Fighting the good fight
Octogenarian filmmaker Frederick Wiseman stays true to form with 'Boxing Gym'
CAMBRIDGE —Frederick Wiseman looks rather like Yoda. He’s a small man whose ears stick out and whose face narrows as it descends from a vast forehead. His skin is wrinkled and his eyes, like Yoda’s, have seen it all.
His dwindling hair can flare, in the tradition of Einstein and David Ben-Gurion. His clothes are an afterthought — a red shirt under a blue sweater, rumpled gray khakis, and comfortable slip-ons. The man has other priorities.
These are good times for Wiseman, who, a few weeks shy of 81, is widely considered the greatest documentarian of his time. New York’s Museum of Modern Art is running 37 of his films this year as part of a retrospective of his work. (He has never been nominated for an Academy Award and
“I have no objection to that,’’ he says of the MoMA show. “But the next step is the obit.’’
Wiseman slouches on the sofa in a claustrophobic room at his famously chaotic office in Cambridge. It is brimming with countless cans of film from his 38th movie, “Boxing Gym,’’ which opened here Friday, and a massive Steenbeck editing machine. There are also two X-rays of Wiseman’s skull on one wall, but that’s another story.
He considers himself a filmmaker, not a documentarian, and he’s not alone. “I’ve never thought of Fred as a documentarian,’’ says Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris, a fellow Cantabrigian and longtime friend. “I think of him as one of the most important living film directors, period.
“How do you define a great filmmaker?’’ Morris asks. “They create their own version of the world, their own cosmology, their own picture of everything. He does what artists are supposed to do. His craft happens to be in the tradition of cinema verité, but to say he’s a verité filmmaker confuses technique for content.’’
Says Wiseman, “It’s a report on how I look at the world. It’s not a judgment in the moral sense, but all my films have a point of view.’’
You know a Wiseman film when you see it. It is suffused with available light and ambient sounds. He uses neither narration nor background music. Wiseman is his own sound man, lurking just off camera holding a microphone. His signature tool is a hand-held 16-millimeter camera that his longtime cameraman, John Davey, uses to great effect. Wiseman lingers on a scene for a long time — too long, some say — to capture its entire arc. (Wiseman’s “Near Death’’ clocks in at a robust six hours, putting it roughly on par with Andy Warhol’s “Sleep.’’)
“It’s a great way to make a movie,’’ he says of his tiny crew. “I’m very mobile. It’s a good quality. You avoid the, ‘Hey, wait for 25 minutes while I set up the lights.’ ’’ (He was approached to direct the first “Rocky’’ and dissolved in laughter at the script.)
“He’s the purest of the documentarians,’’ says Ollie Hallowell, who assisted him on 22 of his films. “He gives subjects no direction whatsoever. It’s amazing how invisible we become.’’
Wiseman is unconcerned with what people take away from his movies. He just makes them.
“What the hell does a Wiseman film mean?’’ asks Morris. “It’s not ‘meaning.’ It’s the opposite. ‘Mayhem’ may be the right word. He’s out of the theater of the absurd, not verité.’’
Wiseman is disgusted with the state of documentaries now. “There’s so much nonsense and pretension today,’’ he says. “A film carries the notion that you should see it because it’s good for you, that it will improve you. I’m not trying to improve anybody. So much of this stuff is drivel. They are frequently examples of the narcissism of the filmmakers.’’
He first made his name in 1967 with “Titicut Follies,’’ a stark 84-minute look at conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, in Massachusetts. Many of the scenes he filmed of the treatment of inmates there were explosive, none more so than the forced feeding of an old, naked inmate.
The following year, the movie was banned by a judge who called it “a nightmare of ghoulish obscenities.’’ (Wiseman jokes he should have put those words on the marquee.) The ban was overturned in 1991.
Wiseman has made close to a film a year since then and still works at a feverish pace. This year alone, his “La Danse’’ was nominated for a Cesar award, the French equivalent of an Oscar, and “Boxing Gym’’ drew cheers at Cannes. He is already halfway through editing his next film, “Crazy Horse,’’ about the legendary racy Paris cabaret, “Le Crazy Horse Saloon.’’
From 1971 to 1981, WNET, the New York City public television station, paid him to make a documentary each year. Those days are gone, and he is at constant war with the money monster. There’s less of it available now, he says, but he still gets by.
“I sing in front of the Harvard Coop,’’ he jokes. “And I sell pencils.’’
Wiseman has always made movies about institutions. He considers them perfect structures in which to observe human behavior. They create boundaries, he says, like lines on a tennis court.
“I’ve never made a movie about an individual,’’ he says. “I’m not a sociologist of institutions, but I’m interested in the way a place is run. I try to include events that show how decisions are made, what the rules are, and how successful they are. It’s another way to look at human beings in the street.’’
Wiseman first gains full access and control over a project before he starts filming. He routinely shoots more than 100 hours and spends a year editing. For a long time, his favored editing site was his restored barn in Northport, Maine.
Editing is hard enough to do with a scripted movie, but the challenge becomes extreme when there is no script and a flood of film to pare down. Yet it is from this process that a Wiseman movie emerges.
“I find the film under the rushes,’’ he says. “It gets more interesting as it progresses.’’
Wiseman is always in total control of his films. “I don’t do anything I don’t want to do,’’ he says. In one case this cost him a movie. He made a film in 2005 called “The Garden,’’ about the complex world of New York’s Madison Square Garden. The owners gave him full access but secured final approval before it was to be released. No one dreamed it would be an issue.
The owners thought the film was fine with the exception of a few lines made during a strategy meeting on labor negotiations. They asked him to delete those lines because it was sensitive information. He said no. They said OK, no movie. He was forced to withdraw the film the night before it was to be shown at Sundance. To this day the movie has never been released.
“Boxing Gym,’’ which he made for $550,000, exists because Wiseman had been wanting to do a boxing movie for ages. “I like boxing,’’ he says. “I took boxing lessons when I was 13. I’ve been to a lot of fights.’’ Someone told him about Lord’s Gym in Austin, Texas, so he went down there to have a look. Bingo.
Lord’s is a sweaty magnet to men and women of all ages and levels of expertise to box or simply work out. Young mothers park their infants in strollers nearby as they train. People work on the bags and spar in the ring. Two men discuss the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007.
Wiseman was born in Boston, attended Williams College and then Yale Law School. He briefly taught law at Boston University until he realized he couldn’t abide the subject. “I hated law school,’’ he says. “I always say I was physically present. The decisions were so badly written, I couldn’t bear to read them.’’ So he quit after three years and drifted into film.
Wiseman was a fast sketch. He bought the rights to a novel about Harlem gang life called “The Cool World,’’ and produced a film based on it that was released in 1964. “It demystified the filmmaking process,’’ he says, and led to his directorial debut with “Titicut Follies.’’
He’s on his own more now. His two sons are grown, and his wife of 55 years — Zipporah, the namesake of his film company — teaches law at the University of Texas at Austin. He has been splitting half of each year between Cambridge and Paris since 2000. His sedentary escape from film is reading. He loves the Russians. His physical escape is skiing, which remains an obsession.
Most of the time, though, you’ll find him at his Steenbeck, a solitary figure poring over streams of film, searching for the story. He loves the hunt. He says, “I’ve never lost that sense of excitement.’’
Sam Allis can be reached at email@example.com.