I lack the eloquence and inclination of some others here, so I am reposting a longish review/analysis of Frederick Wiseman’s Juvenile Court from another website. I think Juvenile Court is a good introduction to his work. Made early in his career, Juvenile Court certainly isn’t a template for all his future films, but it gives a good idea of Wiseman’s style and his interest in institutions.
For those interested in more Wiseman, here is a brief bio and links to reviews of most of his films and an interview.
“The long, astonishing final sequence of Frederick Wiseman’s Juvenile Court (1973) details a probable-cause hearing in the matter of Robert Singleton. Just weeks shy of his 18th birthday, Robert stands accused before Kenneth A. Turner, chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Shelby County, Tennessee, on two counts of robbery with a deadly weapon — the result of one diabolical night as an unwilling, unarmed wheel-man in dual holdups of a Stop & Go and a Kentucky Fried Chicken in downtown Memphis. The hearing itself is pursuant to a motion by the district attorney’s office requesting that the case be remanded to criminal court, where the state can hold the defendant for action by the grand jury, and then try the little bastard as an adult along with his 19-year-old co-defendant.
Robert’s lawyer, who filed his appearance just hours before the hearing commenced, doesn’t dispute his client’s involvement in the stick-ups. But he argues that the court’s waiving jurisdiction simply because the boy is on the cusp of his majority under the statute would be spectacularly arbitrary. There’s no reason for it. This is not some deranged smack freak knocking over fried chicken joints to feed his miserable habit. Besides, the rules governing disposition of juvenile offenders in the state of Tennessee were designed with specific intent by the legislature, were they not? As such, their wisdom ought to be heeded with all due solemnity. As attorneys for both sides proceed to question the lead detective on the case, Judge Turner betrays a measure of impatience. “I think we’re wasting time here,” he finally declares; then calls a recess to the hearing while everyone — the lawyers, the detective, the kid’s probation officers; everyone, it seems, but the defendant himself — files into the judge’s chambers for an off-the-record conference. And that, as Wiseman has already shown us, is where the real work is done.
What’s remarkable about this court is how little in the way of guilt or innocence is decided in open session. Everything seems to be worked out on the sidelines, far more than the average criminal court where rules of procedure are observed somewhat more steadfastly. In Judge Turner’s bailiwick, it’s as though resolving these matters publicly were a tiresome ceremonial duty, a civic “noblesse oblige” that gets in the way of the court’s true function. The final colloquy in chambers is one of the more noteworthy scenes in American cinema of the 1970s. In the interplay of its principals, it’s a virtual anatomy of judicial cunning and benign treachery. Because everyone in that room knows why they’re there and what they’re about to do. There isn’t anything particularly furtive or sinister about it. It’s a carefully choreographed, extra-procedural folk dance that goes on in hundreds, if not thousands, of courthouses across America every day. Only in this instance the defendant’s guilt doesn’t appear to be at issue. That, we learn, has already been decided as a matter of course by all parties.
After some back and forth about drugs being a motivating factor in the robberies — and Robert’s own seduction by the many-headed Moloch of adolescent rebellion — the first hand is played: counsel for the prosecution casually states that they would not be opposed to withdrawing their motion if the court felt it in the young man’s best interest to place him in the State Vocational Training School out in Pikeville for an indefinite period while he straightens out whatever it is that causes him to drive around Memphis in the dead of night, getting involved in all manner of malicious mischief. But . . . they have no interest in ceding jurisdiction, none, if the defense intends to contest the charges in open court or request probation at a sentencing hearing. In other words, counsel has to plead his client out now or there’s no deal. Understanding the point before it was ever made, Robert’s lawyer then says, yes, if the State is willing and the court agreeable, he could see his way toward pleading the boy guilty to a lesser offense right then and there, so long as it’s in the best interest of the young man . . . and keeps him the hell away from a criminal proceeding where he’ll wind up doing a minimum of 20 years.
