USA, 1983, 16mm, 118 min.
When Frederick Wiseman arrived at Neiman Marcus in 1983, the brand had not yet burnt out. It was still where pharaohs bought gold pajamas, where Lyndon Johnson’s daughters went for wedding dresses, and where regular people hoped they would bump into their neighbors. But Wiseman didn’t find a big, swollen department store that’d been bumbling along making money in its sleep. He did not find executives jumping into fountains with their clothes on and their pockets stuffed with paper money. Instead, Wiseman found a company sprinting to look effortless. He found a lot of talking and management, and an elaborate interest in the general, if not banal, custodialism of a brand famous for being the first retail establishment to understand the concept of promoting the store, rather than the stuff in it. He found shooting color photography, a criminal amount of pleasure, “I felt The Store had to be in color because the objects for sale were so colorful and that was part of the story. Neiman Marcus was like being handed a $20-million set.”
“There’s a certain group of both documentary filmmakers and documentary film critics who feel that you have to make movies about poor people,” Wiseman said. “That’s the subject. That’s social criticism. My feeling is that if you are going to have theories about American society, you’ve got to look at all aspects of it. You’ve got to look at how the images are created that affect people’s lives and the choices of consumer goods they buy.”
If anything, the film feels like an evocation of the poignance of transactions, the way they have of nurturing hope and denying it in the same instance. Watching it again and again, as I have, I am reminded that no economic system has been able to kill off despair, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute, our sense of wanting. It is the human condition that directs the social condition. Or it is the social condition that directs the human condition. Wiseman has no extravagant, lurid, or intelligent answer. His descriptive account of our situation, so far as it can be called descriptive, is a muddle of inconsequential events, but as the novelist Henry James, an intellectual parent for Wiseman, once wrote, “The effort really to see and really to represent is no idle business in face of the constant force that makes for muddlement. The great thing is indeed that the muddled state too is one of the very sharpest of the realities, that it also has color and form and character, has often in fact a broad and rich comicality.”
Frederick Wiseman was born in Boston in 1930. In 1967, he made Titicut Follies, a film about the Bridgewater State Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane. Since then his great subject has been institutional American life rather than individuals. He is still at work.
THE ENORMOUS RADIO
Jim and Irene Wescott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins. They were the parents of two young children, they had been married nine years, they lived on the twelfth floor of an apartment house near Sutton Place, they went to the theater on an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped someday to live in Westchester. Irene Wescott was pleasant, rather plain girl with soft brown hair, and a wide, fine forehead upon which nothing at all had been written, and in the cold weather she wore a coat of fitch skins dyed to resemble mink. You could not say that Jim Westcott looked younger than he was, but you could at least say of him that he seemed to feel younger. He wore his graying hair cut very short, he dressed in the kind of clothes his class had worn at Andover, and his manner was earnest, vehement, and intentionally naïve. The Westcotts differed from their friends, their classmates, and their neighbors, only in an interest they shared in serious music. They went to a great many concerts—although they seldom mentioned this to anyone—and they spent a good deal of time listening to music on the radio.
Their radio was an old instrument, sensitive, unpredictable, and beyond repair. Neither of them understood the mechanics of radio—or when the instrument faltered, Jim would strike the side of the cabinet with his hand. This sometimes helped. One Sunday afternoon, in the middle of the a Schubert quartet, the music faded away altogether. Jim struck the cabinet repeatedly, but there was no response; the Schubert was lost to them forever. He promised to buy Irene a new radio, and on Monday when he came home from work he told her that he had got one. He refused to describe it, and said it would be a surprise for her when it came.
The radio was delivered at the kitchen door the following afternoon, and with the assistance of her maid and the handyman Irene uncrated it and brought it into the living room. She was struck at once with the physical ugliness of the large gumwood cabinet. Irene was proud of her living room, she had chosen its furnishings and colors as carefully as she chose her clothes, and now it seemed to her that her new radio stood among her intimate possessions like an aggressive intruder. She was confounded by the number of dials and switches on the instrument panel, and she studied them thoroughly before she put the plug into a wall socket and turned the radio on. The dials flooded with a malevolent green light, and in the distance she heard the music of a piano quartet. The quintet was in the distance for only an instant; it bore down upon her with a speed greater than light and filled the apartment with the noise of music amplified so mightily that it knocked a china ornament from a table to the floor. She rushed to the instrument and reduced the volume. The violent forces that were snared in the ugly gumwood cabinet made her uneasy. Her children came home from school then, and she took them to the Park. It was not until later in the afternoon that she was able to return to the radio.
