Page-8-Sunday, February 26, 1978-The Michigan Daily
(Continued from Page 4)
The cocktail party may not be such a
bad idea, if you could just do something
about the party-goers.
PRIOR TO THE cocktail party,
at the Cinema Guild's Wiseman
Festival lecture, the filmmaker
was told by one of his local devotees
that his documentaries were like the
famous portraitures by Diane Arbus.
"They really show how we are," he
complimented Wiseman. Somehow,
though, the comparison did not work.
While Arbus' photographs are equally
stunning they are of freaks and
society's outcasts, of people who per-
formed for her camera as side-show at-
tractiors perform for their audiences.
Visually, her subjects were easy
Wiseman, however, travels to the
places where middle America has
placed its trust and asks us all to recon-
sider these institutions on film. Like ar-
tist Duane Hanson, who with a
frighteningly life-like wax sculpture of
fat tourist shoppers makes us confront
a painful testimony to Americans,
Wiseman wants his films to expose "the
great- subject of documentary films:
The nature of a viewer's confron-
tation with a Wiseman film is never
predictable, however. Inevitably, what
looks like a stinging cinematic ap-
praisal of an institution to one filmgoer
will be seen as a favorable report by
another. As impossible as it seems
there were actually people who saw
High School as a primer on educational
High School, Wiseman's second
documentary, is the most popular of his
films and a classic among contem-
experience to my films than I am, your
reaction may then be very different
than mine," Wiseman explained.
"When Louise Day Hicks former ultra-
conservative member of the Boston
school board) saw High School-and I
thought she was going to hate High
School-she loved it. She said it had the
'bitter-sweet quality of life',' he
smirks. "It was a wonderful high
school and the teachers were all terrific
and it was a standard for Boston
schools to aim for,' she said. But that's
her. She was on the other side of the
issue. But I don't think that's a failure
of the film, though some people do,
because I think it goes right to the heart
of the ambiguity you're dealing with, the
reality. You're dealing with an am-
biguous reality and people are going to
interpret that reality differently."
If Wiseman had any lofty notions
about the power of film he would
probably be unsatisfied with such
ambiguity. But the 48-year-old director
has no illusions about his medium's
ability to enlighten the masses. He
abandoned that hope movies ago.
"I think when I started making these
films I had the naive view that there
should be some kind of direct connec-
tion between film and change,
assuming you knew either what the film
or the change was," said Wiseman.
"But I guess I've retreated from that
position as a result of working on films.
I think it is a naive view because it
somehow assumes that the film is going
to be such an important event in the
lives of the people seeing it that it's
immediately going to send them up the
barricades. If that were the case the
streets would be very full with dif-
ferent size crowds running in different
Daily Photo by PETER SERLING
Q. Do you view yourself as a journalist
or as an artist?
A. I view myself as a filmmaker.
(organizing change) than I do are in a
position to discuss it with or without my
"Your modesty is very charming,"
snipes a questioner.
"It's not meant to be charming,"
snaps Wiseman. "The fact is that it
would be pompous for me to say," he
continues, lowering his voice to mimic
the stereotypical social scientist, "'The
quality of the welfare system, and the
quality of high school, and the quality of
the courts, and blah, blah, blah...'
"What's the old Samuel Goldywn
line?" he adds. "If you have a message
send a telegram."'
Other documentaries more blatantly
slanted than Wiseman's, such as Peter
Davis' Hearts and Minds, irritate
Wiseman because he sees them as
coolly stacked, Right v. Wrong, when in
fact the film's subject is more com-
plicated than the documentary
suggests. Wiseman said he particularly
disliked Davis' Academy Award-
winning film. ("I hated it!" he says_
"Did you like it?" he growls to the
questioner) because it was an easy ex-
ploitation of people's emotions that
didn't communicate the complexities
on both sides of the issue.
