Frederick Wiseman’s HOSPITAL: Thoughts on Cinéma Vérité plus An Evening with Tucker Stilley

Last month, I shared a rare opportunity to view a 16mm presentation of Frederick Wiseman’s 1969 film, Hospital with a group of people who came out to support visual artist and filmmaker, Tucker Stilley.

The event was hosted by REDCAT at the Music Center in Los Angeles as a benefit for Stilley, who suffers from ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  Wiseman, friend to both Stilley and his wife, Lindsay Mofford, offered a print specifically for the benefit event.  An enthusiastic group of friends and supporters came out not only have the rare opportunity to screen Wiseman’s work, but also celebrate Tucker and his work, The Permanent Record  which can be explored at

This was only the second film by Frederick Wiseman that I have ever seen, so I can not claim to have any real deep knowledge of Wiseman or his work, nor cinéma vérité as an overall movement.  I was however, left with a number of thoughts regarding the work, and how it relates to a world some forty years later.

The first film of Wiseman’s that I was exposed to, is perhaps his best known, High School.  I had the chance to see the film roughly 15 years ago or so in a film class, and in all honesty the film never stayed with me.  I remember how many of us in the class often chuckled at the people we were watching.  Students and teachers who were familiar and alien to us all at the same time.  At that point, I’m sure I viewed High School as more of a curiosity piece.  Since the film didn’t actively engage me as a viewer or as an aspiring filmmaker, (Errol MorrisThe Thin Blue Line was far more engaging to me in this way), I neatly filed it away as due diligence.  If I were to go back and watch it again today?  I honestly don’t know.  Certainly I’d have a better sense of Wiseman’s craft, but whether it would leave a greater mark upon me, I can’t say.

Wiseman’s Hospital on the other hand, definitely left an impression.

Hospital serves as a window into a “day-in-the-life” of the people served by, or serving in a major metropolitan hospital trauma ward and outpatient clinics.  Wiseman’s camera has all but disappeared to the subjects he focuses on. That in and of itself, is an achievement. It also seems like a reflection on a different era of media culture and awareness, but all of that should not undercut the clear patience and care of Wiseman and his capable crew.

At the film’s opening, I was taken aback by the near-surreal nature of what I was witnessing.  A title card with the word “Hospital” appears, and moments later, we are in an operating room as a patient is being prepared for surgery.  Whether there was a conscious or coincidental connection between the films, Guy Maddin‘s Tales from the Gimli Hospital is easily called to mind during the film’s opening.  The operating room, like all the rest of the hospital is cramped, and the patient appears as if he is about to be tortured upon a cross.  The machines and tools of patient care are huge and archaic, and one imagines that even the most contemporary individual might have been left with an ill sense-of-ease. However, once we get past the early moments where Wiseman rather graphically, entirely cooly and metaphorically opens the hospital to us, much of that sense of surrealism disappears.

One by one we are introduced to the people who work at the hospital, and the largely poor, destitute and elderly patients under their care.  This is after all, a “Metropolitan Hospital”.  As modern viewers, we might be inclined to look at these people as somehow alien to us, both patient and care-givers, but the more the layers are pulled back, the more familiar these people become.  The sense that ill health, suffering and loss democratizes us all seems key to Wiseman’s argument, but then again in Wiseman’s films there are no arguments.

I have heard Wiseman himself describe his films as having more in common with a mirror, rather than a magnifying glass.  He further suggests that the situations depicted in his films are open to the interpretation of the viewer not unlike any work of art.  In respect to High School, Wiseman tells a story of how teachers and school administrators were initially pleased by the film, however when criticism of the school appeared in reviews of the film, administration and teachers became divided in their support of the film.  One film, two perspectives reinforced.

One could get into a long argument of what documentary filmmaking is, and the function of a filmmaker in relationship to the world of the story.  Many filmmakers, including myself, would argue that by inserting one’s self into a “world” or a situation, you immediately change it.  Wiseman, through months of being present, creates the illusion of invisibility which is quite convincing, but ultimately should be at least be questioned by the viewer.  This is not to criticize Wiseman or his methods, but in a culture that is overrun by media “content” as much as our society is, people are right to balance their own perspective with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Hospital got me wondering how possible vérité was in our modern culture of “reality” television and YouTube.  Although certainly not strictly an American phenomenon, few cultures are as obsessed and consumed with the idea of being “famous” and “seen”.  Few cultures create content, consume content and have content that is consumed to the degree that American culture does.  We know that behavior changes when a camera starts running.

