Barry Grant wrote the book on Frederick Wiseman more than three decades ago. Now, in his retirement, he has written it again.
The Professor Emeritus in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film first published Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman in 1990. It was his first authored book, diving into the work of a celebrated but rarely screened filmmaker.
“When I was in graduate school and studying film, at which point Wiseman only had about four or five films to his credit, I saw his films and I thought they were wholly unique, doing something with documentary cinema that nobody else was doing,” says Grant. “He had discovered an entirely new form of observational cinema.”
This month, Columbia University Press released Grant’s revised and expanded edition to address more than twenty films since released by Wiseman, who is now widely recognized as “the master American documentary filmmaker,” according to Grant.
“Since the first edition, the position of Wiseman in culture has changed drastically,” he says, in part because Wiseman’s films are much more widely available to watch now — including through the Brock University Library on Kanopy.
But Brock students have long studied at least one of Wiseman’s best known films, the 1968 documentary High School, which Grant included on the syllabus each year when he taught the program’s Introduction to Film Studies course before his retirement.
“That was a large course with 400 students in it, most of whom were not Film Studies majors, and I always showed Wiseman’s High School because the high school experience was one so many of those students had in common, so they could relate to that film,” he says. “Discussion in seminar afterward was always particularly animated as students would either accept what the film was suggesting about the failures of public school education and see it as really reflecting their experience — or not.”
Grant’s methods for teaching film and encouraging students to use tools to be critical and draw their own conclusions mirror Wiseman’s approach to the spectator of his films.
“My approach to teaching film has always been to provide models and the tools for the analysis and the interpretation and the understanding of what films are saying, and Wiseman does the same thing,” he says. “He has said that he doesn’t like being didactic and that spectators have to struggle by looking at the screen and trying to figure out what is being said — the films are known for providing no voice-over explanations, no insert titles to provide context, no talking heads to guide us through what we are seeing.”
Voyages of Discovery, which was and remains the only book that examines Wiseman’s complete filmography as cinema, treats the films in thematic groups to help track the arc of Wiseman’s career.
Grant says that the most recent films, many of which fall into the final thematic group, reflect a significant shift that was “only intimated” at the beginning of Wiseman’s artistic journey, which includes theatre and fiction films as well as documentaries.
“He has moved from a kind of muckracking intent with exposés to a more Whitmanesque investigation of what democracy is, and an almost loving embrace of difference and diversity,” says Grant. “He has become much more political than he was at first.”