It’s a bit difficult not to feel as if this review is already written. At this particular point in cinema history, the verdict is in on Frederick Wiseman. Much more than his compatriots in the loose confederation once called Direct Cinema, Wiseman has become consecrated as a kind of national institution, so much so that it’s not beyond reason to expect that he might turn the cameras on himself and deliver a four-hour sociological treatise entitled Wiseman. Granted, part of Wiseman’s critical acclaim and eventual emergence as the standard-bearer of a particular kind of North American cinema results from his longevity and indefatigability. With the recent passing of Allan King, and surviving Maysles brother Albert following his own idiosyncratic muse into more personal, minoritarian realms of documentary, Wiseman is for all intents and purposes the Last Man Standing from the 16mm observational/anti-interventionist tradition. What’s more, Wiseman’s long-take, commentary-free style, anathema during the Cahiers/Screen heyday of Godard, Vertov and Brecht, has aged exceedingly well. Now that Bazinian aesthetics rule the waves among cinema’s tastemaking elite, Wiseman seems positively avant-garde.
But part of the present veneration has to do with the fact that, like an Old Master, Wiseman remained doggedly true to his vision through long periods when it was deeply unfashionable and, as is the good fortune of some, came out on the other side. Many of Wiseman’s key films from the ‘70s and ‘80s have only been rediscovered in recent years, and now Wiseman’s films are receiving a year-long retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The original reception of many of these films was quite different indeed: one or two screenings in New York (or a week run at Film Forum), maybe Los Angeles, possibly some festival dates, and then an unceremonious late-night airing on PBS, followed by Zipporah Films’ VHS sales to university and museum libraries. The end.
Despite this relative lack of high-profile success, Wiseman kept plugging away, faithful in his examination of the banal but vital fabric of bureaucratized America. Trained as a lawyer, sociologically inclined, Wiseman continues to produce a cinema more indebted to Weber and Durkheim than Marx. Like Durkheim, Wiseman confronts institutions as “social facts,” addressing them synchronically and as found, and revealing their history only inasmuch as an encounter in the Now can do so. And like Weber, Wiseman’s abiding concern is with bureaucracies, their functioning and their breakdowns, their legitimization and self-perpetuation. Films such as High School (1968) and Domestic Violence (2001) provide glimpses of the archetypal Wisemanian individual, clear-eyed and well-meaning but fundamentally hamstrung by the system in which he or she and their charges are ensnared. In a sense, Wiseman’s adoption of a non-interventionist stance could be read as a subtle form of autocritique, since the films’ display of crises that they cannot solve represents Wiseman’s own implication in the American System. But it’s more than this. Wiseman’s ongoing output, as Christoph Huber pointed out, can be characterized as “the Great American Novel of the last 40 years, comparable to the touchstones of 19th-century literature.” But the work could also be characterized as a kind of public utility, permanently droning in the background, providing something certainly other than, and ostensibly more valuable than, social criticism. Perhaps we could call it “counter-surveillance,” but a particularly well-behaved, downcast iteration of that mode, since Wiseman so often speaks in the language of thwarted effort and stymied initiative, “democracy” as a collective sigh of exhaustion and subsequent setting of the jaw, in preparation for giving it yet another go.
But La Danse, the latest installment of this colossal endeavour, is very different, and it represents both a bend in the river for Wiseman and a sort of coming-to-the-fore of tendencies that were probably there all along but whose presence was difficult to discern. A surprise box-office hit, La Danse represents a divergence from and a distillation of the signature style. This is a Wiseman film with virtually no struggle on the sociological scale. Instead, as we observe rehearsal after rehearsal of the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet, we’re watching individual and small-group struggle, something more on the scale of The Store (1983) or indeed Ballet (1995), Wiseman’s profile of the American Ballet Theatre. We watch the dancers work through classics we recognize, like The Nutcracker, as well as denser, knottier modern dances, such as Mats Ek’s La maison de Bernarda. Wiseman’s attention to what movement is, how it is controlled, to the physical work of perfecting gesture in time, serves as a kind of narrative throughline, since the continuity between classical and modern forms is etched before us as an ongoing “story” of muscle vs. gravity, with negative space as a kind of referee. And it must be said, Wiseman’s use of wide-angle Super 16 cinematography in the ballet studios permits him to organize Degas-like tutus throughout the film frame, white whirling forms in a lightbox.
At the same time, there is something curiously empty about La Danse’s representations of the behind-the-scenes labour apparatus undergirding the Ballet. At least in part, Wiseman’s latest success is the result of upping the spectacle and downplaying those detailed, Zolaesque dimensions for which his great novel is usually vaunted. La Danse begins with a pattern of establishing shots that will serve as a structuring refrain throughout the film’s two-and-a-half hours. We gaze over the rooftops of Paris and, shot by shot, arrive at the imposing classical edifice of the Palais Garnier, entering the studios through the darkened halls and back stairs. But these quick shots are deceptive; they imply part/whole relations that Wiseman never really delivers. La Danse provides ample screen time to the rigorous athletic discipline of bodies in motion (usually in the form of old men in chairs barking orders at precariously graceful young women), culminating in extended sequences from the final performances. (These are shot with basic competence; Wiseman adds little to their self-contained aesthetic.) But the marginalia Wiseman chooses to include in the documentary is treated as just that. Shots of a costumer flocking a pair of ballet flats, or seamstresses in the workshop, or a uniformed workman on a ladder spackling a hanging electrical wire to the ceiling, each last for mere seconds. Wiseman never gives us the opportunity to absorb the work these labouring bodies perform. Their presence in La Danse is merely semiotic, representing the wide net of socio-anthropological concern that characterizes Wiseman at his best.
But Wiseman’s real concern, apart from watching the close manufacture of bodily spectacle, is in the Ballet’s administration. We consistently take meetings with Artistic Director Brigitte Lefèvre, who provides canned commentary on the life span of a dancer, the nature of ballet, the need to placate corporate donors, and eventually the dancers’ reluctance to embrace modern dance. Wiseman has never given one of his films so fully over to one organizing voice, and when one considers La Danse’s status as a French detour within his Great History of America (and his recent run-in with the management of Madison Square Garden over the release of The Garden ), one starts to get the sense that, at this point in his career, the filmmaker may be starting to see the value in letting non-intervention tip over into tacit boosterism. As Lefèvre says to a choreographer at one point in the film, “the company is very hierarchical.” Likewise, Wiseman’s organization of La Danse is hierarchical, going so far as to provide a slightly extended glimpse of a dancers’ meeting with their union rep (to go over new Sarkozy-era pension rules), more than happy to leave consideration of other forms of labour by the wayside. Much like we’ve seen in State Legislature (2007), and even Public Housing (1997), Wiseman assumes that we’re exactly like him—white, upper-middle-class subjects cowed by the difficulty of taking positive action. Seen in this light, La Danse, pure eye candy from another nation, is an ideal salve. This time, sitting back and observing, with no niggling impulse toward getting involved, is precisely the correct thing to do.