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Reviewed by:
  • Five Films by Frederick Wiseman
  • Kay Armatage
Barry Keith Grant , editor and translator. Five Films by Frederick Wiseman. Foreword by F. Wiseman. University of California Press. ix, 432. US $29.95

Frederick Wiseman is one of the most prolific filmmakers in cinema history, rivalling studio stalwarts such as John Ford and Frank Capra: Wiseman has made thirty-two feature-length documentaries over forty years. This is a feat in itself, not only in the post-studio era, but also working as a fierce independent who has maintained absolute control over his productions, with continuing support from PBS.

Unlike most observational documentaries, which tend to centre on individuals, Wiseman's subjects are institutional structures of all sorts – including education, welfare, public housing, the fashion industry, food production, commercial retail, and scientific research. His films are as close as we come in contemporary filmmaking to a Foucaultian analysis of institutions, attending to the interlocking dynamics of the people operating within them (in the case of Titicut Follies [1967], guards, doctors, and prisoners in a facility for the criminally insane).

Moreover, Wiseman is considered one of the most distinctive stylists in non-fiction cinema, and, as a result, his films are frequently analyzed in documentary scholarship. Bill Nichols, a pre-eminent documentary scholar, has devoted a significant chapter of Ideology and the Image (1981) to Wiseman, and Grant has already published his own Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman (1992) as well as a recent article on Titicut Follies (1998). [End Page 444]

Five Films by Frederick Wiseman operates on a simple but extremely useful concept. Grant has chosen the most regularly addressed films directed by Wiseman (Titicut Follies, High School, Welfare, High School II, and Public Housing) and offers complete transcriptions of dialogue with brief shot details and soundtrack descriptions. As Grant notes in the introduction, the book has few precedents. Several dialogue transcripts and 'adaptations' of individual documentary films have been published, but rarely do they include notes about image construction, soundtrack, or filmic structure. The book also includes frame enlargements, which are tellingly placed throughout the text.

I have only one niggling quarrel with the book, a small matter of analytic terminology. Grant writes, '[T]he shot focuses on' so and so. In popular discourse, 'focus' is used metonymically to mean emphasize or spotlight, but in film it is a technical camera term. Beyond the catch-ascatch can early days of cinéma-vérité, most professional productions eliminate shots that are not in focus. Aside from the possibility of shallow depth of field or rack focus, I suspect that Grant means to suggest something about composition rather than sharpness of the image. Generally, however, his analytic approach is precise.

This is a work of painstaking scholarship of an original sort in film studies, akin to the annotated editions and translations of manuscripts that we rely on so heavily in other fields. It will be a great addition to the study of Wiseman's work, and a model for on-the-ground film documentation.

Kay Armatage
Cinema Studies Institute, University of Toronto


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pp. 444-445
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