ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 1, Number 2 (July 2004)

“The Borders of Our Lives”: Frederick Wiseman, Jean Baudrillard, And The Question of The Documentary

Dr. Alan Cholodenko
(Honorary Fellow, Department of Art History and Theory, University of Sydney, Australia)

The structure of the film is a theory about the events, about the subject matter of the film.1


Yes, we say the things that matter with words that must be said. Can analysis be worthwhile? Is the theater really dead?2

            The films of Frederick Wiseman are always near death, perhaps no more so than now.3 And that puts Wiseman’s work near – “involves” it  with – a body of French theoretical work likewise “near death”, especially the work of Jean Baudrillard. A crucial paradoxical question, one with the most profound ramifications for the way all film is thought, that emerges from this involvement of Wiseman with Baudrillard is: are Wiseman’s documentaries, his “reality-fictions”, not hyperdocumentaries, documenting the collapse of the distinctive opposition between “reality” and “fiction”, documenting thereby the collapse of documentary?

            If Wiseman’s “reality-fictions” do this, then what I am saying, like the “reality-fiction” of Wiseman and the “theory-fiction” of Baudrillard, is itself “reality-fiction”, “theory-fiction” – orbitalized, in a sense describing nothing. For in the impossibility of documentary, in the collapse of meaning, truth, reality, etc., in the evacuation of the guarantees of documentary and discourse, there is no guarantee to document – to testify to – the truth of what I say.

            Another precaution: if I suggest that Wiseman and Baudrillard are the same, that could only be in the sense of their resemblance of non-resemblance, of their not copying each other, of their not working on the basis of each other, nor would I mean to suggest that Wiseman is working on the basis of any other thinker, not even the one with whom his work has the most obvious connections, that is, Michel Foucault. If anything, we are dealing here with relations of analogy and contagion.

            In my Doctoral Thesis,4 I proposed that Wiseman’s films “map” the “Foucauldian” disciplinary regime of the micro-institutions of power/knowledge as Foucault preeminently charts it in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.5 The films reveal how identity is produced within and across such institutions as the prison, high school, barracks, hospital, and monastery. They demonstrate how these institutions interlock, how they have the same personnel using the same training, monitoring, examination and corrective systems to pass on a wide-ranging set of values while ostensibly only training in the knowledges specific to the institution, how they operate together as a normalizing regime whose project is the production of the individual as Subject. The films show that each institution is the site of the others and that any notion of “an inside” of an institution, as well as of an “outside” to the disciplinary system, to the interinstitutional field, is extremely suspect.

            As well, the films know that they too assume a place in (terms of) the disciplinary regime. Taking power, knowledge and intervention as their subjects, they ostensibly seek to avoid impositions and interventions upon the individuals they observe and record. Indeed, in the first version of my dissertation (1982), I tried to elaborate a Foucauldian apparatus of (documentary) cinema, a Panoptic apparatus of surveillance and discipline normalizing the viewing subject through dissymmetrical relations of power/knowledge – a Cinematic Eye of Power6 – an apparatus Wiseman’s films would arguably ostensibly wish to avoid, though whether the films could do so and do do so are quite other matters, matters of considerable complexity indeed.7  My thesis was produced by the involvement of Foucault and Wiseman, a thesis trying to produce the meanings of Wiseman’s work by the mobilizing of systems of meaning, of representation, producing, like the films themselves, an interpretive network which at its borders nevertheless marked something radically different, turning the project on its head. For here lay not production but its reversion, disappearance and death. 

            I am here reminded of a Wiseman comment from 1983 on the impossibility of capturing and classifying reality, of containing the inherent mystery of life: “Everybody’s running around with a butterfly net in their hand trying to capture smaller or larger aspects of it... but the butterfly keeps getting out of the net”.8  This butterfly has come to be a sign for me of what any systematic of production must needs miss, what Foucault’s “mosaic” (arguably the model for the structuration of Wiseman’s films) – this net-like network of institutions, discourses, etc. – must needs miss.9 This butterfly is for me a sign of seduction (literally, to lead astray). And to say this is to mark the involvement for me of Wiseman’s work with that of Baudrillard’s. And it is Wiseman’s film Model that for me marks the turning point in my thinking about Wiseman’s work with regard to Foucault and Baudrillard.

