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Frederick Wiseman, "Punky's Dilemma", Substack's controversy, and one thing on Silent Movie Gifs and Rock in Latin America
And Here’s To You, Mr. Wiseman
ZACH: After months of isolation due to Covid-19, I started to notice a sharp decline in the quality of the dialogue in the screenplays I’m always working on. This was devastating. Since the age of seventeen, when I wrote my first feature, and in the nineteen years since, I’ve come face to face with every form of writer’s block one could imagine… but never dialogue. Whenever my story, structure, scenework, or action lines weren’t working, dialogue was always there to pull me out of the funk. I’d just let my characters talk and talk and talk in my head, and eventually, I would always find my way out of whatever was troubling my writing. Now, the dialogue itself was broken -- my fixer needed a fix.
I stopped writing for a few weeks and turned to the movies I love for help. Nothing worked. Then, over a great cup of coffee one morning, I noticed that the public library streaming service, Kanopy, had uploaded a massive collection of films by Frederick Wiseman, who I would argue -- at age 90 -- is the greatest editor of cinema still working today. This was the equivalent of Christmas morning for me.
Before Kanopy offered up this gift, I had only seen four of his documentaries and his debut film, Titicut Follies (1967). Five films might sound like I already had a pretty good sample size of the guy’s work -- but Wiseman has made a lot of films. A LOT. In fact, if you google “How many films does Frederick Wiseman have” you get this:
While “at least 5” is true enough, his filmography looks a little more like this:
Decade after decade, film after film. The man has steadily been making them for nearly sixty years and counting -- and in 2020, he released one of the best films of the year with his documentary City Hall. With Oscar nominations less than two weeks away, I would like to go on record that City Hall deserves to be nominated for best picture, best documentary, and most certainly best editing. Not only was City Hall ignored, but Wiseman has received zero Academy Award nominations over his sprawling career. He did receive an honorary Oscar in 2016 -- and just think about that for a second. How many filmmakers release a masterpiece four years after they receive an honorary Oscar?
City Hall (2020 trailer):
I was going to spend this paragraph explaining the basic process of Wiseman’s approach to documentary filmmaking, but during my research, I stumbled upon a fantastic video of film critic A.O. Scott explaining “How To Watch A Frederick Wiseman Movie” that covers everything I would say, better, and with visual examples:
Back to Kanopy. The service only allows for five plays a month, and I had already burned through three plays, so the question of which Wisemans I would choose was excruciating. His catalogue is a staggering collection of diverse worlds he’s entered, observed, and sculpted for us. Do I spend hours in Aspen, CO? At a boxing Gym? The New York Public Library? Panama Canal? The Paris Opera Ballet? No matter where he takes you, you’ll see the world through Wiseman’s eyes as he lovingly preserves and documents every aspect of humanity and space he can find. It’s my opinion that he makes movies this way because he’s driven by an absolute, nonjudgmental love for life and for humans.
Wiseman loves life and humans… I like old department stores. I made my choice. My first viewing would be The Store (1983):
THE STORE is a film about the main Neiman-Marcus store and corporate headquarters in Dallas. The sequences in the film include the selection, presentation, marketing, pricing, advertising and selling of a vast array of consumer products including designer clothes and furs, jewelry, perfumes, shoes, electronic products, sportswear, china and porcelain and many other goods. The internal management and organizational aspects of a large corporation are shown, i.e., sales meetings, development of marketing and advertising strategies, training, personnel practices and sales techniques.
Less than four minutes into this documentary, I was greeted with one of my favorite moments in cinematic history: department store employees engaging in hand, face, and neck exercises before their shift… a bizarre ballet of humanity I’ve never seen before. Minutes later, a coat salesman (my favorite person to observe/study in The Store) explains to a customer the difference between sable jackets, and almost every sentence out of his mouth has this amazing rhythm, word choice, and structure, the kind that only one specific human could have.
These are real people speaking real words so unique and authentic that it made me feel the cogs in my brain start to spin, like an old factory coming to life. I pressed pause and bolted back into the screenplay that had been stumping me. My steady hand for film dialogue had returned. Wiseman had saved my writing with an artistic document released thirty-seven years prior to that moment. For me… that’s the true power of cinema -- to reach out through time and affect another with artistic truth without ever meeting the recipient of the gift.
