Urban Confrontation; 22; The Film and the City Frederick Wiseman
The films can deal impressionistic live provocatively with subjects but they don't necessarily. There's no kind of one to one relationship between a film and social change alone the case of the ticket Follies which is the film made about the prison and mental hospital in part of it's because of the film. Over 300 people have been transferred out of the institution to other state institutions or old age homes and the public has become somewhat more aware of the conditions although not as much as they would be if they had a chance to. Serve an incumbent. An analysis of the continuing crises facing one of the centuries men in. American city. Todays recorded guest is Frederick Wiseman. Producer director of the film did a couple always High School Law and Order and a hospital. Based
program. Frederick Wiseman. The film. And the city. Questions asked in the following program are merely the moderator's method of presenting many sides of today's topic. Here is your host Joseph Harvey. It may be a little difficult to do a radio program about films and with a film producer. But in the next 30 minutes we're going to try because our guest is doing films on city problems. This is a city series. The films take a hard perhaps even an unmerciful close up look at urban institutions. They show them at their best and at their worst without any glamour. And they've been described as some of the most depressing films in the past 10 or 20 years. Fred Weisman is the producer Fred Weisman. We're sitting here in your office in Cambridge Massachusetts could you tell us about some of these films that you made particularly the one on Harlem the one Law Order in Kansas City and the one on the New York Metropolitan Hospital the one called hospital made at New
York Metropolitan Hospital and one called Law and Order. But the Kent City Police Department can City Missouri police department were both documentary films that is they were films about real events where nothing was staged. One in Harlem called Cool world was made eight years ago it was done with actors and was shot in Harlem on the streets but trying to recreate real life situations. But generally my interest is going into an institution like the hospital or hanging around with the police department for a period of time for anywhere from four to six weeks and taking a lot of film generally around 40 hours of film and then cutting it into an hour an hour and a half film which tries to express in at least an impressionistic sense the nature of the institution and some of the typical. Problem is they have to deal with as you've indicated an interest in doing a film on a city with a population of 50 to 60000 sort of a middle sized city. Why why this interest. One of the problems in each of these films is getting a subject you can kind of get a handle on as it were to get your arms around it. If it's too diffuse
you have to spend too much time and you don't begin to see the relationships. One of the things that's interested me about doing this institutional series is that with the exception of the police film it's all been in one building or you know a series of connected buildings and you can rather quickly get a sense of what's going on in the relationship between the front office and you know the back wards as it were. And it's very important to see those kind of connections and get them on film to try and do a large city like New York you would be too diffuse You could spend your life and you'd never be able to trace the connections but if you take a smaller city you might be able to take some picture say in a club where. 10 to 15 of the key bankers or insurance executives or whatever had lunch every day and you could see the relationship between that and some policies in the mayor's office or. The one experience you've had that remotely approximates this. Your law and order film in Kansas City you follow the Kansas City police all over town right literally. Well that's right what I did Kent city is divided up into three police
precincts and I worked out of one was called the Admiral Boulevard station and I picked that because 50 60 percent of crime in Kansas City was thought to occurred in that district was a poor white and poor black neighborhood and rather than cover all of Kansas City I rode the cars on all three shifts in the precinct. Did you have any preconceived notions about police prior to making this film. I went to Cannes City about three weeks after the Democratic Convention in 1968 and I guess I had the idea. Which I think a lot of people have really had no experience with the police other than parking tickets or what they read in the newspapers or see on the telly that the police were all Higgs as they're called these days. I don't know whether I subscribe to that view but I certainly didn't like the police. I realized after about two days in the corps that my view of the police had very little to do with the reality of day to day police work. Not that the police don't do some things which are pretty dreadful because they do and some of those things are shown in the film. But also people try to do pretty dreadful things to the police and
do some pretty bad things to each other which makes it necessary to have police in the first place. And I think the film what the final film tries to do is to get into the complexity of the policeman's role and how he has to be everything from a confessor to a family counsellor to an expert shot to someone doing a lot of paperwork. The variety of roles the policeman has to perform give him more discretion and control over people's lives and you know the average vice president of a bank. And yet the policeman is poorly paid and frequently poorly trained for the complex job that he has to do. And what I try to do in the film is present some of things I hope to learn in the film because they're contrary to what a lot of middle class people think about the police. I haven't had any experience with them. We should explain to the audience who obviously can hear telephones ringing buzzers buzzing. We're talking with Fred Wiseman film producer in his office a friend I'd like to ask you whether you have any preconceived notions about these other two films that you made the one on the
