Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman, 1967)

In a way, “Titicut Follies” might just be the most perfect film ever made.  If you consider perfection or lack thereof in terms of whether or not a filmmaker succeeds in saying what he/she wants to say, and the film gets the filmmaker’s point or message across, how could this film not be considered perfect?  Frederick Wiseman’s trying to show the deplorable conditions of the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, and let’s face it, when your film is wall-to-wall, grainy black and white images of grown men being taunted and ridiculed and treated like cattle in a facility that looks more like Auschwitz than a mental hospital, yeah, I’d say I got the point.  In that regard, yes, “Titicut Follies” is perfect – from start to finish I was completely convinced that a place like Bridgewater only exacerbates, rather than rehabilitates, these men’s illnesses, and my stomach churned and knotted to see men so clearly mentally ill being treated like playthings by the guards.  Even the seemingly harmless and carefree images of the men singing and dancing for the talent show interspersed throughout the film serve as a cruel façade for what really goes on, as the curtain is lifted once those smiling, singing men become emaciated, naked men being shepherded to barren cells and poked and prodded and mocked.  So in terms of getting a point across and coaxing an emotional response out of the viewer, “Titicut Follies” is perfect – almost too perfect, as you’re quite simply barraged by images of the deplorable conditions of Bridgewater, so that when the credits roll, you’re seething with anger – I know I was. 

It’s perfect in that regard, but in terms of film structure, it really isn’t.  I mean, obviously there’re a million things I’d rather watch to pass the time than men skinnier than concentration camp prisoners ranting and raving about Kennedy and Christ, or feeding tubes nonchalantly being shoved up their noses, or an apathetic, cigarette-smoking doctor listening as a man talks about his sexually abusing an 11-year-old girl and childhood homosexual experiences, or guards teasing them simply to irritate and to aggravate their illnesses (and penis.  Lots and lots of crazy old man penis…  ).  And even at a mere hour and 20 minutes, “Titicut Follies” felt like one of the longest films I’ve ever seen, dragging on and on and on in its monotony of upsetting images – but what better way to place you into Bridgewater and turn you into one of those men than by making you feel the passage of time come to an absolute crawl, as must’ve been the case day after day for these mentally ill men?  The argument can be made that the film plays up the deplorable conditions of the place too much, making the film’s thesis too obvious, to the point that after a while the sheer monotony of those brutal images takes away some of their power.  But even then, you keep telling yourself that this shit is real, and boy is that an eye-opener. 

I almost feel obligated to criticize some of the scenes in this film for feeling too stagey, as if it was a little too convenient that the camera just ‘happened’ to show up right when a man began his long, half-gibberish rant or when a man, naked and cowering in his barren cell, cursed his guards and his fate, and Wiseman just ran with it.  That such bizarre moments are captured fully and uncut raises some doubt as to the true reality of all this, that maybe Wiseman’s being disingenuous, that having such an abundance of images that so clearly show how awful Bridgewater is, is almost too good to be true, that at least some of it had to be staged…right?  But c’mon, these men are so clearly mentally ill, how could they possibly be anything but authentic?  And even if the guards, so cruel in stripping these men bare and herding them into cells and dogging them with whatt’d-ya-say’s and taunting and teasing and beatings, are playing themselves up for the camera, what does that tell you about a place like Bridgewater when its guards feel completely comfortable portraying themselves as such pitiless bullies before the camera?  Are they exaggerating their treating the patients/prisoners like meat to appear more manly and authoritative, effectively mugging for the camera out of pride of being stronger and more imposing than men who’re mentally ill?  Do they behave worse when the camera’s not on them, trying to save face, as unbelievable as that sounds?  Neither option instills a whole lot of confidence about a place like Bridgewater, that’s supposed to help these men but instead tucks them away from the rest of society so they don’t have to be dealt with or thought about, at least until someone like Frederick Wiseman comes along.



2 comments so far

  1. danyulengelke on

    Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Cinema Verite Wednesday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com.

    Keep up the good work!

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