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Ghost Meets the Man: Frederick Wiseman's "Titicut Follies" (1967)

An essay on and analysis of _Titicut Follies_, the debut feature of Frederick Wiseman. The first in a series by Craig Keller on all-Wiseman.

Frederick Wiseman: 300 Million Milliseconds is an on-going series by Craig Keller exploring in chronological order of release the complete body of work of the great American documentary filmmaker.

The film can be purchased on DVD from Zipporah Films' website here.


Titicut Follies

Titicut Follies is Frederick Wiseman's debut film from 1967, shot in 1966 in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, USA, at the now-shuttered Bridgewater State Prison for the Criminally Insane

The project: to write about all of Wiseman's films / Cannot be typical / Must start by acknowledging that in every Wiseman movie Content (psychology, comedy, irony, terror, Motive, Idea) registers by the millisecond interval / To exegesize one Wiseman movie—better: to catalog, just to tell it—would demand a monograph of monastic proportions / And yet from one film to the next the essence of the Content can be summarized identically: "Here is the Reality of Things" / No admission of reducability / I write about these films not for any reason but to memorialize traces of seeing, of having seen and heard, having locked in Encounter / To register drifting insight / To remember the dance / Vidi ego sum / The project is one of inks in the margins of Text "Wiseman" / The films are Thought itself / Take a snapshot of involved experience

"Flash forward" (Gainsbourg): "J'avance dans le block / 'Out' et mon Kodak / Impressionne sur les plaques / Sensibles de mon cerveau une vision de claque."

Not a codex / If anything let this serve as advertisement for the work of a great master / For the reality of things

Convince Scholastic to syndicate the piece as an e-text for 10th graders / As a reminder that history was temporally lived / That every era has its "now" / And conversely, consequently, that "now" is History / And that Frederick Wiseman, in a body of work, a series, that might be titled In Search Of... has regained Time

Has done so outside the tenets of "realism" / In the sense proffered by generations of Scholar-Critics who have sought to exert Control over legacies / Like those of Dickens and Flaubert and Rossellini / All progenitors of magic and enchantment, incantors of controlled aesthetic spells / Wiseman transubstantiates reality into high fictional aesthetic / And thus —

The Reality of Things — "Here:" like a voilà, reveal / It's: Epiphany / It's: Reality is realization / Wiseman's montage hides, it conceals, before it divulges / Like the development before a punchline / Comedy and pain are related, empathy is their unity / Like shots coming together end to end / And hiding is the secret power of cinema, not showing, I understood this though I didn't have the words to say it when I was 16 and in love with Taxi Driver, the scene (the only one I remember now) where De Niro in the porn theater flickers two fingers before his eyes, switching off—and moreso later when I saw Bresson and Sauve qui peut (la vie) and F for Fake, read Costa's lecture, and saw Shoah

In English Gainsbourg's song says: "I move forward, blacked-out-out-of-bounds, and my Kodak impresses upon the sensitive plates of my brain one snapped-shuttered vision."

What does Wiseman hide in the first 16 minutes of Titicut Follies? / An allocation of ghouls and the desiccation of the body / The filmmaker places us in the center of an interview between an institutionalized sex-offender and a psychiatrist / Wiseman holds on the face of the delinquent / The heavily accented voice of the doctor-interrogator carries over the image from off-screen / He asks the other man what he did to his daughter / Asks how often he masturbates / According to "realism," we are learning things / In a sense this is true / But the Reality only arrives with the apportion of Wiseman's documentary-fiction / (1) Wiseman shows us the face of the Eastern-Euro-émigré doctor, and we recognize a materialization of Nosferatu with a mouth like a shattered ashtray / (2) The interviewee rises and as guards guide him to his cell we see that he stands approximately 5'1" in height between the men—then he is stripped, and bare-ass leans against a windowsill his elbows hardly reach / What have we learned?