Judge Turner then speaks to defense counsel in a tone that hovers somewhere between question and instruction: “You wanna plead him guilty to simple robbery . . . two counts . . . and I’ll send him to the training school.” That’s that. Back in the courtroom, however, Robert collapses into a sorrowful state upon being informed of this whirlwind plea bargain. He can’t believe it. He wanted to take this to trial and prove he was forced at gunpoint to drive the getaway car — and his lawyer comes back with an indeterminate sentence at Crime School for him instead. “I feel like I been trapped,” he tearfully appeals to the judge before sentence is passed. “Is there any justice? Is there any justice for me?” He goes on and on about being innocent, to no avail. The naïveté of this kid is touching, really; as though he believes in his own innocence the way he once probably believed in Santa Claus. Amazing.
He’s too bereaved, of course, to comprehend that, in the judge’s words, he is “very guilty,” and that the plea deal was forged solely with his best interest at heart. After all, everybody says so: The judge, the prosecutor, even his own attorney. And when it’s all over and court has adjourned and Robert’s probation officer stands there, telling him with a straight face that they have wrought a miracle this day, and he should do his time in the juvenile facility like a man, and that it will all be erased someday, as in a dream, because “this is America, believe me,”, the only thing Robert can do is shake his lowered head and complain between sobs that while it might be America, it isn’t justice.
And on their way out of the courtroom, counsel for both sides shake hands and congratulate each other on a job well done.
The great legal scholar Lenny Bruce once observed that in the halls of justice the only justice is in the halls, and no one seems to feel the dolorous truth of these words more intimately than the youthful offenders in Wiseman’s film. The Singleton hearing, after all, is the summation of everything Frederick Wiseman has shown in its troubling, component parts throughout the preceding two hours. Boy or girl, black or white, angel or sociopath, the kids in Juvenile Court are unmoored, shorn of their will once they enter the building. Herded together, subject to random searches, shuffled from one end of the process to the other, usually left to sit lined up against a wall on ugly plastic laundromat chairs and wait while their destinies are carved into shape by functionaries in service to a system the accused can barely comprehend. In fact, anyone on the outside with a romantic, or even a conventionally cynical, attitude toward the criminal justice system would find it difficult to grasp the double-edged psychology that infests the process Wiseman details for us so skillfully.
On one end, the caretakers of this court appear to have a genuine compassion and concern for the basic welfare of their subjects. No one desires to see children maltreated, not even in the name of justice; if that means established courtroom procedure sometimes gets shoved aside, then so be it. Robert Singleton’s attorney, while hammering out the plea deal in the final sequence, articulates this ethos more succinctly than anyone: “I feel like sometimes we don’t necessarily do, or strictly follow what is prescribed by law books, but the end result of what we’re trying to achieve here . . . of what I’m trying to achieve here, is the manifest best interest of this boy.” And there can’t be a shred of doubt in anyone’s mind as to the man’s sincerity or the constancy of his heart. How would it benefit society, after all, to have kids spending what’s left of their youth in C-block, up to their eyeballs in hard-core felons, learning God-only-knows what? Meting out justice to minors is not a simple enterprise, and it has to be done with care . . . even if the pint-sized malefactors are almost always guilty as sin.
Which leads to the second, infinitely sharper edge of the court’s mentality: In every case Wiseman trains his camera on — and filming was conducted over a period of two months, February through March of 1973 — there’s never more than a vestigial shadow of that benchmark legal principle, the presumption of innocence. Guilt is presupposed by every adult from the outset, and all procedure seems deliberately geared toward searching for personality disorders, exacting confessions, or cutting plea deals with defense attorneys. That the odd species of justice on display in Juvenile Court is frequently tempered, cushioned by a substantial dose of mercy, doesn’t make this fundamental, tacit presumption any less disturbing. Or puzzling. It’s only as the film progresses, in those isolated moments when the court is not in a merciful humor, that these seemingly conflicting conditions resolve themselves, and the baseline venality of this system becomes clear.