The maid had given the children their suppers and was supervising their baths when Irene turned on the radio, reduced the volume, and sat down to listen to a Mozart quintet that she knew and enjoyed. The music came through clearly. The new instrument had a much purer tone, she thought, than the old one. She decided that tone was most important and that she could conceal the cabinet behind the sofa. But as soon as she had made her peace with the radio, the interference began. A crackling sound like the noise of a burning powder fuse began to accompany the singing of the strings. Beyond the music, there was a rustling that reminded Irene unpleasantly of the sea, and as the quintet progressed, these noises were joined by the many others. She tried all the dials and switches but nothing dimmed the interference, and she sat down, disappointed and bewildered, and tried to trace the flight of the melody. The elevator shaft in her building ran beside the living-room wall, and it was the noise of the elevator that gave her a clue to the character of the static. The rattling of the elevator cables and the opening and closing of the elevator doors were reproduced in her loudspeaker, and, realizing that the radio was sensitive to electrical currents of all sorts, she began to discern through the Mozart the ringing of telephone bells, the dialing of phones, and the lamentation of a vacuum cleaner. By listening more carefully, she was able to distinguish doorbells, elevator bells, electric razors, and Waring mixers, whose sounds had been picked up from the apartments that surrounded hers and transmitted through her loudspeaker. The powerful and ugly instrument, with its mistaken sensibility to discord, was more than she could hope to master, so she turned the thing off and went into the nursery to see her children.
When Jim Wescott came home that night, he went to the radio confidently and worked the controls. He had the same sort of experience Irene had had. A man was speaking on the station Jim had chosen, and his voice swung instantly from the distance into a force so powerful that it shook the apartment. Jim turned the volume control and reduced the voice. Then, a minute or two later, the interference began. The ringing of telephones and doorbells set in, joined by the rasp of the elevator doors and the whir of cooking appliances. The character of the noise had changed since Irene had tried the radio earlier; the last of the electric razors was being unplugged, the vacuum cleaners had all been returned to their closets, and the static reflected that change in pace that overtakes the city after the sun goes down. He fiddled with the knobs but couldn’t get rid of the noises, so he turned the radio off and told Irene that in the morning he’d call the people who had sold it to him and give them hell.
The following afternoon, when Irene returned to the apartment from a luncheon date, the maid told her that a man had come and fixed the radio. Irene went into the living room before she took off her hat or her furs and tried the instrument. From the loudspeaker came a recording of the “Missouri Waltz.” It reminded her of the thin, scratchy music from an old-fashioned phonograph that she sometimes head across the lake where she spent her summers. She waited until the waltz had finished, expecting an explanation of the recording, but there was none. The music was followed by silence, and then the plaintive and scratchy record was repeated. She turned the dial and got a satisfactory burst of Caucasian music—thump of bare feet in the dust and the rattle of coin jewelry—but in the background she could hear the ringing of bells and a confusion of voices. Her children came home from school then, and she turned off the radio and went to the nursery.
When Jim came home that night, he was tired, and he took a bath and changed his clothes. Then he joined Irene in the living room. He had just turned on the radio when the maid announced dinner, so he left it on, and Irene went to the table.
Jim was too tired to make even pretense of sociability, and there was nothing about the dinner to hold Irene’s interest, so her attention wandered from the food to the deposits of silver polish on the candlesticks and from there to the music in the other room. She listened for a few minutes to a Chopin prelude and then was surprised to hear a man’s voice break in. “For Christ’s sake, Kathy,” he said, “do you always have to play the piano when I get home?” The music stopped abruptly. “It’s the only chance I have,” the woman said. “I’m at the office all day.” “So am I,” the man said. He added something obscene about an upright piano, and slammed a door. The passionate and melancholy music began again.
“Did you hear that?” Irene asked.
“What?” Jim was eating his dessert.
“The radio. A man said something while the music was still going on—something dirty.”
“It’s probably a play.”
“I don’t think it is a play,” Irene said.
They left the table and took their coffee into the living room. Irene asked Jim to try another station. He turned the knob. “Have you seen my garters?” A man asked. “Button me up,” a woman said. “Have you seen my garters?” the man said again. “Just button me up and I’ll find your garters,” the woman said. Jim shifted to another station. “I wish you wouldn’t leave apple cores in the ashtrays,” a man said. “I hate the smell.”
“This is strange,” Jim said.
“Isn’t it?” Irene said.