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That givens can be upended, and good and evil are applied constructs like anything else, just as with aesthetic organization / (1) We learn that the voice of programmatic conscience, the badger, can take the face of evil / (Maybe I should say 'anchorless conscience'—appropriate because the voice is off-screen, divorced from the man; Wiseman asks here, and indeed this is the thesis of the work as a whole: What are the pitfalls of a programmatic conscience? of an 'applied' morality?) / (2) We learn that the physical violator, a sexual terrorist, might not stand tall enough to secure admission to a roller-coaster, that his powers of intimidation can be neutralized like a Klansman stripped of his cloak, that the violation can occur from the side of "the just" (and that Indifference to whether or not the subject is 'cured' still represents a kind of outcome, that is, the program executing its routines proves that the program is functioning, i.e. that it is operational—think of Chaplin feeding through the cogs in Modern Times)

Modern Times

During the interview, the doctor asks: "Never been caught, but you have been in practice in this way that you abuse the young, uh, child, huh?" The also-young inmate responds: "Even my own daughter..." / The man's answer represents the perfect concretization of Wiseman's method, that which places Wiseman in the tradition of Flaubert / He draws out the innate art-power of his material, he drives his material to the moment of the challenge by retaining such lines as: "Even my own daughter..." which in a novel would read very stupid / But which film, by dint of its essence as 'gulper' of reality, of that which is plainly presented, can complicate (Eustache: "Quand la caméra tourne, le cinéma se fait." / "When the camera rolls, cinema is made.")—through montage and the selectivity of presentation, the ways such a line can be delivered with dimension are made known—through the shadings and the shavings from the moment(s) in time, and through reception of the event in experience

Taken at face value, several of the inmates, especially those seen milling in courtyard recess, yield no immediate indication of their insanity—we catch the trip of a speech impediment, spot some rotten teeth... / We behold the zeal of an extemporaneous orator, discover the intensity in his audience, hyper-attentive, clinging to every second's worth of the rap / —But what of it? / For in such 'milling moments,' in the reverse-shots on the face of an inmate mid-interrogation, Wiseman issues another implicit challenge of great metaphysical consequence: Should we take images and sounds of a man—the moments of a man—'such as they are,' then when, how, are we as spectators willing to declare that the man is insane? / The conclusion may be that all, some, of these men are 'clinically deranged'—but Wiseman forces us to ponder where precisely lies that line in Diagnosis which determines whether a man be institutionalized, or set free / Doctors have training, case-histories, experience...and even still the questions linger—when does the evidence amount to 'enough' to generate a verdict? whose definition of 'reasonable premises' leads to the 'reasonable conclusion'? what is 'reasonable'? / Beyond the transgressive incident, where precisely in an individual's psychography does the evidence of pathology lie? / And is its very invisibility a threat to the social order, or given existence only by exterior contexts: jurisdictional constructs, social programs...

One watches a minute more of a sequence in Titicut Follies and the Observable Neutrality of Sanity all but vanishes, an inmate speaks himself cuckoo... / In Wiseman, it's always a battle between the subjective and the compulsion toward the objective / Truth, Reality, a flux between two: some interrelationship between unknowable interior and the Wor(l)d

Titicut Follies

So Titicut Follies marks Wiseman's first investigation into the theme that obsessed Orson Welles too: What is Identity? / In this exploratory outing the filmmaker suggests: Identity is as much perception of that identity as something that originates from the inside of the Individual / Sole ownership of one's identity is a fallacy / Identity does not belong solely to its Individual

Yes, "one watches a minute more" of any given sequence and suddenly something boils to the insane / But it is impossible in the context of Bridgewater State Prison to distinguish the rage of an inmate as emanating from a ruptured interior or from an outcry-blend-in with the circumstances, with the environment that allows, presides over, and in countless instances determines the magic-act / Of the three-blinks-and-you-might miss-it variety (let's take the 23-minute mark: water-bucket as bedpan, emptied into the common septic-hole)

Titicut Follies

The prison's cells like off-chambers (precursor to Rithy Panh's S21), spaces off-limits, the camera must shoot from the threshold / Guards and administration obsess over the importance of the cell-dwellers' keeping "neat rooms" / There's nothing to the rooms / To keep a neat room in Bridgewater is to avoid pissing, shitting, or bleeding all over the floor of one's cell / To keep a neat room in Bridgewater is also a signifier of nothing-at-all, that is, an empty phrase employed by the staff to mock and taunt the institutionalized / "How's that room Jim?"  Inmate Jim, in the middle of a shave, a razor at his throat: "Very clean, I, I keep it—" "Huh? Whadja say? Answer me Jim." / The barber shaves him like he's peeling a potato, until Jim's lip unlooses a trickle; it's wiped, and the blood courses again / These men, stamping around shivering with their penises shriveled in the cold, are veterans; were even junior-high teachers, as in Jim's case—in "arithmetic and mathematics."

