Kino-Pravda Docs #6: Titicut Follies

Titicut Follies

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.

All sorted?


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.

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs #6: Titicut Follies

Battleship Potemkin: History in Eisenstein’s Making

potemkin

” ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ has been so famous for so long that it is almost impossible to come to it with a fresh eye…it has become so familiar that we cannot perceive it for what it is…the fact is ‘Potemkin’  doesn’t really stand alone, but depends for its power upon the social situation in which it is shown.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, July 19, 1998


Battleship Potemkin (Dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) in our hyper edited age, runs for too long. Even at a short 115 minute running time, a duration not seen in our feature films of today, it still drags near the end. The ageing of a film’s mechanics throughout time is a curious feature that is very hard to measure, and harder to discuss. I often try to purposely avoid a meta-analytical slant on these essays, instead preferring to discuss each film in itself, set by its own standards rather than the ones I impose on it. Eisenstein didn’t have the cultural history of 100+ years of cinema that I am a part of. There was very little history of cinema for him to place his works in, while now Eisenstein’s works, so radical, daring and provoking at the time, have been carried through the drifting of history to occupy a place for film enthusiasts, film historians, and not much else. It’s what happens to any work of art, but the experimental nature of Eisenstein’s style of cinema means that his vision morphs quicker in time. It’s neither good, nor bad, just an effect. To an audience unused to the hyper edited media we watch daily, the audience of 1925, it must have been very well timed, perhaps even going too fast at points.

Regardless, Battleship Potemkin is an iconic piece of cinema for a reason. Besides being an incredibly potent piece of revolutionary propaganda for the newly established USSR, it is also a film which uses the most intense and visually arresting tool cinema of the time possessed: sheer visual spectacle. From the hundreds of extras, the incredible sets of the battleships provided by the Soviet government, to the infamous ‘Odessa Steps’ sequences, the sheer impression of the pure reality of what was being shot, the knowledge that every person in each shot was not digitally inserted, not crafted by an animator sitting behind a computer somewhere, gives it such a visceral and tactile feel, of cinema reflecting the mass of people, as a spectacle to be watched in its own right. It is the sheer number of faces that help to reflect the mass empathy it seeks to inspire, the suffering on both the micro level, the woman’s eye bleeding through the shattered glasses, alongside the mass trampling down the steps, that is at the core of when the film impresses most powerfully on the mind of its watcher.

I at least find it hard to hold the film to the same kind of standard that I may hold a film now, its techniques incredibly unconventional to the current world I live in. It’s editing in particular, a staple of Soviet film theory, takes precedent here. Coined as montage“, Eisenstein really best employed a technique he called the “kino-fist”, the smashing of two conflicting elements in a jarring, conscious way to provoke a very reactive response. It turns the film into a far more active, aware experience than most seamlessly stitched together movies, and its ability to allow thematic elements into play rather than a clear logical chain of progression again feels…unnatural, at least in a mechanical way.

The question I feel that is burning in the back of my mind, is beyond its historical value for cinema, which is immeasurable, is the film still worth watching? Has it become so embedded in cultural history that it might actually be better to just appreciate it indirectly? It may sound ghastly, and I can say (with great pleasure) that this is not the case, that it still deserves to be seen, the Odessa Steps sequence alone is an enrapturing spell-binding piece of the raw power of cinema, and while the rest of the film does not equal those heights, it still shines. It is heavier cinema, more thought-provoking, more hard work. But it was never made to be simple mass entertainment, the opiate for the masses. It can’t fail at a race it was never running.

It is not made for our times, it does not move at our pace, it is not such an instantly gratifying experience as the movies may be now, but it still performs its drama, its power and its relevance. Eisenstein wanted the movie to be re-scored every 20 years to remain relevant, and while it may not hold the same potency it did in 1925, it comes from a time when cinema was more thoughtful, more conscious, more…revolutionary. And that spirit can’t be lost. There’s still that “kino-fist” (though it may not possess the “kino-eye” of Dziga Vertov which the blog’s spirit lies in) behind the work, and there’s still the truth of its propaganda purposes lying in wait, ready to be seen by each individual who finds it.

And here it is.

-Alex

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Battleship Potemkin: History in Eisenstein’s Making