Racetrack (Frederick Wiseman, 1985)
[note: review originally published 1Dec2008]
Wiseman’s documentaries are unmistakable; there is nothing but footage, footage, footage, all of it seemingly taken long after the subjects of the documentary have forgotten the cameras are even there. In this case, the subjects are the denizens of Elmont, NY track Belmont Park, America’s largest track in more ways than one; not only is it a mile and a half in diameter, but it’s one of the tracks writers have always gravitated toward when looking for racetrack color.
You don’t have to look too far for good stories at Belmont. Wiseman discovers a wealth of them, and interweaves them to give a picture of life at the track. (It’s not always, shall we say, a family-friendly picture; one review I’ve read called one of the scenes in this film “one of the most evocative sex scenes ever filmed”, and I’m not going to say the writer is wrong.) Ever the egalitarian, Wiseman turns his camera on everyone from the touts and bums non-track-aficionados expect to the wealthy socialites in the exclusive box seats (there’s a long, highly amusing 85th birthday scene that will just make your jaw drop at the incredible waste; in some circles, racing is truly, still, the sport of kings).
When a filmmaker imparts a sense of his own style to any film, especially a documentary, he runs the risk of gaming the system, as it were; the film could well become more “a [director] film” than “a film about [subject] that happens to be directed by [director]”. (For a good example, look at David Fincher’s first few films, which are both brilliant and unmistakably David Fincher’s work, and then look at Panic Room, which is a David Fincher film with nothing to recommend it but Fincher’s style; see what I mean?) There are few documentarists who can actually pull it off, I’ve found. Frederick Wiseman, by having his style be the complete absence of style, has managed to pull it off in such a way that that complete absence of style, which one would think would make the film anonymous, defines Wiseman’s work so well that once you’ve seen one of his flicks, the rest are unmistakable after only a few seconds of footage. He takes the quotidian and makes it gripping. If you’re unfamiliar with Wiseman (and given how little distribution his movies get, that’s probably most of you), do whatever you must to get familiar with him ASAP. The more of us there are clamoring for a box set, the likelier it is we’ll actually get one, no? ****