Monday, December 24, 2012

Papa Mike's Video #7: TITICUT FOLLIES - a Frederick Wiseman documentary

One of those great films that I may never want to watch again (like United 93) because it just peers almost TOO harsh with a camera-of-truth on to what went on in a hospital like the Bridgewater mental institution for the criminally insane in 1966.  Think the Maysles doing a remake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (the book, not the movie) - we see the basics of the goings on at the hospital, how they are let out into the yard to kind of putter about, maybe at best a baseball and catcher's mitt, and then are given regular shavings, food (whether by the patient's choice or by forced-tube depends on how one reacts after such a time of, you know, electro-shocks and whatnot), and are belittled by the staff.

I should look at this as objectively as possible, since in a sense director Frederick Wiseman is doing the same.  He does employ some storytelling devices, such as cross-cutting (in a very effective if totally depressing set-piece of a sort) when the one patient we see, half-starved and half out-of-it, is force-fed with that tube and then, some time later, that patient being shaved and brushed up... as he is dead and getting ready for burial.  That was one of the great shocks in the film for me to see that, and for a brief moment I felt Wiseman crack his otherwise mostly coldly clinical lens on the proceedings to strike a point: you go in there, there's a very good chance you'll die.  For not too brief moments, a holocaust vibe can almost be felt.  At least for me.

Maybe the power of Titicut Follies is that everyone who comes to it will see something different.  You think that these guys in this mental hospital-cum-prison deserve to be here?  Hey, why not treat them like the scum they are?  But does that give the prison guards the right to, for example, taunt a patient about cleaning up his room when there's more likely than not *nothing* wrong with his room, and just waiting like a hot poker on a dog for him to snap?  Maybe to work in a place like this you gotta go a little nutso yourself; certainly a doctor, either Greek or Romanian or something, is either not really qualified to be a doctor with the kinds of questions he asks, or is a little crazy himself when asking another patient about his homosexual acts as a child in the boy scouts.  Did this contribute to his schizophrenia?  Who cares?  We must, I think is clear.  What about the guy who thinks he is NOT crazy, and has been mistreated for a year and a half?  Is he crazy, or not?  Do we have enough information to really judge?  Based on what we see, it's just fucked up all over, mostly on the doctor's end.

In the specific scheme of things, in terms of modern history, Titicut Follies is now a bit dated.  Thanks (or in some part no thanks) to Ronald Regan in the 1980's, facilities like this were shut down, in large part to their mismanagement and barbarism, but also because of new pharmaceutical drugs that DID help much better than, say, Thorazine or electro-shocks.  At the same time it can also be argued that, you know, more of these hospitals today might keep such psychpathic killers like Adam Lanza and James Holmes away from automatic weapons.  That's another kettle of fish.  But really, when it comes down to it, this is a time-capsule, a look into this very specific time in history (the kind that, by the way, does have scenes of patients talking, not too un-lucidly, about Vietnam and what Communism means, a striking moment any way you look at it) that was shot and edited to elicit SOME kind of reaction.  The worst thing of all is if you leave the film without any kind of reaction, the same indifference bureaucratic nothings give to such patients and/or prisoners that need some kind of better care than seen here.

But in the bigger picture, as it were, the film still resonates because so many systems, all across the world, have this kind of problem.  Not enough care, too much care in the wrong places, and just the attention to human decency in what people do in a system.  It can be a mental hospital or it can be just a trip to the DMV.  How people are treated, even those that don't seem to have clear idea always of what their doing, makes a difference.  Seeing the half-surreal scenes of the 'Titicut Follies' of the title bring this to light: this should be good for these people, and maybe for a few minutes for some of the people singing (at one point in the middle a couple of inmates have a duet) it brings happiness.  Yet I can't escape the feeling that this is also part and parcel of the whole manipulation: if they are animals to be tamed and controlled, as if beasts out of a wild cage (or like some of the side characters in Scorsese's Shutter Island), then maybe a little vaudeville will snap them into something that, well, is entertaining more for US than THEM.  At the end when the nurses moon the audience, the whole scene feels crazy, like as if we've taken the madness along with them.  And then it cuts to black.  Splash of reality all over.

Titicut Follies isn't a perfect film, some scenes drag and may feel 'dull' by conventional standards.  Fine.  Life has those moments as well.  In a sense I can see where the censors who banned the film were coming from, in terms of 'invasion of privacy' and so on.  We DO see too much.  I felt unclean by the end of this.  For Wiseman, he may have invaded their privacy.  Whether it was for some greater good he was achieving, or to just get it all down on celluloid, like some kind of cinematic anthropologist, he accomplished what he set out to do.  You can never 'un-see' a film like this, and that's the point.  Even the black and white serves a purpose, and has the same kind of harsh 'truth' style of a Night & Fog by Resnais.  It's an unpleasant masterpiece of documentation.

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