hospital the one on Harlem. I start off each one of these films on an institution feeling that some way or another going to catch the bureaucracy in you know typical bureaucratic boondoggle ing or callousness. But the hospital film is another example of a situation was probably contrary to my expectation in that the hospital staff turned out to be by and large extremely sensitive concerned responsible dedicated and really working very hard. The point of the hospital film was not so much the inefficiency or not at all really the inefficiency of the staff but rather the overwhelming health needs of the community which these people were desperately trying to cope with but they couldn't really cope with even if there'd been 20 other hospitals in that section of Manhattan that this hospital serves. Tell us a little bit more about this film why were the needs of the community so overwhelming. Metropolitan Hospital is the only city hospital that serves as the area from Forty second Street 200 16th Street east and west. There are other hospitals in that area but there are private
hospitals and there they have clinics but it's the City Hospital in that area. And a million roughly a million and a half people living in that area. And when I get to people that can't go any other places people can't go any other place and what you see in the hospital is it's a reflection of all the American social problems to be seen from a medical point of view you find people that can't read there that are brought in because they've been bitten by rats. You find fathers having to take care of large families because the mother is left or vice versa. You find people all people without any place to go you find drugs sleeping in the car because again they have no place to go. So they you get all the literacy housing poor education lack of jobs lack of vocational training you get all those problems that the hospital staff has to deal with at the point where they're being converted to medical problems or even if they're not being converted to medical problem. What I got a sense of is that when the hospital is not the place to deal with a lot of these problems because they were all of America's social problems
and that they in effect couldn't be dealt with in the hospital right 20. You mention that the hospital reflected the full range of American social problems. Certainly the section of New York known as Harlem reflects one of the primary problems that our society faces poverty and the effects of white racism creating ghettos. As a reporter do you find anything that surprised you. A metropolitan house for example that serves Harlem I guess and through Spanish Harlem It also takes in an area with lots of white people and the film is shows the hospital really is a genuine melting pot of all races creeds colors shapes and sizes so that I don't think that I would want to generalize particular racial aspect of it. I would certainly you certainly see the intimidating and powerful and pervasive effects of poverty whether they're dealing with white people or black people or yellow people I'm speaking more of your first film. I believe the title was the cool world cool world yeah and it was well received around the country.
What was the situation you found in Harlem when your cameras went there. This was back in 1962 before it was you know as fashionable to deal with some of these issues as it is now. I suppose what was found was the same things I was talking about before the totally degrading effect of poverty and how it drives people. The lack of any other road with to all kinds of futile and occasionally childish attempts to deal with their situation. What about some specific problems in a ghetto area. I happen to be Harlem but it could be any ghetto area white or black. The drug world for example or the relationship between the citizen and the policeman. I was surprised to find out about Harlem or any poor neighborhood is the degree to which the people the neighborhood depend on the police and want police protection whether it's white or black police because the incidence of crime is so high in poor neighborhoods that very often the people aren't concerned with the political aspects of the civil rights aspects of the police problems but are more concerned with just getting ordinary day to day police protection.
I want to find out why you use this on the spot filming approach. One of the advantages disadvantages. What criticism would you make of the standard television documentary that may or may not use this on the spot reproach. Well the advantage is when you get it you get reality. I mean you get what's actually going on and you put people in middle of the events in. And you know don't tell them what to think about it. A traditional television documentary has always been very balanced on the one hand this on the other hand and they'll frequently be a narrator sitting behind a desk or you know perhaps out on the street with a microphone who wrote his nick in essence telling you what to think and what I've been trying to do with these films is to put the audience in a situation where they have to think themselves. It's like the prosy a march in the theater. I want to break down as much of a barrier as I can between the audience and the events. The use of narration or you know the ballot the so-called objective approach although I don't really think there is any such thing as objectivity in this kind of work.
