Binelli: What if the Great American Novelist Doesn’t Write Novels?

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Reprinted from The New York Times by Mark Binelli on December 15, 2020.

“I gave Frederick Wiseman a call on the morning of Election Day,” writes Mark Binelli in The New York Times. “It was 3 in the afternoon his time, in Paris, where he keeps a small apartment at Les Récollets, a Franciscan friary built in 1603 and converted four centuries later into housing for visiting artists and scholars. Wiseman’s home — and wife, Zipporah, and production company, also named Zipporah — all remain in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But he has found Paris, a city he has been enamored of since the 1950s, when he enrolled in law classes at the Sorbonne to secure an early Army discharge, amenable to his creative process, and he has edited several of his films there. In mid-March, he finished the sound mix for ‘City Hall,’ his 45th feature, just as Emmanuel Macron announced a national lockdown. As fall arrived, with his new four-and-a-half-hour documentary opening at largely virtual film festivals (Venice, New York, Toronto) to rapturous reviews, Wiseman, who in a normal year would have walked one or more of the red carpets, remained sidelined in France, thousands of miles from his family and unable to begin his next project. It was the first time in 55 years he hadn’t been working on a film, Wiseman told me. When I asked how he’d been holding up, he noted flatly, ‘Well, in addition to being scared, I’m bored.’ His doctors had advised him not to fly, ‘primarily,’ he said, ‘because I’m of the age Covid likes.’ Wiseman will celebrate his 91st birthday on New Year’s Day.

“The fact that Wiseman’s half-century-long project is a series of cinéma-vérité documentaries about American institutions, their titles often reading like generic brand labels — High School, Hospital, The Store, Public Housing, State Legislature — makes its achievement all the more remarkable but also easier to overlook. Beginning with Titicut Follies (1967), a portrait of a Massachusetts asylum for the criminally insane that remains shocking to this day, Wiseman has directed nearly a picture a year, spending weeks, sometimes months, embedded in a strictly demarcated space — a welfare office in Lower Manhattan, a sleepy fishing village in Maine, the Yerkes Primate Research Center at Emory University, the flagship Neiman Marcus department store in Dallas, the New York Public Library, a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Tampa, Florida, a Miami zoo — then editing the upward of a hundred hours of footage he brings home into an idiosyncratic record of what he witnessed. Taken as a whole, the films present an unrivaled survey of how systems operate in our country, with care paid to every line of the organizational chart. …

NY Times 12/15

About Jeffrey Burman 861 Articles
Jeff Burman served on the Guild’s Board of Directors from 1992 to 2019. He is now retired. He can be reached at