Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman

Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman

Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman

Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman


Providing in-depth accounts and close critical examinations of nine of Wiseman's films - Titicut Follies, High School, Basic Training, Essene, Juvenile Court, Primate, Welfare, Canal Zone, and The Store- thissecond edition features a new introduction, a revised and updated filmography, and an updated bibliography.

No book on documentary film has ever analyzed in such detail the work of a single filmmaker. In impeccable close readings of his films, Tom Benson and Carolyn Anderson explore how Frederick Wiseman has elaborated his widely admired sensibility.

A special feature is an extended chapter on the legal difficulties encountered by Wiseman's first documentary, Titicut Follies, an unflinching depiction of conditions in the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts took Wiseman to court, seeking to prevent the exhibition of Titicut Follies. In New York State, three judges refused to issue an injunction against the film. In Massachusetts, the film was the subject of a sensational series of legislative hearings and a court trial, in which the principals gave very different stories of the conditions and terms under which the film had been negotiated and produced.

Wiseman, himself an attorney, exchanged charges and countercharges with Massachusetts Attorney General Elliot Richardson, and the controversy split the civil liberties community. Judge Harry Kalus, calling Titicut Follies "a nightmare of ghoulish obscenities," not only ruled for the Commonwealth but ordered that the film be destroyed. On appeal, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court modified the Kalus ruling, allowing the film to be seen only by professional audiences. Titicut Follies became the only American film whose exhibition is restricted for reasons other than obscenity or national security.

After Titicut Follies, Wiseman went on to become a major independent documentary producer. Many of his films have been shown on public television in the United States and at film festivals around the world. The films are widely admired and often highly controversial. Wiseman has developed a unique cinematic rhetoric that draws from both the documentary and fiction traditions to describe American institutions: a high school, basic training, a monastery, a juvenile court, a primate research center, a welfare agency, the Panama canal zone, and a department store. Benson and Anderson scrutinize each of these films, record the reactions of some of his subjects and audiences, and present the heretofore neglected contributions of his four cinematographers: John Marshall, Richard Leiterman, William Brayne, and John Davey.


Frederick Wiseman has been making documentary films for twenty years; for most of those twenty years we have been watching the films, teaching them in our classes, and occasionally writing about them. Finally, we saw that our work was leading us to attempt a full-length study of the films. There are too many films to give each a detailed analysis; rather than trying to squeeze in brief treatments of each film, we have chosen several of the films as representative of the aesthetic and rhetorical problems Wiseman has raised. We have attempted to give words to the interpretations that the films seem to invite, and the rhetorical structures by which those interpretations are induced; and we have gone behind the rhetorical structures of the films to offer a glimpse of the people and processes behind the films. Since Wiseman’s films speak to his audiences so deeply of their own experiences of American institutional life, it seemed important to examine in context the issues of ethics and epistemology, and the elements of convention, craft, collaboration, finance, distribution, and legal restraint that constrain the production and reception of the films.

In the years during which we have developed the various parts of this book, many colleagues and students have offered encouragement and advice. Professors Richard Gregg, Gerard Hauser, and William Rawlins of the Pennsylvania State University and Fern Johnson, Jack Shadoian, Hermann Stelzner, and Richard Stromgren of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, commented on early drafts of various chapters. Other colleagues and students, a group too large to identify individually, have encouraged us with questions and suggestions, and we deeply appreciate their support. This project was partially funded by grants from the Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies, the College of Liberal Arts, and the Department of Speech Communication at the Pennsylvania State University and by a faculty research grant from the University of Massachusetts. Our department chairs and deans—first Robert Brubaker and Stanley Paulson and then Dennis Gouran and Hart Nelsen from Penn State, and Barnett Pearce and Glen Gordon from U-Mass—provided additional support. the manuscript for this book was edited on the mainframe computer system at Penn State and relied during its preparation on Bitnet, an interuniversity electronic mail system. For computer assistance at our universities, we thank Donald Laird, Gerald Santoro, William McCane, Glen Kreider, William Verity, Tom Minsker, Kevin Jordan, Judy Smith, and Pat Driscoll. Wayne McMullen and Joe Gow . . .

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