            Baudrillard hypothesizes that after World War Two a cycle in the history, or rather, destiny, of the world was completed. Our world is for him one in which the polarities heretofore sustaining meaning and the grand referentials of Western culture have been volatilized in the mass media, including film but especially television, which have installed a new order: hyperreality. Hyperreality is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality. The logic of the model is the logic of simulacra. Film is a simulation system, simulating and doubling the world, one of our mass media which have reanimated the world in their image. Film, including documentary, remodels the world, artificially resurrecting the real, the social, truth, meaning, the subject, origin, etc., as lost referentials, as special effects, like the “Tasaday” – simulacra.10 Simulation marks the reversion and death sentence of every referential. “The engendering and short-circuiting of fact by its model”, Baudrillard writes, “ what each time allows for all the possible interpretations, even the most contradictory – all are true, in the sense that their truth is exchangeable, in the image of the models from which they proceed, in a generalised cycle”.11

            Thus, in the hyperreal, models of analysis and interpretation – indeed theories – are in orbit around each other. It is a world defactualized, a world of the facticiousness of fact, which is exactly what simulation is.12 In such a world, the object of analysis hyperconforms, on Baudrillard’s model of the referendum and the mass, to the questions put to it, analogous to the idea of the pure projection in which the mirror returns to sender exactly the message sent it, as the fact coincides with the model that generates it.

            I propose that Wiseman’s work, like Baudrillard’s, takes up a complex and ambiguous place in the so-called “crisis of representation”, of the evacuation of those authenticating guarantees which supposedly shine forth from the sign, in the crisis of the reality-principle, therefore of the subject, whose interiority is evacuated by the simulacrum from representation.13 As Baudrillard notes, “Whereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum”.14

            I postulate that Wiseman’s films as simulacra are not only fatal to what they image and reference – the social, power/knowledge, indeed all that Baudrillard characterizes as of the order of the real, including all the distinctive oppositions sustaining meaning, including subject/object – but are fatal to themselves, therefore to documentary. The fatal must be fatal to itself, or it is not fatal. Arguably, Wiseman’s films hyperconform to the models they show us the better to perfect and annihilate those models, as well as themselves. Arguably, with each additional Wiseman film not only are power, the social, etc., shown to be simulacra and increasingly neutralized thereby, so too are meaning, truth, subjectivity, etc., shown to be models, likewise winking out – all that would be of the order of the real in the process of its disappearing, a process “in” Wiseman’s work doubling the process at work “outside” in the social.  And as it proceeds, Wiseman’s work becomes not only increasingly like what is “happening outside” and what is “outside” itself but increasingly like what is “happening inside” itself and what is “inside” itself, more and more obviously simulacral, a model, thereby increasingly (like) itself in the process of disappearing. Arguably, in declaring his work is becoming increasingly abstract, Wiseman figures such a process of modeling therein.

            This fatality to Wiseman’s films is also a fatality for their analysis and interpretation. Not only do the films hyperconform to the real, the social, that they simulate, they hyperconform to the interpretations of viewers and analysts, in a manner analogous to Baudrillard’s description of the referendum as model. Wiseman’s films are like Woody Allen’s Zelig, which anticipates and, as Baudrillard declares, “leads astray all possible interpretations”.15

            In regard to Model, Wiseman says, “Model was dead center in what I'm all about because it has to do with how images are created”.16 In his turn, Baudrillard invokes the advent of the hyperreal with Elias Canetti’s “dead center”, “dead point”, “blind spot”, past which reality has been left behind and we have entered alive into the model, into simulation, into the image.17 And in his The Evil Demon of Images,  Baudrillard approaches film, TV, and mass media in terms of the play of that evil demon, of the diabolical conformity of the image – of its contamination of reality, modelling it, seducing it, “telescoping” into and short-circuiting it, appropriating and anticipating it to the point where reality no longer has time to be produced as such for Baudrillard – the Zelig principle – which is I suggest in play in Wiseman’s work; and it is Model that brings it “dead center”.18