In one instance, the case of an acne-ridden kid busted by undercover Narcotics Bureau agents for unlawful possession and sale of LSD, two ex-junkies who’ve let the Baby Jesus come into their hearts make a fervent appeal on behalf of the defendant. Waving Holiday Inn bibles around and testifying to their own foul, dissolute histories (“I was a beast on the streets of New York, your Honor”), they implore Judge Turner to permit his enrollment in their Christian-fellowship rehabilitation program. “Christ is the answer for this boy’s life!” one exclaims. But the judge will hear none of it. Normally he’d be inclined to let a young defendant journey down the sawdust trail of jailhouse salvation, but not only is this kid denying the charge — going so far as to claim an alibi for the day in question, the punk — that cipher he’s got from the public defender’s office isn’t playing ball either. As far as the court is concerned, if that piddling, uncooperative little . . . acid-head. . . declines to plead guilty and own up to his crimes, then he’s totally bereft of remorse and cannot truly, in the judge’s words, “turn to the Lord.” There’ll be no Chautauqua tent rehab for this youngster; not in Shelby County. The case, though no one has formally requested it, is remanded to criminal court.
First broadcast over PBS stations on October 1, 1973, Juvenile Court was the seventh creation in what has been a steady flow of masterful non-fiction cinema from Frederick Wiseman; a canon that now numbers thirty-four films — he’s recently completed his thirty-fifth, The Garden — and is the most (perhaps the only) important body of work in the worn out subspecies known as “cinema verite” (only two of his films are nominal works of fiction). It’s a term Wiseman absolutely rejects. When he dilates upon it in interviews, he’s more apt to call his work something like “reality fiction” or the more fanciful “reality dream” (he’s also more apt, when expounding on his methods, to sound like a cross between Stan Brakhage and Professor Irwin Corey). But Wiseman is not, as so many critics have pegged him, a serial dissector of American institutions in the old muckraking journalist style (an understandable error, given the generic titles most of his films carry). Rather he has been a chronicler of systems — many of which are institutional by default — and the interaction they have with those subject to their unvanquishable will.
In his earliest films, Frederick Wiseman explored social systems with a degree of ironic lyricism that did little to conceal a deep well of pessimism in his vision. He was too preoccupied by the implied dimension of horror he seemed to see in the most ordinary corners of American life to keep it completely hidden. I’m not even sure he wanted to hide it. The bleak, songlike High School (1968), for example, found within a typical public school in Pennsylvania a desolate social factory that — through a well-oiled process of controlled boredom, no-win repression, enforced mediocrity, and crushing conformity — promulgated a virtual genocide of the spirit and, when successful, spat out a chilling final product. Juvenile Court, in many ways an extension of High School, was (and remains) an immensely distressing coming-of-age film. In it, every principle of justice, long thought to be at the center of our legal system, is reduced by the mechanisms of the court to nothing more than the fantasy-ideals of childhood, the sort of thing kids are supposed to grow out of if they want to become “useful” citizens. Adult tyranny, here carrying the imprimatur of the state, is rendered a systemic fact of life from which there is no effective escape. In Judge Turner’s courtroom (and, by implication, others like it across the fruited plain), a defendant’s very status as a juvenile — the only thing standing between a youthful offender and the ultimate horror of life in the penitentiary — is conditioned by an acceptance of guilt to offenses implicitly more vast and encompassing than the comparatively venial sins that brought them before the bar of justice in the first place. Only those children who surrender any claim to innocence are eligible for the court’s very tender mercies." — Tom Sutpen
I love the film as well. Wiseman was a huge influence on Broomfield.
More documentary directors in the cup please.
you love this film, den? it’s the most crushing thing in the cup…even more depressing than all the wrong voting choices people keep making…i just read through all that and keep writing and erasing and correcting my possible comments, pace the equally depressing thomas bernhard’s roithamer when all i should really do is ask what i want to know, for voting purposes, has wiseman made, if not a happy film, then….ah……….something…………………….
Yes, Wiseman has made films that aren’t soul crushing. If I were to advance I will strongly consider using something more uplifting. But I also feel that if I don’t get to use The Last Letter, I will have a failed as a manager. Decisions, decisions. Maybe you will be able to help me with my potential choice.
THIS is how to make a documentary. Thankfully bereft of the subject skewing of Morris and even the waxing philosophical of Herzog, Weisman just points his camera and let’s it capture what heppens—no narration, no camera tricks, no score.
