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 TuckerStilley.com.
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 Morris‘ The 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: frederick wiseman, tucker stilley, hospital, the permanent record, tuckerstilley.com, cinema verite, high school, media, media culture, documentary filmmaking, guy maddin, tales from the gimli hospital, interpretation of frederick wiseman, documentary filmmakers, media content, reality television, YouTube, media consumption, filmic constructs, walker evans, many are called, media manipulation, tucker stilley’s art, lindsay mofford, artistic challenge, artistic achievement, inspiration