There is a hysterical sequence in Hospital which features a young man who has consumed a quantity of mescaline which he believes is poisoned.  What starts out as an exchange between a panicked patient and slightly jaded and laconic doctor, devolves quite hysterically into an adventure with Ipecac and one young man’s idea of what being an artist means.  At the time the film was made, this happening was likely an embarrassing moment which our young “artíste” would have sooner forgotten than having the moment revealed to the world.  Today, he’d be interviewed on Larry King, asked about what he was thinking at the time, and offered a book deal to write “Portrait of a Young Artist on Ipecac”.

Is vérité possible without hiding all evidence that recording is taking place?  If we agree upon the phenomenon of behavioral change in front of the camera, we can take it a step further.  Ours is a media culture that creates artificial constructs through the “set-up” (putting an explosive bunch of people into an environment or a situation knowing that chaos will ensue) or through the edit (creating a certain type of character by choosing only the aspects of that person’s personality that make for “the best TV”).

Vérité (as it applies to truth) suggests that we have insight into moments of privacy, moments unfettered by expectation, artifice, or a subject’s knowledge that they are revealing anything. Even in Walker Evans‘ famous monograph, Many Are Called, a series of depression-era photographs taken on the New York Subway, Evans knew that the only way to achieve true insight was to hide his camera out of plain view.

It’s with these ideas in mind that I am brought back to the idea of what then is possible for a documentarian? What is his or her relationship to audience and subject?  If a filmmaker knows that this relationship changes content, then what does that mean for the end product that they choose to create?  Is it practical, honest or somehow noble to strive for something that could be called vérité?  If we know as filmmakers that change occurs automatically as a result of filming and adding or subtracting structure to tell a story, then perhaps the only honest thing to do is to make one’s intent clear and have a specific viewpoint.  Is anything else honest?  Or real?

*    *    *    *    *

I have only met Tucker Stilley a couple of times, and it has been since ALS has taken the lion’s share of his motor functions away.  What I do know about him come from the stories from family, a bit of the written word that I have read or listened to by him, and the video artwork that he has taken to since the onset of his condition.  He’s got a great sense of humor.  Perhaps what I have taken away most is what he has demonstrated as an artist with a distinct voice and capabilities.

I had an opportunity to see some of Tucker’s most recent work with Tucker and a small group of friends in the theatre after the screening of Hospital.  What I saw was often times hypnotic, and very watchable.  The work was like a visual form of Found Poetry, full of motion, visual texture, and emotional content.  I also know from my conversation with his wife Lindsay, that much of his work is very personal, and works on levels not immediately apparent to the dispassionate observer.

Perhaps what is most inspiring about Tucker and his work, is what he accomplishes with his limited physical capabilities.  As someone with full use of my body, what tends to slow me or other creators, are the roadblocks we construct in our mind.  And if we are responsible for our own roadblocks, don’t we prove ourselves capable of creating something? But then what artist aspires to create their own roadblocks?

Tucker Stilley achieves even when his body has become the obstacle, but certainly like all of us he’s had the those same obstacles of heart and mind.  Like so many other artists given a set of challenges, I have to imagine that the ultimate difference is he chooses to create.  Perhaps out of sheer necessity.  So if the able- bodied artist doesn’t choose to overcome their own self-created, self-imposed obstacles, who is the disabled individual?  The artist in a limited body or the artist in a limited mindset?  What happens when we remove our mental and emotional limitations?  What happens when we remove “can’t” from our vocabulary?