            It is the principle of fatality, of seduction, with which Baudrillard seduces Foucault’s work, hypothesizing in Forget Foucault not only that Foucault’s model of power as production is perfect, therefore already pure and empty – at once fulfilled and annihilated in its hyperrealization through simulation, what would be the hyperrealization through simulation of Foucault’s disciplinary regime, its pure and empty form, everywhere and nowhere at the same time – but also that Foucault’s model in no way accounts for power’s own “blind spot”, its reversion, its undoing, its seduction.19

            Such a challenge to Foucault I signaled in my Ph.D. in suggesting that Model issues a challenge to Essene, declaring itself to be Wiseman’s model film, the film/model which models Wiseman’s films. Model is a film which conflates models (the world of modelling) and the model (plan, pattern, etc.) to form a metaphor for the social, for the film’s relationship to that world and for itself and its relationship to Wiseman’s other films. For me what Model shows is that power, like value, the social, etc., has been replaced by the Look, the Image, the Model of power in the world.

            After Model, I could hypothesize that Wiseman’s films map an increasing shift from film as representation to film as simulation. For me, it is Model that marks the turn of Wiseman’s films from representation (and production) to simulation (and reproduction), from history and the system of objects to the destiny of objects, destiny of the Object, that crossing of the border from reality to hyperreality, a turn, a crossing, not only always already made but after Model for me retrospectively already in evidence in and from Wiseman’s first film, Titicut Follies, and increasingly in evidence in the simulations in succeeding films, especially the space flight simulations of High School and Primate, Primate’s simulation of man by monkey, the simulation of America in Canal Zone and the simulation war games of Manoeuvre, as well as in the pervasive indetermining effects of the mass media in Wiseman’s work.20

            Model centers” itself for me in Andy Warhol, who makes an inexplicable appearance in the middle of the film.21 Including in so doing, the film arguably declares a new agenda in which the mass media and the/its image have superceded the Foucauldian disciplinary institutions’ role of installing the normative ideal. If TV now sets the agenda for the real, then TV will come to indetermine the nice distinctions upon which Wiseman ostensibly wants his film practice to rest. Arguably, Wiseman’s films are already in a sense modeled on TV. They are (increasingly) cool, not only in their ’60s Popist sensibility, their playing out of the disappearance of documentary as art, but in their relation to TV and the theories of Baudrillard’s precursor, Marshall McLuhan, whose slogan, “the medium is the message”, is for Baudrillard the watchword of the contemporary world. Not only are Wiseman’s films sponsored by TV and premiere on TV, they are in a sense made for TV – cool in that McLuhanesque sense of low in information, high in audience participation. In fact, it is arguable that the films anticipate TV by having no truck with the old “who, what, when, where, why” – with facts – instead substituting impressions, “facts” for them – cool films marking and marked by the glacialization of sense, provoking such questions as: in premiering on TV first, in the precession of TV, are these films not the site of Baudrillard’s “telefission” of the “real” and the “reel”? And in thereafter circulating as films, do these “documentaries” not only artificially resurrect the social but artificially resurrect themselves? Films simulating film already simulation simulating the social already simulation. Indeed while representation-based theories (here classic documentary film theory, with its faith in reality and in the image) presume the good faith of the image as stand-in for reality, making reality appear, film for Baudrillard denegates the real, making reality (truth, meaning, etc.) disappear. Hence the irony of a documentary film project to restore and save what has disappeared or is disappearing by filming it, a project that Wiseman arguably brings as well to Foucault’s work on the disciplinary regime, artificially resurrecting it – as well as that regime – to make it/them disappear again.

