Gateway Movies: Frederick Wiseman’s Documentary ‘Public Housing’


Gateway Movies offers ways to begin exploring directors, genres and topics in film by examining a few streaming movies.

The documentarian Frederick Wiseman is, in any medium, one of the great chroniclers of American institutions: His films have immersed us in hospitals and schools; his travels have brought him to locations as sprawling as the Panama Canal Zone and as compact as an Austin boxing gym. Even at age 90, after more than 50 years of filmmaking, he hasn’t run out of subjects: His latest film, the Boston-set “City Hall,” opens in virtual cinemas on Oct. 28.

Most of his documentaries can be streamed on Kanopy, a service available through some libraries and universities. But for those who don’t have that access, this month there is a special opportunity to see his film “Public Housing,” first shown in 1997. Anthology Film Archives in New York is streaming it through Nov. 3 as part of a series on housing rights.

“Public Housing”: Rent it on Vimeo through Anthology Film Archives.

Wiseman is one of those directors whose style is so consistent that there is scarcely a wrong place to start. But “Public Housing,” filmed at the Ida B. Wells Homes in Chicago, sits at the intersection of several of his careerlong interests. That makes it an excellent gateway to other Wiseman movies, which, because their subject is nothing less than the building blocks of society, are inevitably interlinked.

In “Public Housing,” the focus on poverty recalls Wiseman’s masterpiece “Welfare.” The ambiguities of the police’s presence at the housing project bring to mind “Law & Order,” his early portrait of Kansas City cops. “Public Housing” also depicts a location and its workings, like “Aspen” or “Belfast, Maine.” A moment of summer joy — a dance party on the block — demonstrates the attention to rhythm and movement that Wiseman has brought to his films on ballet and a Paris cabaret. Even a scene with an exterminator finds an echo in “City Hall.”

Wiseman is commonly grouped with the Maysles brothers, Robert Drew and D.A. Pennebaker, documentarians who pursued a style in which directors wouldn’t interpose themselves with questions. Instead, they simply observed scenes as they unfolded.

But Wiseman takes that mandate to a highly personal, distinctive extreme. In his movies there are no title cards, and Wiseman trusts the viewer to glean any identifications or chronological markers from the context. He allows scenes to play out at great length — the film runs more than three hours — refusing to oversimplify conversations that often cover a range of contradictions. (In the six-hour “Near Death,” which spends time with dying patients at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, such conversations often literally mean the difference between life and death.)

In a quintessential Wiseman scene in “Public Housing,” a man being assessed for what appears to be a drug-treatment program relates a litany of details to a caseworker: His family’s income, such as it is (about $15,000 per year). His lack of health insurance. His history with alcohol and cocaine. What using did to him and his self-respect. That time a man in a drug-related encounter hit him in the head with a bat. And at the end, Wiseman drops a bombshell: Under the rules, the man is technically ineligible for the program.

Although Wiseman’s unobtrusive, observational style might strike some as radically objective, that is absolutely the wrong way to look at his films. On the contrary, each is a pointed, running argument. When he finally cuts away from a scene, the editing pierces like a dagger.

Drawing thematic rather than chronological connections among vignettes, his movies teem with rhymed moments and found metaphors. “Public Housing” has not one but two sequences in which underemployed residents learn about how federal funds are available to pay them to improve the housing project itself, whether by fixing the elevators or helping conserve energy. By the second such scene, the opportunities sound emptier than in the first; promised jobs that never materialize are just one element of a never-ending cycle.

Early on, Wiseman shows us an ice-cream-truck banner that reads “Sunny Day” — a pointed juxtaposition with the grim concrete landscape. By the time the movie ends with the sounds of an ice-cream truck over the closing credits, the phrase has new inflections: We’ve seen how un-sunny the Wells Homes can be, but also, in moments of children playing basketball with a homemade hoop or of men cooking barbecue, glimpsed rays of light.

Wiseman establishes tension between an inflexible bureaucracy and a complex reality in the first speaking scene. At the homes’ resident advisory council office (a location we gather from the sign outside), a woman named Helen Finner (according to her name plate) argues on the phone about getting housing for a young woman with a 1-year-old and no place to stay. “A baby with a baby,” Finner calls her. Units at Wells sit empty, yet for some reason the homeless are told there is a waiting list. “Some rules are made to bend,” Finner says.

The authorities — or at least the police — aren’t always painted as unbending. A midnight watch commander offers protection to a drug addict who fears an assault by dealers; he can sit all night at the station, the official says. Elsewhere, the film races along with another officer in pursuit — only to watch the cop search and aggressively question a man who appears to have done nothing wrong. (Wiseman being Wiseman, he never comments on race, but it may be noteworthy that most if not all of the project’s residents appear to be Black, and the cops largely seem to be as well.)

Even shopping for food comes with red tape: Wiseman spends time in a neighborhood store where residents line up to place orders through bulletproof windows.

On one level, “Public Housing” is about the failures of American society to provide for its most vulnerable. On another, it is a universal portrait of the grind of getting by. Wiseman may be a chronicler of American institutions, but it’s the overwhelming, heartbreaking humanity of his movies that stays with you.



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