Film Micrœview #-1: The Store (1983)

11.12.2014 § Leave a comment

Rating: Dr. Pepper.

In which Wiseman documents a Neiman-Marcus in an affluent area of Dallas in the 80’s.

Frederick Wiseman is my favorite documentarian. He is famous for toting his camera around American institutions, capturing interactions which are incredible for how seemingly un-self-conscious their participants are. When asked once how he was able over and over again to illicit such candid moments from his subjects, he explained, “Most of us are not good enough to change our behavior for the camera; if we were, the level of acting on television would be a lot better.”

His style is fascinating. Unlike many documentaries, his lack rhetoric such as voice-over narration or interviews. But he’s not abstaining from such direction in some effort to document some theoretical ‘true essence’ — something supposedly objective — which he thinks is worth exposing without judgment. He recognizes that he still has a bias, and his movies — however loosely assembled — do bear the marks of his direction, do tell a story. “Documentary is just another form of fiction… it’s made-up… it’s ‘reality fiction’,” he says.

Wiseman’s stories are less about the documented institution in and of itself as they are about his subjective experience with it. He subjects himself to situations and environs that he believes will be interesting to a wider audience, and then tries his best to distill his own experiences into authentic, consumable moving pictures. With each scene, he simply records things as they unfold, striving — in both his immediate shooting and later editing — only to achieve fairness to the truth of the people he’s encountered. He’s not trying to pigeonhole them into any grander scheme; if they don’t fit the models he expected to find in this project (and how often to people ever perfectly conform to stereotypes?) then he explores that. “The only safe assumption to make about the public is that they’re about as smart or dumb as I am. I can’t anticipate how people are going to react,” he says. “My job is to make the best film I can and hope that what I’ve done will connect with other people’s experience and interests.”

His films have been hugely inspirational in the field, especially internationally, critically on contemporary Chinese independent documentarians.

I’ll try now to describe this method as applied to this particular film:

I have to imagine that Wiseman doesn’t frequent such spots as Neiman-Marcus himself. He probably chose to visit this store and get to know its staff to glimpse into the heart of runaway capitalism. But whatever superficiality, whatever greed, whatever classism he came across, I’m certain he wasn’t trying to get at the root of any transcendent problem with this single film — whether we watched it back then or today, we’re just spending as genuine time with these personalities as he could present for us, and drawing our own conclusions about what went into them and what came out. Wiseman’s alternating layers of true-to-life and true-to-experience make for a fascinating and viewpoint-changing viewing experience, as well as provocation of lively discussion about this particular timeless forum of communication as documented in a timely point in time.


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