            Beyond this, Warhol’s inexplicable presence, ironical comment about the ironical situation of models alone being able to wear the clothes they never wear other than when modelling them, and silent isolation alone in the final shot in which he appears, as well as art of disappearance and role/job as model, for me site the imaginary topos of the implied author of the Wiseman text in what is the “dead center” of another Frederick – the privatissimo, the studio(lo), of Federigo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. The studiolo is a tiny sanctuary set at the very heart of the immense space of the palace. It is for Baudrillard “the blind spot of the palace, this place isolated from architecture and public life”,22 from the act of power that architecture constitutes, which in a certain way governs the whole, governing by reversal. This studiolo is “as it were a hole in reality – a simulacrum hidden at the heart of reality and which reality depends on for its entire operation.”23

            The studiolo has a secret: the space of power is perhaps nothing more than trompe l'oeil, the effect of a simulated model of perspective, and that “the basis of reality is an 'inexistence', the secret of the ever possible reversibility of 'real' space (including political space) into depth...”24 Such a site is a place of disappearance, of the black hole, which makes of power, knowledge, truth, meaning, reality, etc., only ever effects of simulation models of perspective, images conjured by that malevolent evil demon of images, which diabolical creature I submit is at play in Wiseman’s work. Wiseman’s films are sites of disappearance, of the denegation of the real, sites where the silence of the implied author is akin to that of Baudrillard’s mass, which is the perfect medium for the disappearance of the individual.

            Model suggests that not only are film and TV of the order of the hyperreal, so too is the social, now become the more social than social – the mass – according to Baudrillard’s process of ecstacy, the hypertelic, the pushing of things to their limits, where they at once fulfill and annihilate themselves.25 Here, taking Baudrillard’s book America as my cue, I would claim that Wiseman’s still unfinished, multi-film portrait of America offers us a simulation of a simulation. Calling his films “reality-fictions”, Wiseman defines them as “reality, in that the people are real and the events unstaged; fictions, in the sense that I have condensed and ordered these events in a fashion they did not have in real life”,26 and suggests that this term “captures the ambiguity and subjectivity of it all”.27

            First, I would suggest that perhaps Wiseman misconstrues, because everywhere in his films, as William Rothman says of cinéma vérité in general, we discover the noncandid, the nonspontaneous – the theatrical.28 What I would propose is that Wiseman’s films show us the cinematization of the American social, where everyone always already sees themselves in film and on TV, where everyone, as Warhol put it, “can be a celebrity for 15 minutes” – their minutes in a Wiseman film. If cinema sets the agenda for the real, one cinema looking at another cinema means that we are in a sense seeing real people and unstaged events.

            Furthermore, in terms of “unstaged events”, I would suggest that what Wiseman’s films show us is what Baudrillard characterizes as the obscenity and transparency of the world, that is, that we are no longer in the scene, in the double, in the imaginary, etc., of the last order – that of the real – but in that new hyperreal order of the more visible than the visible, of total proximity, contiguity, networks, etc., of the confusion of orders, and where the old stage and mise-en-scène of theatre is now literally ob-scène, that is, everywhere except in theatre – the cold, pure and empty form of theatre – where everyone is an actor, therefore no one is an actor – the cold, pure and empty form of the actor.29

            How ironical that Direct Cinema, recoiling from TV, is dispatched by Robert Drew (and Ricky Leacock) into the street to find “what’s happening” and finds “street theatre”, as in Model, where the cuts to the people in the street – Wiseman’s strategy identified in interview to establish the difference between the real of the streets and the illusion of the world of models – for me suggests that the street is already contaminated by the model, that the street people seem models of street people, which would support a notion that models are “just like the rest of us” – Wiseman’s classic comment regarding how the subjects of his films are no different from anyone else – that “real” people are just like models, and as well would establish that Wiseman’s own medium is complicit – (co)implicated, involved – in the manufacture of and obedience to models.

            In Model, we watch models perform for our camera, as well as for the cameras of the photographers depicted. No strategy would be adequate to avoid the complicity of Wiseman’s camera and film with that from which his interview comments would suggest he wishes to separate his work, what he puts at stake in his work, any more than the male model’s comment on the female model’s divesting herself of street clothes and jumping into a silk dress: “There’s the dividing line between reality and illusion right there” – which Wiseman would like to mark with his cuts to the street as separation of street reality and model illusion – is guarantee of such a distinction.

