Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, the film theorist and historian, has graciously agreed to do four short essays on some of her favorite films for this site, and we’re happy to present them to you now.
“Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital (1970) is one of the most brutal exposés of the American health system ever made, and perhaps the most shocking thing is that since the film was made, matters haven’t improved much at all. Using his trademark “never apologize, never explain” hands off camera style, in which no narration is allowed to intrude on the image, and Wiseman essentially keeps filming and filming even when “nothing” seems to be happening, Hospital emerges as a ringing indictment of a system that is collapsing under its own weight, where the rich get measurably better care than the poor, and where a distant and uncaring bureaucracy controls the actions of everyone involved. The doctors and nurses try to attend the multitude of patients, but are seemingly overwhelmed; the incoming wave of supplicants never strops.
Never exhibited commercially in theatres, Hospital was originally commissioned by PBS, and won two Emmys, in addition to garnering a rave review from film critic Pauline Kael in The New Yorker. Wiseman’s central sympathy here, as in most of his films, is with the poor, the disadvantaged, the ones who flock to the emergency room seeking help that sometimes never arrives.
Wiseman, born in 1930 in Boston, originally trained to be a lawyer, and initially pursed that career. Fascinated with the possibilities of cinema, however, Wiseman broke into film by producing director Shirley Clarke’s fiction film The Cool World (1963), covering the activities of teenage gangs in New York. Convinced that reality was more interesting than anything staged, Wiseman soon began making 16mm black and white documentaries, creating as his first film the groundbreaking film Titicut Follies (1967), which chronicled the crumbling infrastructure of a Massachusetts mental hospital with such unsparing ferocity that the film was soon barred from public screenings until a 1993 court order overturned the initial ban.
Similarly, Hospital is set in the operating room, emergency ward and outpatient clinics of New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital. The hospital sees it all; victims of violence, drug overdoses, elderly patients at a loss to help themselves because of age or infirmity. Wiseman’s camera manages, in the midst of chaos, to become invisible simply by virtue of its omnipresence; and inasmuch as Wiseman functions as the producer, director and editor on all his films, the end result in Hospital is a deeply personal document of human suffering and redemption.
Wiseman typically shoots more than 100 hours of material for the documentaries he makes, and then discovers the rhythm of the material in the editing room. In some of his films, he favors fast cutting; but in most films, long takes predominate, in which the viewer is required to join in the work of “directing” the film, finding things out in a step-by-step fashion as an actual eyewitness observer would.
Wiseman wants us to experience the events he’s documenting without undue mediation, as any observant bystander would. With a list of more than forty films in his canon, Wiseman is perhaps the preeminent documentary filmmaker working today.” — Gwendolyn Audrey Foster