The second documentary I watched was Monrovia, Indiana (2018):
MONROVIA, INDIANA explores a small town in rural, mid-America and illustrates how values like community service, duty, spiritual life, generosity and authenticity are formed, experienced and lived along with conflicting stereotypes. The film gives a complex and nuanced view of daily life in Monrovia and provides some understanding of a way of life whose influence and force have not always been recognized or understood in the big cities on the east and west coasts of America and in other countries.
This film unlocked two truths for me.
Wiseman’s filmography needs to be separated into two categories. He is known (and I had known or labeled him as such for most of my life) as a documentary filmmaker who focuses on institutions, social issues, and politics. Films like Titicut Follies, Hospital, Welfare, Domestic Abuse, Public Housing, City Hall, and many others hit you like a ton of bricks because they combine Wiseman’s nonjudgmental style of filmmaking with subjects that would rattle the emotions of most humans. I love these films and find them to be extremely powerful… but it’s the second Wiseman category that I just discovered within the last year that I will treasure forever. I call them “Wiseman Place Films.” Be it a department store in the 80s / Aspen, CO / Monrovia, IN / Belfast, ME / a racetrack… Wiseman crafts his meticulous observations into delightful documentaries of a single place and time. If you’re willing to press play and let go, Wiseman will take you there. With Wiseman Place Films like Monrovia or Belfast, you literally feel like you’ve walked into the city limits of this small town and are taken up with the wind… carried to a fishing boat to observe for a bit -- and then, with a few deft exterior cuts, taken into a bakery, a church, a school, and eventually the entire town. At the end, you leave with the feeling that you visited like an unseen spirit, and witnessed true humanity untouched.
I spent the majority of the last decade working at music venues and bars. I didn’t realize the impact these spaces had on my writing until I discovered these Wiseman Place Films. His documentaries helped me realize that my writing was fueled by the observation of these places and the humans who occupied them. I’ve always been fascinated by how a room could sound and feel different in the empty hours before the venue opened, how it felt with a few people mulling around, and how the entire space took on an entirely new aura with hundreds of people filling it. The realization I received from Wiseman is that humans, no matter who they are, add a unique energy to a space. They redefine it without acknowledgement, and become a part of it. There’s something I like about that, something equalizing. We all get to make an impact, or at least an imprint.
When I’m writing about film for this newsletter, my goal isn’t to simply claim that a filmmaker is underrated or under-appreciated in order to pass off some sort of complaint against modern tastes, or bitterness about award show recognition. Rather, I would like to offer up requests to those who love cinema. For Wiseman, I ask you to do the following (all FREE):
Follow Frederick Wiseman on Twitter. Maybe the greatest case that artists shouldn’t concern themselves with social media accolades is the fact that Wiseman, one of the most important filmmakers of all-time, has just 2,256 Twitter followers as of writing this. That’s absolutely crazy to me, but it offers some reassurance that true art has little to do with temporary online fame, or “going viral.” A follow for Wiseman is just a simple way to keep track of his projects. If you end up liking his work, who better to spread the word about than a once-in-a-lifetime artist whose entire career reflects love and respect for this world and the humans who occupy it.
Get Kanopy (it’s free for anyone who has a library card) and watch The Store (1983) & Belfast, Maine (1999). The Store is two hours long and Belfast is a little over four hours long, so it probably sounds like a tall ask -- but consider that Wiseman has dedicated seven decades to discovering his truth in cinema. Consider that Wiseman continues to release important pieces of art at the age of ninety, and that he never created them for accolades or fame. Six hours and a Twitter follow is the least film lovers could do to honor Wiseman’s work.
Talking about a Track:
HANK: When I was 15, I was enrolled in a summer camp that I was way too old for. Sure, the camp said that they took campers from the ages of 9 to 15, but the truth was that the next oldest kid was like 12. We didn’t have much in common.
The camp was in Louisville, so I got to live with my grandparents and took advantage of this to steal a 3 cd set of Simon and Garfunkel’s discography. In the middle of the steambath that is a summer along the Ohio River, I had the headphones of my discman attached to my ears every time I wasn’t asked to play Peter in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
Like most god fearing white people, we had a copy of Simon and Garfunkel’s Live in Central Park at home (it that or Frampton Comes Alive), but none of the studio recordings. So, I was already well acquainted with the grandiosity and saccharine that the duo was known for, but I didn’t know some of the quirkier, more interesting corners like “Bleeker Street” or “Punky’s Dilemma.”
