Frederick Wiseman is one of America’s foremost documentarians, and, perhaps, the most important proponent of the cinema verite movement. He has made 36 films, and is one of the few filmmakers (less than ten) who has received a MacArthur Genius Grant. His often lengthy documentaries sport simple, matter of fact titles like High School, Canal Zone, Central Park, and Meat. Each title is a fair summary of the film’s contents.
High School shows the day-to-day goings on of a fairly typical high school. Meat shows how cows go from farms to grocery stores. Wiseman doesn’t editorialize in any capacity beyond as an editor, and even there he acts more as a curator. Seemingly innocuous events build up until the viewer comes to a moment of realization; what seemed tedious in the watching is revealed to actually be the root of something deeper, more troubling.
The illogical enforcement of authority by gym teachers and principles is brought to a haunting conclusion when a letter written by a former student who is killed in Vietnam is read over the school’s loudspeaker system. The white coats worn by the workers in Meat are associated through montage with the white sheets thrown over the freshly slaughtered racks of beef. Wiseman has a law degree, and has also served as a producer for the great early American independent film The Cool World by Shirley Clarke.
Domestic Violence 2 is a continuation of his earlier film Domestic Violence. Both follow a southern Florida social service system as cases of domestic violence are reported and dealt with. While Domestic Violence is focused on counseling and the recovery of the victims, the sequel goes into what happens to the perpetrators. Both films begin with police fielding a domestic violence call, but 2 goes directly to video court where sentencing occurs, while the first goes into a shelter and counseling center. The second film possesses a more comic air simply for the extremity of the cases aired; the judge in the video court, a mustached man, reviews a seemingly unending series of cases to decide on sentencing for them.
The monotony slowly begins to take an air of comic absurdity. A public defender tries to defend an accused man only for the Judge’s assistant to read that the man has a murder charge, leaving the defender looking foolish. The audience’s assignment of guilt shifts as the layers of each case are pulled away. The final case heard involves a woman. At first all that is revealed is that she tried to run over her husband with a car, but as the assistant pulls up the man’s record and her testimony reveal his insanity and violent possessiveness, the tables turn. Finally, the judge glibly states “You should’ve run him over with the car. You can go home ma’am.”
An abrupt cut to landscape shots of suburban Florida follows. A judge hears disputed cases, obviously bored and, having seen most of these people to the point she recognizes them, has questions of futility written clearly on her face. Finally, a third judge who ensures that restraining orders and similar papers are upheld sees several couples in his office. While not as bored as the second judge, he clearly has no tolerance left for nonsense. The film concludes its 160 minute run time with more shots of suburban Florida, only this time taken at night.
The film is a superlative historical document on several fronts. Wiseman unflinchingly confronts the modern institution without reductive generalizations, and his extensive portraits will provide perhaps the most accurate and useful portrait of American life in the second half of the 20th century that the cinema has provided. His landscapes, taken as a piece with the landscape shots of his other work, show clearly the monotony and repetition of the American town in the era of the conglomeration. Dreary architecture and fast food restaurants dominate, and it’s difficult to distinguish between this town and any other. (In fact, it looks a great deal like where I grew up in upstate New York.)
In a cinema dominated by childishly romanticized road trip movies, this sort of documentation is of paramount importance. His look at the inner workings of the social welfare and judicial systems preserves their actual tone (at least the tone I remember from years of following around my father, a forensic traffic engineer, from courtroom to courtroom) more honestly and complexly than any of the number of courtroom dramas in the post-war cinema or television canons. His judges reflect the air of cynicism that has permeated the American drive toward progressive social reform. Is society something that can be reformed through courts and social work, or are the poor people of Florida simply doomed to repeat their cycles of misplaced affection and physical violence?
The first film, showing the care centers and classes takes a more optimistic look at this issue, showing where it does in fact help, but Domestic Violence 2, by showing the couples interacting, gives a better view of this strange and destructive magnetism that permeates these relationships. Even after being hit with a hammer, choked, or threatened with a gun, the women will still wish to remain friends with their abuser, and the abusers need their victims to the point of ignoring threats of prison time for harassment and stalking.
Regional dialects are recorded and we see how much training and breeding really do shift one’s demeanor. The pervasiveness of product in American life is also shown somewhat here, but not to the extremes of the first film, where the only visuals seemed to be white walls, faces, and garishly out of place soda cans.