P.O.V. No.22 - On Documentary Film

Discovering the Shock of Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies

Lance Duerfahrd

Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies (1967) is a landmark of cinéma vérité. It documents the day to day routines within Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Bridgewater, a mental hospital for the criminally insane. The film is notorious for the controversy that surrounded its release, for the trial in which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts brought Wiseman to court in order to prevent any further exhibition of the film.[1] The verdict imprinted itself on this film like a brand: it declared the documentary obscene and exploitive and banned any further public viewing of the film.

When Wiseman was summoned to appear in court, his film was described by the judge as a "nightmare of ghoulish obscenities."[2] This description leads us to expect the worst: images of Bridgewater that are so explicit that they seem close, almost internal to us, like a dream. We expect a pornography of madness: the detailed rendering of the humiliation of inmates. Perhaps we expect the camera to be instigator to this spectacle, as it was at Abu Grahib.[3]

What is most striking about Wiseman's film however is how quiet, how unvociferous this movie is. True to vérité style, the film never showcases anything as above ordinary, makes no judgment calls for the spectator. It challenges our sense of the everyday by forcing us to observe, and to wonder, what constitutes everyday life at a mental hospital for criminals. Its focus is on violence that is as daily as the newspaper, the unspectacular coercion by which the institution maintains itself. It is the incredible accomplishment of the film to incite us to take up arms against its matter-of-fact presentation and to separate the ordinary from the acceptable. In no other film (except perhaps Nuit et Brouillard) do we stare at images of walls so imploringly. In the absence of a voice of objection in the film (there is no narration) we want these walls, as the idiom goes, to speak. The film discomforts us for all that it doesn't do, the privacy it doesn't breach and the secret it doesn't reveal. We turn to the inanimate objects in the film in order to help formulate our own responsibility as witnesses to the events, the ritual subjection, that we see. We want somebody, something, to react because we have no stand in. The walls within the prison, in this unperturbed and sober movie, become as implacable as the screen we are watching, but in the process also become as charged and animated by phantoms.

David Denby summarizes the sparse style of Wiseman's films in remarking that they "have no music, no subtitles, no narration, or explanation of any kind, and the shooting style, apart from some unnecessary spotting of mouths and nervously tapping fingers, is mostly a level stare."[4] Wiseman's camera rarely breaks from eye level and offers a kind of unflinching directness of vision without any intervention by dolly, tripod, or harsh tilts. Yet at the same time the camera of Titicut Follies does not quite "stare" either. A stare suggests an optical relation in which the object is held, contained, in focus. In the opening scene of Follies, we encounter on the contrary a camera that is searching and inquisitive. On stage in front of the orchestra conductor are eight men of Bridgewater, a mixture of patients and guards, in a tight formation wearing bowties and glittery hats, singing Strike up the Band. The group then spreads out on stage in order to make room for their pom pom display in rhythm with the music. In the process some of the performers exceed the frame. It is this exceeding of the frame, and not the first image that follows the title of the film, that marks the proper opening of the film for the viewer. The moment is reflected as a hesitation in the camera which moves right then left as it is literally outflanked by the spectacle before it. Profilmic space opens beyond the stare of Wiseman's camera. Wiseman cannot pull or zoom back far enough to accommodate the spectacle on stage, and so sets about breaking it apart. This strikes me as a moment of decision where Wiseman's film breaks off from the spectacle on stage after which his film is named. The camera now wanders and acts to precipitate, rather than satisfy, our curiosity: Wiseman zooms in on one of the figures on the left, and he is the first figure presented for our study.[5] We watch him nervously keep his eye on what the men to the left of him on stage are doing; his eyes seem to register both the rhythm of the music, the gestures of his neighbor, and his own tick-tock pom pom movements. (The typical close up in Titicut Follies reveals not an object of intrinsic interest but one lacerated by the context we cannot see: the mouth of Vladimir later, petitioning for its sanity.) The whole body of the stage performer registers his environment in his effort to stay in line with the group: it seems as difficult and maddening as trying to dance by looking at one's partner's feet. This extroversion of the actor, this body repeatedly disturbed by new information, is a small preparation for what this film will be about. It shows us the actor's version of the madman's predicament. The institution of theater, the variety show, that insists on the body falling into rhythm prepares us for a study of the coercive gestures that regulate the rhythm of the inmates at Bridgewater.