Jim turned the knob again. “‘On the coast of Coromandel where the early pumpkins blow,’” a woman with a pronounced English accent said, “‘in the middle of the woods lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò. Two old chairs, and half a candle, one old jug without a handle . . .’”
“My God!” Irene cried. “That’s the Sweeneys’ nurse.”
“‘These were all his worldly goods,’” the British voice continued.
“Turn that thing off,” Irene said.”Maybe they can hear us.” Jim switched the radio off. “That was Miss Armstrong, the Sweeneys’ nurse,” Irene said. “She must be reading to the little girl. They live in 17-B. I’ve talked with Miss Armstrong in the Park. I know her voice very well. We must be getting other people’s apartments.”
“That’s impossible,” Jim said.
“Well, that was the Sweeneys’ nurse,” Irene said hotly. “I know her voice. I know it very well. I’m wondering if they can hear us.”
Jim turned the switch. First from a distance and then nearer, nearer, as if borne on the wind, came the pure accents of the Sweeneys’ nurse again: “‘Lady Jingly! Lady Jingly!’” she said, “‘sitting where the pumpkins blow, will you come and be my wife? said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò…’”
Jim went over to the radio and said, “Hello” loudly into the speaker.
“‘I am tired of living singly,’” the nurse went on, “‘on this coast so wild and shingly, I’m a-weary of my life; if you’ll come and be my wife, quite serene would be my life…’”
“I guess she can’t hear us,” Irene said. “Try something else.”
Jim turned to another station, and the living room was filled with the uproar of a cocktail party that had overshot its mark. Someone was playing the piano and singing the “Whiffenpoof Song,” and the voices that surrounded the piano were vehement and happy. “Eat some more sandwiches,” a woman shrieked. There were screams of laughter and a dish of some sort crashed to the floor.
“Those must be the Fullers, in 11-E,” Irene said. “I knew they were giving a party this afternoon. I saw her in the liquor store. Isn’t this too divine? Try something else. See if you can get those people in 18-C.”
The Westcotts overheard that evening a monologue on salmon fishing in Canada, a bridge game, running comments on home movies of what had apparently been a fortnight at Sea Island, and a bitter family quarrel about an overdraft at the bank. They turned off their radio at midnight and went to bed, weak with laughter. Sometime in the night, their son began to call for a glass of water and Irene got one and took it to his room. It was very early. All the lights in the neighborhood were extinguished, and from the boy’s window she could see the empty street. She went into the living room and tried the radio. There was some faint coughing, a moan, and then a man spoke. “Are you all right, darling?” he asked. “Yes,” a woman said wearily. “Yes, I’m all right, I guess,” and then she added with great feeling, “But, you know, Charlie, I don’t feel like myself any more. Sometimes there are about fifteen or twenty minutes in the week when I feel like myself. I don’t like to go to another doctor, because the doctor’s bills are so awful already, but I just don’t feel like myself, Charlie. I just never feel like myself.” They were not young, Irene thought. She guessed from the timbre of their voices that they were middle-aged. The restrained melancholy of the dialogue and the draft from the bedroom window made her shiver, and she went back to bed.
The following morning, Irene cooked breakfast for the family—the maid didn’t come up from her room in the basement until ten—braided her daughter’s hair, and waited at the door until her children and her husband had been carried away in the elevator. Then she went into the living room and tried the radio. “I don’t want to go to school,” a child screamed. “I hate school. I won’t go to school. I hate school.” “You will go to school,” an enraged woman said. “We paid eight hundred dollars to get you into that school and you’ll go if it kills you.” The next number on the dial produced the worn record of the “Missouri Waltz.” Irene shifted the control and invaded the privacy of several breakfast tables. She overheard demonstrations of indigestion, carnal love, abysmal vanity, faith, and despair. Irene’s life was nearly as simple and sheltered as it appeared to be, and the forthright and sometimes brutal language that came from the loudspeaker that morning astonished and troubles her. She continued to listen until her maid came in. The she turned off the radio quickly, since this insight, she realized, was a furtive one.
Irene had a luncheon date with a friend that day, and she left her apartment a little after twelve. There were a number of women in the elevator when it stopped at her floor. She stared at their handsome and impassive faces, their furs, and the cloth flowers in their hats. Which one of them had been at Sea Island? she wondered. Which one had overdrawn her bank account? The elevator stopped at the tenth floor and a woman with a pair of Skye terriers joined them, Her hair was rigged high on her head and she wore a mink cape. She was humming the “Missouri Waltz.”
