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Fred Wiseman's unblinking camera watches how society works

You could title his life like a B-grade movie: ''How a Yale-educated lawyer made 'Box Office Poison' and lived to tell about it.'' Or, better yet, ''How to earn a living shooting welfare agencies, meatpacking plants, and Neiman-Marcus employees.'' In other words, cinema verite.

It's a tough way to make a buck, this search after reality through the medium of film. For this controversial and noncommercial corner of the industry is a far cry from the hills of Hollywood and its slick venues of filmmaking. But as one of the country's premier documentarians, Fred Wiseman prefers being a member of that renegade group of independent filmmakers whose movies are more in sync with their consciences than their pocketbooks.

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''Fred is one of the best documentary filmmakers in the US,'' says Deac Rossell, film director for Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. ''His film ''Titicut Follies' is one of the world's great pictures.'' Producing spare, almost pugnaciously titled films, including, ''Welfare,'' ''Meat,'' and ''High School, '' which tell their stories completely without narration, Wiseman has earned three Emmy awards, a Guggenheim, and most recently, a MacArthur Prize fellowship , the so-called genius award. They have also won him a reputation as an unflinching social commentator. ''Our best and bravest observer of the grimmer side of contemporary existence,'' wrote Newsweek critic Harry Waters.

In the two decades since this scrappy, articulate lawyer-by-training first picked up a camera during the 1960s heyday of the cinema verite movement, Wiseman has become one of the most successful practitioners of his genre. Pioneered by France's New Wave filmmakers and America's Richard Leacock, it is an art form that subscribes to its principle of ''film truth'' by permitting little intrusion between the camera and the viewer. Visually, the films are distinguished by a lack of artifice, a grainy, rough-hewn quality, and commercial nonviability.

Thanks to what one observer called ''a sweetheart of a contract'' with public television, Wiseman has been able to crank out an almost unprecedented number of feature-length documentaries, earning more than an average amount of praise and controversy. ''Titicut Follies'' - his first full-length film, about Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, in Massachusetts - went into a legal wrangle with state officials and came out with a one-two punch that still requires a court order for a public screening.

The film also put Wiseman's career on the map.

Today, when documentaries are still considered proverbial box-office poison and other cinema verite directors have fallen by the wayside because of fluctuating financial and public support, Wiseman has hung on. In the words of one observer, ''He's the champ, the big survivor.''

It is an assertion that nontheless leaves many critics rubbing their eyes when, after two decades in the business filming the institutional underbelly of society, Fred Wiseman has made his latest movie about Neiman-Marcus, a tony, Texas-based department store. A film about the rich, and in color.

Apparently devoid of plot, ''The Store'' is a rambling, two-hour look at the deluxe merchandise, employees, and customers of Neiman-Marcus. But what starts out as a deceptively discursive exploration of ''understated'' diamond bracelets , ''practical'' sables, and employees discussing Washington's Birthday as ''a meaningful event in coats,'' ends up a significant, if subtle, indictment of yet another group ethic. Many critics found it unconvincing. Wiseman seems unperturbed.

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''I follow my nose,'' says the elfin director, comfortable in scuffed shoes and an office that resembles the back stacks of a film library. ''Why did I do 'The Store' now? I don't know, certainly the idea of doing a documentary about a department store occurred to me a long time ago,'' he says.

It is an unusual film for Wiseman in more than one way - and more than one observer has expressed disappointment in the film's lack of bite. Some have charged that it is simply another example of the director's recent trend toward films more meditative than explosive.

But Wiseman, undeterred, insists that ''The Store'' is within his tradition of examining America through relentless observation of its institutions. ''What I've been trying to do is a series of films about institutions that are prominent in American society. And it seems to me that most people at some point in their lives pass through a department store. It is an institutional link.''

Wiseman, in fact, is quite big on links, institutional and otherwise. Indeed only one film - his fictional ''Seraphita's Diary'' - is about an individual. The rest are visual explorations of the group ethic. ''Fred is actually making the same picture over and over,'' says Rossell, adding that his films all center on ''the exploration of institutions.''

''I don't know why (this is so),'' muses Wiseman in his Cambridge office, surrounded by the outtakes of his next film. ''I suppose one gets a better reflection of society as a whole through the institutions, not the individual. Society is like (the) abominable snowman: You never catch sight of it. But he leaves his tracks in institutions.''

Wiseman's films have focused on some terrible tracks - assembly-line butchery , preparations for war, colonialism. But of all the themes that recur in his work - power, knowledge, racism, religion - none is more predominant than that of community.

''The presence or absence of community is (addressed) in all my films,'' he says. '''Juvenile Court' and 'Welfare' were in a sense dealing with the absence of community, the breakdown of the family structure, and the consequences for the rest of the community. 'Essene' is that film (about a Benedictine monastery) that deals most directly with the (successful) community. Even though people are expressing their concerns in theological terms, they are really involved in trying to live together. Governance, work, play, love, religion are all issues right there up front. The Neiman- Marcus movie has the same kind of issues, the employees are involved in (the group) mystique, its ideology.''

As Wiseman admits, his fascination with ideology flows from ''the general question of how (ideology) is used for the purposes of social control within the group.'' Although he doesn't say it, one might conclude that his legal training has given him a penchant for controversy.

No stranger to public feuding, Wiseman's latest wrangle has been with public television. He no longer has a PBS contract - a change that has caused him to voice some concerns over the future of American-made documentaries.

''The only real market for documentaries is in public television,'' he says flatly. ''But it's in bad shape, funds are drying up, programming decisions are extremely political.'' Wiseman doesn't hesitate to add that without the MacArthur Prize, his own filmmaking career would have been in jeopardy.

The director's first brush with controversy came early on, while attending Williams College. When this son of a Boston lawyer discovered there were no Jewish fraternities at the small Eastern school and subsequently tried to fight the Greek system, Wiseman was lumped with a group of malcontents. After attending Yale Law School (where he insists he ''read novels''), entering private legal practice, and eventually becoming an independent moviemaker, Wiseman essentially made his career mark with the much-publicized banning of ''Titicut Follies.'' It was an experience that not only cemented his feelings for the potential abuse of power by institutions, but also affected his hopes for his films' impact.

Still, he insists that his films ''are never made on ideological grounds,'' that they do not ''confirm or deny a particular social theory,'' even though he edits them - his favorite part of the filmmaking process - to appear sequential. ''When you are shooting you have no idea what the themes will be,'' he explains. ''In the editing room you chip away everything that isn't the film.'' He also cuts his films to give minimum information without narration - a device Wiseman eschews.

Ironic as it is, Wiseman also decries the label of ''film-truth,'' even when applied to a documentary. He refers to his own works as ''reality fictions.''

''My little response to the whole question of objectivity is that my films are biased, prejudiced, condensed, compressed, but fair,'' he says with a smile. ''The whole thing involves a selection. What I try to do is make it fair to my experience, but my experience may be different than somebody else's. So I try and cut the film in such a way that the film will contain differences of opinion and contradictory points of view because reality does. These things are not simple. If it were simple, it wouldn't be worth doing.''

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