“Punky’s Dilemma” was written for the scene in The Graduate where Ben is in the pool. Having never seen The Graduate at that point in my life, my first thought was probably: “God these people were on drugs!” The wack-a-doodle lyrics (“Wish I was an English muffin / 'Bout to make the most out of a toaster”) are somewhere between Monty Python and Dada. The production on the track is totally over the top. Art Garfunkel sounds like he’s singing on a moving train for most of the song. And there’s comedic background sound effects most notably a guy falling down the stairs. This is a track that has all the bells and a whistle solo.
I can say that listening to that discography over and over was a really important listening experience for me. I’m certain that my admiration for Simon and Garfunkel has go down since then, but the act of repetitive listening picking up new strands of a song or whole songs which seem to be atypical of an act’s whole is so rewarding. Too often, we equate originality with being one thing, when sometimes it’s when that one thing jumps the shark that what you do as a whole becomes far more interesting.
Et tu, Substack?
HANK: This week’s “column” (what we’re calling this mid-size piece with more timely thoughts) has to do with how you’re reading this -- through Substack. The platform has seen some notable departures recently over tensions around the site's expansion. The best overview is here. It’s a complex topic and not one that should be boiled down, so of course I’m gonna try to do that. The question is about who is profiting from this site’s increased footprint (in the case that people like Judy Doyle, a writer who had been on the platform since 2018) the charge is that Substack has brought in a number of “big name” folks who are also and here I’m quoting from Doyle: “people who actively hate trans people and women, argue ceaselessly against our civil rights, and in many cases, have a public history of directly, viciously abusing trans people and/or cis women in their industry.” Essentially, the charge is that folk like Doyle have helped make this site what it is and the site is turning around and paying literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to said “people who actively hate trans people.” And cue the corporate bullshit that made the whole thing just worse.
To be honest, I found out about the goings on when Viking’s Choice announced he was leaving the platform earlier this week. And then, Foxy Digitalis decided to move as well. It was somehow appropriate that this would follow me texting Zach to say “hey we made the right choice, Patti Smith is on Substack now!”
One of the reasons that we chose Substack was the very tension that the site seems to be dealing with now, which is how to allow, for lack of a better term, free expression, while also not paying folks like employees with benefits. Just before we “relaunched,” in fact, Zach asked me if I wanted to move to Twitter’s Substack competitor. And, we decided to stick here.
We’re only a month and a half into this experiment and something like this really rattles going forward on this site. We don’t currently have plans to leave, but as Kara Swisher points out, these moderation, scale, and structural issues aren’t going away.
ZACH: Silent Movie GIFs
My favorite twitter account has to be Silent Movie GIFs. It just makes too much sense… silent films are perfect for GIFs. Without fail, if I’m scrolling through my Twitter feed and see this weird film debate or this crazy declaration… Silent Movie GIFs is always there with a post that either makes me smile or marvel at the creative cleverness of these early filmmakers.
HANK: Rompan Todo (Break it All): The History of Rock in Latin America on Netflix
Netflix’s 6 part series on the history of rock in Latin America is a wild ride. If you don’t know the names Charly Garcia, Café Tacvba, Aterciopelados, or Soda Stereo, this is a must watch. Music, like all culture, simultaneously reflects and creates power. Don’t believe me? You might find it interesting that the biggest US army base in the UK in the 1950s was near Liverpool where four young British lads got immersed in R&B from the base’s radio station and went on to make their own brand of it under the name, The Beatles. While this documentary purports to show the whole history of rock in Latin America, the main “characters” if you will are México and Argentina. And while it would be great to hear more about the psych scene in Peru and Chile or something at all about music in Bolivia and Guatemala, I’m making the recommendation for this because it’s such a great primer not only on what music in Latin America is, but also how it moved with society and politics. In truth, the real protagonist an Argentine musical wizard, genius, right-place-at-the-right-time (who knows), Gustavo Santaolalla, who continually turns up from being in the semi-monastic psych group Arco Iris to producing Café Tacvba and Julieta Venegas. This documentary is a monument to his influence but also to the wealth of music from our neighboring Americans.