Wiseman’s films are often, yet mistakenly, grouped with his contemporaries Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and Albert and David Maysles as part of the American direct cinema movement of the 1960s and 70s. These filmmakers, like Wiseman, were using ...

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The visual poetry of documentarian Frederick Wiseman

After six decades and 43 films, Frederick Wiseman, whom Pauline Kael years ago called “the most sophisticated intelligence in documentary,” is now enjoying more attention than ever before. He will be honored by Film Forum with a full retrospective of his films starting April 14th. In Los Angeles, Cinefamily is also honoring Wiseman with a comprehensive four-year retrospective that includes three newly restored 35mm prints (Titicut Follies [1967], High School [1968], and Hospital [1970]). He also received an Honorary Award (Governors’ Award) from the Academy in November, along with Jackie Chan, editor Anne Coates, and casting director Lynn Stallmaster.

Wiseman’s films are often, yet mistakenly, grouped with his contemporaries Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and Albert and David Maysles as part of the American direct cinema movement of the 1960s and 70s. These filmmakers, like Wiseman, were using recently developed lightweight, portable 16mm cameras with synchronized sound recording equipment to capture events spontaneously, but there the similarity to Wiseman ends. The direct cinema film makers aspired to be, in Leacock’s famous phrase, a “fly-on-the-wall”: to observe, follow, and capture events as they happened without a script. This approach was, in the words of Soviet film theorist Dziga Vertov, “life caught unawares” by the camera eye, an unblinking, impartial witness that would reveal deeper truths about the world displayed before it.

Wiseman’s films are distinctly different. Where direct cinema tended to focus on charismatic individuals in crisis situations, Wiseman’s films, anticipating the cycle of “network narratives,” take as their subject American institutional life, revealing, in the words of Richard Brody, “the rules and the exercise and negotiation of power behind the surfaces of daily life.”

Further, while the direct cinema filmmakers insisted that their films must be structured chronologically in order to remain as faithful as possible to the pro-filmic events they have recorded, Wiseman’s films are clearly structured according to principles other than chronology, using rhetorical strategies such as contrast, similarity, analogy, metonymy, and irony. This temporal shuffling for aesthetic and thematic purposes is evident from Wiseman’s first documentary, the controversial Titicut Follies, which begins and ends by showing parts of the same annual musical show mounted by the inmates of Bridgewater and suggesting that everything in between is an inescapable nightmare involving social performance.

Frederick Wiseman in 2005. Picture by Charles Hayes, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Frederick Wiseman in 2005. Picture by Charles Hayes, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Wiseman himself is dismissive of the very idea of direct cinema’s ideal objectivity, or that his films are examples of it. Primate [1974], about the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta, is in part a joke about direct cinema, with his camera observing and framing the fly-on-the-wall scientist observers, taking a wider view than theirs. Wiseman readily admits the creative manipulation in his work in his own description of his films as “reality dreams” or “reality fictions.” He lists himself as director in the credits of his films, and has insisted that “When you’re signing the film, you are saying it’s your film, this is the way you see it.”

Although Wiseman’s films never feature a narrator, either within the film or as voice-over to explain or contextualize what we see, his authorial voice is always present, both at the level of the shot and in overall structure. His images consistently seize upon objects and physical details in the institutions he films and invests them with significance beyond their functional purposes. His images are charged with meaning beyond the literal to an extent that can only be called poetic. Like William Carlos Williams, Wiseman knows how much depends upon observing a red wheel barrow beside the white chickens glazed with rainwater.

In Wiseman’s documentaries the institutions are themselves treated symbolically (Wiseman calls them “cultural spoors”), with the films employing textual strategies that force the viewer to understand them as social microcosms, as interwoven parts of the larger social fabric. Like all the institutions Mr. Wiseman has examined – whether publicly funded ones like hospitals, schools, and courts; or cultural ones like advertising, retail sales, and ballet companies – they are shown to have their own logic, a logic which fuels the institution’s operational processes.

Crucially, Wiseman’s attitude toward institutions has shifted over the years, moving, broadly speaking, from exposé to empathy. In earlier films people were seen as victims of institutional practices; more recently they are more accepting of the people within institutions and even of the institutions themselves.

