Loitering With Intent

January 7, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

At a blog called The Beautiful Sentence, I came across this quote from Frederick Wiseman

The only point of view I start off with is that if I hang around long enough, I'll find a movie

My first reaction was: if I sit in a Freddie Wiseman film long enough, eventually it will be over. [His latest, “Jackson Heights,” runs three hours ten minutes. “Belfast, Maine,” with a population 1/20 that of Jackson Heights, was over four hours long.]

But my next, and less cynical, thought was something that I heard William H. Whyte say at an ESS convention in the early 1980s.

I know that if I look at something nobody’s ever looked at before, and if I look long enough, I’m going to find something that nobody’s ever found before

It’s the ethnographer’s creed – hanging around, and then hanging around systematically, will lead to some insightful combination of observation and ideas. Whyte makes his ideas explicit. In Wiseman’s films, the ideas are hidden in the editing – the selection and juxtapositions.No voiceover narration, no interviews, no evident filmmaker presence at all. The filmmaker is seemingly invisible, indifferent, off somewhere paring his fingernails, though what he is really doing is paring and pasting thousands of feet of film.

The similarity in their work goes further.Wiseman’s documentaries are sociological. Whyte’s sociology is cinematic. Wiseman’s films are about social contexts, usually institutions. His first, “Titicut Follies,” explored (exposed really) a prison for the criminally insane. His next-to-most recent, documents London’s National Gallery. In between are flims like “High School,” “Zoo,” “Boxing Gym,” “La Comédie-Française ou L'amour joué,” and many more.

After his best-seller, The Organization Man (1956), Whyte turned to more visual kinds of research, not so much listening to what people say but watching what they do, especially in public places. He and his researchers were, like Wiseman, “hanging around,” but they were also filming and photographing and analyzing that evidence all with the goal of discovering what makes a space attractive. Attractive not in the sense of nice-looking, but literally: a space is attractive if it attracts people.    

Places to sit, sunlight, water (touchable, splashable), street characters (entertainers) – all these attract people. 

That leads to the greatest insight.

(A film of Whyte’s city observations is here . You can find a shorter 3-minute version here.)

1 comment:

Andrew Gelman said...

The first part of your post reminds me of the saying, God is in every leaf of every tree.