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Naked men paraded like apes in a zoo / Naked men cover their genitals in the cold concrete / Bridgewater corridors in and of themselves do not asphyxiate, they serve merely as prelude to the slam of a door, and as a ritual place for hosting a black man on his knees / After the guard asks the man in non-sequitur (all the mocks in the prison fly in non-sequitur) "Want some watermelon?", the performance continues as the kneeling human being, like an audience-volunteer dragged onstage, covers his dick (ancient universal recurring nightmare image before spectators) and fulfills Expectation for the act as he finally throws up in his mouth and says: "Excuse me." / Cut / Shut him away now like a prop / With every cut conveying a lockup / And every cut a corridor to the next attraction / The halls of Titicut Follies asphyxiate

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An 'intimate' Holocaust, a 'serene' Holocaust / Penis exposed, the horrible totem / The self-starving man force-fed with a Vaselined tube matter-of-factly snaked through his sinuses—his cock at first draped over by the doctor like he's covering (creating) the focus of the trick / Or as though performing the parody of a bris / The vampire doctor, reluctant to ever remove the cigarette from his mouth, so that ashes from the tip be poised always to break off and coat the pubic bush or face of the inmate / Arresting to compare the image of this man to the painting by Holbein the Younger of The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb that inspired Dostoevsky to write The Idiot / The cross-cutting between the corpse of the same man being prepared for interment by the mortician (the motif of the Camp/Ghetto Barber streams throughout the picture) and the force-feeding while he's still sentient comes across neither as gimmick nor shock-fallow juxtaposition, because at the time of the tube the man is already dead

Titicut Follies

Holbein's The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb

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That same cable, if you will, suggests the metaphor of the marionette, an image that unifies the truths and concerns of this film where men stand alone naked like trees, where the inmates' animation crosses immediately to agitation / Jumping and twitching—like Vladimir, the Russian-American "paranoid" and thus the hero of the film, whom the weak-chinned alienist would soak further in medication / From our vantage we can never know the fate of this man who has learned English at a tremendous and brilliant pace, now marked for reprogram / To gaze into the footlights of that demeaning opening scene is to be plunged into an ambiguity established around whether what follows will be 'fiction' or 'documentary,' and in the close of the film and this essay we come full-circle, for the film will be fiction and documentary, the one in the other, in this Cinema, this Grand Illusion, the zoom-back and now forward, brotherhood of man a possibility, or once a notion, among other images, notions: lithium-puppets, or the divinely irradiated

Titicut FolliesTiticut FolliesTiticut FolliesGrand IllusionTiticut Follies
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I appreciate the effort but the style of this article was a little too difficult to get into. Too much stream-of-consciousness. But I’m more curious to know why we get an ongoing series on every film that Wiseman made rather than some other director?
Bobby: perhaps because Wiseman is an amazing and under-discussed filmmaker, and whose body of work is remarkably available on home video?
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I’m not discounting the fact that Wiseman is an amazing director, just wondering why him out of all amazing directors. Not so much a complaint, just curious about the intent and if there were more specific reasons for this series. I definitely need to see more Wiseman films. I think I’ve only watched two. Didn’t know that his films were unavailable. Is he under-discussed? Maybe, but I tend to think not. There is a brand new edited collection on him that was recently released (by Quandt), I think in connection with his MOMA retrospective. He’s made a number of films in the past few years that have all received a lot of press attention. And when it comes to documentary film, for just about everybody you ask the modern canon begins and ends with Wiseman. So I find it hard to believe that he is left wanting for a lack of critical attention. All that being said, I’ll look forward to reading some good writing on him and being introduced to his lesser-known films.
Finally got around to see Titicut Follies which means I finally got around to reading this wonderful piece. So many great thoughts, packed into the minimum of words.

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