As Denby notes, there is very little information to help us with our navigation through the film- no voiceover, no subtitles, no explanations to mediate our relation to what we see. We are on our own in this movie, and it is difficult to make our way through the debris. Titicut Follies is a wholly original film in this way. It is a difficult film in both senses of the word: because the images of torment and abuse are insupportable, and because the sense, place, or import, of what is happening is not always clear to us. Wiseman makes the process by which we make sense of the film essential to the way in which the film shocks us. This is wholly counterintuitive, since we assume shock to be shocking, self evident, and not our own work. The film refuses to let us be discomfited in a passive way: shock is not served up on a platter. Let us think of one the complaints the guards make at the time of the film's trial. Their claim is that the documentary "holds them up to ridicule, contempt and scorn in all respectable segments of our society" because inmates are presented as "indistinguishable from the guards."[6] The camera discloses an ambiguity in this first scene, a stage performance in a mental health institution in which it is difficult to tell the guards apart from the patients. We want to understand the line drawn between the mad and the sane, between the patients and the doctors.[7] As it is a film we are watching, we may even wish to see this difference. Yet it is never clear who belongs on which side of this line. Who are these people? It is alarming to have such confusion in the face of a power structure that seems so incontestable. By what measure, by what impression, smile, or physiognomic conclusion do we try to differentiate who is "sane" from who is not? What are we to call the subjects of this institution? Are they patients or prisoners/inmates? Are their supervisors doctors or guards? Do they inhabit rooms or cells? Just to refer to them, the name by which we designate them, relates to the way we understand their treatment. By extension, it relates to the way we treat them. We assume that a prison is a different institution from a mental clinic. Wiseman asks us to unfold, then dismiss, this assumption each time we try to designate the subjects of Bridgewater. Wiseman does not assist our question about how each individual fits into the power hierarchy of the institution. He never shows us the audience to the performance, the audience to these 'Titicut Follies' within the film of the same name. He omits these images in order to make the spectators of the film restless with questions. Who is watching the variety show? Can we conclude from the strong laughter garnered by the poor jokes of the MC is a sign of the MC's institutional, rather than comic, authority? Does the audience feel forced to laugh?

How's that room going to be tomorrow, Jim?
The film produces a peculiar effect, shock that creeps into our awareness only by our active engagement of the film and our efforts to make sense of its world. A line from Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor is appropriate here: "If you expected a demonstration of insanity, forget it." Wiseman's film sensitizes us to the everyday and unspectacular gestures of humiliation and discipline.

The scene with the patient known as "Jim" is particularly difficult to watch. The scene begins as Jim is led away from his cell by the guards who are going to shave him. We strain to hear what the guards are saying to him because the acoustics of what is known as "institutional architecture" gives every word its own echo and make the statements difficult to discern. In the process of trying to listen in, however, we suddenly hear a scream, almost inaudible, from somewhere in the building. We wonder about the source of this scream: not just its point of emission but its cause, the provocation behind it. The scene with Jim turns out to be very much about listening and answering.

This scream, paradoxically loud yet close to inaudible, walled-in but somehow near to the action, arises between the guard's question and Jim's answer. They ask him why his room is so dirty, and Jim screams, "The god dam thing isn't dirty, is it?" The two guards persist with this question, the question of the day. One guard asks Jim about why his room is dirty, about the condition he left it in last night, and the other guard asks him a question for which no answer is expected, "Jim, how's that room going to be." It is difficult to describe the torment of this rhetorical question that is asked ten to twelve times in the course of the scene. At one point during the shave the guard "How's that room, Jim" and Jim replies, "Very clean. I keep it…" Realizing the futility of responding, Jim doesn't complete his sentence and the guard asks, "What'd you say? Answer me, Jim"

This dialogue - if that is what it is - seems like it has gone on daily between Jim and the guard for years. The guard's questions have the same technique, the same repetitiveness, as the barber's move-ment. Amnesia thrives at the heart of its cruelty. The guard subjects Jim to an interrogation without desire for any information from him, and they inflict this interrogation with the regularity of a shave. Whether Jim trails off and says nothing or screams an answer to the questions of the guard, the guard gives the same reply: he claims deafness to Jim's answer. "What? I didn't hear you. How's that room?" Jim can't answer and can't not answer. It is interesting that Jim tries to make comments about the weather in the middle of all of this. Jim says it was colder last night than the night before: Jim, sleeping without clothes in a cell without furniture, should know. The banality of the topic seems like a radical attempt to establish a shared condition with the guard, a place where their language can meet. In this prison, agreeing upon something like the weather flashes up as a possible respite from humiliation. It is a topic that seems to come naturally as one sits down in the barber's chair. But the guard will have none of it and replies, "What did you say Jim?"

Their questions about his room seem to have produced the results of an actual military interrogation, as Jim bleeds from the corner of his mouth as he tried to answer and not answer during the shave. Before Jim is escorted back to his cell one of the guards says "Take a drink of water, Jim." Leaning towards the rusty institutional faucet that the guard turns on for him, Jim replies, "On the house, isn't it?" This is a shattering joke- it even makes the guards laugh, though they turn on the faucet into Jim's face as if it were a fake flower on one of their lapels. The joke reflects an understanding by the patient of those who shave him, and the institution behind the shave. It suggests that he has perhaps been paying his keepers, paying a cost, and he undercuts their "generosity." The phrase "on the house" is a remnant from the world in which Jim could pursue his own habits. The joke is made as if Jim and the others were suddenly in a bar or a hotel. It is a transcription from the civilized world, a joke made within that world by a man whose overseers do not allow him to wear clothing.