I think it makes it possible for the audience to sit back and say that well they're really not involved in what's going on. Do you equate an attempt by the as you describe the usual television documentary to be balanced with an attempt to either consciously or unconsciously tell people how to think what's wrong with a balanced approach. I mean not all white all black but the gray in between the middle. Well it depends with what's meant by balanced approach because sometimes a situation may be in a tense situation. But the way it's presented is 50/50. Since you're putting your name to the work you're presenting it as scientific study. You know trying to hide the fact that this is your view of it. It's like a column in a newspaper. Buckley For example I mean I agree with everything that Buckley writes in his column which says on his program but I know that it's his point of view to which he's entitled and I think that these films that I'm doing are my point of view about the material. But when you put one man's point of view on the nation's television networks into all of the homes in America don't you have a duty to present both sides to
present a balanced point of view because there's such a tremendous power and being able to dominate the minds of millions of millions of Americans for even a half hour of their lives. I don't have any feeling that I'm dominating anyone's mind. The hour and a half or so that I get on television every year and a half. I don't think it's going to. Promote too much thought control in the United States. I just think that the audience I'm hoping that the audience is sufficiently intelligent enough to respond to the films where they where they don't have to agree with me. And I think the films would be pretty tepid if everybody agreed with my point of view. I think if the films do anything they begin a process of discussion and evaluation and consideration of alternatives from which the change may or may not occur. I try to make complex films and I hope in making complex films I'm respecting the intelligence of the audience too. To respond to the material about liking or not liking it but at least by not being indifferent to it. Well you recognise the problem of thought control through television through the mass
media you give as. One reason why this would not be a danger in your hands that you have a small audience in a rarely on national television. I wonder would you change your approach would you make it more balanced if you were on national television had the opportunity to dominate where it was originally about national television I've been a national television and educational television that certainly doesn't reach as large an audience as the networks. But I have always felt that whether it's educational television or the networks that program should be controversial there shouldn't be bullying and that people should be exposed to all kinds of points of view and no one point of view should dominate. I don't know that it's always necessary to have equal time and you know make a pro prison film next week you have to have an anti prison film television program should reflect the same kind of diversity and complexity as exists in this kind of society. I don't think it does. I think it should. The question of balance is very much in the minds of our audience since Vice President Agnew's indictments of the mass media for not being balanced enough and so without him I know asked one more question then we'll
quickly move on. Is there anything that could be said for balance for the usual television documentary. You know let me throw the question back at you how would you balance this program. Well this particular program it might be difficult to balance. However we could go get a little parameter back on that. For example that would of course be only one way of balancing it. I would hope that you know ultimately led to the conclusion that the only way of presenting real balance is to trust of your own integrity about the situation you might feel you might want. You know 10 to 1 Fred Wiseman if you felt that was fear in terms of your programming decisions that would be balanced but it might or might not be as fair as they say. One Fred Wiseman and one Otto Preminger. How would you describe the kind of films would you produce you apparently. Discarded. One of the phrases used to describe the new realistic film they call it cinema very French for the movie of truth.
Well I don't know. It is well I don't know what is adequate. You know I don't know I can call it a new phrase. I mean I just there's something misleading about that which is related to the objectivity issue that we were discussing because I think it's pretty plumpest to say that you are delivering people the truth. You're presenting your version of the truth which you naturally want to defend but it's not the truth. We should pause at this point in the program to let our audience around the country know. What we're talking about who we're talking to. We're talking about. The new form of film motion picture. Call it what you may the more realistic form that has come along in recent years past five or 10 years and more specifically the past three or four years and one of the leading proponents and producers of this film form Fred Wiseman Fred one of the. Unique aspects about your approach to films is that you're not out to make money. And you are out to change a few minds though subtly though not
didactically would you describe yours over as a man with a social mission. Your films are to do with social problems. I'm interested in problems of change I think though that my films have to work for us as films and by that I mean I have to like them as they work in film terms for me before they do anything else naturally I hope that they will. First I hope they'll bring information to people and bring information to people in a way that they're not accustomed to to getting information say from the newspapers or frequently from the television. By exploring in detail one kind of situation. But I don't think any of the films tell people what to do about the situation. It was kind of saying before that I think the films are successful they will get a process going at where what people have seen in the films can be used as illustrations for one point of view or another about what's needed to change both in terms of something the film may strike people something very good which they want to push more than it's taking place or it may strike someone as being pretty horrible which they wanted to take steps to alter.
