US, 1976, 16mm, 113 min.
In 1976, Frederick Wiseman went to the Monfort Meat Packing Company in Greeley, Colorado to observe “animal fabrication,” the process through which cattle and sheep become consumer goods. Nothing is spared. The film depicts the entire process, illustrating points and problems in the area of automated production, transportation, logistics, equipment design, time-motion study, and labor management.
Meat is not made in the spirit of advocacy. It does not seek to simplify what is complex. It is indifferent both to journalistic convention and audience convenience. There are no titles, narration, music, or explicit commentary of any kind. In an interview, Wiseman said, “I don’t think my films in general are a cry for equity and fairness and justice. They’re much more about the world as it is—not as it might be or should be.[…] I think a lot of my movies are very funny. But it’s not comedy that makes fun of the people; it’s comedy that emerges from very complex situations which often have no solution, and the situations are indicative, in one way or another, of the muddlement of human behavior. And so they’re funny. And I find that kind of comedy sad, because often, while it’s funny, the basic situation is very sad….”
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. For more information on Wiseman, see his website.
“Editing as a Four-Way Conversation”
by Frederick Wiseman
…I have to find an editing style appropriate for each film. As usual this is not a problem that I can solve in the abstract. I can’t start with general statements about editorial style, but have to find my way by learning the material and responding to what I find.
Any documentary, mine or anyone else’s, made in no matter what style, is arbitrary, biased, prejudiced, compressed and subjective. Like any of its sisterly or brotherly fictional forms it is born in choice—choice of subject matter, place, people, camera angles, duration of shooting, sequences to be shot or omitted, transitional material and cutaways.
Once a film is done shooting, a different set of choices emerge. This great glop of material which represents the externally recorded memory of my experience of making the film is of necessity incomplete. The memories not preserved on film float somewhat in my mind as fragments available for recall, unavailable for inclusion but of great importance in the mining and shifting process known as editing. This editorial process which is sometimes deductive, sometimes associational, sometimes non-logical and sometimes a failure, is occasionally boring and often exciting. The crucial element for me is to try and think through my own relationship to the material by whatever combination of means is compatible.
This involves a need to conduct a four way conversation between myself, the sequence being worked on, my memory, and general values and experience. The big issue for the moment is can I get myself to sit in the basement and start thinking specifically about the film at hand? Writing these theoretical statements about editing is a diversion.I’ve got to go to the basement.[…]
Film ideologues are not interested in the discovery and surprise aspect of documentary filmmaking, or in trusting their own or anyone else’s independent judgment, but want documentary filmmakers to confirm their own ideological, abstract views which have little or no connection with experience. Some documentary filmmakers urged on in their self-generated political fantasies by academics and other ideologues, by film barons and bureaucrats, and by all those who form the parasitic platoons fluttering around film-makers, believe documentaries must educate, expose, inform, reform and effect change in a resistant and otherwise unenlightened world. Documentaries are thought to have the same relation to social change as penicillin to syphilis. The importance of documentaries as political instruments for change is stubbornly clung to, despite the total absence of any supporting evidence.
Sometimes, in his lofty condescension, a filmmaker seeks to bring enlightenment to the great unwashed and force feed this or that trendy political pap to an audience which has not had the opportunity, or even the wish, to participate in either the experience or the mind of the filmmaker. This which might be called the ‘carlos’ fantasy, suggests to the filmmaker that he is important to the world. Documentaries, like plays, novels, poems, are fictional in form and have no measurable social utility.
An excerpt from
“In Memory of Us All:
Some Scenes out of Wiseman”
by William T. Vollmann
“We’re trying to encourage a ninety-nine-cent jack steak,” explains one of the business barons of Frederick Wiseman’s Meat (1976), and I wonder how far he succeeded in this glorious aspiration and whether he has rested on his laurels ever since.
Human lives are little lives, and P.D. Ouspensky’s novel Strange Life of Ivan Osokin (1915) indicates how dreary it would be to relieve our own. As for the lives of other people their various smallnesses loom far larger than ours, for we comprise (and proudly) that alien infinitude which stifles all triumphs. In Model (1980) the very first Wiseman film I saw, I naively expected to find glamor. I in my voyeuristic smallness imagined that I would be entertained or even enchanted by feminine beauty; instead, Wiseman showed me a grind of rejections and retakes. Somebody lacked by an inch the height required for “sophisticated” modeling assignments. Someone’s portfolio wasn’t adequate. A television commercial of a few seconds’ duration required one young woman to project her panty hosed leg upon various points of an arc, while another model had to descend some steps over and over before the boss photographer finally conceded she had done it right (and all the while a crowd watched with such reverent pleasure, as if this drudgery for the sake of mercantile fakery could somehow be more special than “real life”). A man and a woman were commanded to collide, over and over, until they met Mr. High and Mighty’s standard. The self-satisfied authority of each little tyrant, in other words his certainty, which must have assumed creativity was frequently rendered ludicrous by his incoherence. He had, let’s charitably say, a “vision” of how the model should turn her head, when and where she out to pause on the steps—or perhaps he didn’t; meanwhile he controlled her, and sometimes hectored her, all for the sake of something small. Tell me which outcome would be sadder—for the participants to take priced and pleasure in all this, or for them to participate cynically.
Now for the ninety-nine cent question: how overawed is Wiseman with ninety-nine cent jack steaks? We will never know, for of himself he reveals the minimum, and this merely through our inferences. From his films I take it that he is patient to a fault, that he can wear a forgettable persona (for his subjects seem to forget the camera), that he wishes us to judge what we see almost, but not quite, on our own that souls of especial interest to him are the self-important, the high-handed, and the kind, that the life to which he is drawn is that of processes and routines, whether they function rather well, as in Meat—whose cattle get rounded up, moved, sold, channeled, driven by feedlot cowboys shouting “hey” and “hi,” then gated, killed, bled, butchered—or somewhat poorly, as in Welfare (1975), with its shouting petitioners and arguing staff, not to mention the repetition of antagonists who cannot listen to each other. Over and over in that latter film we hear people asking: “What am I supposed to do? How can I get through the weekend?” The welfare processors cannot give them any serviceable reply.
And so as I explore Wiseman’s work I come to expect revelations of littleness, and of the wastage of life, by life itself, or by people’s incompetence, ineffectiveness, poverty, dullness—or by the regimentations and distortions entailed upon life by process. That model descending the steps excites my pity when I see her being made to do it over and over again. Life, so I want to think, should not be like that. It should be “spontaneous” or should it? What does Wiseman want me to learn? His films sometimes meander, and they can even be tedious—necessarily, for they take the trouble to portray the life in and around the entity which they document.
[…] As for that encourager of the ninety-nine-cent jack steak, who was I to belittle him? More or less faithfully he carries out his role, furthering a titanic industrial procedure through which cattle end up in slices at supermarkets; the steps and effects of this procedure are as fascinating as any other ecological web. In it there is gradeur of a sort; there is an overarching end, not necessarily rational but certainly transformative and definitive: Those jack steaks will moo no more! What’s it all for? Wiseman will not answer. But he will show us the “all.” It is up to us to be haunted by it or not.