Titicut Follies

Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 17, 2014

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here! Titicut Follies is an unblinking, appalling profile of Massachusetts’ Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane. It was director Frederic Wiseman’s first film, but it shows his celebrated documentary method to be fully in place, right from the very beginning.

Wiseman gains astonishing access and proximity to his subject, and to his subjects. He and his crews establish a kind of residence at the hospital, the school, the military installation, the arts institution—whatever the present object of inquiry may be. By virtue of that lengthy and continuous residency, the discreet director and his self-effacing collaborators become something of a fixture, a part of the landscape. The result is that otherwise camera-conscious subjects become or return to themselves, and so behave naturally, authentically.

The success of this method, which Wiseman has plied for the some fifty years since the completion of this first effort, has resulted in a really remarkable oeuvre, one of the most distinguished, the most penetrating in all of cinema. The individual films accomplish a practically awesome abundance, institutional portraits so expansive, so thorough, so multiple as to approach comprehensiveness. Add the films all up and Wiseman’s work achieves a positively Balzac-ian scope, a systematic survey that seems to comprise the entire nation, even, by extension and extrapolation, the entire world.

One of the most interesting characteristics of Wiseman’s films is their litmus nature. This is that their seeming objectivity, their undeniable expanse, makes it so they mean or say profoundly different things to different spectators. Depending on his ideological inclinations, the viewer of Missile (1987) will find in the film all he needs to fully justify or utterly condemn inter-ballistic build-up. Wiseman himself will point out that his un-narrated—though still editorially inflected—films make any number of aggressive points. That may be, but it is still true that the various institutions, as well as the individuals who operate within them, emerge as being complex, ambiguous, even mysterious. This is the oft-vaunted, not always accomplished neutrality of observational documentary. The fact that clarities still emerge merely means, to quote Albert Camus, that sometimes 2 + 2 really does = 4.

That’s the future. Right now, for its part, Titicut Follies isn’t really ambiguous at all. It’s not completely infernal. In one sequence the guards tenderly bathe that sweet child of an old man. The staff member who runs the eponymous variety show, who keeps shooting his lips and bursting into song, turns out to be constant and courteous in his service to the inmates. Those exhaustingly cheerful and unflinching nurses are exemplary in their efficient devotions. But mostly, this is Bedlam. Boschian, in fact: baiting, repeated rounds of systematic inmate-stripping, a force feeding that leads its victim straight to the morgue, the charade of that well-spoken Paranoid convincing the viewer that the institution’s treatment is making him worse, not better. The viewer may be convinced. The medical board, obviously, is not. Titicut Follies starts with Dante, and ends with Kafka. Can we even imagine a more terrifying combination? Hard to watch, harder to deny.