But the way in which that's done in a particular community or in a particular institution. It really presented in the film the films can deal impressionistic Lee and provocatively with subjects but they don't necessarily. There's no kind of one to one relationship between a film and social change although in the case of the ticket Follies which is the film made about the prison mental hospital. In part of Leeds because of the film over 300 people have been transferred out of the institution to other state institutions or old age homes and the public has become somewhat more aware of the conditions although not as much as they would be if they had a chance to see it. Apparently the film was an amazing a definite impact on one reviewer because his reaction was what sticks in the mind is that and what really hurts is the sight of human life made cheap and betrayed. There must be quite a wallop that your films pack. Because they do quite well up but I think one of the reasons they pack a wallop is that most people are
unaccustomed to dealing with reality and generally and or certainly on film and to the extent that more documentary films get made perhaps they'll produce less of a whack because people are more accustomed to looking at real things. Our minds are so polluted by the typical TV and Hollywood pap. That we when we see real events their reality becomes frightening reality becomes like you know a science fiction movie in that it's strange and it's very weird when you think of it what goes on in a hospital or a prison or a high school should be that strange. What do you mean when you say the typical Hollywood pap. There is no complexity about human relationships. In these films and these films they're very one dimensional. You know like a Doris Day movie or something. The Doris Day movie about marriage sweetness and light. Yeah. Or even when there's fights I mean it it's it's not real or even a Jimmy Cagney movie about a prison. There's very little relationship between that and what goes on. And it's that disparity
between what's presented as real and the reality that creates the fantasies you know you're talking with thought control of the extent of people's minds or images or shape their shape in false directions by these things that don't really deal but pretend to be real. How would you change that. How do you feel that your approach is more real what it means to me is that at least the situations that are shown in my films situations that aren't staged. They show people talking and reacting to each other as they as happens in ordinary day to day events in their lives. And to me that's a lot more interesting a lot more complicated than the way Hollywood has restructured reality. It doesn't mean to say it can't be done in a fictional movie. It's been done very successfully in movies like Battle of Algiers for example. You think that more of these kinds of documentary film investigations will be done in the future. Yeah I think so. Are you personally planning to or actually doing any influencing of the young film directors producers.
You know everybody kind of finds their own way I don't you know the influencing is not something you know. You know very interested in the get to the extent of people seen my films they'll get ideas to make other films better films different films and that's the way it goes. Then you're not a proselytizer for the new real isn't an American film. I know I'm going to trust trying to do my own films and that's really what interests me most. Beatrice Berry in the New York Times wrote that you were an artist who has a point of view about life but apparently you would rather risk having your work misunderstood and spell out on the screen your own solutions for social problems now. You want to change the world I gather I sense that you haven't stated it though I doubt if you would deny it but you apparently want us the audience to figure out after viewing a film how best to change the world to figure that out for us so I don't Miss Birdseye article in The Times. She indicates something about the work possibly being misunderstood I hope it's not mis
understood the point that I'm trying to make is that I don't like to water down the complexity of an event. In order to communicated better because I think I won't communicate it at all unless I do it in a way that in a sense is fair to my judgement about what's going on and that the films will lack something and I trust the audience's intelligence to figure it out and they don't necessarily have to figure it out just in my terms. You know I think all of the films I've made have a distinct point of view and a very. Kind of well worked out structure. But whether anybody else sees that structure or agrees with the point of view is not as important as the overall impact or lack thereof that the film makes. Do you believe that and you would ask that you would ask a painter or someone who writing a short story or a novel to be more explicit you would accept on his terms the method in which he felt he had to present his material. You might say he did it more or less successfully
