Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Frederick Wiseman's "Titticut Follies"


I posted this over on the Hollertronix "Knowledge Jewels" board a while back, but I wanted to put it up here for the folks that missed it.

Frederick Wiseman

"Titticut Follies" is a documentary about a Massachusetts institution for mentally ill convicts. The state of Massachusetts commissioned Wiseman to make the film in order to valorize the institution-- to show all the good work that Titticut Follies Bridgewater Institution was doing. Instead, the film wound up making the inmates seem more sane than the inhuman guards and doctors, serving as a rather caustic criticism of the institution. The beauty of the film (as well as its efficacy) is found in the performative nature of the editing. Which is to say that the film is all about the "HOW" as opposed to the "WHAT"-- the insanity and inhumanity of the guards isn't spelled out in any narrative form, but is only narrated through the editing and style of the film. And, Wiseman's film was so effective, so harrowing, that the same people that commissioned the work ended up banning it.

Thus, the film is so powerful precisely because it says so much by literally "saying" nothing. Or, in other words, the performative utterances of style are the content-- or as reknown Marxist scholar Fredric Jameson puts it in "The Political Unconscious" the "form is content, [and the] content is form."

Internet Movie Data Base:

- "Highly controversial documentary chronicaling life inside a Massachusetts institution for mentally ill convicts. This film was kept for years from the public eye due to its portrayal of abuses of the mentally ill at the hands of the guards and doctors" (sic)

- This entry on the IMDB is only instructive because of how LITTLE information it gives about the movie.

Interview with Wiseman:

McKay: It seems like "Titticut Follies" is in a way your most known or written about work maybe because the films that followed it are thought of more as a body of work and "Follies" just had so much controversy surrounding it.

Wiseman: I think that "Follies" got well known because it was banned, the State of Massachusetts made the classic mistake... I would have preferred that they hadn't banned the film, but they did. I mean, it was stupid of them.

McKay: I want to go back to "Titticut Follies" and ask if the film in the end affected a change in the system and was it the affect that you maybe expected?

Wiseman: Well, you're raising the whole issue of film and social change. I think over time the film may have had some impact in changing the system, but it's very very hard to isolate any one film or any one event or document of any sort, whether its "Titticut Follies" or anything else, and say, that's what caused the change. I think the film contributed to a climate which led to the change, the MASS Bar Association got interested in Bridgewater, the MASS Medical Association and some of the newspapers. I think it would be presumptuous of me to say that was as a result of the film... I think the film may have played a part in it, but I think it's extraordinary difficult, whether it's with the "Follies" or anything else to measure the effect of any one thing. I mean you hope it has an effect but in a sense it's probably better over a long period that the effect is not measurable and that you recognize that its circumstances are oblique and subterranean.

McKay: When you set out to make it, was that part of your motivation?

Wiseman: Yes, it was but in retrospect I think it was naive because I don't think that any one work is that important. The fact is that people are not that stupid, one film is not the only source of their information, they read newspapers, books, they have their own experiences etc.

McKay: If one wants to find your point of view, one can, if they watch closely?

Wiseman: That's right. My point of view is expressed indirectly in the structure. In the same way, in that sense -- that aspect of the editing is like writing. If you read the first paragraph of a novel, you don't know what the writer's attitude is toward the characters. You've got to see how it unfolds and the whole novel is the expression of the writer's ideas about the people he creates. Similarly, in one of these movies... If I could summarize it in twenty five words or less, I shouldn't make the movie.

Canadian Film Festival:

- Wiseman's first doc premiered in 1967, but soon after was suppressed by the political maneuverings of a Massachusetts State legislature unwilling to accept responsibility for the film's horrific truths. It would take 20 years of legal wrangling to unshackle Titticut Follies, and finally show the world what once went on at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Wiseman's silent lens peers into the cells and down the corridors of a dilapidated institution whose administrators, psychiatrists and social workers seem more concerned with keeping its inmates drugged than actually caring for them as human beings. In one grotesque sequence, an emaciated inmate is force-fed through a tube inserted up his nose, while the 'professional' looms above him with a dangling cigarette whose column of ash grows precariously long. Wiseman then juxtaposes a chilling image of the same inmate a few days later, who - now dead - is finally receiving some humane and gentle treatment at the hands of the mortician. Writes Charles Taylor in Sight & Sound: "You emerge from the film in something like a state of low-level shock. Days later the atmosphere comes flooding back, and when it does what hits you are not the abuses that Wiseman records, but the feeling of how dehumanized life is at Bridgewater, and how that dehumanization is so familiar it has become banal."

Robert Kramer Speaking with Frederick Wiseman:

W: With Titticut Follies, the original decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court said I had to put a notice at the end of the film saying that since the movie was made, conditions had changed at Bridgewater, which is the place where the film was made. I had to do that to show the film under any circumstances. So I put in a title card, "By order of the Massachusetts Supreme Court a notice has to be appended to this film saying the conditions have changed." That's one card and the following card was, "Conditions have changed." It's a perfect ending to the movie because it emphasizes the ridiculousness of the order.

Purchasing Information:

Rental pricing and purchase pricing are outrageous: $400 and $500 respectively. Obviously, these films are pretty much reserved for institutional usage (i.e. Universities, libraries) but you should be able to find his work in a local library. Rumor has it that all of Wiseman's work (including "Titticut Follies") will be on DVD by the end of the year.

Wiseman Filmography



At 7:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm from MA, and am well aware of the commotion that the film created. It did blow the lid off institutionalizing the mentally ill and led, together with a new generation of medications, to the closing of the state hospital system in that state.

What distrurbs me, is a recent experience in MD, where I found the state hospital sytem for housing the mentally ill was alive and well at places such as Upper Shore Community Mental Health Center and Eastern Shore. At these two places, and it's a state-wide system, the long-term psychiatrically ill are housed with short-term situationally ill. It is difficult to perceive how such a system could benefit either of the populations.


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