A penetrating and unflinching examination of rehabilitation and the practice of medicine, Titicut Follies employs fly-on-the-wall filming techniques to expose the inhumane living conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital, a facility intended to treat the criminally insane. The resulting work was so gut-wrenching that the state of Massachusetts barred it from public performance for nearly 22 years, an act of censorship that director Frederick Wiseman claimed was a result of the damning evidence on display and not due to an infringement on patients’ rights.
The irony of the court’s suppression of the film lies in the work’s obvious defense of human rights, depicted through a loose chronology that exposes the absence of meaning and irrelevance of time in a life comprised of torture and indifference. Power is also exposed as a corrupting element, encapsulating the chain of abuse as it descends from physician to guard, finding the incarcerated at the bottom rung to suffer the brunt of structural violence.
Commencing with a hospital talent show and theatrical revue (the “Follies” noted in the title), Wiseman employs footage of the festive event at the outset to act as a symbol of public perception of the institution, one feigning equality and friendship between staff and prisoner. Life off stage is far less harmonious, finding inmates in a constant state of undress and sequestered to filthy sleeping quarters, enduring solitude only through the slivers of light that pass through their barred window. The only treatment or consideration received by patients is through overmedication and salacious psychoanalysis, a battery of questions that consists of masturbatory inquiry and probing the minutiae of sexual identity.
Mental and physical abuse also run rampant at the facility, ranging from bullying to excessive use of restraint. Pestering an inmate about the cleanliness of his cell, guards force an obviously nervous and elderly patient into responding to the same question multiple times, a pattern that leaves the man battering the tile and walls of his chamber until his knuckles are bloodied, desperately searching for a way out. Another ailing detainee is pinned to a gurney by belligerent orderlies and force-fed soup through a tube inserted into his nose. As he gags on the rubber that’s continually being thrust deeper into his esophagus, Wiseman edits in footage of the man’s subsequent embalming, showing the lifeless, ragged texture of his face as it receives one last shave and gets cosmetic cotton balls stuffed into its sunken eye sockets.
Interspersing shots of the before and after functions as the piece’s primary symbol, showing the state’s calculated adherence to protocol in both the life and death of a convict, a passivity that stands in direct contrast to the tenets of treatment. All three of Frederick Wiseman’s earliest works share this common thread, examining the habits and behavior of people in varying degrees of captivity and the ambivalence of those intended to nurture, protect and reintegrate these individuals. Titicut Follies is the saddest of these films, detailing the failures of modern medicine and the pathetic attempts at reform by the American penal system.
Titicut Follies (Zipporah Films, 1967)
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Photographed by John Marshall