            For me, operating against Wiseman’s comment is the film’s comment: the illusion of film is real, the simulacrum of film is real; and the social is likewise simulacrum. Model indistinguishes “reality” and “fiction”, indistinguishes what perhaps can be taken to be Wiseman’s effort to distinguish between “reality” and “fiction” in “his” definition of “reality-fiction”. Thus Model is Wiseman’s most perilously pertinent project, Wiseman risking that his film will not be contaminated by the model, a wager which I submit he loses to the evil demon.30

            For Baudrillard, a crucial aspect of obscenity is the proliferation and saturation of information by the media, with a concomitant degradation and neutralization of meaning. The media come too close to the viewer, evacuating the space necessary for point of view, for analysis and interpretation, denegating meaning, meaning – message – swallowed – imploded – in the mass and the media. With too much meaning and too little meaning at the same time, documentary comes to be everywhere except in documentary: the obscene form of documentary. Indeed, Wiseman’s films are for me involved in this process of proliferation, saturation, and neutralization in their hyperconforming to all interpretations, their substituting of facts with "facts", and their offering us the greatest proximity to events of any documentary film practice, a proximity which many have felt was too close, too much the exteriorization of the interior (the private) and the interiorization of the exterior (the public).

            In my Ph.D., I list six different modes of this “immersion effect”, as I call it: 1) favoring a medium to close shot scale; 2) use of the long take stylistic; 3) raw and distressing subject matter; 4) effacement of camera consciousness on the part of the subjects; 5) pursuit of continuity cutting at the level of shot and sequence relationships;  and 6) absence of voice-over narration. Wiseman’s express wish to remove what he calls the “proscenium arch” separating the viewer from the experience by removing voice-over narration is suggestive of this over-proximity, of the evacuation of the scene of theatre. Furthermore, Wiseman’s multiple perspectivism in point of view construction is another mode of proliferation, saturation and neutralization, as are the multiple modes of indetermination instituted with regard to time, place/space, etc. 

            At the same time, Wiseman’s films operate a contrary “strategy”: against the more visible than the visible – the obscene – they pose the more invisible than the invisible – the secret. For me this secret is Wiseman’s point of view, which he says he installs “indirectly, through structure, through editing”.31 Wiseman’s point of view is installed like that of a fiction film director’s – invisibly, silently. In fact, Wiseman asserts: “All my movies are fictional movies”.32 This invisible point of view, I would submit, is the point of view from Federigo’s privatissimo, the studiolo – from the vanishing point where it can never be demonstrated nor refuted. That Wiseman has been accused so many times of making films that are purely projective is at stake here, with his response being “No, I put my point of view in”.33 A banal criticism would be that point of view is different outside film than inside it. But if film is no different from reality, if both film and reality are simulacra, then point of view in either situation would be point of view as special effect whose accessing by analysts could only ever be lost as found and found as lost – orbitalized in and by a silent stellar tomb.

            Baudrillard’s notion of the referendum is applicable here, the idea that we are constantly being bombarded with tests whose answers are implicit in the question, where the precession of models guarantees that the test operates by the precession of effect before cause. The referendum as projective test means that one’s interpretation is always reflected back to one by the hyperconforming nature of that which is being questioned – like Baudrillard’s mass. I would propose that Wiseman’s films do so operate as purely projective and at the same time that there is not only no way to refute Wiseman’s claim about his point of view being there but that his point of view would be that very irrefutability and undemonstrability, that silent secret of the studiolo, of the mass – a secret so secret that no one, not even the safe keeper, could reveal it, could speak it: the secret that there is no secret. 

            Here a possible qualification: while I hypothesize that Wiseman’s point of view – this dead point, “blind spot”, “dead center”, which would be the sole measure by which to judge the events in his films – is like the mass, the dark star of the social, it seems to me equally possible to see it as allied with what is for Baudrillard the myth of Hollywood, its stars, who emit a lustre in the cold of film. For would not our stars be the directors of these films, including Wiseman?34 A glimmer, an aura, that would radiate from that absence, that nullity, that black hole, at the horizon of meaning.

