April 24, 2002




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Unhappy endings
Domestic Violence darkens the silver lining.

By Susan Gerhard


IT'S STRANGE, really, how once we've paid our 7 to 10 dollars, sat down in our uncomfortable seats, and arranged our popcorn in the two- to three-inch space around our ankles, we are, in a sense, hostages to the movies. No matter how awful the scenario, how difficult it is to watch, how unenlightened we may feel, it generally takes an act of God to get us to separate ass from vinyl and leave. Feature filmmakers capitalize on this imprisoned audience regularly, teasing and numbing us until, once in a long while, they explode our retinas with a real ending.

Consider, on the other hand, the plight of the documentary filmmaker, competing for attention with the comforts of a couch, the call of food, the telephone, traffic surrounding the only medium generally available to them: TV. Is it any wonder nonfiction filmmaking these days has stooped to the psychic level of chain mail? Taxicab Confessions, Cops, Fear Factor, and The Real World? It won't get the annual Oscar nod, but "reality" + tits/violence/humiliation = us.

Frederick Wiseman, whose Domestic Violence arrives in San Francisco this week, has emerged from a different time and place altogether. Still, his movies manage to hit the circuit, or let's say, "a" circuit – from PBS to universities to the soon-to-be not-for-profit cinema near you. He works at length, doesn't pander to short attention spans, doesn't use intertitles or voice-over narration, and puts together complicated filmic essays on unpopular topics with the full confidence that audiences are going to stay with him for the entire, grueling, duration. In a 35-year career that opened with the kind of killer controversy that wets the dreamworld of documentary filmmakers – Titicut Follies (1967), a documentary about the criminally insane, raised so much ire it couldn't be released for years – Wiseman's remained above the fray, widening the scope with every ensuing project, taking an approach that's so thoughtful, so humble, so not-ready-for-primetime-headlines, and so free of "buzz" that, like most of Ken Loach's fictional films, you can't quite understand how any of them ever get seen. His reputation alone carries them. Wiseman followers know that his films generally dismantle the institutions he's chosen, from Basic Training to Public Housing, with the poetry of everyday existence exploding at one point or another with an incredible, revelatory moment snatched from thin air.

To even say the words of Frederick Wiseman's new film's title – Domestic Violence – is to feel you already know the story: abused women, lack of self-confidence, tragedy or miraculous recovery. But this is neither a single page from the rape crisis training manual nor, alternately, an episode on the Jerry Springer-Cops continuum. It opens with an ending – bloodied, bruised bodies being carted away from their homes in the screaming light of a Tampa, Fla., morning – and builds to a beginning, as it moves from police duties to the world of a battered women's shelter where, it's hoped, some of those women will end up. The shelter is called the Spring, and most of the film occurs within its fluorescent walls – sessions with children drawing the horror situation in Crayola with heartbreaking naïveté; sessions with the woman whose outsize anger spews out with uncomfortable rapidity; sessions where women are interviewed, then checked for lice before they can enter. One gets to know these women, watch them untangle the traps they've fallen into, see them wander through the confusion of love-hate-horror and look for a way out.

By the time you feel sure their endings could be happy, Wiseman moves in with the real story, the one that symbolizes the root of all this. Two police officers arrive at a home in turmoil. A man has called them there because, it seems, he fears he'll do violence to his wife. The scene develops subtly – only after a few tenuous minutes with the couple, a mulleted, grizzled blond drinker and his tired, frightened, and not-well-feeling spouse, do we hear the real danger: the man has already attempted to kill her once that week. Still, she doesn't want to leave, and the police have no ability to force her. The camera leaves her – and the film's audience – stranded in the tangled state of despair. She may die that night, but she's already been victimized to a point where she can't quite care enough to leave.

The full emotional impact of the ending cannot possibly be "given" away, which is why I tell it. Imagining it – like imagining the nauseous gulp at the end of a roller-coaster ride – is not the same as experiencing it. After three hours spent seeing the world of abused spouses through Wiseman's eyes, it's an ending that's earned. Wiseman, now topping 70 years, and still creating some of the best nonfiction films around, is working his way to his own brilliant climax. 'Domestic Violence' plays Sun/28-Tues/30, Roxie Cinema, S.F. See Rep Clock, in Film listings, for show times.