The love and openness that characterize Essene (1972) and the four films of the Deaf and Blind series (1986) have become prominent in more recent work. Belfast, Maine (1999) is a magisterial work that discovers aspects of many of the institutions Wiseman had examined in earlier films at work in the eponymous New England town even as it embraces the range of people who live there. The subject of domestic violence was important enough to Wiseman to devote two films to it (Domestic Violence [2001] and Domestic Violence 2 [2002]). And his most recent film, In Jackson Heights (2015), is a celebration of harmonious racial, ethnic, and religious difference in a neighborhood that proudly advertises itself as the most ethnically diverse in the world.

Animated by the same expansive and generous spirit that informs these films, Wiseman has become more involved in the other arts. Recent films have focused on dance Ballet (1995), La Danse—Le Ballet de l’Opèra de Paris (2009), Crazy Horse (2011), and perhaps even Boxing Gym (2010) and painting (National Gallery), which cleverly uses the gallery tour guides’ discussions of famous paintings to comment on his own filmmaking practice. Currently Wiseman is collaborating with James Sewell and the Minnesota Ballet Company on a ballet of Titicut Follies, hardly a subject that would leap to mind for such an adaptation (he already had collaborated on Welfare: The Opera in 1997).

Looking for an upbeat interpretation of King Lear, a teacher in High School II (1994) says about the ruler’s relationship with his daughter Cordelia that it was “a different kind of love. It’s very interesting how kinds” of love may be found in the play. This is becoming true of Wiseman’s own films as well. It is perfectly appropriate, therefore, that Wiseman’s work is now being embraced more widely in return.

Featured image credit: 16mm film reel from DRs Kulturarvsprojekt, (archive of Danish Broadcasting Corporation). CC-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Christmas on the radio

Back in 1944 the Archbishop of York, Cyril Garbett, wrote in the Radio Times that “the wireless and the English tongue are means by which God’s message of love and peace can spread through the world.” We may find it difficult these days to construe the BBC’s output over Christmas as taking on such a missiological flavour, but certainly in its early days Lord Reith, the first Director-General, saw religion as one of the four principal pillars which was to undergird the Corporation, the others being to cater to the majority of the public; to maintain public taste; and to provide a forum for impartial public debate, free from government interference. This led to what Simon Elmes identifies as the typical BBC Sunday: “a diet of services, religious talks, Bible stories, and histories of Christian heroes and martyrs, with little but the odd news bulletin and gardening programme to relieve the sabbatarian solemnity.”

Fast forward more than three quarters of a century, and at face value Reith would find little to object to in what the BBC offered its audience in Christmas 2015, as we learn from its Head of Religion & Ethics, Aaqil Ahmed, that “The BBC’s religious programming across TV and radio continues its fine tradition of bringing communities together and reflecting what is important to many of our viewers and listeners.” With Midnight Mass broadcast live on BBC One on Christmas Eve from St. George’s Cathedral in Southwark, to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols live on Radio 4 from the candlelit chapel of Kings College Cambridge, it is undoubtedly true that there are “many ways for audiences to take part and celebrate Christmas, be it via music, tradition, reflection, conversation or live worship.”

Is it necessarily the case, though, that a substantive definition of religion, whereby the presence of a core doctrinal or institutional manifestation of religion is being flagged up, is the best or even the only criteria for identifying and evaluating the extent to which the BBC is disseminating religion on its airwaves? It is the premise of Stewart Hoover’s Religion in the Media Age, for example, that “The realms of ‘religion’ and ‘media’ can no longer be easily separated”, as he sets about trying to “chart the ways that media and religion intermingle and collide in the cultural experience of media audiences.” For Hoover, “They occupy the same spaces, serve many of the same purposes, and invigorate the same practices in late modernity.” We see similar arguments evinced by Jeffrey Mahan who observes that “in post-modern communities, religion is multivalent and the wall between sacred and secular is clearly porous.” From the perspective of Implicit Religion, too, the late Edward Bailey claimed that “it must be one of the most assured results of religious studies… that it seems to be impossible to exclude any possibility as to the location of sacredness”, a point reinforced by Karen Lord who writes of the “interconnectedness of religious and quasi-religious behaviour in society, and the need to redraw previously accepted boundaries in order to enhance the analysis of such behaviour.” At the heart of such thinking is the notion that if we were simply to limit the study of religion to its institutional manifestations then, as Gordon Lynch puts it, this could “therefore blind us to some of the most pressing questions about the stories, values, and meanings that shape many people’s lives today.”

