Titicut Follies

Lawyer-turned-filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s foray into documentary auteurism came with Titicut Follies (1967), a cogent profile of Massachusetts’ Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane. The film’s namesake is an ambiguously demeaning and chilling talent show put on by inmates—“Titicut” being the Wampanoag word for the nearby Taunton River. This was four years after John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Centers Act, which infused the system with 150 million dollars. Nevertheless, Wiseman captures a Bridgewater that is a microcosm of the horrors still alive in mental hospitals (it would not be until the 1970s that the number of individuals in such institutions was reduced from a half million in the 1950s to 160,000.) Omitting a narrator, Wiseman records and layers sound with a ghostly sparseness. Meanwhile, John Marshall’s unwavering camerawork and Wiseman’s methodical, hundred-hour editing process guides our eyes through the cells, halls, and yards of these forgotten people’s lives. Old, young, lucid, catatonic—the staff does not differentiate. It is this impersonal, mass grouping, representative of the state of the system at the time (and still perhaps today), that really exceeds our capacity to understand, especially when witnessing travesties like force-feeding. Wiseman’s booming sensitivity translates with his ability to capture many faces and voices, while also allowing ample screen time for each individual to demonstrate their humanity. There is much to glean from this breakthrough piece of direct cinema, but the loudest message is that when society turns its back on a people, we are all responsible for bringing awareness and kindness to that population.

Cinephile Interest:
Prior to its premiere at the New York Film Festival, the state of Massachusetts filed for an injunction that would ban the film from being screened. This request pointed to patient privacy violations, despite the warden of Bridgewater having signed the necessary release forms. The real aim, however, was to save face on the state level. Though the premiere was not blocked, Titicut Follies was only screened for professionals in relevant fields until 1991, when the families of deceased Bridgewater patients filed for damages against the state. PBS holds claim to the one and only television screening, which aired in September of 1992. Stylistically, Wiseman rejects being classified as a practitioner of cinéma vérité, arguing his methodology involves intentionally crafting a dramatic structure out of observational footage (which makes all too much sense coming from a lawyer.) He dislikes the tendency of vérité auteurs to linger on objects or subjects that are not as “valuable as another.” He goes on to say that “cinéma vérité is just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning as far as I’m concerned.” He has been consistently vocal about his status as a partisan, stating, “My view is that these films are biased, prejudiced, condensed, compressed, but fair.”

— Nehemiah Stark

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