Titicut Follies — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Frederick Wiseman’s classic black-and-white documentary exposé of the horrendous conditions and treatment of mental patients at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts is one of the most famously banned films in America. An attorney-turned-activist-filmmaker, Wiseman received permission from the institution’s superintendent to freely film inside the all-male facility in 1967. With the help of cameraman John Marshall, the two-man team recorded interviews between patients and staff, daily rituals—such as the cleaning of patients’ rooms—and interactions between the inmates. The result is a shocking and undiluted look inside callous institutional exploitation.
Candid footage of perpetually nude inmates being extracted from their cells for bathing and room cleaning, displays bare cells without so much as a table or chair, much less a cot.
Guards verbally harass an inmate named Jim with constantly repeated questions about the condition of his room until he finally lashes out with grimaced screaming responses.
Made during an era when mental hospitals dotted America’s map like flies on manure, “Titicut Follies” presents an invaluable time capsule. The film’s title comes from an inmate talent show that opens the film. Titicut comes from an Indian name for the Taunton River that runs near the facility.
One of the film’s most memorable sequences involves the force-feeding of a starving inmate by a cigarette-smoking bureaucrat who shoves a rubber hose down the compliant inmate’s nose. Short on Vaseline, the administrator casually requests lard or butter to lubricate the tube. Guards use towels wrapped around the naked man’s feet and wrists to restrain him. Wiseman uses quick cuts to show the man’s corpse being prepared for burial. Needless to say, the brutal force-feeding treatment is not effective. Although Wiseman later came to regret his “heavy-handed” editorializing, the cuts add a jarring quality of welcome disapproval by the filmmaker for the outrageous conduct he witnessed.
After winning awards at the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival in Germany, and at Italy’s Festival Dei Popoli, “Titicut Follies: film was banned by the Massachusetts Superior Court just before it was to be shown at the 1967 New York Film Festival. Massachusetts Superior Court judge Harry Kalus ordered that all copies of the film be destroyed, citing Massachusetts laws about patients' rights to privacy and dignity.
Wiseman appealed the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which allowed it to be shown only to “doctors, lawyers, judges, health-care professionals, social workers, and students in these and related fields” in 1969. It was the first time in American history that a film was banned from general distribution for reasons other than “obscenity, immorality, or national security.” “Titicut Follies wasn’t available for viewing by the general public until 1989.
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