We may find it difficult these days to construe the BBC’s output over Christmas as taking on such a missiological flavour, but certainly in its early days Lord Reith, the first Director-General, saw religion as one of the four principal pillars which was to undergird the Corporation
Vintage retro radio by LubosHouska. Public domain via Pixabay.

Certainly, at Christmas today we need to revisit the role that radio has played in fomenting the sense of community and togetherness that was a staple of the early days of radio, when, as the Christmas 1951 edition of the Radio Times highlights, “The friendliness and joyfulness of Christmastide find their way into the BBC’s Christmas programme, at no other season is the broadcaster so closely in tune with his vast audience.”

In 2016, we might want to ask whether much of the BBC’s ‘secular’ output may be shaping the format and content of contemporary religion. The fandom generated each year by Christmas Junior Choice on BBC Radio 2, presented by the late Ed Stewart might, for instance, be no less fecund when it comes to exploring matters of faith, identity, beliefs, and values than programmes made within the auspices and remit of religious broadcasting. Listeners on Christmas Day 2015 wrote in to Stewpot, in what was to become his last programme before his death on 9 January this year, to say “Junior Choice has become a Christmas tradition for our family. We listen every year”, and that a record request for a song from one’s youth “instantly whisks me back to our happiest childhood Christmas days spent with [my mother] and my little brother, and whilst we are now all grown up doesn’t mean we don’t still treasure those memories.”

If, as Ninian Smart, the founder of Religious Studies in Britain, has suggested, there are plenty of people who “may see ultimate spiritual meaning… in relationships to other persons”, then Junior Choice might be a prime example of an alternative way of conceptualizing religion with its devotees who construe the two hours of nostalgia and reconnecting with the past on Christmas morning as a form of transcendent, even sacred, time. Might it even comprise no less of a commitment, even a ritual, than devotion to established religious traditions with its impact on several generations of radio listeners. Just think – next time you hear ‘Nellie the Elephant’ or ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano’ you might have unexpectedly encountered an instance of what Mazur and McCarthy identify as religious meaning being “found in activities that are often considered meaningless.” Religion may be intrinsic to the Christmas celebration, but might the festival’s secular components paradoxically amount to its most salient and fertile manifestation?

Featured image credit: Winter frost snow by sogard. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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Quotes of the year 2016 [quiz]

2016 has truly been a year to remember — from the amazing competition of the Rio Olympic Games to shock Brexit from Europe, and from environmental woes to the American presidential race. Famous faces have had no shortage of opinions on current events, with celebrities, athletes and politicians not being shy to express their views. But do you know your Berry from your Bieber, and your Corbyn from your Clinton? Which outraged celebrity, on being refused entry to a party retorted “How VIP do we gotta get?” and which politician, questioned on their self-confidence replied “I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.”

With 2016 coming to a close, we’ve gathered a selection of some of the year’s most memorable quotes to test your knowledge of current affairs. Do you know who said what?

Quiz Image Credit: Microphone, Boy, Studio by Unsplash. Public domain via Pixabay.
Featured Image Credit: Microphone stage event by goranmx. Public domain via Pixabay.

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Marking Cassavetes’ birthday with a discussion on male discourse in his films

On the cusp of what would have been John Cassavetes‘ eighty-seventh birthday, it is not only possible to pause and imagine the work the man could have made throughout his sixties and seventies — think, for a moment, on Cassavetes as being alive and well, writing and directing films in a post-9/11 America — but also we can turn to his works for a lens onto a version of the world that, given the recent state of affairs on this planet, we could sorely use.

It is true that Cassavetes’ films present us with a complicated world, but it is a space in which myriad disconnections and complexities among characters lead them to not only struggle, fight, and argue but also to stop and deeply listen to each other and to themselves. Even if the characters that fill Cassavetes’ films are fraught with complications — even if they are prone to bad turns, and they frustrate each other (and themselves) as they grope for authority and control across chasms of unresolved behaviors and emotional double-backs — at the core of the characters Cassavetes constructed we also find depictions of a recurrent urge for understanding, a fumbling for compassion and empathy.

