Critics speak often of the remarkable consistency of Frederick Wiseman’s body of work, his from-the-beginning rejection of all things directly explanatory (titles, voice-overs, etc.) and his decades-spanning interest in haunting the corridors of large institutions. But Juvenile Court (1973), Wiseman’s seventh documentary feature, screening today at MoMA, represents something of a transitional moment in terms of the filmmaker’s approach to his material: the film is, at 144 minutes, the director’s first to exceed the 90-minute mark, pointing toward his later epic-length municipal immersions while sticking to the grainy black and white and the often hectic rhythms of his 1967 debut, Titicut Follies. Perhaps the newfound expansiveness of Juvenile Court was simply a result of increased funding and/or access, but the film is not merely longer than much of Wiseman’s early work; it’s also more deeply, and fascinatingly, ambivalent.
When Wiseman does provide the words, he doesn’t mince them, so of course Juvenile Court takes place precisely where the title says: a Memphis-area juvenile court where social workers, lawyers, and one Southern gentleman of a judge profess to have in mind the “best interests” of a procession of allegedly wayward youths while nonetheless holding fast to the letter of the law. Though Juvenile Court concludes with a verdict in one case involving the armed robbery of a KFC (“This is America, it can be erased” is one consolation offered to the distraught training school-bound minor), the majority of the film focuses on preliminary process: parental interviews, the administering of inkblot tests, deliberations in the judge’s chambers over whether to retain jurisdiction. The idea that an accumulation of tests and testimonies can culminate in a single verdict, much less one that functions both punitively and pedagogically, comes to seem more than a little ridiculous, but the decidedly resigned optimism of the judge and his interlocutors suggests they might agree.