By Brian Wolowitz, Adult and Teen Services Librarian
Kanopy, the video streaming service available with your library card, calls itself a home for “thoughtful entertainment.” This is especially true in the case of Frederick Wiseman, the master documentary filmmaker with a career spanning over 50 years, whose many remarkable nonfiction films are streaming exclusively on Kanopy.
Wiseman’s career began in 1967 with Titicut Follies, a landmark documentary exposing the inhumane treatment of patients at a mental hospital in Massachusetts. Since then, over the course of 40+ works, Wiseman has documented a different American social institution with each film: schools, courthouses, public housing projects, parks, military bases, local governments, dance troupes, domestic violence shelters, department stores, museums, police departments—sometimes even whole towns or neighborhoods have been his chosen subjects. The cumulative effect of all these films together is a panoramic portrait of American society, capturing (and often subtly critiquing) the inner workings of the institutions that keep the country running.
Wiseman’s observational style is notable for its lack of interviews, narration, or onscreen text—standard features of most documentaries. He gives the viewer a fly-on-the-wall experience, allowing scenes to unfold naturally without spoon-feeding information. His camera simply observes. And yet he is a scrupulous editor, cutting down hundreds of hours of footage into a feature-length film with a dramatic structure. Wiseman has labeled his films “reality fictions,” and while they are not fictional, they often have the feel of epic literature—a Great American Novel in documentary form.
Faced with such a large body of work, some viewers are not sure where to start with Wiseman. I can recommend two good entry points: High School (1968), a compact study of students and faculty at a Pennsylvania high school against the backdrop of sixties counterculture, and Central Park (1989), an expansive portrait of New York City’s famous park and the wide variety of activities that take place there. After that, you can jump around based on which institutions are interesting to you.
Frederick Wiseman is 93 years old and still working. Reportedly, he has completed work on a film about a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris (though his filmography has an American focus, he occasionally shoots in Europe too). It’s set to premiere next month at the Venice Film Festival, but you can bet that it will eventually make its way to Kanopy, where you can watch it for free with your River Forest Public Library card.
Brian coordinates adult programming, and manages the fiction, mystery, Lucky Day, and large print collections. He has a BA in English from DePaul University and a Masters in Library Services from Dominican University. Brian has been working in libraries for over 10 years. An avid reader, Brian especially enjoys literary fiction that is witty and humorous. He is also a frequent moviegoer and can often be found at the city’s arthouse film venues like the Music Box and the Gene Siskel Film Center. Ask him for a movie recommendation!