On the one hand, you have the Panamians, but Frederick Wiseman shows them as the Americans see them: from a distance. They are poor and of no particular interest to them even if Panama is ... See full summary »
In my entry on "Hospital", I discussed the ethical issues surrounding Wiseman's use of comedy to reflect a certain viewpoint. In that entry I mentioned a seen in which hospital workers are shown dealing with a young man who can't stop vomiting.
Another more complex and more disturbing case of Wiseman using comedy to illustrate a point is in "Basic Training", Wiseman's film of a U.S Army training center in Fort Knox, Kentucky. When we first see Private Hickman, he is unable to keep in step during drill practice, while the drill Sargent berates him. This scene is funny, but when we next see Hickman, he has unsuccessfully tried to kill himself by taking too many sleeping pills. Then we see him in council with the army Chaplain, who seems to completely ignore Hickman when the Private tries to confide in him. Instead the Chaplain accuses Hickman of "not really trying to get to the top." The last time we see Hickman, he is being used in a demonstration of how to sneak up behind an enemy and kill him by strangling him with his helmet strap. What starts out as being awkwardly funny ends up being a painfully sad example of the degrading nature of the military.
Is Hickman being exploited, or is it necessary to show his pain in order to illustrated the sometimes harsh nature of the Army? Even if we are meant to sympathize with Hickman, are we seeing too much? It gets to be horribly depressing, even though it makes its point strongly and clearly. Now we are back to the question of whether it is right for Wiseman to inject his own opinion into the film. It should be said that Basic Training shows examples of new recruits being successfully trained, but is Wiseman being ironic? After seeing Hickman, is it possible to feel good about any other soldier being integrated into a system that could easily destroy a person's spirit? Perhaps not, but should Wiseman be faulted for the fact that by showing all sides, the side that shows the army at its most questionable stands out in our memory and affects our judgment of the other scenes? Is that not our own feelings about human worth taking over?
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