Along with Emile de Antonio, Frederick Wiseman is one of the godfathers of documentary cinema, having established the standard for what is now known as "observational" or "objective" documentary film-making. But unlike most documentary filmmakers, Wiseman's films all focus on institutions. His subjects are whole organisations, and his drama is derived from simply observing the various cogs and people at work within these societal machines. High schools, welfare offices, zoos, hospitals, ballet groups, army basic training camps, small towns, ICBM bases and business corporations are just some of the institutions he's tackled.
Like Robert Altman's "The Company", Frederick Wiseman's "Ballet" chronicles the workings of a prestigious ballet school, in this case the American Ballet Theatre. Wiseman's camera coolly observes the mechanics of this institution, focusing on the endless rehearsals, the banal business transactions, the complex choreography and daily performances of the dancers, instructors, businessmen, managers and set designers who make up the Theatre.
Wiseman and his tiny film-crew film these men and women at work and at play, following them into private meetings, lounges, changing rooms, rehearsal rooms, amusement parks and bars. The end result is a vast canvas, which when put together with all of Wiseman's other documentaries, creates a human panorama akin to Balzak. This is our post industrial world, the late 20th/early 21st century rendered, in all its expansiveness, in all its complexity, with humility by a little man and a camera.
The importance of Wiseman is that he dares to show, not only how much humanity has accomplished, but to what extent we've become slaves to the institutions, facilities, jobs and social structures that we inhabit. Whilst most films centre on a hero or heroes scheming to overcome some obstacle or complete some quest, Wiseman's world is one in which forces continuously exert pressure on the individual, shaping how he thinks and behaves. To Wiseman, society is a complex lattice of overlapping social structures and institutions and mankind is both the God who creates them, and the pawn who succumbs to the tides of their walls. The lithe ballet dancer is a thing of beauty, but it is encased within its own little ecosystem within an ecosystem. An ecosystem which the dancer for all his mastery and individual bodily control can not survive without.
And this juxtaposition (man as God/man as pawn) permeates Wiseman's entire filmography. Though touted as a kind of "anthropological" director or a film-maker concerned about "studying institutions", Wiseman's real aim is to highlight the follies and absurdity of human nature. Think the monkeys masturbating in "Primate", the city street-sweepers who sweep snow with futility during a blizzard because "that's their job", the suburban white kids being shown how to put a condom on a giant black dildo in "High School" or the doctors so desensitised to death that they joke about their vegetable patients. This is black comedy at its darkest, its most absurd, its most surreal.
8.9/10 Wiseman's films need to be viewed in tandem before they start revealing their own patterns, their own rhymes and rhythms. Watch how "Ballet" mirrors "Le Dance", "Zoo" mirrors "Primate", "Basic Training" mirrors "Missile", "High School's 1 and 2" echo his work in "Juvenile Court" and "Public Housing". Likewise, observe how "Hospital" mirrors "Near Death" and "Deaf" mirrors "Blind". This is not a film-maker jumping randomly from institution to institution, this is a human portrait on a grand scale.
Worth one viewing. Like most of Wiseman's later work, this is too long, but bare in mind that these films are intended for university or school halls, and are often shown in 1 hour blocks.
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