Irene had two Martinis at lunch, and she looked searchingly at her friend and wondered what her secrets were. They had intended to go shopping after lunch, but Irene excused herself and went home. She told the maid that she was not to be disturbed; then she went into the living room, closed the doors, and switched on the radio. She heard, in the course of the afternoon, the halting conversation of a woman entertaining her aunt, the hysterical conclusion of a luncheon party, and hostess briefing her maid about some cocktail guests. “Don’t give the best Scotch to anyone who hasn’t white hair,” the hostess said. “See if you can get rid of the liver paste before you pass those hot things, and could you lend me five dollars? I want to tip the elevator man.”
As the afternoon waned, the conversations increased in intensity. From where Irene sat, she could see the open sky above the East River. There were hundreds of clouds in the sky, as though the south wind had broken the winter into pieces and were blowing it north, and on her radio she could hear the arrival of cocktail guests and the return of children and businessmen from their schools and offices. “I found a good-sized diamond on the bathroom floor this morning,” a woman said. “It must have fallen out of the bracelet Mrs. Dunston was wearing last night.” “We’ll sell it,” a man said. “Take it down to the jeweler on Madison Avenue and sell it. Mrs. Dunston was won’t know the difference, and we could use a couple of hundred bucks . . .” “‘Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s,’” the Sweeneys’ nurse sang. “Halfpence and farthings, say the bells of St. Martin’s. When will you pay me? say the bells at old Bailey . . .’” “It’s not a hat,” a woman cried, and at her back roared a cocktail party. “It’s not a hat, it’s a love affair. That’s what Walter Florell said. He said it’s not a hat, it’s a love affair,” and then, in a lower voice, the same woman added, “Talk to somebody, for Christ’s sake, honey, talk to somebody. If she catches you standing here not talking to anybody, she’ll take us off her invitation list, and I love these parties.”
The Wescotts were going out for dinner that night, and when Jim came home, Irene was dressing. She seemed sad and vague, and he brought her a drink. They were dining with their friends in the neighborhood, and they walked to where they were going. The sky was broad and filled with light. It was of those splendid spring evenings that excite memory and desire, and the air that touched their hands an aces felt very soft. A Salvation Army band was on the corner playing “Jesus Is Sweeter”. Irene drew her husband’s arm and held him there for a minute, to hear the music.”They are really such nice people, aren’t they?” she said. They have such nice faces. Actually, they are so much nicer than a lot of the people we know.” She took a bill from her purse and walked over and dropped it into the tambourine. There was in her face, when she returned to he husband, a look of radiant melancholy that he was not familiar with. And her conduct at the dinner party that night seemed strange to him, too. She interrupted her hostess rudely and stared at the people across the table from her with an intensity for which she would have punished her children.
It was still mild when they walked home from the party, and Irene looked up at the spring stars. “How far the little candle throws its beams,” she exclaimed. “So sine a good deed in a naughty world.” She waited that night until Jim had fallen asleep, and then went out into the living room and turned on the radio.
Jim came home at about six the next night. Emma, the maid, let him in, and he had taken off his has and was taking off his coat when Irene ran into the hall. Her face was shining with tears and her hair was disordered . “Go up to 16-C, Jim!” she screamed. “Don’t take off your coat. Go up to 16-C. Mr Osborn’s beating his wife. They’ve been quarreling since four o’clock, and now he is hitting her. Go up there and stop him.”
From the radio in the living room, Jim heard screams, obscenities, and thuds. “You know you don’t have to listen to this sort of thing,”he said. He strode into the living room and turned the switch. “It’s indecent,” he said. “It’s like looking into windows. You know you don’t have to listen to this sort of thing. You can turn it off.”
“Oh, it’s so terrible, it’s so dreadful,” Irene was sobbing. I’ve been listening all day, and it’s so depressing.”
“Well, if it’s so depressing, why do you listen to it? I brought this dammed radio to give you some pleasure,” he said. “I paid a great deal of money for it. I thought it might make you happy. I wanted to make you happy.”
“Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t quarrel with me,” she moaned, and laid her head on his shoulder. “All the others have been quarreling all day. Everybody’s been quarreling. They’re all worried about money. Mrs. Hutchinson’s mother is dying of cancer in Florida and they don’t have enough money to send her to the Mayo Clinic. At least, Mr Hutchinson says they don’t have enough money. And some woman in this building is having and affair with the handyman- with that hideous handyman. It’s too disgusting. And Mrs. Melville has heart trouble, and Mr. Hendricks is going to lose his job in April and Mrs. Hendricks is horrid about the whole thing and that girl that plays the “Missouri Waltz” is a whore, a common whore, and the elevator man has tuberculosis and Mr. Osborn has been beating his wife.” She wailed, she trembled with grief and checked the stream of tears down her face with the heel of her palm.
