"Each viewer is left to his own devices as to just what is being portrayed, and in what context" - Superior Court Judge Harry Kalas
Working against the didacticism documentaries are known for, cinema verite legend Frederick Wiseman wouldn’t bother to make a movie if what he had to say about his subject could be quickly surmised. Showing there’s more to the documentary experience than being quickly comforted in knowing the creators agree with us or getting riled up because they’ve allowed this fool to spew his bile before shutting it off, Wiseman never start out with a hypothesis or sets out to prove his preordained views. Unlike fictional movies where most aspects are worked out in advance, for Wiseman much of the thrill of non-fiction filmmaking comes from dealing with the people and themes after the fact, shaping and structuring the narrative in the editing room. Armed with his handheld camera and tape recorder for sync sound, Wiseman shoots countless hours of film, allowing himself enough material to develop the pertinent in a manner that’s both artistic and enlightening.
Wiseman obviously does have and express a point of view, art is at best soulless when the creator doesn’t have one, but it’s expressed in a far more oblique manner than most documentary filmmakers would dream of, much less dare to try. An observational filmmaker who doesn’t force us to take his perspective as gospel, Wiseman simply thrusts the audience into the center of a series of interactions, which may be routine to his subjects, but are in many ways new to us. Offering no narration to provide background information and no musical score to instruct the audience how to feel about a scene, Wiseman forces the audience to think through the various relationships, determining the reasons behind the subject’s actions, rather than simply taking a rooting interest. More importantly, he also creates a multifaceted viewing experience, as by limiting his interaction with the audience to the footage selection and editing decisions we are not only asked to work out the relationship between the people on film, but also contemplate the director’s methods of communicating with his audience, considering what these two methods tell us about the director as well as the films characters.
The staff at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts initially enjoyed and approved of Wiseman’s look at their institute, but turned on the movie when the reviews were glowing toward Wiseman’s work but highly critical of the staff’s behavior and actions. Soon the Massachusetts Government was so shamed by what was considered an expose, even compared to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, they trumped up a charge to ban it, ruling Titicul Follies violated patients rights. This dubious ruling was particularly shady as beyond the obvious fact Wiseman had permission from the inmates legal guardian - the superintendent of the institute – if not the patients themselves, according to Wiseman the right of privacy in Massachusetts was created for the Titicut case, conveniently usurping the public’s right to know that would take precedent in almost any other case. Though an appeal made the movie available for educational purposes to field students and workers who could prove their credentials, the ruling made Titicut Follies the only film banned in the USA for a reason other than obscenity or national security.
Titicut Follies was Wiseman’s first film. What we can see from examining his oeuvre three dozen films later is time and time again Wiseman shows the public how their tax funded institutions are functioning, allowing the audience to decide whether they are living up to their stated goal. Is the claimed ideology put into practice at all, and if so how efficiently and effectively? Through his looks at bureaucracies and heirarchical institutions including High School, Hospital, military (Basic Training, Missile), the monastery (Essene), welfare (Public Housing), the intensive care unit (Near Death) Wiseman shows the dangers of total institutions, all metaphors applicable. We see power used to the ill of the dehumanized subjects. The more helpless they are to begin with, the more they are forced to cede their self- respect, the more they are taken advantage of. Still, these works aren’t particularly slanted.
Wiseman’s could have chosen to simply show an endless series of maltreatment toward the inmates, but he’s above such black and white tactics. He instead shows the conditions all the various members of the little society exist under. We see how intolerable the patients, who also include men who have been deemed “sexually dangerous” are, the fact some ramble on endlessly and/or incoherently, creating an endless stream of obnoxious noise. We see that others don’t comprehend or simply ignore most instructions, and many are prone to fits. Well meaning volunteers try to get them to play the simplest of games, yet even that is too much for most of the inmates. That said, there’s few possible pleasures as the institute is run by the Department of Corrections as a prison without the perks.
The treatment of the patients is inconsistent, alternating between indifference, experimentation, and neglect. Sometimes the patients are purposely demeaned, while others the staff is honestly doing their best to help them. We must remember they are limited by their own abilities, the knowledge available, and the accepted methods. What seems ridiculous to an outsider briefly looking in might actually make sense if you tried to deal with the unbalanced for any length to time.
The staff are both gentle and harsh, but the latter stands out because the stated goal is supposed to be helping and rehabilitating, which requires far more of the former. We don’t expect our tax dollars to go to an institute that considers a hose down a bath and then leaves the man naked for hours to stalk around a room that’s empty expect for a pail to poop in. We don’t expect to see Jim roughly shaved by ridiculing guards, who whether purposely or not, still manage to cut him. We are horrified to see a patient force fed by shoving a tube up his nose, the doctor telling the man to chew his food as he pours water down the funnel, his cigarette ashes ready to drop in at any moment.
The most memorable patient is Vladimir, who was sent to the institution for observation a year and a half ago and deemed a paranoid schizophrenic based on a test that included such pertinent questions as: How often do you go to the bathroom? How often do your friends go to the bathroom? Do you believe in God? Do your love your parents? A foreigner who took the time to learn good English, perhaps in jail, Vladimir regularly intellectually spars with the staff trying to prove the premise that the treatment he’s received has only made him worse, begging them to send him back to prison where he can at least work out and go to school. Though he seems saner than most of the doctors, particularly the Hungarian Freud wannabe who comes up with the aforementioned wacky questions and pulls stunts such as ordering certain patients not to be fed for the next three days, his efforts wind up having the reverse effect. The more he complains about his medication “for the mind”, the more they say it’s proof of his paranoia and increase his tranquilizers. In the end, though their methods and results are different, Vladimir and Wiseman do the same thing, fight for dignity.