If one sets to one side, for a moment, the monumental attention that we must pay to Gena Rowlands’ career spent portraying powerful, tragic, fierce, and sometimes broken women throughout Cassavetes’ films — and any focus on Rowlands should not mistake Lelia Goldoni and other women who’ve portrayed the writer-director’s characters as being unimportant — in relation to these struggles and urges one can explore the films by giving attention to how men treat and talk to each other across the works. We can posit, in particular, as new kinds of presidents set new sorts of precedents for what men (in particular) and their friends can do — what they can say out loud without accountability — that in Cassavetes’ films he did many things but one thing he did many times throughout the twelve that he directed was to put his lens on a problematic, multivalent, and expansive male discourse. And from this we might learn a few things.

We find examples of the discourse in Husbands. The film is rich, despite its fractured and often deeply problematic bar-table and hotel-room aggressions — and often these are aggressions of men upon women, or the young upon the old, as we should note — with graveyard conversations about truth and lies, with crowded bathroom-stall fugues about the nature of mortality and the terror of aloneness, and with front-yard wind-ups on the topics of power in families and the authority we confer to our bosses and our paymasters and our spouses. All of this is absorbed and tolerated and finally erupts across the days we spend, through Cassavetes’ creation, in these men’s lives. They are, of course, men, these individuals. We cannot overlook their humanity, their empathetic cores pushing throughout the film’s imposed barriers, sharing weaknesses with one another — and sometimes with women, by film’s end — across time and two continents.

john_cassavetes_gena_rowlands_johnny_staccato_1959
John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands from the television program Johnny Staccato. Image: NBC, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

We can look also to the discourse between characters in Love Streams. In an early scene at a cabaret, a man dressed as a woman asks Robert Harmon (Cassavetes) if he is gay. The exchange is at once marked by both confidence and tremulousness. The asker is steady and perhaps gentle, allowing Robert to visibly grapple with the question, his face rippling with nervous energy, with surprise, and with the shy state of his apparent and immediate unsureness of what to say. No one is angry. No lines are drawn. No one is accused of being an ‘other’.

And we see this complicated world of men communicating about what they similarly do not yet know in the ramped-up days and nights of Shadows. Tony and friends race the city’s sidewalks, crying “forward!” to each other, play-fighting, and scooping on young women in diners. But then,  momentarily surrounded by less familiar things in a museum sculpture garden, by a world of perceptions and depictions that strike some of them as, yes, too feminine or too elite (as Tom says), others among the men of Shadows resist these conclusions. We are struck when Dennis expresses his negative capabilities, shouting “I don’t know everything!” at Tom. For a moment, for the two, it is a pressing argument — the worth of looking at a modern sculpture, the value of acknowledging expressions not immediately decipherable, not intuitively recognized, and not categorizable by history and lessons handed down from the past.

Ray Carney, writing about Cassavetes’ work, ties something like that state of mind — ‘I don’t know everything’ — to larger themes, to Emersonian concepts of a fluid and volatile world in which what we think and feel is always in motion. To proclaim “I don’t know everything” is to invite disagreement but to demand recognition, to say, perhaps, along with Emerson (and Carney) that reality and knowledge are snapshots of experiences. In another vein, to say ‘I don’t know everything is to court what Ilana Simons refers to as a wiser willingness for vulnerability — a willingness that is accessed by the “high modality” of kindness, as she puts it — and it is an argument for compassion and more thoughtfulness in the midst of moments otherwise suffused with confrontation.

In a time when we could be overwhelmed by confrontations, and when we are startled perhaps by choruses claiming disenfranchisement as a right to new authority — the authority to shun, ridicule, or squash fluidity and ambiguity — we come upon a fine way to mark Cassavetes’ birthday. We can turn to his films for a difficult, empathetic and multivalent look at how we — especially we men of this world — speak to and treat each other, and it is even finer to do so when we consider our words and deeds towards women. Pick one of the films and put it on, for these are the gifts Cassavetes has given us for our times.

Featured image credit: John Cassavetes with Gena Rowlands. Jon Rubin, CC BY-2.0 via flickr.

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Woman as protagonist in BBC’s re-adaption of Conrad’s The Secret Agent

“This country is absurd in its mania for individual liberty”. This is a sentence of eerily timely resonance. With the onset of Brexit and Vladimir Putin’s claim that it will have “traumatic effect” on Britain, BBC’s recent adaption of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent offers an uncomfortable presentation of politics documented in the murky streets of Victorian Britain.