I doubt that Tucker longs to serve as example to anyone, but perhaps inspiration is another matter.  Here’s to inspiration. . .


technorati tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


2 Responses

  1. Before I comment, in full disclosure, I have been close friends with Lindsay and Tucker for almost 20 years and worked for Fred Wiseman for 3 years. As for Fred, I’ve seen all of his films up to Zoo many, many times as it was part of my job at Zipporah films. Twenty years later I can still quote some of my favorite monologues word for word by heart.
    I think there is another element to the verite approach that may add to the discussion. One thing to remember is that the early films are from a more innocent time in terms of a media savvy public, and I do think that subjects of verite docs of the time were not necessarily aware of how they might come off to the viewer. However the camera is decidedly not hidden, the filmmaker and his camera man are in the room in plain view day after day, for weeks on end. What happens, in my humble opinion, is not so much a sneak peak into a hidden world as an unflinching portrait of what goes on in a given situation with a camera in the room.
    One of the reasons why verite works is human nature. Everybody secretly or not, wants to be the center of attention, wants “their side” of the story told…hence the overwhelming popularity of you tube, facebook, my space and blogs…not unlike this one. Most people, and one might argue all people, believe that they are perfectly rational and reasonable human beings. They are chomping at the bit to be asked what their opinions and feelings are. That is why people answer pollsters, questionnaires and surveys….and one of the reasons they are somewhat unreliable. After all, everyone wants to be liked, even by an anonymous interviewer.
    I often wondered why people would say or do some of the things in his films. Don’t they know how that looks or sounds?They are not interviewed or prepped in any way, in fact, Fred makes a point of not getting personally involved with the subjects of his films. He comes in in the morning with his camera man and a nagra and a camera assistant and shoots away throughout the day, week after week.
    Two phenomena are working together here, I think. One is the desire to get our 15 minutes of fame, or more accurately a chance to give our side of the story, our opinion…just to be asked strokes our ego in a way that we as human beings need. We all need to feel “heard”.
    Another is that people will say and do things in an institutional setting, that are perfectly reasonable to the people working in that setting, while those of us on the outside might find it appalling and shocking. The value of Freds films is not that it allows us to pass judgement on others, but that we are experiencing a given set of events, in a given setting as we watch people act and interact in that setting. re: the young nurse in the emergency room, who briefly considers adopting a neglected child that shows up there. The older, more experienced nurse tells her ” Oh no honey, don’t you get involved. He will be placed, don’t you worry.” Later in the film, we see the same young nurse trying to convince a friend to make a bed available for the child on the sly, while referring to the older nurse as the “old battle-axe”. There are several fully developed storylines at work here, rich enough for an entire narrative feature film on it’s own and this is only one small sub-plot within Hospital. My point being that we are given the setting, a large metropolitan hospital emergency room and within the context of that setting, these are the dramas that play out every day, over and over and over again. What is sad, but unfortunately mundane for the older nurse, just another day on the floor, is an unbearable tragedy for the young nurse. Knowing what we know so far about this institution and what those who work in it have to deal with, we sympathize with the young nurse, but we know the older nurse is right. We know that if the young nurse doesn’t change, she’ll burn out after a couple of years, perhaps we can even surmise that the older nurse may have struggled in the same way years before. The entire scene is played out within 5 minutes of film at the most, but it would easily take up a 2 hour narrative film.
    What makes Freds films so valuable and so rich, is the dynamic relationship between the larger overarching story of an institution at work, and the individuals within the institution at their work.
    I’m not sure that I’ve answered specifically the question of whether verite is real or not. In light of the physics paradox of Heidegger’s cat, because our presence in the universe and the experiment itself changing the outcome of the experiment by changing the possibilities of reality, should we then stop all experimenting and measuring things? I think we are better off experimenting and measuring to our hearts content, and using the data knowing the limitations and biases of the experiment itself and the experimenter.
    We should assume that the editor, any editor, has an agenda whether it’s hidden or not, even from themselves. That shouldn’t prevent us from ever watching anything that’s been edited, or from believing what we are seeing because it’s been edited. It should make us sit up and listen a little more closely to our own biases and to those we expose ourselves to. I’ve always felt that it wasn’t so much that Fred is fair or right, the value in his films is the underlying feeling that everyday life is a very messy and complicated affair, and so are the institutions that we create to manage it.
    By the way, Miss Hightower, the creepy jerk from social services who hangs up on the psychiatrist trying to help the homeless homosexual young man, shows up a couple of years later in Freds film Welfare,and she is exactly the kind of person you think she is.
    I also want to thank you for your review of Tucker and his work, so glad you liked it. I’ve been a big fan of both Lindsay and Tuckers for years now and happy to see others join in.
    Peace to resistance, Ellie Fitz

  2. You’ve definitely increased my interest in seeing Hospital and other Wiseman documentaries. The only Wiseman I’ve seen (Belfast, Maine) is, from what I understand, a miniature of his entire catalog (or oeuvre, if you prefer) — so I am still able to understand from first-hand experience the sort of film you describe.

