Thursday, November 24, 2005

Titicut Follies (Wiseman, 1967)

The most incredible aspect of Frederick Wiseman’s film, Titicut Follies, in which he documents the conditions and procedures of the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Bridgewater, is that none of the workers appearing on-screen seem the least bit aware that an exposé is underway. With supreme casualness they go about their daily routines, which seem to involve an awful lot of herding around inexplicably nude men with severe mental disorders. Wiseman conducts no interviews, nor does he provide any kind of narration, opting instead to act as a silent observer to the events unfolding in front of him. His primary source of commentary is in his editing choices, such as the decision to open and close the film with a bizarre cabaret show that seems to feature both staff workers and inmates/patients alike. Leading the proceedings is a gregarious guard that seems entirely oblivious to the human misery surrounding him. He is content simply to have a venue where his loud singing voice and lame comedy material can be heard and appreciated. Oddly, Wiseman has managed to shoot this ringmaster in spooky lighting that calls to mind Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. But, of course, that film would not be released for another 5 years.

Titicut Follies is an antidote for the cutesy versions of insane asylums that we see in films like 12 Monkeys or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The mentally disturbed people we see here are largely devoid of quirkiness or charm. They are clearly souls in pain. It’s difficult to see what sort of ‘correction’ could possibly take place in a facility run by the dispassionate staff we witness here. One man is baited by those attending him into a fit of frightening rage. Another attempts rather lucidly to plead the case that his incarceration has only worsened his condition, transforming his mild paranoia into something far more serious. What he needs, he says, is ‘peace and quiet’. Though it is difficult to ascertain the exact nature of his mental stability through the scenes we are presented in the film, it is easy to see that the environment would surely be enough to drive one mad if one wasn’t mad already. No one affiliated with the Institute comes out looking particularly well (or even competent really) and the ultimate feeling we take away from the film is one of disgust and sadness. We are witness to the kind of inhumanity that can occur when one party feels unquestioningly that they are acting with absolute benevolence. Beyond that, Wiseman exposes us to true ugliness in the form of broken minds that are usually kept safely out of sight.

Because of this, and a few other scenes that I will not reveal here, Titicut Follies is an exceptionally difficult and disturbing film to watch. If the film has a fault, it is that Wiseman does not provide us with any kind of expert testimony that would support the insinuations made by his footage and his editing. Perhaps he feels that the images speak for themselves; still, I was nagged by the feeling that it would not be difficult in this kind of circumstance to make those in authority appear like oppressors. Shot in the midst of the Vietnam era, the anger bubbling beneath Wiseman’s film has ramifications far beyond the walls of the institute. Like other anti-authoritarian works of the time, it is easy to admire the sentiment, while being somewhat curious about how passion has clouded logic. By offering outside support, Wiseman might have allowed the viewer to be in a better position to understand just how far the treatment we witness diverges from acceptable practice. Nonetheless, Titicut Follies is a uniquely unsettling cinematic experience and should be sought out by those who crave something out of the norm.



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