            Moreover, Wiseman’s claim that these are real people can be married to Baudrillard’s notion of the “increasingly definitive lack of differentiation between image and reality which no longer leaves room for representation as such”,35 the implosion of image and reality such that films are of the same order as what one calls “the real world”, the consequence of which is that Wiseman’s films are as much “events” in the life of the institutions as the institutions are “events” in the films: the “reel” (film) world and the “real” world involve – coil, spiral, around each other like two cold films/media/models, which for Baudrillard “evolve in asymptotic line towards one another: cinema attempting to abolish itself in the absolute of reality, the real already long absorbed in cinemato-graphic (or televised) hyperreality”.36 Such co-implication abnegates all possibility of neatly extricating them from each other. Marvelous indistinguishability of simulacra!

            In America, Baudrillard proposes that the hyperreality of everyday life in America “displays all the characteristics of fiction... Now, fiction is not imagination. It is what anticipates imagination by giving it the form of reality... The American way of life is spontaneously fictional, since it is a transcending of the imaginary in reality.”37 The hyperreal is where reality is negated, superceded by the more real than real, which has absorbed the energy of its opposite, the imaginary, fiction. Not only are “real” and “reel” (film) exchangeable and reversible terms – where we have to do with the fictionality of what we assume to be real and the reality of our fictions – but “reality-fiction”, whose structure is a theory about subject and event become (non)subject and (non)event, is “theory-fiction” and “theory-fiction” is “reality-fiction”. Marvelous indistinguishability of simulacra!38

            For me, the indetermining hyphen in Wiseman’s term “reality-fiction” already marks the loss of specificity of cinema and reality, the implosion of the distinctive opposition between reality and fiction. Such a turn – the Objectively Ironical turn of the evil demon seducing, leading astray, making disappear – would be the model of all documentary. It would be the model of the movements of documentary form – of every documentary; of every mode of documentary; of documentary film history, according to both Randall Conrad’s and Bill Nichols’ two phase model of that history – from phase l Griersonian documentary to phase 2 Direct Cinema form39 – as the movement of its destiny, not its history; the movement of the destiny of all film – “from the  most fantastic or mythical to the realistic and hyperrealistic”,40 as Baudrillard describes it in The Evil Demon of Images. And it would be the model of (the movements of) all (thought).

            How apt that for me the point at which Wiseman’s work turned toward the hyperdocumentary and hyperreality is Model, which models the turn and makes the turn the model of all (documentary) (film). In such a movement, those consistencies across a body of work that come together to designate an individual and author, “Wiseman”, in that very movement and designation make “Wiseman” a model.

            The Baudrillardean implication for Wiseman’s hyperdocumentaries is that they participate in and contribute to the hyperreality of America, its fictionality. Further, they would outbid and annihilate Griersonian documentary, volatilizing thereby the documentary project of enlightenment, turning persuasion to dissuasion, collapsing the polarity of reality and fiction, evacuating power and knowledge in their simulacra, leaving one with but one uncomfortable crepuscular truth, documentary’s “Last Judgment” (one that would come, like Kafka’s Messiah, a day too late): the only truth documentary now documents is that there is no truth, a truth lost and found and lost in that shadow-washed and now softly faded room (that camera), disappearing: “In the dangling conversation and the superficial sighs, the borders of our lives”41... near death.

Alan Cholodenko:  Is an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Art History and Theory at The University of Sydney, in Australia. His most recent publication is: “Apocalyptic Animation: In the Wake of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Godzilla and Baudrillard”, In Baudrillard West of the Dateline. Victoria Grace, Heather Worth and Laurence Simmons (Eds.), Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press, 2003. He is editor of The Illusion of Life 2: More Essays on Animation. Sydney: Power Publications, forthcoming in 2004. He is an Editor of IJBS.


1 Frederick Wiseman in Donald E. McWilliams. “Frederick Wiseman”, Film Quarterly, Fall 1970:23-24.

2 Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. “The Dangling Conversation” in High School, A Documentary by Frederick Wiseman, 1968.

3 This paper was presented at the 12th Annual Ohio University Film Conference at Athens, Ohio in 1990, at a time when Wiseman’s most recently released film was precisely Near Death.

4 Alan Cholodenko. The Films of Frederick Wiseman. Harvard University: Ph.D. Thesis, Department of Fine Arts, 1987.

5 Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1977, 1979.