In fact, it’s so bare that I can see the lawyers/judges in the film watching it and feeling vindicated, just as others have drawn the stark opposite conclusion.
It’s amazing. Good choice, Sir.
Decisions, decisions. Maybe you will be able to help me with my potential choice.
what, by despairing at you? that isn’t exactly help.
(last letter looks like i want to see it but it is without subs on smz so….you know…..and i could make a pairing with peter weiss’ investigation, which i’ve been meaning to read for ages….well, now i’m conflicted, wanting wiseman to win…hmm..)
I’m always fascinated with documentaries about the court system. Mostly because I find it fascinating and terrifying. I hope I never have to go to court. Actually I have before for a traffic violation, and that was bad enough. It makes me more queezy than a hospital. Although I love watching it in films. I guess it gives me the kind of thrill a lot of people get from a horror film.
Eeww. Hospital vs. Courthouse. That’s a good one.
They both smell bad, no one wants to go there, and frequently there are heard cries of agony.
I had the utmost honor of meeting Frederick Wiseman last year when he came to Honolulu to introduce the screening of his debut film Titicut Follies. An amazing man, a criminally neglected master filmmaker. Juvenile Court is an excellent selection and highly representative of the bulk of his films. I believe he’s only made two “fiction” films, and one of them, The Last Letter is the soul-crushing film to crush every other soul-crushing film into oblivion. I think Sir Douglas mentioned this already, but that film isn’t necessarily indicative of the usual type film Wiseman makes, but I hope that if he advances, people will get to see that masterpiece.
By the way, I’ve been in a holding cell for about 8 hours, and I can tell you that it was not a pleasant experience. They served egg salad sandwiches and a homeless derelict kelp screaming to be tended to by “a faulty nurse.” But I did see the power forward from my high school basketball team there, and he provided me “protection.” Ha. Good times.
This film has given me a real headache as far as voting goes. I was bowled over by The Children Are Watching Us and really only sat down to watch this in order to be able to legitimately vote for the DeSica film, but this has left a big impression on me and I now very much want to see all Wiseman’s documentaries (which I’ll endeavour to do regardless of the outcome of the match). It’s a bit of a coin toss between the two for me now :(
Twodeadmagpies – Thank you for citing Bernhard’s Correction. I was just whining on a day or two ago how I haven’t found anyone interested in reading this amazing novel among all the people I know. This made my day. Let me know what you think at some point. It is one of my all-time favourite novels and converted me to a long time admirer of Bernhard. Cheers! Or as Roithamer would say: carry on sifting and sorting.
For anyone looking for a dense, complex and completely different work, I can’t recommend this work enough. Also recommended for students or fans of Wittgenstein.
Sorry for interrupting the thread, as I have not seen the film.
i’m worried about you bob, if that’s your favourite book. it’s my standard of reference for absolute misery, and if there is such a thing, the only work of fiction that ever made me think i should get round to killing myself. that said, it is brilliant and i adore bernhard, though i might prefer extinction, if only for being less violently depressing…(i have gargoyles waiting on a shelf at home for me, have you read that?)
i don’t mind about this being completely irrelevant to juvenile court, at least it bumps the thread – or perhaps it should be in the leuchter one as apparently bernhard’s prompt for correction was his view of austria’s historical revisionism of its role in wwII.
or if sir douglas wins and chooses the last letter next (having found subs) then it will have become a teeny bit more relevant….although not really.
(for those who aren’t fans of austrian fiction consider all the above just a giant bump, edit out the content, and remember to vote!)
“you love this film, den? it’s the most crushing thing in the cup…even more depressing than all the wrong voting choices people keep making”
You can love things that are depressing and soul crushing, try being married.
You don’t feel like that happens with the subjects and audience in the films of Morris as well?
Thanks for the reply Twodeadmagpies. I have read just about everything I can get my hands on from Bernhard, including his autobiography. I should make it clear that I read him in translation, as my German is too poor for his run-on sentences – haha!
