05 July 2012

Titicut Follies

a documentary from 1967
directed/produced/edited by
Frederick Wiseman
The documentary begins and ends with performances from Titicut Follies, the talent show put on by inmates of the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane. The hospital is the subject of the documentary. What does it mean that Frederick Wiseman chose to title this documentary (his first) after their talent show, and bookend the documentary with these performances? I don't know the answer. The name offers little clues, it comes from "the Wampanoag word for the nearby Taunton River."
Wiseman's documentaries, those that I've seen, feel both shockingly authentic and dynamically cinematic. It's his gift. He's described his process:
All aspects of documentary filmmaking involve choice and are therefore manipulative. But the ethical ... aspect of it is that you have to ... try to make [a film that] is true to the spirit of your sense of what was going on. ... My view is that these films are biased, prejudiced, condensed, compressed but fair. I think what I do is make movies that are not accurate in any objective sense, but accurate in the sense that I think they're a fair account of the experience I've had in making the movie.
Which it to say Titicut Follies approximates the experience of being in a mental health hospital in 1967. It depicts people with broken minds and broken lives, in stark black and white, and with a curious and compassionate eye for their minutia. If this sounds unbearable, it sometimes almost is, but it's a testament to Wiseman's vision that the mental health hospital aspect never overwhelms the human aspect. There are no lapses into pure sensationalism or naughty voyeurism, no intentionally prolonged sequences meant to agonize the audience. Perhaps then the title is meant to evoke the playful and imaginative side of the inmates as a way of showcasing their humanity and their souls shining amid the darkness of mental illness.
For some reason it was easier for me to watch the documentary than it is for me to write about it now. As I investigate, through the act of writing, my thoughts while watching the movie, I realize I'd kept my thoughts at a safe and neutral distance, and now I'm self-sabotaging my defense. It's tough to enter this world. Personally, I don't like hospitals, they make me nervous, I don't like sickness, it makes me anxious, I don't like to see people suffer, it makes me suffer, and mental illnesses seem terrible because they ravage personalities. For me, watching this movie is looking into the eyes of tragedy.
I'd avoided watching this movie, which I've had access to for a while, because I thought the bulk of the movie was going to be mistreatment of the patients. I thought that for some reason. Happy to say the bulk of the movie isn't. Unhappy to say the conspicuous mistreatment I anticipated was in actuality more sinister and subdued. This photo is a good summary:
An elderly nude man cups his privates before an employee in an akimbo stance. Worse, in this scene the staff bullies the man. They repeatedly ask him when he's going to clean his room, even when it's obvious the question irritates him. The question is ten-times more horrible because there's nothing cleanable about his room:
Clean what, I wonder, a pitiful thought. This is his room I realize, a terrible revelation. This is his life -- a thought that chills my veins.
Purely by contact, the lives of the staff are revealed as well. All the audience learns about them is learned from seeing them at their work. It must be difficult to face so much misery on a daily basis, and to work with people with whom it's difficult to forge meaningful connections. Their task is a difficult one, period, and I wonder if all members of the staff were trained and educated in the treatment of the mentally ill, i.e., were they trained to deal with their own emotions.
Another scene depicts the tube-feeding of a patient by a cigarette-smoking staff member. Two staffers hold his feet down by tugging on hand towels wrapped around his ankles. The staff jokes that the man being tube-fed is a pro at it, they say they can tell because of his stoicism. This scene is tearfully intercut.
Here I am describing the worst moments as if they were the entire movie. Wiseman pierces the surface of chaos and gloom with moments of deep and fundamental human universality. What's more essential to personal volition than the control of one's own thoughts? Wiseman portrays the hospital not as a mausoleum, but as an arena.
The battle being waged in this arena, he suggests, extends beyond the hospital operations. While other documentarians might get lost in the purely superficial aspects -- how strange or cruel or sad the hospital is -- Wiseman keeps his magnifying glass on the people, through it all, so that the people are more important than the disease, the hospital, or whatever else.
Wiseman says he's
trying to make a movie. A movie has to have dramatic sequence and structure. I don't have a very precise definition about what constitutes drama but I'm gambling that I'm going to get dramatic episodes. Otherwise, it becomes Empire. ... I am looking for drama, though I'm not necessarily looking for people beating each other up, shooting each other. There's a lot of drama in ordinary experiences. In Public Housing, there was drama in that old man being evicted from his apartment by the police. There was a lot of drama in that old woman at her kitchen table peeling a cabbage.
It's a shame Wiseman's documentaries are only available from his company Zipporah at high costs, e.g. the Titicut Follies dvd is listed at $34.95 for individual use, $500 for educational use. This is undoubtedly a huge factor in his films remaining underseen by the majority of people. I've seen three other older documentaries by renting them at Cinephile, an atypical rental store, and I saw Crazy Horse at the Nuart. I confess other recent documentaries of his have played at local theaters and I missed them for various reasons. I have uncertainties about how I'll see them now. Seems like a shame to me, one of our greatest documentarians being a scarcity. There could be some reason behind it, like he wants to keep the price point fixed to attract only 'serious' i.e. professional/educational viewers, but I can't call any reason good that keeps his movies underseen and damages the possibility and joy of random discovery and exploration.
I think my memories of the people will outlast my memories of the institution. An amazing accomplishment for a documentary about the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane.

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