Tough Love and Revelation: The Films of Frederick Wiseman

TiticutFollies1_jpg_470x457_q85Andrew Delbanco in the NYRB blog:

The first film by Frederick Wiseman I saw was Titicut Follies (1967). It was the fall of 1969, my freshman year of college, too long ago to trust my memory scene by scene. What I mainly remember is the festive mood in the dining-hall-turned-theater as the lights went down and latecomers ducked under the projector’s cone of bluish light as they made their way to sit with friends across the room. A very cool senior had made introductory remarks to the effect that what we were about to see had been “banned in Boston” (always promising), and I think we half-expected the local police to show up as if we had gathered in Rick’s gambling den in Casablanca (1942). I remember a little snickering during the opening pan across the expressionless faces of the inmates singing “Strike up the Band” while they wave—tentatively, almost spastically—their pompoms. But once the film started, there was only silence in the room, interrupted now and then by a gasp.

A few months ago, forty years older, I watched Titicut Follies on a DVD on my computer screen in my study at home. Memories of that first viewing came flooding back: the guards tormenting an inmate named Jim, marching him naked up and down the bright-lit hallways, peppering him with variations on one relentless question: “How’s that room, Jim? … You gonna keep that room clean, Jim? … How’s that room gonna be tomorrow, Jim? … How come it’s not clean today?” until he screams out his compliance in rage and helplessness. And then there was the German psychiatrist who looks for all the world like Hermann Goring, pestering an inmate with questions in a monotone voice about how often he masturbates. Did he feel guilty after raping his own child? “I need help but I don’t know where I can get it,” says the young man, handsome and fit, but with a deadness in his eyes. “You get it here, I guess,” says the doctor—help, as the rest of the film makes clear, in the form of lockdowns, hosings, strip searches, and assorted other humiliations…

Watching the film today is an utterly different experience. I see images of Abu Ghraib. I see failed men exposed to mockery for having failed, men who once had families and jobs and respectable credentials, but, unable to manage their sexual or violent urges, descended into the pit into which any of us might fall.