Plain Truths

Rating: NNNNNif you want to join the ranks of serious filmmaking devotees, take a look at Frederick Wiseman, the last.

Rating: NNNNN

if you want to join the ranks of serious filmmaking devotees, take a look at Frederick Wiseman, the last of the great verite documentarians, who makes long, mostly black-and-white, always commentary-free films examining the structure and impact of American institutions.The plain-spoken titles say it all: High School, Hospital, Basic Training, Welfare, Public Housing, Juvenile Court, Zoo.

This doesn’t mean the films aren’t entertaining, so long as you broaden your definition of entertainment. They demand a willingness to engage with a film for two, three, four and in one extraordinary instance, six hours with no expectations of easy answers or car chases.

They’re about people caught up in institutions, which is obvious in films like High School (Friday, March 15, 8:45 pm) and Welfare (Tuesday, April 2, 7 pm). He hooks us with fragmentary glimpses of character. The harried civil servants of Welfare are given weight as something other than monsters of bureaucratic indifference the trainers and grooms in Racetrack (Saturday, March 16, 8:15 pm) fascinate as humans who have given over their lives to be less than the animals they serve.

The highlight of Cinematheque’s near-complete retrospective is Near Death (Sunday, April 21, 1 pm) — six hours long and to my knowledge never before screened theatrically in Toronto. PBS ran it several years ago, starting at midnight, and that remains one of the most haunting film experiences of my life. I’m not sure, though, how much of that was the film and how much the narcoleptic buzz that comes with watching this epic examination of a hospital’s intensive care unit as the night rolls inexorably

composing an american epic: the films of frederick wiseman Cinematheque Ontario, March 15-May 2, Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario. See Rep Cinemas, page 84, for schedule. 416-488-FILM.

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