It has been 40 years since the premiere of Titicut Follies, a bleak and scathing documentary about an asylum for the criminally insane. The audience at that first screening saw a cascade of disturbing images of mistreatment and neglect, most notoriously a brutal force-feeding of a naked inmate. As the prisoner is fed through the nose, a guard tells him to “chew your food”; the tube itself is lubricated with grease, and a doctor dangles a burning cigarette over the funnel.
But the most grotesque detail may be the follies of the title: an annual musical revue put on by the prisoners and guards. The revue frames the film, which begins with a row of madmen with pompoms singing “Strike Up the Band” and ends with the cast crooning “So Long for Now.” It’s a strange and darkly comic performance, part Ziegfeld and part Bedlam.
The movie was both a landmark piece of journalism and a landmark work of art. It made the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater one of the most infamous madhouses in the country, and it is now one of the most celebrated documentaries of the ’60s. It is also notable for two reasons that have nothing to do with its merits. It was the first picture to be directed by Frederick Wiseman, a former law professor who at age 37 was beginning a long series of rich and challenging films. And it is the only movie in U.S. history to be banned for reasons other than obscenity or national security.
The staff at the asylum cooperated with Wiseman as he shot the picture, and by his account they initially liked the movie. But as audiences’ horrified reactions to what they were seeing became clear, the authorities turned against the film, arguing that it violated the privacy of the prisoners and moving to have it legally suppressed. (For a modern parallel, imagine applying the same argument to the photos taken at Abu Ghraib.)
Nudity-averse conservatives denounced the picture as an X-rated exploitation flick. Privacy-conscious liberals refused to defend it. The controversy attracted national attention, which led in turn to more reviews for the movie, many of them glowing. (Time said it “deserves to stand with works like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle as an accusation and a plea for reform.”) But in much of the public debate—almost all of it conducted by people who had never seen the film—a documentary that exposed the mistreatment of inmates was itself accused of mistreating the inmates.
On January 4, 1968, Superior Court Judge Harry Kalus ruled for the state, denouncing Titicut Follies as “80 minutes of brutal sordidness and human degradation.” Playing critic as well as judge, he also attacked its experimental structure (“a hodge-podge of sequences”) and its willingness to let viewers find their own meaning in the material (“There is no narrative accompanying the film, nor are there any subtitles”). He not only ruled that all screenings should cease but called for the movie itself to be destroyed. An appeals court only partially reversed the decision: The picture could still be shown in Massachusetts, it declared, but just to professionals and students in relevant fields. Since Wiseman was a citizen of Massachusetts, he wasn’t able to show it freely outside the commonwealth either—and he controlled nearly all the copies of the film. The ban wasn’t lifted until 1991.
Meanwhile, Wiseman kept making movies. Many of them, like Titicut Follies, look at life within bureaucracies and other hierarchical institutions: a public school (High School, 1968), an urban hospital (Hospital, 1970), a military training camp (Basic Training, 1971), a monastery (Essene, 1972), a welfare office (Welfare, 1975), a housing project (Public Housing, 1997). Certain topics keep recurring: power, coercion, dehumanization, and the ways we help and victimize both each other and ourselves. Some of his documentaries are remarkably long—Near Death (1989), about the intensive care unit at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital, clocks in at more than six hours—and all are told without narration. They both demand and reward patience.
Wiseman is often described as a social critic. But his films are rarely heavy-handed or one-sided, preferring to revel in the ambiguous, the inexplicable, and the absurd. (When one interviewer asked him to name his biggest influences, Wiseman listed Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Groucho Marx.) His movies usually refrain from forcing a point of view, and they are deliberately open to multiple interpretations. Even Titicut Follies is shaped to show not just the inmates’ awful conditions but also, in Wiseman’s words, “what the guards had to deal with.”
Indeed, many of the characters in Wiseman’s films are hard-working professionals with noble motives—though this too can be presented ambiguously. Juvenile Court (1973) ends with a judge, a prosecutor, and a defense attorney deciding to override a teenager’s clearly expressed desire to fight the charges against him in court, even though he will be tried as an adult and will risk 20 years in prison. He’ll be better off, they agree, if he goes to a reform school; and so his lawyer enters a guilty plea to a lesser charge. They obviously believe sincerely that this is in the defendant’s best interest. It may well be in the defendant’s best interest. But his right to make that decision for himself is being bulldozed.
Not all of Wiseman’s work deals with such nightmarish environments. His subjects have ranged from a dance company (Ballet, 1995) to the Neiman-Marcus department store (The Store, 1983). In 1994 he released a follow-up to High School called High School 2, about an alternative school in East Harlem. His portrait of the place is by no means unambiguously positive, but the film’s flavor is distinctly different from that of the movies that made his reputation.
Forty years after Titicut Follies debuted, Wiseman has become one of the grand old men of independent film. His influence extends far beyond the world of documentaries; when Milos Forman directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example, the cast and crew prepared by watching Titicut Follies. Critics routinely praise him, and at least three book-length studies of his work have been written; his company, Zipporah Films, is preparing to release his movies on DVD, and last year the University of California published 5 Films by Frederick Wiseman, a collection of transcripts. Now 77, Wiseman still lives in Boston; he is currently editing his 37th picture, about a boxing gym in Texas.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker spoke with Wiseman by phone in late August. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reason: I understand the American Civil Liberties Union was split on whether Titicut Follies should be censored.
Frederick Wiseman: I don’t know if they were split. Their decision was to not support me. The then-chairman of the Massachusetts ACLU, Gerald Berlin, had been my first lawyer. When the case heated up and became a daily subject in The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald, there was a cartoon in the Herald that showed Berlin riding astride two horses going in opposite directions. One horse was labeled “ACLU,” and the other was labeled “Titicut Follies.” The day that cartoon appeared, he told me that he could no longer represent me. Needless to say I was very, very angry, because I felt that he had an obligation to me as his client above his role in the ACLU.
After the initial decision, in which the judge found against the film and said the negatives should be burned, there was an appeal. The Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU, of which Berlin was still the chairman, appointed a committee to determine whether the ACLU should file an amicus brief, and if so what position it would take. None of the members of the committee saw the film.