Frederick Wiseman is, of course, a permanent fixture in any documentary canon, but the films often cited as his best are the early masterpieces such as Titicut Follies and High School. Beginning with 1973’s Juvenile Court, however, Wiseman’s program of creating textured dramas through the uncanny observation of human institutions began to open up and take on a magisterial eeriness. The running times grew longer and the rhythms became more nuanced. A master was making his most assured, potent work.
The Store might be the finest example of this period. An endlessly fascinating look at a Neiman-Marcus luxury department store in Dallas (at the height of popularity of the television show that bore the city’s name), the film is a study of surfaces, the performance of wealth and the codification of capitalism. It’s also a pitch-perfect, understated comedy, featuring smiling exercises for employees, discussions of sable fur coats as art, 1980s fashion/make-up/portraiture and holiday ridiculousness. The sales process is thoroughly and entertainingly dissected, everyone is acting and there’s an amazing motif of customers looking at prices and quietly laying down an unpurchased item.
The meeting scenes, which are always a backbone to Wiseman’s work, are especially potent and revealing. The narrow scope of the film — one store with finite angles — allows Wiseman to create textures of meaning through repetitions of images, gestures and speech. This is a movie about creating, confirming and reaffirming the self-image of the upper middle class in America. Watching expert salespeople try to take money from very opinionated, particular and strangely suspicious/fragile rich people is exhilarating. Reflections and forced smiles, the gamesmanship of the sale, the art of display; we are phony and real and playing at being phony/real. Wiseman sees all of it and edits it brilliantly. The Store is a masterpiece among the many he created, and deserves to be seen by all.
The Store will be screening as part of the La Di Da Film Festival in New York on Saturday, September 14th at 7 P.M. at Anthology Film Archives. On 16mm!
You can also buy The Store from Wiseman’s own Zipporah Films here.