The Transfer Structure
The term "transfer" is multilayered. I'd like to underscore its meaning as it pertains to the controlled and authorized movement of a patient from one institution to another. The transfer of inmates/patients provides Wiseman with some of the longest shots in the film: Wiseman doesn't cut from admission to the hospital to the interior of the cell. Wiseman's camera and the guards escort the pedophile from the doctor's office, to the room in which he takes off all his clothes, then to the cell. At the end of this march a guard asks, "Is he a transfer from King?" "Yes, he's a transfer."

This transfer ends with the guard closing the door of his cell and locking it. He lowers the rectangular latch to the window on the door, looks through it at the patient, then steps out of the way so that Wiseman's camera can do the same. What is so difficult about Wiseman's film is the proximity, the collusion, it assumes with authority. Far from being a "searing indictment" of the institution, Wiseman moves us in close, non-judgmental, proximity to it. In this moment, Wiseman's camera gets an affidavit to see. We are given a view sanctioned, opened, and conduced by the guard. It thereby implicates the camera, and us, in the treatment of the prisoner. We think of our act of viewing as a type of treatment.

Wiseman's film in many ways borrows the structure of the transfer as its editing principle. Titicut Follies is a loosely structured film. But Wiseman provides subtle recurrences, a kind of cinematic recidivism, within the film's thicket of incidence. An example of the transfer movement occurs in the editing between the first and second scenes. At the end of the scene we see Eddie, the guard and Master of Ceremonies for the variety show, telling his "joke," turning and leaving through the stage curtain behind him to the applause of the audience. Wiseman then cuts abruptly to the scene of men undressing for a strip search. One gaunt man tiredly takes his t-shirt off over his head. Then, surprisingly, Eddie walks suddenly into frame, in uniform. The transition from variety show to strip search is accomplished by the MC appearing, somewhat randomly, but clearly not a "patient", in the second scene. This transfer of Eddie underscores our shock at his new context. His appearance sobers us up. The film is structured by this principle of the transposition of figures, a kind of authorized move from one frame to the next. After his impressive monologue, the patient Borges, for example, appears suddenly in the scene during recess. The camera is panning across the yard and suddenly collides with Borges walking in the opposite direction, gesticulating wildly, emphatically. He crosses the scene in surprising silence, out of earshot. Wiseman edits sequences together so as to welcome our recognition of the figure but refuse familiarity with him. We respond to their iterative appearances by saying, "you again?" Transferring means not only bringing characters back to our attention but also leading them away from us, leading them away from our grasp that they are part of a story. The characters are not transferred from one frame to the next in order to have us develop a sense of their private world or their development as possible protagonists. The film establishes a rhythm in which we witness the transfer of patients from scenes in which they hold forth in spectacle to scenes in which they discover their muted status as extra, as subjects of the institution. The scene in which a man sings Chinatown and When I Lost you and wiggles his ears in tune to the melody of a third song heard on the television is followed by Wiseman showing him walking up a drab metal staircase. His literal transference to his cell is also a move away from the moment of song: he is transferred out of the space of performance and back to something harder to grasp, his state of detention. Wiseman uses the transfer to express a kind of movement or transition that is in fact indistinguishable from detention, stasis, and imprisonment. Transfers are not voluntary moves.

The final sense in which the term transfer is valuable to Wiseman's work is in the sense that a decal or logo is transferred from one surface to another. The title of the film is the object of such a transfer. The opening title of the film is followed immediately by the vision of that same title, Titicut Follies, rendered in glitter on the wall behind the performers. This transfer of the title from the show to the film itself opens all the ethical questions raised around the film: whether it is a document or a commentary, an obscene film or a film about obscenity. These questions arise in the imprint rendered of this inner title in glitter, in the space of its transfer onto film.

1 The complete account of the Commonwealth v. Wiseman trial can be found in Documentary Dilemmas: Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies (Carbondale: Southwestern Illinois University Press, 1991).

2 Quoted in Stephen Dobyns, "The Titicut Follies as Comedy" in Writers at the Movies: Twenty-Six Contemporary Authors Celebrate Twenty-Six Memorable Movies, Jim Shepard ed., (New York: Harper Collins, 2000) 80.

3 Critics have countered the verdict by championing Wiseman as "a major work of subversive cinema and a searing indictment…of 'the system.' Amos Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art (New York: Random House, 1974) 186.

4 David Denby, "Documenting America" in The Documentary Tradition, Lewis Jacobs ed., (New York: Norton, 1979) 477.

5 It is interesting that the camera commits to the leftmost fragment of the spectacle, and moves right, face by face. The camera begins in this way to read the space, to invite a reading of space, rather than preserving the spectacle, whole, as a recording.

6 Quoted in Anderson and Benson, Documentary Dilemmas, 83.

7 Later in the film we see one patient, Vladimir, arguing with Dr. Ross that the hospital is harming him, that the medications are making him worse, not better. When Dr. Ross in his own defense refers to the tests that Vladimir took that preceded his admittance, Vladimir utters a shockingly inarguable line: "What do those tests have to do with my sanity?" He also says to the doctor, "You are giving me the same story again - 'We are going to help you…' May I ask why I need this help that you are literally forcing on me?"

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