6 An apparatus analogous in part to John Tagg’s Foucauldian model for photography in his essay “Power and Photography”, in Screen Education  36, Autumn 1980.

7 On these issues, see my Ph.D., especially Chapter 3, which is given over to a reading of the corpus of Wiseman’s work in terms of them.

8 Christina Robb. “Focus on Life”. The Boston Globe Magazine, 23 January 1983:34.

9 To double the Paul Simon inscription in High School with that in Manoeuvre: “slip sliding away, you know the nearer your destination the more you’re slip sliding away”. Man’s work would be thus condemned to entropy, to disappearance, as the films in so many ways mark the negentropic impossibility of systems – as Wiseman characterizes the attempt of his own work – to “assert some kind of control over chaos” (“Fred Wiseman on Fred Wiseman” in Reel World, Volume  3, Number 6, September 1977:18). Indeterminacy and uncertainty abound in Wiseman’s films in all the codes of cinematic systematicity: place, space, time, identity of characters and institutions, etc. See my Ph.D. thesis on these matters. The beginnings and endings of the films are enigmatic, the endings typically marked by death, disappearance, and a religious invocation as well. Further, the films court strategies of irony, paradox, inversion, reversibility, multiperspectivism, etc. – all of which are indetermining, augmenting and proliferating complexity and ambiguity.

10 Jean Baudrillard.  “The Precession of Simulacra”. Tranlated by Paul Foss and Paul Patton, Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983:14.

11 Ibid.:32. Baudrillard also remarks here:

Simulation is characterized by a precession of the model, of all models around the merest fact – the models come first, and their orbital (like the bomb) circulation constitutes the genuine magnetic field of events. Facts no longer have any trajectory of their own, they arise at the intersection of the models; a single fact may even be engendered by all the models at once.

Here one is reminded of the satellite-shaped file card holder spinning in the middle of the “dispatch” office at the Zoli modelling agency, marking for me the satellization – the hyperrealization – of the real, including the Foucauldian disciplinary regime.

12 See Jean Baudrillard. America.  Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 1988:85. In such a world denotation is the last of the connotations.

13 On the “crisis of representation”, see Jean Baudrillard, Forget Foucault. Translated by Nicole Dufresne. New York: Semiotext(e), 1987:70.

14 Jean Baudrillard.  “The Precession of Simulacra”. Translated by Paul Foss and Paul Patton, Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983:11.

15 Jean Baudrillard. The Evil Demon of Images. Sydney: Power Institute Publications, 1987:16. Here Baudrillard rehearses the film’s voice-over comment on Zelig: “His performance endears him as well to many leading French intellectuals, who see in him a symbol for everything”.

16 Daniel Asa Rose. “Frederick Wiseman Takes His Camera to The Races”. The New York Times, 1 June, 1986:29.

17 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. Translated by Philip Beitchman and W.G.J. Niesluchowski and Edited by Jim Fleming. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990:14.

18 Baudrillard writes:

For some time now, in the dialectical relation between reality and images (that is, the relation that we wish to believe dialectical, readable from the real to the image and vice versa), the image has taken over and imposed its own immanent, ephemeral logic; an immoral logic without depth, beyond good and evil, beyond truth and falsity; a logic of the extermination of its own referent, a logic of the implosion of meaning in which the message disappears on the horizon of the medium. The Evil Demon of Images, Sydney: Power Publications, 1987:22-23.

19 See Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault. Translated by Phil Beitchman, Lee Hildreth, and Mark Polizzotti. New York: Semiotext(e), 1987.

20 And for me, Titicut Follies – from its mysterious first shot of simulation soldiers standing in the equivocal place of the proscenium of an unidentified theatre singing “Strike Up The Band” – establishes that Wiseman model of indetermination and hyperrealization.

21 That documentary not only makes its referents disappear but makes itself disappear finds an analogue in Pop Art, which for Baudrillard stages its own disappearance. Writing of Andy Warhol and of the World Trade Center (the privileged New York landmark in Model, declared not only numerically – it is seen five times, more than any other Manhattan landmark – but structurally –  it is first seen in the opening shot of the film), Baudrillard says:

For the sign to be pure, it has to duplicate itself: it is the duplication of the sign which destroys its meaning. This is what Andy Warhol demonstrates also: the multiple replicas of Marilyn’s face are there to show at the same time the death of the original and the end of representation. The two towers of the W.T.C. are the visible sign of the closure of the system in a vertigo of duplication... “The Orders of Simulacra”, Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983:136.