Correction is still my favourite, but I agree it is one of his bleakist – although his whole work could be considered bleak. Correction appeals to my manic-depressive side, and also my fascination with the character and life of Wittgentein. Bernhard likes to re-imagine real characters and explore obsessive personalities. He takes Wittgenstein’s character again as a subject in Wittgenstein’s Nephew. I also liked his take on the eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould in his novel The Loser. Gould is another key figure for me. Btw – don’t worry about my mental state. I have worked my way through just about every depressive writer and filmmaker on the planet (seen all of Bergman’s bleakest) and I am still here. I keep meaning to contribute to one of those world literature forums, to meet some other Bernhard enthusiasts, but this damn site is taking all my time – rats!
Bernhard deserves some recognition, as he is an original writer with a distinctive voice, like many of the auteurs we know and love here. I suggest others give him a try if you like dense, philosophical works. I also recommend Gargoyles (his first fiction work), magpie. For me, all his work is a variation on re-occuring themes, much like Kafka. If I like a writer, just like a filmmaker, I tend to read (or see) everything by them. Such is the case with Bernhard. I am glad to have discovered another Bernhard fan on site.
Now just to give something back to the intent of the thread. I am working my way slowly through the Wiseman. Fascinating documentary, much in the style of others I have seen on PBS – where it was originally shown. It captures a certain time and place perfectly. I will definitely be trying more docs from this man, although I am sure I have seen a few already, at some point. I doubt I will have time, though, to watch both competing films for the vote, as I am short on time for the event, and having to watch some other films for later votes.
Correction appeals to my manic-depressive side
Bob? Manic depressive? Noooo! ;)
“You don’t feel like that happens with the subjects and audience in the films of Morris as well?”
If I may pose an answer for Zampano (though I’m in no way speaking for him)…
Possibly in some of them one could feel this in a Morris documentary; certainly. Nowhere near the same level, though. Take The Fog of War, for example. I can’t imagine anyone coming out of that film feeling McNamara was just a deer in the headlights, almost. He was a good man that just had the force of events turn against him; he didn’t want war, he didn’t actively engage, he didn’t even really make the decision to go to war. He hates war. Everything about it; which is why he took the job of Defense secretary in the first place. To advise against war. We come out feeling that way because the only perspective we’re given is Robert McNamara telling us those exact things; word-for-word. At every level McNamara obfuscates, and defers responsibility (which is what every politician does). It’s not a fault of the film; it’s a film that wants to explore the psychology of one of the most controversial political figures in history, and in that regard it’s a perfect documentary. I cried in the film, and afterward I felt so stupid, and after that I felt as if that was the exact reaction Morris wanted from me.
Wiseman does away with perspective, though. It’s not about the juveniles accused; it’s not about the people that work with the juveniles. It’s not a film about any particular person or a film that takes place from any one person’s perspective. In fact the entire last section of the film is ‘about’ Robert Singleton but we don’t even hear him speak until about almost 15-20 minutes into that section; until the film is about ten minutes from its end. The fate of this man is being decided not by him, but by forces he has absolutely no control over. If his presiding judge is a stickler, and an asshole he goes to prison for twenty years minimum; if he gets a more understanding judge (he did) he’ll get another opportunity. It’s a film about many things; courts, poverty, racism, justice, law, etc. but in the end Juvenile Court isn’t truly about any of those things. Juvenile Court is truly about the people in front of the lens; nothing more. That is why the film allows for so much freedom in interpreting events where as most documentaries only allow us one or two true interpretations.
So you are saying that in Fog of War, you believe that when McNamara watches the film of himself he probably feels vindicated? But for audiences watching him, they are not initially drawing opposite conclusions, but later they might. Although they may feel like Morris did not want them to draw opposite conclusions. Is that it??
I can see what you are saying, that it seems like a movie like Juvenile Court will be more open to different conclusions about things, where Fog of War seems to intend to drive you towards a more narrow set of conclusions. I can see what you are saying here. Although I don’t think the set of conclusions in Morris’ film is very narrow at all. Maybe relatively it is, but I can attest to the fact that there are many different conclusions to be made. The I watched the film in the theatre with several of my friends, we were talking about the film in depth all night long, with many different opinions on McNamara and what happened.
