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Museum of Modern Art to Present Frederick Wiseman Retrospective
'Aspen', (1991). USA. Directed, produced, and edited by Frederick Wiseman. Courtesy: Zipporah Films.
NEW YORK, NY.- To celebrate the recent acquisition of 36 newly struck prints of films by Frederick Wiseman (American, b. 1930), The Museum of Modern Art presents a comprehensive retrospective of the director’s work, from January 20 through December 31, 2010. Featuring three to four films each month, this yearlong survey opens on January 20, when Frederick Wiseman introduces 'Basic Training', (1971), followed by an onstage conversation. The exhibition spans his entire career, from 'Titicut Follies', (1967) to his two most recent projects, 'La Danse—The Paris Opera Ballet', (2009) and his forthcoming 'Boxing Gym', (2010). Frederick Wiseman is organized by Joshua Siegel, Associate Curator, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art.

For more than four decades, Wiseman has used a lightweight 16mm camera and portable sound equipment to study human behavior in all its contradictory and unpredictable manifestations, particularly in institutional or regimented situations in which authority creates an imbalance of power, or democracy is at work. Like the great novelists of the nineteenth century, Wiseman combines epic narrative with intimate portraiture. His films comprise a grand panorama of American life (and, more recently, the cultural life of Paris)—a kind of modern-day comédie humaine that never loses its vitality or its currency.

Often caustically funny—and always urgent and vexing—Wiseman’s films have centered on certain abiding themes: the military ('Basic Training'; 'Sinai Field Mission', 1978; 'Manoeuvre', 1979; and 'Missile', 1987); the relationship between humans and animals ('Primate', 1974; 'Meat', 1976; 'Racetrack', 1985; and 'Zoo', 1993); education ('High School', 1968; 'Blind', 1986; 'Deaf', 1986; 'Multi-Handicapped', 1986; and 'High School II', 1994); medicine ('Hospital', 1969; and 'Near Death', 1989); law and order ('Law & Order', 1969; 'Juvenile Court', 1973; 'Domestic Violence 1', 2001; 'Domestic Violence 2', 2002; and 'State Legislature', 2006); the arts ('Ballet', 1995; 'La Comédie-Française', 1996; and 'La Danse—The Paris Opera Ballet'); fashion ('Model', 1980; and 'The Store', 1983); religion and faith ('Essene', 1972); and sports and leisure ('Racetrack', 1985; 'Central Park', 1989; 'Aspen', 1991; and his forthcoming 'Boxing Gym').

Wiseman’s debut film, 'Titicut Follies', is a landmark of nonfiction cinema, exposing the horrifying conditions at a state prison hospital for the criminally insane. It is still the only ever to have been censored by a U.S. court for reasons other than national security or obscenity. His absurdist masterpiece 'Welfare' (1975) is a purgatorio of crippling bureaucracy that culminates in one man’s unforgettable monologue about "the whole rigmarole of forms—papers, papers, papers" (unsurprisingly, Wiseman would later adapt Welfare into an opera). 'Belfast, Maine', (1999) is his poignant study of a New England port town that has fallen on hard times—a portrait of lobstermen and factory workers, shop owners and city officials, doctors, judges, and teachers—and a profound meditation on American resiliency, faith, and industry.

Wiseman’s 'La Dernière Lettre', (The Last Letter) (2002) is based on an epistolary chapter from 'Life and Fate', the posthumously published epic novel by the Soviet writer Vasily Grossman. Filmed on a stark and shadowy French stage to evoke a Nazi-occupied Ukrainian ghetto in 1941, the film centers on Catherine Samie’s devastating performance as Anna Semionova, a physician who dictates one final letter to her son before facing certain death.

Though Wiseman approaches his subjects—doctors, ballet dancers, soldiers, students, welfare recipients, factory workers, fashion models, politicians, zookeepers, victims of domestic violence, Benedictine monks, the terminally ill—with a minimum of intrusion or influence, he brings a sensitive but trustworthy eye, a lawyer’s penetrating skepticism, and the dramatic impulses of a storyteller to arrive at what Eugène Ionesco, one of his favorite playwrights, called an "imaginative truth."

The Museum of Modern Art | Frederick Wiseman Retrospective | Joshua Siegel |


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