    You raise some interesting questions/concerns about the place of thedocumentarian within his/her own work — how forthcoming should a filmmaker be about his point of view in a film that purports to represent some kind of reality or truth?

    Of course, despite the lack of narration or an on-screen persona, Wiseman’s fingerprints are still all over his films: the scenes that he decides to shoot, the angle and framing of those scenes, and then the scenes that make the final cut are all decisions that inform what the viewer will see of a given reality. Still, I think he is making a valid choice. (I also like Ellie Fitz’s point, above, that an earlier Wiseman film like Hospital was made at a time when audiences were more “innocent” with regard to the camera, etc.)

    For me, the issue isn’t so much how Wiseman’s presence influences the people he films (merely observing something changes it, camera or no) though he goes to more trouble than most to make the subject forget they are being filmed.

    More important, I think, is how the final product — the movie itself, as screened — will influence the audience. Wiseman does his best to remove as much of himself as he can from the film — he keeps in-scene editing to a minimum and chooses camera angles that are pretty neutral. It’s easy to understimate (or even flat-out forget) just how difficult this technique makes things for the filmmaker: other than an
    establishing shot, he is not able to give the audience any background information. It all has to come from the people in the scene — many of whom are working and take for granted the nature of what they do. If Wiseman has a point he wants to make, the odds are pretty high that it will get lost in the complexity of showing one scene after another.

    As I say, though, it is only one tactic among many. Someone like Michael Moore is certainly coming from the other extreme: here I am, here’s my point of view, and here are a bunch of real events that I have orchestrated and edited together to make my point. It’s honest about itself and I usually agree with it, but it’s still not Reality
    — it’s basically agit-prop.

    I remember Louis-Ferdinand Celine writing somewhere that the effect of converting Life into Art was similar to the effect of putting a pencil in a glass of water — the pencil looks broken. Celine’s solution is to break the pencil before you put it in the glass.

    That’s certainly the Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock approach: Fuck you, pencil. And good for them.

    I’d say a guy like Errol Morris is probably right in the middle, between Wiseman and Moore: he goes to great lengths to remove himself from the film in some ways (never appearing on-screen, rarely asking questions and letting his subjects tell their own story in their own words) while using an arsenal of cinematic techniques (using dramatic angles, changing film stock, using music, etc) to impose his vision on
    the audience.

    I love all three of these guys, mind you. And they’re all doing different things: Moore makes films about issues (capitalist excess, guns, healthcare), Morris (mostly) makes films about individuals and the stories they tell about themselves (Robert McNamara, a topiary gardner, etc). Wiseman makes films about institutions (hospitals, high schools, the police, etc) not as they would like to present themselves
    but, more or less, as they are. Of the three, though, I think that Wiseman is the one who might do his job too well . . . his view is so unflinching that we feel compelled to question it.

    I’ll finish this little message (already much longer than I intended) with an analogy. These three documentarians remind me of particular feature filmmakers. Moore I would compare to someone like Woody Allen or maybe Tati: the directorial persona is upfront, unique, and often present both in front of and behind the camera. Morris is similar to a Kubrick or Malick (etc): the directorial persona is most clearly visible in the technique and subject matter. Wiseman I would compare to Yasujiro Ozu — unique in his dedication to downplaying not only his role in the film, but that of the camera.

    All of them try to represent life in various ways, and all succeed differently. But Ozu is probably the closest to real life as we know it.

Home culture Frederick Wiseman’s HOSPITAL: Thoughts on Cinéma Vérité plus An Evening with Tucker Stilley