Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.
—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926
Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.
—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’
In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.
Titicut Follies (1967, Dir. Frederick Wiseman) is a buried secret of a film. Once it’s uncovered, brought back to the living world every single time it’s viewed with new eyes, all of its life comes hurtling back through time with all the force of a fucking hurricane.
The film itself, is direct and simple to comprehend. Wiseman with a minimal crew (2-3) and a single camera, followed the goings on of a state penitentiary for the mentally insane for an extended period of time (29 days to be exact). After shooting a considerable amount of film, he extracted key sequences from his celluloid stock and placed them next to each other, fragments connected without regard for conventional notions of narrative, time or chronology beyond his own personal rhythms. And that covers what is in the film.
But of course, if that was all, I wouldn’t be writing this. Because much in the same way describing a film doesn’t really describe what’s in the film, the sights, the sounds, the emotions and thoughts it gives rise to, neither does my distant summation of Titicut Follies explain what awaits anyone who watches it. Because inside Wiseman’s rhythms and fragments, lays the most direct and brutal confrontation regarding the mentally insane I’ve ever seen. Not against them per se, but against the very nature of what it means to be insane and what it means to be someone who deals with them. There is a reason our asylums are places we build like prisons, to lock out and keep out of view and to be removed, isolated from the larger societal world. Because quite simply, we don’t want to see.
The rhythms of Titicut Follies contain in them many different movements and motions, and it’s people who were captured by its lens are ones which perform and unconsciously dance for us. Sometimes well, sometimes badly, sometimes disturbing in their engagement and sometimes mind-numbingly dull. If I’m talking about this film in opaque terms, it’s because the film confronts you with that idea. Wiseman offers no constructions to hang onto, no place to pin your tail on the donkey. The film is bookended and interjected by the performance of a musical put on by the inmates, and beyond that the film is a slate for you to inscribe your meaning on. Wiseman’s editing rhythms push the ideas he wants to communicate, but you may not always get them, you may miss them or they may go over your head. But your experience of the film and what you draw from it, this intense and visceral confrontation of those who hover between sanity and insanity, is still one which simultaneously pulls you in and pushes you away.
I’ve gone over the waterfall on this film. It’s rooted itself so intensely into my mind, through personal reasons and filmic ones that I’m struggling to talk about it in more conventional terms. Partially because it’s construction is so subtle, sound blurring and separating between images to keep you from becoming completely disoriented, or camerawork by John Marshall which simply refuses to turn away, which completely focuses on its subject and never cuts away from the gruesome realities of reality.
It’s a relic of its time, but the fury Titicut Follies still provokes is that deep knowledge around you, that injustices and cruelties are perpetrated and accepted not even necessarily because people are evil, but just because people get used to things, people don’t want to confront difficult subjects, and people are often afraid. It’s a film whose power hasn’t degraded, simply because there’s about as little pretense as you can find in the medium of film, one which is so interested in fantasies. It’s a film which goes beyond that petty issue of “who’s really the mad ones, those inside or those outside?”, and becomes a film which is nearly punishing in its ability to crystallise the horrors of going mad, and the dangers of those who are ideally meant to take care of them. In any system of power, there are chances for its abuse. Very rarely have they been captured so honestly, power’s use and its’ misuse.
This film holds a truth, one which suppressed and held hostage by the United States government, one which they tried their best to bury. But it still lives, and every time it’s seen by another person, it’s a testament to the hope that one day things will get better. And since the release of it, the treatment of the mentally ill has improved and been raised considerably. It’s just important to remember what we could lose if we slipped backwards.