It’s not easy to prise Frederick Wiseman away from his work. The 88-year-old filmmaker is currently holed up in Paris putting the finishing touches to his latest documentary. So our meeting is scheduled for 8.30am on the pavement outside the converted 17th-century convent where he lives in a rented studio for the 10 or so months it takes to edit each film.
At 8.30am exactly, the convent gate creaks open and he strides out into the summer sunshine. Over a 50-year career, Wiseman has made 43 films and shows no signs of slowing up. His most recent is a magnificent 197-minute portrait of an institution that is half a world away, in location and tempo, from the French capital.
That institution is the New York Public Library and, as the film richly demonstrates, it is part of the central nervous system of the city that never sleeps: “I have a knack of picking places that are open all the time,” he deadpans, adding that, in the 12 weeks it took to shoot, he managed to take a couple of Sundays off, “but you get into a rhythm and you don’t want to miss anything”.
From his first solo film, Titicut Follies, which shone a light on the treatment of the “criminally insane” in the late 1960s, he has specialised in closeups of social and cultural locales, whether that involves a service — such as 1975’s Welfare, about the New York benefits system — a neighbourhood, such as 2015’s In Jackson Heights, a zoo or a ballet company. His signature style in every case is to present scenes from everyday life with no identifying captions, interviews or explanatory voiceover.
As a place historically devoted to the introverted practice of reading, a library might not seem to be his most appealing subject — and at the time he decided to make the film, Wiseman admits he hadn’t set foot inside one for 45 years. “I just thought, without any knowledge whatsoever, that it would be interesting. I thought you went to a library to borrow a book. I had no idea of the vast variety of activities they are involved in.”
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library was shaped from 150 hours of footage (100 hours fewer than that of 2013’s At Berkeley, about life at one of the US’s great universities, “but there are 35,000 students at Berkeley and academics like to talk”). For every instantly recognisable Elvis Costello or Patti Smith using the library, the film follows dozens of administrators, librarians, board members and ordinary users as they go about their business, not only in the main library, with its landmark marble lions, Patience and Fortitude, but in more than a dozen of its 92 humbler branches. The relentlessness of life in New York and its libraries is reflected in the film’s beady-eyed and finely choreographed juxtapositions: between a piano recital and a job fair, at which the unemployed are exhorted to join border control or the fire-service, a nocturnal street scene flashes in the lights of a 24-hour pawn shop. While the technique is uncompromising, some of the observations are laugh-aloud funny — as when a telephone operator valiantly attempts to explain that unicorns don’t exist, or a picture librarian demonstrates a system of themed archiving with images of “dogs in action”. “Everything that I find is coincidental, but there’s nothing coincidental about the final film,” explains Wiseman, who is not only the director and editor, but the sound recordist and producer for Zipporah Films, which he set up in 1970 and named after his wife, a law professor.
He is notably crotchety about attempts to pigeonhole him as an observational filmmaker, and is particularly irked by the idea of being considered a fly on the wall. “It’s an insulting term,” he says, digging into a familiar repertoire of wisecracks. “Most flies I know aren’t conscious at all, and I like to think I’m at least 2 per cent conscious.”
“I come across this thing as a matter of chance, and maybe occasionally good judgment. I take the risk of shooting it because I think it might be interesting — then my job as an editor is to decide what it is saying, whether I want to use it, in what form, and where I’m going to place it.”
Running through Ex Libris, as in much of his work, are themes of social and economic injustice. While the glamorous main building hosts celebrity speakers, African-American regulars at a Harlem branch grumble about the indignities of their daily lives, such as being confronted with textbooks that misrepresent their racial history.
As a Jewish American who grew up with early and mid-20th century antisemitism, Wiseman is attuned to what he calls “micro-racism”. His father arrived from Ukraine at the age of five while his mother was the only one of nine siblings who wasn’t born in Poland. The family lived in a “middle-class Jewish ghetto” in Boston. “I grew up listening to Hitler on the radio. When I was four years old, a child asked me why I had killed Christ.”
After graduating from university, where Jews were still excluded from the fraternity system, he enrolled at Yale Law School, more to avoid being drafted to fight in Korea than due to any ambition to tread in the footsteps of his attorney father. After a couple of years of peaceful national service, he escaped to Paris, where he amused himself shooting 8mm films of street life, before slinking back home when his money ran out. He landed a job at Boston University’s Institute of Law and Medicine.
His attempts to counter the boredom of “badly written books on case law” led to two career breakthroughs: a programme of student field trips took him to the Bridgewater state hospital, which would become the subject of his debut film. And splashing out $500 on the rights to a novel about Harlem gang wars, earning his first producer credit in an adaptation of Warren Miller’s The Cool World. “That demystified the process of filmmaking for me,” he says.
By a stroke of good fortune, his career change coincided with technical innovations that made it possible to film synchronous sound on 16mm film without being tethered by a cable. “What struck me was the fairly obvious idea that most subjects hadn’t been filmed because it hadn’t been technically possible before, so much of the world was still available.” By the time Titicut Follies was released in 1967, he was 37 — but, far from making his name, it plunged him into more than two decades of legal limbo after the Massachusetts authorities took offence and a supreme court judge ruled it “an indecent intrusion into the most private aspects of ... unfortunate persons”. Shot in black and white, the film makes gruelling viewing, with strip-searches, force-feeding and the interrogation of a fresh-faced young paedophile about his sexual deviances.
Wiseman refused to be discouraged and won his first Emmy for Law and Order (1969), with a further two for Hospital (1970). In retrospect, he is proud that none of his subjects complained, but is critical of the didacticism of his early editing. “In my view, my movies are more novelistic than journalistic and I don’t like to read a novel that tells me what I’m supposed to think.”
Although he insists that “American life is my subject”, a strong theatrical bent was evident from the opening cabaret of Titicut Follies, and he has turned to Europe for several of his more arty projects. In France, he has made films of the Comedie-Francaise and the Ballet de l’Opera National, “because there’s no American repertory company or ballet that has existed for 350 years”. He travelled to London to film 2014’s National Gallery after earlier attempts to hook up with New York’s Metropolitan Museum failed. His two films with the Comedie-Francaiseled to his acting debut, at the age of 77, as the husband of the fretful Winnie in his own stage production of Samuel Beckett’s Oh les beaux jours (Happy Days). He is due to make his TV acting debut this autumn in a three-part miniseries, Thanksgiving, by his friend, the French film critic turned director Nicolas Saada.
But documentary filmmaking is his first and abiding love and he is due to finish editing his latest, about the small Indiana town of Monrovia. “It’s not work, it’s my passion — and it also passes the time better than anything else.” He is aware that time has paid a backhanded compliment to Ex Libris, which he finished editing two days after the election of Donald Trump.
“In a sense, Trump made it a political film because the values of the people who run it are completely antithetical to what he represents. He’s against science, against reason, against democracy, so the library takes on an even greater importance as a bulwark against his irrational fascist idiocy.” And the best thing about it? “It’s certainly going to outlast Trump.” With that happy thought, he heads off for the metro to start his working day.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd