DIRECTED BY: Frederick Wiseman
FEATURING: The inmates and staff of Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane
PLOT: A documentary chronicling the operations of the Massachusetts Correctional Facility and the lives and treatment of its inmates.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Titicut Follies is shocking, disturbing, disheartening. It helped usher in cinema verité with a direct approach to documentary filmmaking that had rarely been seen before. But it’s only weird to the extent that man’s inhumanity to man is considered weird. In fact, the most bizarre thing about the film may be that, in half a century, things have changed very little.
COMMENTS: It’s remarkable that Titicut Follies exists at all. The subject matter is not typical fare, even for a documentary, with no protagonist to follow and no banner to carry. The presentation is stark and straightforward, showing routine events with no context or explanation, and refusing to allow uncomfortable moments to end through the artificial escape of cutting away. Watching it fifty years after it was shot, in a society where everyone is painfully aware of the need to manage situations to minimize liability and risk, it is astounding to see how open and guileless the staff is in their attitudes and actions toward their charges. The obvious question is, how did anyone let this get on film?
Credit is due first and foremost to director/producer/editor Frederick Wiseman, who is rightfully famous for his blunt approach to his subjects. Eschewing talking heads, narration, captions, non-diegetic music, or anything that would comment upon the images captured by his camera, Wiseman immerses himself in his chosen setting, fading into the background until the subjects forget the camera is even there. This fly-on-the-wall approach allows him to capture moments of extraordinary intimacy, because the participants fail to notice that they never went off public view. Trained as a lawyer, Titicut Follies was Wiseman’s first film as a director, but it cemented both his style and his subject matter, a warts-and-all look at how people function within institutions. (A recipient of an honorary Oscar this year, none of Wiseman’s films has ever even been nominated for a competitive award).
Some of the responsibility has to be placed at the feet of his willing subjects. Clearly, no one at Bridgewater had any worries about how their methods would be viewed. There can be no doubt that many of these inmates are afflicted with severe mental disease. Some are victim to uncontrollable body spasms, others spew endless paranoid monologues that name-check the president and the pope among their tormentors. Even a quiet, composed patient reveals his true nature as he describes his horrible crimes in a flat, detached tone. Without a doubt, keeping control over hundreds of unpredictable, dangerous men requires an approach that would be frowned on in polite society.
Those methods, though, are delivered in such a cold, unfeeling manner that it is ultimately impossible to view them as anything but torturous. Footage of a man named Jim, who is chided for fouling his cell, is peppered with what initially feels like friendly banter from the guards tasked with cleaning him up. However, as the scene goes on, the suggestion that he try harder morphs into bullying, and their repetition of his name is so condescending and insistent that Jim’s eventual outbursts feel utterly justified. The final shock comes with Jim’s revelation that he used to be a teacher; in this place, no honorable past will protect you from the hellish present.
Which points to one more explanation as to how Titicut Follies slipped through the cracks: there’s no empathy left at the institution to trigger embarrassment. No one thinks twice about the decency or appropriateness of what they are doing any more. Concern for humanity has long since left Bridgewater. In the film’s most notorious scene, an inmate is force-fed via a tube through his nose by doctors who openly smoke and discuss his condition in infantile terms. The delivery of nourishment by decidedly non-nurturing means is the film’s greatest oxymoron, and Wiseman magnifies the horror of the moment by crosscutting with footage of the same patient’s funeral, in which he appears to receive far greater care and affection than he did in life.
The movie is framed by scenes from an amateur variety show put on by the prison, with the awkward-looking patients singing standards in stiff white shirts and milkmen’s bow-ties. They are frequently joined by the warden, who, absurdly, views himself as a delightful showman, telling off-color jokes, breaking into song (he does this offstage as well, while walking through the hospital), and lusting after applause from the audience. Those moments feel strange in counterpoint with the daily horrors of life at Bridgewater. Yet, they’re actually a perfect extension of the interplay between inmates and staff throughout the film. Both groups are trapped in Titicut Follies, some by mental illness, some by the apathy and cruelty brought on by years of detached power. However, one of those groups doesn’t realize it’s trapped. But it soon will…
TRIVIA: …and how. Once they got a look at Wiseman’s film, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections sued to block the movie and managed to get Titicut Follies banned for over two decades, ostensibly to protect the privacy of the inmates. A title card added at the end of the movie curtly throws shade on the true impact of the Department’s efforts.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The opening of the film is appropriately surreal, setting the tone for the next hour and a half… It’s almost something you could imagine seeing in a Harmony Korine film… it’s crazy to think it’s actually real.” – Jay Cheel, The Documentary Blog (DVD)