Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Titicut Follies (1967)

Titicut Follies (1967) ***
Directed by: Frederick Wiseman.

Legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s first film, Titicut Follies, became famous because it was banned. It takes place in a mental hospital, and shows how the patients are either mistreated, ignored or worse by the doctors and the staff. Although Wiseman had permission to film – either from the patients themselves or their legal guardian, the head of the hospital, when the film was first released and drew praise from many critics, the State realized it made them look horrible, and sued to have it blocked – arguing that it violated patient privacy. The State won, and initially all copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed – but that was reversed on appeal. Although the film was still banned for the public, it could be shown for “educational purposes” to mental health professionals – I suppose to teach them what NOT to do. It wasn’t until 1991, when the patients in the film were dead, that the film was allowed to be showed to the public. It is thought that Titicut Follies was the first film to be banned not because it was pornography or a threat to National Security – so its place in film history is assured. But the film is probably more famous for its legal battles than for anything in the film itself. Although it has been readily available since 1991, there doesn’t seem to be too much demand for a black and white documentary from the 1960s about the mistreatment of mental patients.

Wiseman has had a long career in documentary film. In the 44 years since Titicut Follies was released, Wiseman has directed a total of 39 documentaries. He has a fascinating with institutions as you could tell simply by reading the titles of some of his films – High School, Hospital, Basic Training, Juvenile Court, State Legislature, Public Housing and his latest Boxing Gym. He would probably rename this film Mental Institution if he could. Despite strong reviews for almost all of his films, they never really get a proper release – often they end up airing on PBS – and DVDs of his work can be hard to find – which helps to explain why other than this film and Boxing Gym (which I saw at TIFF last year), I have not seen any of his work. Wiseman is kind of the anti-Michael Moore in that we never see or hear him in any of his movies. For all intents and purposes, he is not there – he simply sits back and films what happens in front of him. Of course his editing choices – what he includes and excludes – are Wiseman’s real voice, but he is not someone who feels the need to beat his point into your head. You can make of his films what you want.

Despite the fact that Wiseman has presumably used the same basic style in all his work, there has definitely been a progression in the skill in which he makes his films. Boxing Gym is a meticulously edited film, getting into the rhythm of the fights, and using the sounds of the gym as a kind of score. The style in Titicut Follies is more rougher and raw. You can see the jagged edges of the film, and it never quite settles into its own rhythm. This may end up helping the film, which I think should have a raw feel to it. And the footage does pretty much speak for itself.

We do not necessary see a whole lot of outright physical abuse in Titicut Follies – either it didn’t happen, or at least didn’t happen when Wiseman was filming. Yet what we do see is a hospital that is supposed to be there to help the mentally ill completely failing at its job. Patients are ignored, belittled, talked down to, mocked. They are trapped in a place that is not helping them, and doesn’t seem to care if they ever do help them. One poor sap was sent over from prison for observation and has been there for more than a year now. When he first got there, he didn’t say anything, and they diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic. When he started talking one on one, the doctors saw this as a confirmation of their diagnosis – and when he starts being more vocal, it’s even more proof. The poor bastard is damned no matter what he does. There is a pedophile in the hospital that gets advice so painfully awful that you cannot believe that a trained doctor could ever think of saying it to someone like him. These patients will never be cured – some because their illness is such that they cannot be cured – but others because no one seems to know what they are doing or care about it. These guys would be no worse off in the general population given the “treatment” they receive at the hospital.

I found Titicut Follies to be fascinating, sad and infuriating. If you ever want to know just how accurate One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was made a few years later, but set at the same basic time as this film, all you need to do is watch this film and marvel. The film is rough – as you may expect from a lawyer turned filmmaker making his first film – but effective. I can only assume that mental hospitals have gotten better in the years since this film came out, so the film is not as timely as it once was. But as an historical document, it is quite fascinating. I have a feeling I should try and track down more of Wiseman’s films.

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