but he would credit him with the right to present it as complexity as he felt the material deserved you believe the film such as yours will ever find a place on commercial television. Oh I think it's hard to just maybe maybe it depends what kind of audience they build I think it's possible you would produce a documentary for a network. I produced a documentary for a network as long as I have control over it. I'm never. Going to ever have control I don't know. There are some indications now that it might be possible even. Extended view could be the producer the director and the editor I would never make a film that I didn't fill all those functions on. Because otherwise I would rather be in another business. I sense a reluctance though you do feel that there are definite things to be lost by going to work for say ABC NBC. Oh yes. Oh absolutely because you know we traditionally don't have that kind of control. We all are saying is that I would only do it if I had to control there's some indications now that I'm late because. Why has I think it's remote. Why does Hollywood the film capital of the nation more or less. And television. New York Los Angeles Film
couples why do they shy away from the kinds of topics that you treat in your film documentaries. I don't know I guess because they're thought to be controversial or they sometimes don't turn out to be as controversial as people think. It's also because the networks both radio and television networks are more profit oriented and they have to reach a larger audience so they get a sponsor that will pay them you know money can be made. And it's not that I don't want to make money on these films but I'm content just to make the cost of the films back in order to make the film the way I want to make it and I don't have to be concerned with whether a one sponsor or another is going to like the film or whether it's going to offend one group of people or another. We're drawing to the end of our program something that has occurred to me as I've talked with you in the past half hour is how much money it costs to produce a film like this one usually gets the impression that Hollywood films are multibillion dollar ventures. Obviously this is the kind of film you produce is not but it must cost still quite a bit of money. Yeah it cost somewhere between 50 and 70 thousand dollars. For each of these
rooms which is still a lot of money but not much. When you compare it to what Hollywood films where do you get financial backing like undertaking I get financial backing from foundations in corporation public broadcasting or public broadcasting where. Various aspects of educational television. If a person didn't have this kind of money then he wouldn't be able to get into this kind of work. Depends most filmmakers I know that started same way I did. Do you wing it you do it with credit and you borrow film and borrow equipment to the point where you can get the financed and do it in a more sound basis. But I mean that when I say cost that amount of money that means people get paid but when I first started doing it. You do it you still do it for the love of you as you get older you have to get paid a little more. I wonder if we could tie in your filmmaking activities. Here at the very end of the program to the fact that you are a lawyer and also the fact that you don't make your living from producing films but are associated with an organization called
costy organization for social and technological innovations AAs quite a title. Yeah what's one we don't generally admit to we just generally call it OSS to see why or what is the goal of this organization with a title like that with the goal of the organization is very different from the title. The goal of the organization is simply to work on various aspects of urban and rural problems hoping to bring about some further enlightenment or a change in those areas where it's possible to do it. But it's consists of sociologists and lawyers and people interested in technology. Those of experience with health problems education community organization advocacy planning of one thing sort or another who pull their respective talents to work together on these problems and the film projects are one aspect that. We've been talking in the past 30 minutes with a man who like this organization oste hopes to shed a little light on society. He uses films cellular and
his name is Fred Weisman and Fred thank you very much for coming on the program. The room wasn't a finger. Rest on the. Program. Do not necessarily represent those of the program holders. Those of our favorite. Northeastern University for this station. Questions I asked were merely the moderator's method of presenting many sides of today's. Northeastern University has brought you Frederick Wiseman producer director of the film and to pick up Holly Hughes high school. Law and Order. And hospital. Based program. Frederick Wiseman. The film and the city. Your program host has been just as our major director department of radio production. Urban confrontationist produced for the division of instructional communications at the nation's largest private university. Northeastern University. Comments on this program
- Urban Confrontation
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- Urban Confrontation is an analysis of the continuing crises facing 20th century man in the American city, covering issues such as campus riots, assassinations, the internal disintegration of cities, and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. Produced for the Office of Educational Resources at the Communications Center of the nations largest private university, Northeastern University.
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Producing Organization: Northeastern University (Boston, Mass.)
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