'Titicut Follies' at Stranger Than Fiction

For documentaries, the question of what's true for whom remains resounding, no matter good intentions or willful exploitations. Titicut Follies reveals multiple truths, but leaves you to sort out what they can mean.

Titicut Follies

Director: Frederick Wiseman
Rated: NR
Studio: Zipporah Films
Year: 1967
US date: 2012-01-17 (Stranger Than Fiction)
Editing, for me, always has been a combination of being very deductive and very associational. And if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that I should pay as much attention to the thoughts at the edge of my head as I do to the formal, logical and deductive.

-- Frederick Wiseman

"I've never been caught before." Questioned by a doctor near the start of Titicut Follies, a young man looks resigned. He's been having sex with underage girls. "How old was the child?" the doctor asks, the inmate readily admitting she was only 11. "And how did you feel about, that you commit such crime?" the doctor persists, his cigarette lighter clicking as if to punctuate his imprecise English. "I didn't feel good about it."

Here the camera pulls out, so the frame's foreground is filled by the back of the doctor's head and his wide, white-shirted shoulders. The inmate wears a wife-beater t-shirt, one strap twisted, his hair cropped close. He gazes steadily at his questioner as he admits he'd been drinking whiskey. This isn’t the first time he has been, as the doctor phrases it, "in practice this way with a young girl child." In close-up again, the young man blinks once as he says, "Even my own daughter." The doctor asks how his wife feels about this. He answers without hesitation, "My wife says something's wrong."

The scene is disconcerting in so many ways that it's hard to know where to start describing it. But the documentary, Frederick Wiseman's first, doesn't linger on this moment. Instead, it cuts to another scene, another outrage, a room full of inmates at Bridgewater, also known as the Massachusetts Correctional Facility for the criminally insane, located 28 miles south of Boston. They pace and turn in circles, stripping off their clothes for orderlies who go through their pockets and observe their naked bodies. The camera cuts briefly to show a pile of trash, unswept. A few shots later, it cuts back to the young man with the doctor, who's asking how many times he masturbates a day, and whether he prefers big breasts or small breasts. The doctor continues to smoke, he might be taking notes.

Filmed over 29 days in 1966, Titicut Follies constructs its story out of such edits. Wiseman would go on to become an icon in direct cinema -- and he's appearing with Titicut Follies tonight at Stranger Than Fiction (the 8pm show is sold out, but a second show has been added, at 9:55pm). That story raises questions concerning the treatment of inmates at the facility, specifically by showing images of neglect and upset, questionable methods and decisions. The film doesn't show the outcome of the interview with the young man who has molested his daughter. It doesn't show the doctor's diagnosis or discussions with colleagues. It doesn't show what happens to the black inmate who stands naked before a white guard, his ribs strikingly visible.

Rather than following story arcs, the film puts together pieces of days at Bridgewater: inmates stagger and crouch in hallways, stomp the floor and stare into corners, wander in a large yard, one man playing his trumpet, perhaps mournfully, another man delineating America's foreign policy, beginning with a caveat that lacks a context, that he's "not a Communist, even though I have Communist affiliations. There's one real factor that influences the war in Southeast Asia, and this is this," he announces. "America's the female part of the world and she's sex-crazy. Her sexiness brings on wars like the sperm that is injected by a man into a woman and by a woman in her own body."

As he speaks, the camera is low and handheld. He's performing, but for whom is unclear. Neither is it clear how the doctors who have agreed to be filmed understand their audiences. When the doctor with the accent determines that an inmate needs to be force-fed, he calls in the techs, who put the inmate down on a table and insert a tube down his nose. One of them holds a cigarette as he swabs the tube in a black jar of lubricant; the camera pushes in as another tech covers the patient's face with a towel. The scene is intercut with another, where an inmate is shaved: he's set down in a chair, naked, as the tech slathers his face with cream. Though they have nothing to do with one another, the frames and actions are similar, the bodies treated as objects and violated as such. And so they construct an ongoing story, about how inmates live at Bridgewater.

Another doctor listens to Vladimir, who's complaining to the facility's board about his treatment. "I was supposed to come down here for observation," says the patient, but he's been incarcerated for a year and a half. "I have emotional problem now," he concludes, "which I did not have." A board member, a woman whose cat-glasses look more than a little imposing, suggests that he needed observation because he thought his coffee was poisoning him. But he feels worse now, he counters, "This place is disturbing me…. The medication I get is hurting me, it's harming me."

As Vladimir is led from the room, turning back once to look at the table where the camera remains, the doctors confer, deciding that in fact, he needs more medication, tranquilizers to calm him now that his "paranoid stuff" has come to the surface due to his schedule of anti-depressants… though, the male doctor adds, they can't be sure he's actually taking the anti-depressants. The frame is tight on the woman with the glasses as she instructs, apparently for the rest of us, "He's arguing in a perfect paranoid pattern. If you accept his basic premise, then the rest is logical. The basic premise is not true."

Based on what you've seen -- the fragments of inmates' experiences and doctors' narratives, the restless bodies and incomplete examinations -- it's hard to say anything about the "basic premise." It's true, the officials arrange for activities, a birthday cake with candles, a sing-along, and an inmates' own stage show for New Year's Eve (which title gives the film its title). But it's more true that you can't tell what you're looking at, how versions of events fit together, whether premises are valid or imagined (or both).

At least part of this confusion is generated by the story of Titicut Follies itself, a film that the state of Massachusetts famously tried to ban the film, arguing that Wiseman had violated the patients' rights by not getting written permission to film them. The case went to court, Wiseman arguing that in fact, he had consent from their legal guardian, the institution. After a judge ruled in favor of the state have a "right to privacy," the legal appeals carried on for several years: in 1969, the Massachusetts allowed it to be shown to doctors, lawyers, and health care professionals; in 1991, a superior court judge ruled it could be released for the "general public," as privacy concerns were no longer at issue, so many years later.

Aside from the problem of giving a "state" rights usually granted to individuals in relation to the state, the case underlines some "basic premises" that remain mostly unresolved regarding documentary filmmaking. The parties involved -- subjects, makers, distributors -- can rarely know how a project will turn out (much less how viewers will respond). For documentaries -- projects based on trust, with claims to truth -- these questions and their effects are resounding, no matter good intentions or willful exploitations. Titicut Follies reveals multiple truths, but leaves you to sort out what they can mean.


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