Published in 1907, and set in 1887, The Secret Agent contextually engages with the Greenwich Bomb Outrage and conveys a story of an anarchist attempting to detonate London in detest of Britain’s overtly politicised liberalism. The uncanny Nostradamus-ism of The Secret Agent has been recognised in the public domain with Peter Lancelot Mallios revealing in his collection Conrad in the 21st Century that following 9/11 attacks, The Secret Agent was “referenced over a hundred times in newspapers, magazine, and online journalistic resources across the world”. With its plot of espionage, global terrorism and suicide bombers, Conrad’s text has become a significant piece in the examination of modernism and terrorism, with critics such as John Gray claiming that Joseph Conrad “can be read as the first great political novelist of the twenty-first century”.

With the recent surge of interest in Conrad’s text following the programme airing in July, one needs to question the contribution that BBC’s adaption offers to the oeuvre of Conrad’s criticism. Tony Marchant’s adaption is acutely aware of global relevance of this text, noting that the “contemporaneity just hit[s]” you “in the face”. Yet, his production precisely fails in this presentation of terrorism. Whereas Conrad’s text is a complex plot of temporality, allusions and non-essentialist ironies, Marchant’s adaption projects Russia as the menacing power and creates a very definite correlation between Europe and non-European terrorism. It is precisely these taxonomies that Conrad stirred away from with the nuances of his writing.

Conrad skilfully conflates the public and private spheres and the institution of terrorism with domesticity through Winnie.

Nevertheless, this adaption offers us something very important to Conradian studies. Vicky McClure’s performance of Winne Verloc, aptly and subtly asserts the female protagonist’s role in Conrad’s narrative. By doing so, this adaption aligns itself with the feminist body of criticism, such as Susan Jones’ Conrad and Women, which challenge the research that claims that Conrad is exclusively a patriarchal writer. In this way, Marchant’s adaption reminds one of Conrad’s purpose for The Secret Agent – to place the female protagonist at the centre of the narrative. In a letter to Ambrose Barker, Conrad wrote that the initial intention of his novel was to write “the history of Winnie Verloc”.  In this respect, Merchant’s re-adaption better presents the nuances of the text and significantly challenges the body of Conradian criticism that reductively attest that Conrad’s female characters are simply stoics with no creative influence in his male-dominated, often seafaring stories.

Keeping in tone with other critics on Conrad, Joyce Carol Oates wrote that Conrad’s “quite serious idea of a ‘heroine’” is always someone who “effaces herself completely, who is eager to sacrifice herself in the ecstasy of love for her man”. So how does Winnie Verloc, and Vicky McClure’s portrayal of her character defy this? Winnie, as critics note, is still positioned within the domestic sphere, marries for convenience and believes deeply “life doesn’t stand much looking into”. Yet, Marchant’s adaption gives focus to Winnie’s role and demonstrates how The Secret Agent serves as a re-examination of the female within patriarchal society. Vicky McClure gives credence to Winnie as an active agent within the domestic sphere and poignantly conveys Winnie’s character in a manner that transforms Winnie into a signifier for “everywoman. Significantly, Winnie is the only protagonist in the novel to manipulate institutional structures – cleverly using the institution of marriage to escape an abusive father and marrying Verloc to ensure security for herself and her disabled brother.

Conrad skilfully conflates the public and private spheres and the institution of terrorism with domesticity through Winnie. Whereas the bombing of the Observatory fails in the narrative, the ultimate act of violence and usurpation of authoritative power lie in Winnie. Out of the three deaths described in The Secret Agent, those of espionage Verloc, pseudo suicide bomber Stevie, and Winnie, only one is described explicitly – Winnie’s murder of her husband Verloc. Yet, the emphasis is not on the murder, but it is Winnie’s psychological being that Conrad focuses on – giving Winnie the ultimate voice in the narrative.

The reviews of Tony Marchant’s broadcast have largely focused on the shortcomings of the adaption to convey the subtle allusion and ironies of Conrad’s plot of terrorism. Nevertheless, despite these limitations, the recent BBC airing offers an important examination of the position of the Victorian woman and the manners in which she can negotiate agency within the androcentric structures of Victorian politics. Marchant’s production achieves the fundamental aim of Conrad’s narrative – to convey the domesticity and passivity of the Victorian woman, and to hold up that stereotyping for critique.

Featured image credit: Joseph Conrad. CC0 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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