Documentaries couldn't be more popular than they are today and one of the best at capturing a diverse range of subjects (and he's been doing it for years) is Frederick Wiseman.
These days, documentaries that tend to get commercial release are usually one of three kinds. There are the docs that feature the director as star, notably the films of Michael Moore (Capitalism: A Love Story,Sicko) and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?). There are the documentaries that really prove that truth is indeed stranger than fiction (Capturing the Friedmans,Crazy Love, Grizzly Man). There are the docs that are tied into current societal concerns and issues (An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc., The Cove). And then there’s Frederick Wiseman.
For more than 40 years, the Massachusetts-based Wiseman, now 80, has aimed his camera into the ordinary corners of what would be considered by most people to be mundane or unlikely subjects for feature length documentary movies, often with titles which tell you exactly what they’re about, such asHigh School, Public Housing, Model, Hospital and Central Park. Others of his nearly 40 films have dealt with the people who manned the early warning system that helped keep the peace between Israel and Egypt after the 1973 Yom Kippur War (Sinai Field Mission), a school for the deaf (Deaf), small town life (Belfast, Maine), the oldest continuing repertory company in the world (La Comédie-Française), victims of domestic violence in court (Domestic Violence, Domestic Violence 2) and state politics (State Legislature). But those movies are anything but dull, as can be seen in his latest movie, La Danse: Le Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris, which eavesdrops on the daily goings–on in one of France’s premiere dance companies, a company that has been in existence for 400 years.
That fact is not mentioned in La Danse because unlike most documentary filmmakers, Wiseman does not spoon feed the viewer or give him or her any information at all at the outset of his films; there are no inter titles or introductory statements about who we are seeing, listening to and what they are doing. Nor is there any voiceover. Instead, he simply begins to show various scenes involving his subjects and slowly, subtly builds a fascinating story around them. In La Danse, that story revolves around the hard working dancers, their teachers and the people behind the scenes of the company, from the visiting choreographers to the costume sewers to the troupe’s artistic director. The documentary is a slow build up as they study, practice and shape the performances and works that will cement their reputation in the outside world. The narrative that he constructs fulfills the dictum uttered by one of the film's subjects, that the life of a dancer is ‘part – nun, part boxer’, in that their dedication to their art is total, even religious, but putting their shows together involves lots of very difficult, athletic work, work that is indeed ‘tough’, as one of the teachers unnecessarily tells his student. (Interestingly enough, the fact based La Danse has a stronger through line than that of Robert Altmans's fictional 2003 dance film The Company, which captured the feel of the art form but suffered from a weak narrative.)
La Danse shows us a lot of those scenes as the company prepares to stage more than half a dozen works, ranging from the traditional (The Nutcracker) to the avant-garde (Le Songe de Medee orMedusa's Dream). And while it would seem likely that much of the matter-of-fact rehearsals would not be of interest, they are as Wiseman’s camera and sound (which he also handles) bring out the artistry beneath the dancer’s movements even as they second guess themselves or accuse their teachers of picking on them. There’s even a bit of humour in the film as a pair of teachers contradict each other at every turn when advising and challenging their students.
What’s most arresting about La Danse are the episodes that seem to come out of nowhere or contradict what we assume we know about the French and their artistic culture. At one point, we’re privy to a beekeeper on the roof of the ballet company’s building. Is he one of the troupe or just someone who finds the roof to be a good place to do his job or hobby? It doesn’t matter, actually; Wiseman uses that scene to aptly illustrate that there are other things going on besides the rehearsing and dancing. Similarly his endless shots of the hustle and bustle of Paris make clear that the lively scene outside the Opera Ballet’s headquarters is something that the dancers rarely avail themselves of as they’re too busy working inside. I was also struck by the fact that the ballet’s company’s artistic director had no problem accommodating herself to the needs to some of some very generous American benefactors, including scandal-ridden Lehmann Brothers, to the point of allowing them to tour the company’s headquarters, putting on a special luncheon for them and considering letting them have a sneak peek at a rehearsal. One Toronto film critic interpreted that scene as illustrating the classical pas de deux between art and commerce but, in fact, it demonstrates that the two can peacefully co–exist and help each other thrive. At various points in La Danse, we also see that one of the teachers is British and speaks in English to the dancers, who translate what he says if necessary. So much for French cultural chauvinism!
Sometimes, Wiseman’s short filmed scenes speak volumes; when we see a plasterer fixing a hole in the ceiling of the company building, we intuit that maybe this 19th century building is slowly falling apart and, perhaps, isn’t getting the funding it requires to be kept in tip top shape. It's a sad fact in our starved North American arts culture, but a starting reality, if true, in highly arts supportive France.
Best of all, La Danse doesn’t skimp on the actual dances themselves; Wiseman offers up huge swatches of various performance, ones that showcase a group of ballet dancers whose dancing is both impressive and powerful and strongly linked to the traditions of the past, even though, as is remarked in the film, the younger performers are scared to embrace the older works with which they are unfamiliar.
Wiseman is unique, I think, in that his movies are scrupulously put together, and never manipulative, dishonest or contrived, unlike one Michigan-bred filmmaker I could mention. He picks, of course, what he chooses to show us but only in order to build what he calls 'rhythm and structure', to inject drama into his movies. “What I try to do", he is on record as saying, “is to edit the films so that they will have a dramatic structure, that is why I object to some extent to the term observational cinema or cinema verité, because observational cinema to me at least connotes just hanging around with one thing being as valuable as another and that is not true. At least that is not true for me and cinema verité is just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning as far as I'm concerned.” Oddly enough, his most famous film, and his directorial debut, 1967’s Titicut Follies, which dramatized the brutal exploitation of inmates in a prison for the criminally insane, was also his most atypical, as it was a muckraking expose, not at all like his slower, more thoughtful and multi-layered cinematic portraits.
His views on cinema verité can sometimes be opposite to the conventional wisdom or prejudices of the time, as with his 1969 film Law & Order, wherein he examined the lives of Kansas City cops and showcased them as underpaid working stiffs, who, mostly, carry out their duties reasonably and with a minimum of brutality. At a time when so many cops were beating the crap out of anti–war protesters and civil rights marchers, it was a point of view, he told me in an interview a few years ago, that garnered him much flack. No matter, he showed what he felt to be that particular truth.
Wiseman’s unsexy movie making style – he never appears in his own films and rarely is heard asking questions – and unconventional subject matter means his films usually are relegated to showings on PBS or at film festivals and cinematheques. La Danse, which Wiseman distributed himself through his company Zipporah Films, is one of his few theatrical releases and has grossed nearly half a million dollars to date, which is pretty good for a documentary and thus may make Wiseman a more bankable figure re: future films. At a time when Michael Moore’s dubious semi–fictional documentaries are the touchstone too many documentary filmmakers are reaching for, Wiseman’s masterful documents of our time remind us of how ethical and artistic this cinematic form can truly be.