Disrupting The Real
Using a cinematic style usually associated with the Direct Cinema movement of the 1960s, Frederick Wiseman’s brand of filmmaking focuses greatly on the diverse institutions either organized, provided or policed by the State, in his case, the U.S. Films such as Blind (1986), Near Death (1989), and Law and Order (1969) offer glimpses into the lives of people, usually sequestered either because of law or health issues, and their day-to-day activities in these institutions of education, detainment and care. As Brian Winston writes, “Frederick Wiseman was drawn to direct cinema ... by ‘the idea of using film and film technology to have a look at what’s going on in the world’” (Real 151). These snapshots also include family members as well as those who provide the services in said institutions.
However, it is the more controversial works, such as Hospital (1969) and, perhaps more famously, Titicut Follies (1967), which have been credited with exposing those instances when these institutions fail in providing the dignified and humane treatment usually demanded from such establishments. Without any voiceover to guide the spectator and opting for the extensive use of long shots, Wiseman, a former lawyer and law professor, constructs films which make the viewer feel as if he or she were granted entry into institutional spaces usually outside the bounds of the public gaze. Thus, the viewer gets a sense of privileged access in the engagement with Wiseman’s subjects. As Michael Chanan has noted, “[f]or Wiseman, the institution is a social microcosm that reveals an inevitable gap between aims and practices which can be ‘dramatised’ through observational cinema” (226). Chanan adds that Wiseman calls such an approach in the “dramatization” of the documentary “reality fictions” (226) which, I would contend, recalls, or better yet, signals an approach to the documentary similar, at least philosophically, to John Grierson’s “creative treatment of actuality.”
Poster for Titicut Follies (1967)
Titicut Follies presents the daily goings-on at Massachusetts’ Bridgewater State Hospital, an institution for the confinement of the criminally insane. In the process, Wiseman exposes the audience to the increasingly abusive treatment of the inmates on the part of those running the hospital. Ward attendants verbally harass or physically punish the patient-inmates; doctors’ interrogations seem to go according to scripted procedures, which never take into account the true needs and improvements/deficiencies of the patients; overall, the perspective goes from seeing a hospital to recognizing an institution mainly employed in torture. What is interesting about this spectacle is that the State and its representatives granted Wiseman access to film such events; they seemingly found nothing wrong, at least at the beginning, with letting an outsider see the events that went on inside the hospital. Wiseman believes that his approach to documenting – embedding a camera into a particular space, waiting until its subjects become used to the presence of the camera and the filmmakers, constantly filming even in moments when seemingly nothing is occurring; what Brian Winston calls the “‘wait and watch’ method” — allows for an unfiltered access to moments that would otherwise remain out of reach. In particular, Wiseman’s belief in the invisibility of the camera becomes his emphasized modus operandi. And judging from the behavior of the guardians in Titicut Follies, one gets a sense of witnessing these events without the awareness of many of those participating.
The history of this film’s distribution is rife with multiple battles involving the State and the subjects themselves. Despite obtaining permission from the State, the latter later contended, upon finding out about the film’s “true” content, that Wiseman was in fact breaching both the privacy of the inmates and the privacy of the State to function for the benefit of its citizens. Lawsuits went from accusing Wiseman of filming patients who never gave their consent, to claiming that subjects where in fact wards of the State, ultimately to allegations that the need for the destruction of the film itself served the greater interest of the citizens of Massachusetts. In the end, the film survived on the grounds of documentary being art and protected under freedom of speech. Yet, despite the ruling, the State of Massachusetts banned the film, looking to avoid criticism from the very citizens it supposedly wanted to protect.
At first viewing the film itself appears as an exercise in minimalism. Shooting in 16 mm black and white stock with just one camera handled by one cameraperson and one boom microphone, with Wiseman himself carrying the audio equipment, the film weaves into different situations over Wiseman’s month-long documenting of the hospital. Most of the episodes, such as the internment of prisoners, a doctor’s interview of a self-confessed pedophile, a situation involving an inmate who dirties his cell with feces and blood every night, and many more, are usually constructed using long takes. One gets the sense of witnessing the events in the same fashion that Wiseman and his crew did during filming. Thus, the film comes across as straightforward in its representation of life at Bridgewater. Chanan notes that the “observational style of documentary that emerges in the 1960s, above all in the work of Wiseman, ...chooses to respect the unities of time and space, but this is only an option, strongly associated with the technique of the long take” (106).
However, one sequence in particular, at the 50th minute mark, offers what I would consider to be Wiseman’s attempt at revealing a kernel of Truth. The sequence involves an inmate who has refused to eat and drink for days. With various employees at his side, the ward’s doctor confronts the inmate, threatening the latter with force-feeding by tube if he continues his refusal to eat on his own. Despite the threats, the inmate persists on his refusal. As a result, the doctor takes the drastic measure of inserting a tube down the man’s nose and into his stomach, as other men hold the inmate down on a table.
Wiseman holds the shot on the proceedings, even capturing the fact that the hospital lacked enough vaseline to cover the entire tube in order to make its insertion more tolerable. During this event, something occurs which has not happened before in the film; Wiseman intersperses shots of the same inmate some time in the near future, dead on an embalmer’s table, being prepared for his wake. Wiseman offers no explanation, trusting that the jump cuts will provide his audience with all the information they need. It is the only time Wiseman employs the technique, and various effects come with it.
First, Wiseman catches the audience by surprise, offering no warning for the image of a dead person, with his face contorted in apparent pain. The image feels invasive in the sense that in the same instance that the audience is reeling from the horrendous spectacle of an inmate being force fed, Wiseman increases the moment’s visceral investment with an image that confronts the audience directly with death. Second, Wiseman, who has lulled the audience into accepting the film’s realtime feel by way of the long shot, breaches this contract by breaking the film’s apparent, though illusory, linear temporality. The audience is suddenly projected into the future, thus, in its moment of self-reflexiveness the film reveals the fact that the filmmaker knows more than the audience. Wiseman has withheld information; he has seen the effects of his month-long sojourn at Bridgewater. And he has decided to provide said information by way of a disruptive cutting style. