Shock Treatment
Joanne Nucho on Titicut Follies

Titicut Follies, made in 1967, was first in a long line of documentaries on public institutions by Frederick Wiseman. Filmed at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts, Titicut Follies documents the needlessly inhumane treatment of the inmates by wardens and psychiatrists. I was 19 when I first saw this film, and it was the beginning of my fascination with direct cinema. No film had ever so fully and deeply disturbed me. For a few days, I became restless, unable to erase from my memory the images of humiliation and degradation I had witnessed. Adult men are stripped naked, mocked, force fed, and hosed down like animals. The 84 minutes were grueling; I felt nauseous at a few moments of the film, often closing my eyes and looking away from the screen.

Though the long takes and lack of narration give the film its distinctly unmediated and objective feel, it is in the editing, the most manipulated and subjective aspect of any documentary, that Titicut Follies made its lasting impact. In one scene, images of an inmate being force-fed through a tube inserted into his nostril are intercut with the image of his face, lying dead in a coffin being prepared for the funeral. The camera pans up from the force-feeding tube to reveal the psychiatrist casually smoking a cigarette. The inmate involuntarily swallows the liquefied nutrition in pain and humiliation; it is an action that is the very opposite of nourishment, of caring, of human compassion. This fluid is merely designed to keep him alive against his will. Ultimately, it is revealed as an act of merciless power over the individual. The body is the property of the institution, and no inmate has the choice to live or die—that is determined solely by the state. When the inmate finally does pass away, his body is treated in much the same way as it was when he was alive. There is little difference between the way he is regarded dead or alive —he is an object, a subject.

It was the cheapness of human life, the rendering of a man into a mere body that made me want to look away. The aforementioned scene triggers the same response in me to this day—despair, hopelessness, revulsion, and anger. Over and over again the film demonstrates how medical technology and science are used to torture an individual and crush free will. There is no removal from the anguish in Titicut Follies, these are not actors but real men suffering through real pain, and there can be no narrative catharsis, or possibility for redemption.

Perhaps, the lasting impact of Titicut Follies has less to do with its being a documentary, than with the fact that it is the condemnation of a system, an institution. Lacking a villain, or an embodiment of nefariousness, the force that brings about the suffering of the inmates is an amorphous, faceless collective of which we are a part. What’s being examined is the society that creates such institutions—what goes on within its walls is inextricably bound to what goes out outside of them.

Titicut Follies posits our world as dark and indifferent to human suffering. The institution is without hope, a Hades that the viewer has been made privy to, one that we can only imagine is duplicated throughout the world, especially today. The film’s shock comes in its rendering of an abject world that has been kept hidden from a comfortably bourgeois America. In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault writes of the intellectual history of madness in Europe, both as an inextricable part of literary and artistic culture as well as its philosophical and social function. In 1656, he writes of the founding of the Hospital General of Paris. This institution was unique to this era, as it did not serve a solely medical function. Rather, the Hospital General had more in common with a penal colony—as it had ultimate authority over its inmates. This movement towards confinement and absolute jurisdiction over the physical and psychic beings of the mad represented a shift in the structure of power. One indication is that the Hospital General was the realization of absolute royal power, a power that could be exercised unchecked over the most vulnerable and unwanted members of society. In confining madness, a space was created within society where absolute power of monarchy could exercise itself upon the weak, the disenfranchised.

Foucault raises another important distinction about madness. In setting the mad apart, in confining them to one place, a dichotomy is created between normal and abnormal. Henceforth, the state expressed a desire to control people by defining them through confinement. Just as the medical procedures in Titicut Follies seemed more about the enactment of power than healing or rehabilitation, the act of confinement itself is more about control than humanitarian concern. It is only by confining and controlling those defined as abnormal that the concept of what is “normal” can really exist.

Of course, the desire to hide unpleasant things from view serves a political and social function as well. Titicut Follies was banned, from 1967 to 1992, for allegedly invading the privacy of its subjects as well as for its obscenity (nudity). What is most fascinating about this debate is the suggestion that the invasion of the inmates’ privacy is actually more of a transgression against human dignity than the abuses they suffer in the asylum. In other words, Wiseman was deemed more culpable for filming the humiliation of an inmate being stripped naked and hosed down than the warden who actually perpetrated this act. This reminds me of the debate that was raging over Al-Jazeera’s broadcasting of images of war casualties. Somehow, the publishing of the images was an act of treason, a real crime against humanity. The exposure of human suffering lifted the veil of the illusion of war as a clean, detached video game with easily hit targets and minimal casualty. The fantasy that all missiles are directed towards strategic targets, that war is precise and no innocent civilians are killed by accident was debunked. If they are, well, that’s just the price to pay for the mission. All of these arguments lose their force when the images of hundreds of mutilated, burned bodies of men, women and children are broadcast alongside of torture photos from Abu-Ghraib and videos of hostages about to be decapitated. Obviously, the images are only as revolting as the reality they portray. At least we must be aware of what is being done in our names, how our public institutions both here and abroad are treating human beings.

Nevertheless, a looming question remains. What of the privileged viewpoint of the detached, “objective” observer? Many critiques of Titicut Follies dwell on the gaze of the camera, recording the subjects from a distance, exposing their humiliation to the spectator without offering anything to the subjects themselves. However, when Wiseman’s camera takes up the role of detached observer, it is in a way usurping the role of psychiatrist or doctor. Through the means of this new, privileged gaze, he supercedes the role of psychiatrist, establishing a perspective from which to evaluate the institution itself. Using cinematic language that leads a viewer to believe that the viewpoint of the camera is an objective one, Wiseman is able to establish the film’s gaze at a point above the psychiatrists, and include them within it. In this way, the privacy that is being violated is actually that of the act of confinement itself. The activities that take place within the confinement have been exposed for what they are—a raw abuse of power, a disenfranchisement of the human rights of the inmates, and a realization of a totalitarian dictatorship within the walls of a public institution.