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Sunday, May 9, 2021

Classics of Documentary Filmmaking

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Public Housing (1951)

Frederick Wiseman’s influential survey of urban society, Public Housing, is perhaps his most beautifully filmed documentary. The homeless, the hopeless, the litter-shredding drifters, the horrid conditions beneath the Boston hills: Wiseman doesn’t try to sanitize them, or move them around the grid in a strange way. With his camera of aggressive intent, the director shows them time and again: weariness, shackles, poverty.

“If you were hungry, you’d eat him!” complains one woman. “I want it all to go away, this whole racket, and just get back to normal people,” says another of her drinking companions. “Normal people” aren’t always human, Wiseman points out, as the men strut in and out of the footage, and seem to generally be. The one sustained line of the film is “Failing and starving, I had to get rid of them anyway,” a refrain as deliberate as it is haunting.

Public Housing, though, turns out to be more than just stomach-turning memory. Wiseman pulls back, and re-examines these lives, excellently. When one homeless man says he’s going to drink the mountain down, Wiseman calls him on it. When an attendant snaps the man’s picture, Wiseman asks the photojournalist what he was trying to say. Instead of trusting his mind, Wiseman shows us the picture.

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