: we get only fleeting glimpses of the building’s function as a hub of research. Strangely, though the Schwartzman Building on Fifth Avenue is a major tourist destination, where it is almost impossible to move freely, Wiseman apparently shot at odd hours when only a handful of tourists were around, giving a false idea of the maddening bustle of the place.

All artists misfire occasionally. Wiseman’s next film, whatever it might be, will hopefully erase the memory of this one.


OPENING on September 8 is the Argentine-born director Julia Solomonoff’s Nobody’s Watching, a moving, beautifully directed, thrillingly acted tale of a successful Argentine actor trying to make a new career for himself in New York.

The gay Nico, played thrillingly by Guillermo Pfening, fleeing a steady gig on a soap opera and a difficult relationship with his married producer, moves to America in the hope of appearing in a film about an illegal alien who coaches a soccer team of illegal aliens. The project stalls and dies, and Nico is forced to desperate, exhausting, and occasionally illegal expedients.

He lies to his friends and family back home and in the U.S. about his career, as he sinks further and further into falsehood and destitution. That he was on a soap opera viewed throughout Latin America, that he once accompanied a film he was in to Cannes do him no good in the U.S. Blond and handsome, despite his nationality he is rejected for Latino roles, and Latina nannies at a park feel free to speak about him in Spanish, assuming he’s ignorant of the language.

Nobody’s Watching is a heartbreaking portrait of a different strain of illegal alien, of a different kind of immigrant trying to live out his dream, only to end up crashing against the reality of American life.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.