“Well why do you have to listen?” Jim asked again. “Why do you have to listen to this stuff if it makes you miserable?”
“Oh, don’t, don’t, don’t,” she cried. “Life is too terrible, to sordid and awful. But we’ve never been like that, have we, darling”? Have we? I mean, we’ve always been good and decent and loving to one another, haven’t we? And we have two children, two beautiful children. Our lives aren’t sordid, are they, darling? Are they?” She flung her arms around his neck and drew his face down to hers. “We’re happy, aren’t we, darling? We are happy, aren’t we?”
“Of course we’re happy,” he said tiredly. He began to surrender his resentment. “Of course we are happy. “I’ll have that dammed radio fixed or taken away tomorrow.” He stroked her soft hair. “My poor girl,” he said.
“You love me don’t you? she asked. “And we’re not hypercritical or worried about money or dishonesty, are we?
A man came in the morning and fixed the radio. Irene turned it on cautiously and was happy to hear a California-wine commercial and a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, including Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”. She kept the radio on all day and nothing untoward came toward the speaker.
A Spanish suite was being played when Jim came home. “Is everything all right?” he asked. His face was pale, she thought. They had some cocktails and went to dinner to the “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore. This was followed by Debussy’s “La Mer”
“I paid the bill for the radio today,” Jim said. “It cost four hundred dollars. I hope you’ll get some enjoyment out of it.”
“Oh, I’m sure I will, Irene said.
“Four hundred dollars is a good deal more than I can afford,” he went on. “I wanted to get something that you’d enjoy. It’s the last extravagance we’ll indulge in this year. I see that you haven’t paid your clothing bills yet. I saw them on your dressing table.” He looked directly at her. “Why did you tell me you paid them? Why did you lie to me?
“I just didn’t want you to worry, Jim,” she said. She drank some water. “I’ll be able to pay my bills out of this months allowance. There were the slipcovers last month, and that party,”
“You’ve got to learn to handle the money I give you a little more intelligently, Irene,” he said. “You’ve got to understand that we don’t have as much money this year as we had last. I had a very sobering talk with Mitchell today. No one is buying anything. We’re spending all of our time promoting new issues, and you know how long that takes. I’m mot getting any younger you know. I’m thirty-seven. My hair will be gray next year. I haven’t done as well as I hoped to do. And I don’t suppose things will get any better.
“Yes dear,” she said.
We’ve got to start cutting down,” Jim said. “We’ve got to think of the children. To be perfectly frank with you, I worry about money a great deal. I’m not at all sure of the future. No one is. If anything should happen to me, there’s the insurance, but that won’t go very far today. I’ve worked awfully hard to give you and the children a comfortable life,” he said bitterly. “I don’t like to see all my energies, all my youth, wasted in fur coast and radios and slipcovers and”
“Please Jim,” she said. “Please. They’ll hear us.”
“Who’ll hear us? Emma can’t hear us.
“Oh, I’m sick! He shouted. “I’m sick to death of your apprehensiveness. The radio can’t hear us. Nobody can hear us. And what if they can hear us? Who cares?”
Irene got up from the table and went into the living room. Jim went to the door and shouted from there. “Why are you so Christly all of a sudden? What’s turned you overnight into a convent girl? You stole your mother’s jewelry before they probated her will. You never gave your sister a sent of that money that was intended for her—not even when she needed it. You made Grace Howland’s life miserable, and where was all your all your piety and your virtue when you went to that abortionist? I’ll never forget how coll you were. You packed your bag and went off to have that child murdered as if you were going to Nassau. If you’d had any reasons, if you had any good reasons.”
Irene stood for a minute before the hideous cabinet, disgraced and sickened, but she held her hand on the switch before she extinguished the music and the voices, hoping the instrument might speak to her kindly, that she might hear the Sweeney’s nurse. Jim continued to shout at her from the door. The voice on the radio was suave and noncommital. “An early-morning railroad disaster in Tokyo,” the loudspeaker said, “killed twenty-nine people. A fire in a Catholic hospital near Buffalo for the care of blind children was extinguished early this morning by nuns.
The temperature is forty-seven. The humidity is eighty-nine.”