In some ways a film like Juvenile Court is almost more deceptive by making you think it’s allowing you to make broader conclusions than it is. Wiseman’s directorial hand may not be as evident by his techniques as Morris, but they are still just as much there. Not realizing that can make it even more dangerous for you to be tempted to think his film is somehow more true.
Also, sometimes a documentary just needs more focus. Like anything in life, if we are not provided some kind of focus, the world is just too broad and overwhelming to make any real sense. You need to hone in on certain things from time to time. Of course seeing the big picture is essential too. Having a good balance is important.
“Also, sometimes a documentary just needs more focus. Like anything in life, if we are not provided some kind of focus, the world is just too broad and overwhelming to make any real sense. You need to hone in on certain things from time to time. Of course seeing the big picture is essential too. Having a good balance is important.”
That’s exactly what Wiseman provides. He narrows his scopes to a single place, or idea (films about the military, institutions, towns, etc…), but in that scope he allows for anything to happen. It allows for a total view on the subject.
It’s not about deception. I’m not deceived by a film, I’m manipulated maybe (there’s a difference) but only so much as I allow myself to be. Wiseman himself admits to manipulation, but any filmmaker that doesn’t is lying or foolish so… I don’t see a problem with Wiseman’s films being manipulative. He shoots, edits it together in a manner he feels accurately recreates his experience, and allows an audience to decide what it means. Morris shoots, and edits the film in a manner that achieves a specific reaction from the audience. I’ll give a quote from Morris:
“McNamara is a more puzzling figure. It’s one of the things that makes him interesting. He’s difficult to dismiss as an out and out monster, even though undeniably many of the things he did were monstrous.”
That’s a true statement, for the most part, and that opinion comes through in the documentary. The difference between Morris and Wiseman is I get a certain sense of Morris’ opinion in the course of his work and I don’t in Wiseman’s. I don’t know how Wiseman feels about the juvenile court system (at least in the course of watching the film).
It’s not to say one is better than the other. Wiseman couldn’t make a film about Robert McNamara and Morris couldn’t make a film about patients in a medical intensive care unit. It really comes down to personal preference; I prefer Wiseman, maybe you prefer Morris, but we should be celebratory that they both exist.
Just to clarify, I really do love Wiseman as much if not more than Morris. And I agree with you that he does a good job with what I described about being able to balance a specific focus and also getting a bigger picture. I mean he’s the best with his approach to documentary filmmaking I’ve seen.
It’s not about deception. I’m not deceived by a film, I’m manipulated maybe (there’s a difference) but only so much as I allow myself to be. Wiseman himself admits to manipulation, but any filmmaker that doesn’t is lying or foolish so…
I always thought if a filmmaker is lying, he is using deception. Isn’t that what the word means??
Yes, and Wiseman admits he’s manipulating us so… therefore he’s not deceiving us.
Right, I see what you are saying. Would you say that Morris admits his manipulation too?
I haven’t read any interviews in which he admits it, but he’s intelligent and a wonderful documentary filmmaker. I would be incredibly surprised if he didn’t. The very structure of Fog of War is an admission to its manipulation. Morris knows he’s making a film about a very controversial figure, is using emotionally charged footage, and a single person’s perspective on his own life. Morris knows exactly what he’s doing.
Oh so you are talking about the director admitting this in a communication outside of the film itself, like an interview with another source? I thought you meant that the director admits through the film itself, either explicitly or implicitly, that the director is using manipulation.
I’m talking about both.
Wiseman admits his films are manipulative in interviews and one can see what could be perceived as manipulations in the course of his films (the entire last portion of Juvenile Court, for example, could easily be read as a rather manipulative ending (and a fantastic one)). I haven’t heard Morris talking about how his films may be manipulative, but I can see in the films themselves how Morris is manipulating. That’s the distinction I made.
Ok, so neither of them are the liars that you speak of?
No. I don’t know if I can think of a director I could name off-hand.
Oh ok. Well I guess that’s a good thing! :)
EDIT: well maybe Michael Moore who I am seeing another post going on about right now