Director and Producer: Frederick Wiseman
Photography: John Marshall
Released: Zipporah Films (1987) VHS, 84 min.
"Why do I need this help? You're ruining me!" So begins a dialogue between a bundle of nerves prisoner and a short, Germanic man, apparently of letters, who controls the prisoner's fate. Standing in the desolation of the institution's yard, the authority figure attempts to convince the prisoner that if he were "sent back to prison today, [he would] be back to Bridgeport today or tomorrow." As if to emphasize the point and to garnish it with an air of legitimacy, the authority figure, who would appear to be a psychiatrist, asserts, "If you don't believe me, you can spit in [my] face." Pressing the matter still further, the prisoner asks, "How do you know that I am a schizophrenic- paranoid?" to which the doctor retorts, "Because you had psychological testing."
And so goes the absurdity captured in the theatrical revue of a mental institution called "Titicut Follies." Examining the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater, an institution for the criminally insane, Frederick Wiseman chronicles the daily lives of the prisoners and staff in "cinema verite" style. Granted access to the institution for 29 days of filming, Wiseman captures images and interactions that are both macabre and revolting. Whether it be guards badgering a prisoner for voiding on the floor of his cell, a doctor telling a prisoner "to chew" his food as he is force fed through his nose with a tube, or an interaction between prisoner and doctor as described above, Titicut Follies is a powerful and disturbing examination of the world of a mental institution which, among other things, questions the traditional boundaries separating the deviant from the conformist.
More subtly, Wiseman also makes problematic the common assumption that mental institutions are founded on a bedrock of rationality and order. Of course, the medical model adopted by these institutions in the twentieth century makes an explicit commitment to the[End page 2] logic of the scientific method-- the driving force of positivism --, yet Wiseman deftly and ironically presents the institution as a place of chaos and absurdity, despite the regimentation and extraordinary control that it exudes. Careful and clever editing results in the presentation of disembodied images, taken out of context, which make the functioning of the institution seem incomprehensible. The lack of order conveyed in the film and the inability to distinguish readily between the guards and the guarded leads one to question whether the institution has any greater purpose than the systematic degradation of human beings-- both prisoners and guards.
Of course, painting the institution as a place mired in degradation and exploitation is ironic given Wiseman's own use of the prisoners and guards as his "subjects." In using these people as the vehicles for his polemical attack on mental institutions, Wiseman has been accused of doing to the prisoners what he condemns others for doing. In fact, it was this point which resulted in a series of court cases, dating from the 1967 release of the film, in which the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared the documentary obscene and exploitive, banning it from public viewing. Only after 24 years has this restriction been lifted, allowing the film to be aired on public television for the first time in early 1993. Nonetheless, while the legal entanglements have apparently dissipated, the moral quandary still remains, and it tugs hard at those who partake of this film.
Named after the annual talent show held at Bridgeport in which both prisoners and staff participate, Titicut Follies is a highly charged polemic that, by necessity, moves its viewers both intellectually and emotionally. The documentary would be a useful addition to classes which deal with punishment, deviance, treatment, ethics, and possibly even research design because it raises basic questions concerning the identification and control of individuals deemed deviant by the larger society, or at least the criminal justice and mental health systems. In addition, it forces viewers, albeit not intentionally, to consider the moral and ethical boundaries which pertain to the observation and study of human beings.
When does one cross the line from a reasoned and informative examination of the human condition to a systematic exploitation of individuals aimed at[End page 3] rattling one's own ideological saber? On what moral basis do we and should we determine who shall be the kept and who shall be the keeper? Are there readily identifiable characteristics which distinguish the two? These questions and more need to be explored, and this film provides a useful mechanism for making them more salient to undergraduates and professionals alike. Given its rich theoretical content and the power with which it speaks to the audience, this film is a fantastic pedagogical tool. Accordingly, it receives four gavels on the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture's esteemed rating scale and comes highly recommended.
Gregory J. Howard
State University of New York at Albany
School of Criminal Justice[End page 4]