Reviews

  • Nov 17, 2014

    Frederick Wiseman's sprawling 3-hour look at the Ida B. Wells public housing estate in Chicago gets into a rhythm all its own (due to Wiseman's expert editing). Basically, we see Ozu-like moments of cars or people passing through the complex, then a cut to a particular representative episode in the lives of the people who live in or visit public housing. It is interesting to speculate about how Wiseman chose these episodes and how he ordered them within the film. For example, we do see the many problems that residents face: crime, drugs, insect and rat infestations, teen pregnancies, and poverty. Some of these issues arise in passing and some are shown more directly, as when a court-appointed diagnostician asks one resident some incredibly personal questions about his history with drugs and alcohol. In keeping with the themes of some of Wiseman's other movies, the residents often seem to be subjected to some fairly heavy-handed control by authorities, particularly the police who shake down numerous residents, seemingly without need for much justification. However, the control also appears more benignly in the form of some rather paternalistic (though benevolent) programs to assist residents - to avoid unwanted pregnancies, start their own businesses, find meaningful employment, and the like. Although his films are rarely directive (they are without narration or overt structure), Wiseman is even less emphatic here than usual. He doesn't seem to be hitting any themes particularly hard (unlike in Welfare or High School, for example) and the examples of paternalistic control are mixed with episodes that reveal residents to be self-empowered, aiming to fight their own battles (often against bureaucracy) and to improve the moral character of their community (particularly by trying to involve positive male role models in the lives of kids). In fact, despite the drugs, poverty, and general down-and-out feeling of the environment, one might think that Wiseman feels more optimistic about the future in this film. The episodes showing empowerment seem to be placed in the second half of the film, perhaps showing them to be a possible solution to the problems shown earlier. He closes with a motivational address from an ex-NBA basketball player, now working for Housing and Urban Development who is trying to empower the residents to work through the system by appealing to the ways in which minority people have succeeded (including to high levels in the Clinton administration). Although it could be assumed that these inspiring words might go nowhere when people are mired in the day-to-day issues of tough lives, I'm not quite sure Wiseman sees it that way. He never really shows anyone doing bad things (which could, I guess, be unethical) but only people trying to cope with their problematic reality. In any event, Wiseman portrays the subject of public housing in a nuanced and complex way - showing him to be one of the best humanistic documentarians we have.

    Frederick Wiseman's sprawling 3-hour look at the Ida B. Wells public housing estate in Chicago gets into a rhythm all its own (due to Wiseman's expert editing). Basically, we see Ozu-like moments of cars or people passing through the complex, then a cut to a particular representative episode in the lives of the people who live in or visit public housing. It is interesting to speculate about how Wiseman chose these episodes and how he ordered them within the film. For example, we do see the many problems that residents face: crime, drugs, insect and rat infestations, teen pregnancies, and poverty. Some of these issues arise in passing and some are shown more directly, as when a court-appointed diagnostician asks one resident some incredibly personal questions about his history with drugs and alcohol. In keeping with the themes of some of Wiseman's other movies, the residents often seem to be subjected to some fairly heavy-handed control by authorities, particularly the police who shake down numerous residents, seemingly without need for much justification. However, the control also appears more benignly in the form of some rather paternalistic (though benevolent) programs to assist residents - to avoid unwanted pregnancies, start their own businesses, find meaningful employment, and the like. Although his films are rarely directive (they are without narration or overt structure), Wiseman is even less emphatic here than usual. He doesn't seem to be hitting any themes particularly hard (unlike in Welfare or High School, for example) and the examples of paternalistic control are mixed with episodes that reveal residents to be self-empowered, aiming to fight their own battles (often against bureaucracy) and to improve the moral character of their community (particularly by trying to involve positive male role models in the lives of kids). In fact, despite the drugs, poverty, and general down-and-out feeling of the environment, one might think that Wiseman feels more optimistic about the future in this film. The episodes showing empowerment seem to be placed in the second half of the film, perhaps showing them to be a possible solution to the problems shown earlier. He closes with a motivational address from an ex-NBA basketball player, now working for Housing and Urban Development who is trying to empower the residents to work through the system by appealing to the ways in which minority people have succeeded (including to high levels in the Clinton administration). Although it could be assumed that these inspiring words might go nowhere when people are mired in the day-to-day issues of tough lives, I'm not quite sure Wiseman sees it that way. He never really shows anyone doing bad things (which could, I guess, be unethical) but only people trying to cope with their problematic reality. In any event, Wiseman portrays the subject of public housing in a nuanced and complex way - showing him to be one of the best humanistic documentarians we have.