22 Jean Baudrillard. “The Trompe l'Oeil”. Signs of Change 1, December 1977:18.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.:19.

25 See Jean Baudrillard. “What Are You Doing After The Orgy?”, Artforum, Volume 22, Number  2, October, 1983:46. Marked here would be something more than Wiseman’s own assertion, “social reality is infinitely more complicated than ideology” in Chuck Kraemer, “Fred Wiseman’s Primate”, The New York Times,  1 December 1974:n.p. Marked here is a beyond the social, a beyond whose complications and implications can never be fully explicated. And it would also mark for me the figure of the three Wisemans perhaps at work and play here (figures impossible to keep distinct and separate): 1. the Wiseman of the interviews and lectures 2. the Wiseman who would seek refuge to salvage subjectivity as individuality (sought ironically in the monastery of Essene where self-actualization is produced by self-abnegation) but who is defeated in the effort by the films’ (including Essene’s) own pervasive mapping of the fabrication – the production – of the “individual” by Foucault’s disciplinary institutions, subjectivity already lost in the Subject, the product of transsubjective determinants, this mapping ironizing Wiseman 1’s own appeals to the subjective, personal nature of his project, and, 3. against the ironic “defense” of the subject and subjectivity by the Subject, such as it is, the Objective Irony of “Wiseman”, of the “Wiseman” of the Pure Object, that which would seduce the Subject, volatilize the transsubjective determinants, volatilize Foucault’s (work on the) disciplinary regime, that which would anticipate and seduce all reality, all interpretation. See my Ph.D. thesis on these matters, especially as concerns Wisemans 1 and 2.

26 Richard Schickel. “Viewpoints: Shooting the Institution”. Time, 9 December 1974:95.

27 Chuck Kraemer. “Fred Wiseman’s Primate”, The New York Times, 1 December 1974:n.p.

28 William Rothman. “Alfred Guzzetti’s Family Portrait Sittings”. Quarterly Review of Film Studies, February 1977:96-98.

29 See Jean Baudrillard. “Figures of the Transpolitical” in Fatal Strategies. Translated by Philip Beitchman and W.G.J. Niesluchowski and Edited by Jim Fleming. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990.

30 For the inevitable (and inevitably misconceived) late 1960s Marxist film theory model of Model, see Dan Armstrong, “Wiseman’s Model and the Documentary Project: Toward a Radical Film Practice”, in Film Quarterly, Winter 1983-84; and for a rhetorical model of Model, see Thomas Benson and Carolyn Anderson, “The Rhetorical Structure of Frederick Wiseman’s Model”, in Journal of Film and Video, Volume, 26, Number 4, Fall 1984.

31 Frederick Wiseman. Documentary Symposium at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Boston, 3 October 1977.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.

34 See Jean Baudrillard. Seduction. Translated by Brian Singer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990:96-97.

35 Jean Baudrillard. The Evil Demon of Images.  Power Institute Publications, 1987:27.

36 Ibid.:34.

37 Jean Baudrillard. America. Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 1988:95.

38 The evil demon makes (that) definition spin, inducing the vertigo of interpretation, putting, as Raymond Bellour might have it, analysis in flames.

39 Randall Conrad. “Directed and Direct: Changing Conventions in the American Documentary”, in University Film Study Center Newsletter, Volume 6, Number 5, June 1976:6; Bill Nichols. Ideology and the Image. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981: Chapters 6 and 7. At this moment I see no reason not to include Nichols’ phases 3 and 4 in phases 1 and 2. See his “The Voice of Documentary”, in Movies and Methods 2, Ed. Bill Nichols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

40 Jean Baudrillard. The Evil Demon of Images.  Power Institute Publications, 1987:33.

41 Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. “The Dangling Conversation”, in High School, A Documentary by Frederick Wiseman, 1968.


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