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Keeping it plain, simple and brilliant

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman talks about his work on the eve of a Tokyo retrospective

by Giovanni Fazio

When one thinks of the grand old men of American cinema, directors who have spanned a few decades and continue to keep up the pace, there are but a handful of names to check.

Although filmmakers like Clint Eastwood or Woody Allen quickly spring to mind, one should include on that list the name of Frederick Wiseman, master documentarian, who has chronicled American life with an even eye since the mid 1960s, in over 30 films.

Wiseman is one of those figures who seems to be more influential than actually watched; his name comes up in conversation with filmmakers as diverse as Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) and Gus Van Sant (“Elephant”), but good luck actually trying to view some Wiseman on a Tokyo screen. (In America, Wiseman’s work generally debuts on PBS, which also funds his projects.)

Shibuya’s art-house Eurospace looks to remedy that situation with a major retrospective of Wiseman’s best work, running from Sept. 12 through 25. Shortly after that, Wiseman’s latest doc on one of the world’s great ballet companies — “La Danse — Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris” — will open in October at Bunkamura’s Le Cinema. (Intrepid viewers can visit zipporah.com, where nearly all of Wiseman’s work is available on DVD.)

Wiseman has a style as recognizable as Picasso or Kerouac; you could sit down in the middle of a film and know it was a Wiseman within about five minutes, so individual is his approach. The topics may vary — an Alabama institute for deaf and blind children, NATO maneuvers in Germany, the hermetic world of models and their photographers, a crowded welfare office, New York’s Central Park, but Wiseman’s aesthetic remains the same: absolutely no narration or framing devices, no soundtrack, a diffuse focus on a multitude of characters and a steady, observational immersion into the milieu.

It’s Wiseman’s sense of restraint — of holding back his own views to let the viewer engage with the material — that leads so many to find the art in his craft . . . no mean feat for a determinedly realist filmmaker.

I speak with Wiseman over the phone, and the 74-year-old’s broad Boston accent suggested more the guy who’d make “Public Housing” or “Boxing Gym” than “La Danse.” I ask the director if he enjoyed moving between high-brow and blue-collar territory.

“I’ve always done that,” says Wiseman. “Part of the fun of making these movies is the sense of adventure that’s associated with it. It gives you a chance to get out and see what’s going on in the world, and to organize your own response to it.”

When asked how he chooses his topics for films, Wiseman replies merely “whatever interests me.” Once a topic is decided on, though, the actual location is fixed quickly. “I never try to ‘survey the field’ to figure out what’s going on,” says the director. “I visit one or two places, if they give me permission and I like what’s going on there, then I go ahead. You have to trust your instincts.

“That’s the key to this whole kind of filmmaking, actually. You have to make up your mind very quickly, particularly in terms of the shooting. It doesn’t mean your instinct is always right, but you make the decisions quickly, then you figure out what it all means to you in the editing.”

Wiseman typically shoots a great deal in a relatively short period of time. “La Danse,” which tracks the Paris Opera Ballet company through rigorous rehearsals, preproduction, the nitty-gritty of management, and some transcendent performances on stage, involved a 12-week shoot and then an entire year to edit down the 140 hours of footage into a three-hour film.

Even for a workaholic like Wiseman — “I usually work at least six days a week, and about 12 hours a day,” he says — cutting that much film down to size must be a daunting prospect.

“You have to know it,” says the director. “I have a good memory and I can remember the sequences, but I still make elaborate notes.”

Digital editing could make this process easier, and Wiseman used it for the first time on “La Danse,” but confesses he’ll probably return to manual cutting. “I dunno, I like touching the film.”

Still, there’s no replacement for his time-intensive methods.

Says Wiseman: “The shooting is just the accumulation of sequences which have no form and no relationship to each other, except that discovered in the course of the editing.”

Wiseman is a self-described ballet fan, and I ask him whether spending that much time backstage with the dancers broke the illusion for him at all. “Not at all,” he replies. “I often thought the rehearsals were more interesting than the performances. There was sometimes even more emotion in the rehearsals. You’d think that any actor or dancer would hold back a bit in rehearsal, but sometimes they were fantastically moving.”

One of the things that’s striking about “La Danse” — or any Wiseman film — is the level of intimacy between camera and subject. The camera can be right there, in close, on a person, and yet unobtrusive, giving them space to be themselves. In an age of reality TV and Web-cam blogs, one wonders whether your average person is getting more accustomed to playing to the camera. I think of the manipulative doc “American Teen” — antithesis to Wiseman’s observational “High School” — where the students seemed to be hyping their dramas for the camera.

Wiseman doesn’t sense a difference, though. “I don’t think people have the capacity to suddenly change their behavior. None of us are good enough actors to suddenly become someone different. Also, I’m very low-key during the shooting. I don’t suggest anything to anybody and I do everything I can to demystify the filmmaking process. So if someone wants to look through the camera, they can. I try not to bulls–t anybody. The whole idea is to make them comfortable with being filmed. But the fact of the matter is, it’s not totally dependent on their getting used to you; I was with that ballet company for three months, but got some of the best sequences right at the beginning.”

What truly sets Wiseman apart in an era of big-name documentary “stars” like Michael Moore or Nick Broomfield, is his ability to erase himself from the picture, to give the viewer room to delve into a juvenile court, a nuclear missile silo, or a meat-packing plant and feel like they’re making their own discoveries. This is deliberate. Wiseman insists: “I don’t like to be told what to think. So the structure of the films is more novelistic than journalistic or didactic.”

But just don’t call his films “objective,” a word that sets off alarm bells for this filmmaker. “It’s not objective. The film is a subjective report of what I found as a consequence of making the film. The whole structure of the editing, is (subjective) — my own view is in there, it’s just expressed indirectly. I try not to hit the audience over the head with it.

“Instead of the word ‘objective,’ I use the word ‘fair.’ It’s important for me to be fair to the people who gave me permission to film. So I try not to distort or twist the material to suit any ideological interest — I think that would be unfair.”