Frederick Wiseman's Aspen is an unsung American masterpiece | Bleader

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Frederick Wiseman's Aspen is an unsung American masterpiece

Posted By on 05.12.15 at 01:00 PM

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  • Zipporah Films
  • Aspen
Of the ten films playing in the Frederick Wiseman retrospective currently underway at Doc Films (which, full disclosure, my wife Kat Sachs and I programmed), Aspen (1991) is one of the documentarian's most underrated films, if not one of the most underrated American movies, period. It plays in the series tonight at 7 PM. Like Robert Altman's comparably novelistic Nashville (1975), Aspen is a both a city portrait and a State of the Union address, a bracing mix of cutting social satire and heartfelt Americana. It's also prescient in its analysis of American society at the dawn of the first Bush administration, the subject of a current cinematic wave that includes Cold in July, Foxcatcher, It Follows, Red Army, White Bird in a Blizzard, The Wolf of Wall Street, and the low-budget comedy L For Leisure, which screens Thursday at the Chicago Underground Film Festival.

To various degrees of irony, those recent films portray the late 80s and early 90s as a time of innocence unprotected, back when the U.S. still had a semblance of a working class and the Internet had yet to colonize the popular culture. Aspen suggests that, by 1990, great change was already taking place, and the results weren't looking good. Wiseman communicates this primarily through the film's structure. Aspen feels rather like two films struggling to make contact—sometimes humorously, sometimes frustratedly. One of these films is an affectionate portrait of Aspen's blue-collar community; the other is a bitterly funny look at the wealthy visitors who treat the city (and, by implication, all of America) as their private playground. This second film takes up a disproportionately large portion of the run time, as though the materialistic snobs onscreen had usurped Wiseman as Aspen's director.

The movie contains other jokes that aren't so subtle, as Wiseman invites us to have good laughs at the snobs' bad taste. The fashions in Aspen are as tacky as anything from White Bird, and even the good songs on the soundtrack are rendered tacky by the people we see listening to them. (The Beatles' cover of "Twist and Shout," for instance, arrives on the soundtrack during a CEO's Hawaiian-themed party in a roped-off area of a ski resort.) Throughout the film Wiseman shows these people acting callously, speaking ill of others, but without demonstrating any positive traits of their own. As in numerous Wiseman documentaries, no person appears in more than one scene—when someone behaves poorly, this determines their entire "character" in the context of the film. There's a liberating, righteous anger to Aspen's funnier scenes, bringing to mind the comic passages of Wiseman's earlier, more confrontational films, like High School (1968) and Welfare (1975).

  • Zipporah Films
  • Aspen
"I guess this all started when Narcissus saw his reflection in the water," says a doctor at a cosmetic-surgery conference that comprises Aspen's first long sequence, introducing the theme of superficiality that will carry through the rest of the film. (It's an ironic riff on the chant of "In the beginning . . ." that a monk delivers in the opening scene.) The doctor makes a few compelling arguments for cosmetic surgery, only to digress into some hateful comments about Jews and "non-Caucasians" who resist the practice. Wiseman's message is clear: that for some people, the pursuit of looking good becomes a pretext for rejecting others whom they consider less attractive. The film subtly reiterates this message whenever it shows us isolated mansions high up on the mountains—and less subtly when it takes us into a Hard Rock Cafe knockoff called Boogie's Diner, where patrons pay hundreds of dollars for leather jackets that double as advertisements for the franchise. This scene arrives after a tour of an art gallery where a painter charges high prices for photorealist portraits of Coke machines and grocery store shelves. The high society depicted here has turned cultural appreciation into a function of consumerism—in a culture where first impressions are everything, art need not contain substance so long as there's a big dollar sign attached to it.

This theme of whitewashing the culture turns chilling in the movie's final third when Wiseman visits a literature course at an adult-education center in town. One older man—a standoffish type in a charming cardigan and square-frame glasses—lambasts the Gustave Flaubert story under discussion because he refuses to relate to the heroine, an impoverished woman of below-average intelligence.

When I finished reading this, I got depressed, because there are probably countless people in the world living on this thoughtless level. They go day-to-day, observe religious ceremony, but [don't] have a philosophical concept in [their] head as to what it means . . . As far as I'm concerned, [the heroine] was more or less of a waste. And the mere fact that you can love somebody like that? All very beautiful, but maybe I'm more of a utilitarian.

Here Wiseman locates the bigotry and selfishness beneath the well-to-do subjects' pursuits of luxury. What makes this scene especially provocative is that the man speaking appears to be middle- or lower-middle-class (the community center certainly looks like a modest establishment). It's one of the most concise critiques in American movies of the Reagan era. With this carefully selected comment, Wiseman suggests that the "utilitarian" thinking of Reaganomics did not just decimate our country's manufacturing industry, but carried dark spiritual consequences as well, cutting into its supporters' ability to empathize with others. Mitt Romney, in many of his presidential campaign speeches, demonstrated that this way of thinking remains powerful in American politics.

Aspen might possess the righteous anger of Wiseman's early period, but what makes it a masterpiece is how it balances that sentiment with genuine empathy. Consider the way Wiseman depicts a manicurist's salon at one of the numerous shopping malls he shows in the film. He represents the customers by only their hands, but shows the manicurists in full—one person's luxury is another person's job. And in Wiseman's films there's nothing shameful about work. Since he often presents people at work without introducing what their jobs are—as in an early scene of Aspen depicting miners drilling into a mountain—their labor assumes a pictorial fascination, if not a certain integrity. (Besides Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, I don't know of another film that finds so much majesty in images of snow plows in action.)

The director's respect for working people reaches its apotheosis during the film's centerpiece, which depicts a retired firefighter's 40th wedding anniversary party at another community center. One of the most affectionate passages in Wiseman's 40-film career, this sequence shows each of the couple's grown children (and some of their former colleagues) raising one modest, but heartfelt, toast after another. The decor is also notably modest—the tile floors and fake-wood panelling both seem to be about a generation old, and the fluorescent lighting is unflattering. Yet even these details convey a certain authenticity—call it the wear and tear of communal use. A distinguishing detail of this sequence is that the speechmakers acknowledge how much the couple means to "the whole town of Aspen." This is one of the few times in the movie that anyone speaks of civic responsibility, and the effect is striking. At so many of the other gatherings Wiseman shows us, the people onscreen seem to have no sense of community beyond what they see in front of them.

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Film Details

  • Aspen


    • Rated - Documentary


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