"The movie made me pro-war,"
Wiseman says of the strongly anti-war,
anti-American documentary. "What
Davis should have done is a film that
showed the evils of both sides-the Nor-
the Vietnamese and the Americans. He
treated the war as if the Americans
were the only ones bombing. Further-
more, the film took a very easy ap-
proach.. To make an anti-war film in
1975 is a pretty safe thing to do."
Had he done a war film, Wiseman
says it would have been either a
documentary on life in Saigon or a film
of battlefield footage "if I had the
DOCUMENTARY purist in
many ways, Wiseman also dis-
liked Hearts and Minds because
of its extensive use of interviews.
Whereas Wiseman declines to use in-
terviewing to glean any information for
his films, and would rather his subjects
ignore his presence to the greatest ex-
tent possible, many other filmmakers,
particularly television documentarists,
rely heavily on the technique.
"I always thought that the basis of
film was something moving from one
side of the screen to the other," he says,
contemptuously dismissing the use of
Wiseman also seems contemptuous
of the interview when practiced on him.
Although cordial enough during the af-
ternoon question and answer period, his
patience is wearing thin in the company
of curious cocktail party attendants.
"Why don't you make a film on
college?" he's asked.
"I feel I made that with High School."
"Which of your films is your
"That's like asking me who my
favorite kid is."
"Do you have an idea for your next
"Yeah, but I won't tell you what it
Wiseman had originally planned to
spend the night in Ann Arbor and return
to his home in Boston on Monday mor-
ning. Several organizers of the film
festival had planned to take the director
to dinner following the cocktail hour
and then put him up at the League.
Before the artichoke hearts had been
cleared away, however, the man an-
nounced he had changed his mind and
would rather forego dinner and the
League in order to catch a plane back to
Boston that evening.
He didn't really say why.
porary documentaries. Made in 1968 at
Philadelphia's Northeast High, it is a
film dealing with what Philadelphia
educators considered to be quality
education in a wealthy white high
school. What comes across on the
screen to many viewers, however, is
what Wiseman himself admits is
situation comedy-a school where
idiocy and illogic reign and boredom is
the daily fare. Yet, after a screening of
the film to the Northeast High com-
munity, the parents and teachers felt
reassured of the school's excellence
and all agreed they couldn't understand
what the students were complaining
about. Only after the film reviews ap-
peared did they realize High School
might have been a negative portrait. ,
T HIS POINTS to a critical question
about Wiseman's documentaries
and to criticism much of his
work has faced. Unless the villains of
an institution-in the case of High
School; they are the teachers and ad-
ministrators, in Law and Order the
police officers, in Titicut Follies the
prison doctors and administrators-can
somehow be made to see their errors
because of the film, is the documentary
a success? Wiseman's not sure if the
film is a success, but he's confident that
failure to enlighten the "great un-
washed" does not render the film a
"Because you're bringing a different
' "But frankly," he added, "people
aren't that stupid, nor are films the only
experience in their life. Some people
still read, some people see other films,
and make up their own mind about
whats going on."
AS IS PREDICTABLE in this age
of advocacy journalism and
filmmaking, there are people in
Wiseman's Ann Arbor audience who
are not satisfied with the documen-
tarist's answer. Just as critical con-
temporaries of Wiseman have chastised
him for making some films which are
purely anecdotal-such as Hospital,
filmed in 1970-without somehow
suggesting through the documentary
what ought to be done about the
problems of- a particular institution,
there are critics at the Wiseman
Festival who also question this point.
There is no music in Wiseman's films,
no subtitles, no narration at all. No one
comes on at the beginning of the film to
explain what we are about to see, and
no one appears-at the end to tell us what
might'be done about the troubles we've
just viewed. Although it is a safe bet
that Wiseman meant High School to be
a documentary of education buf-
foonery, the filmmaker will tell you
that when it comes to philosophizing on
the subject he's as neutral as the beige
pants and turtle neck he's wearing.
"My interest is in presenting the in-
formation," he says. "People who
know a great deal more about
Cover photo by Wayne Cable
Supplement to The Michigan Daily
Ann Arbor, Michigan-Sunday, February 26, 1978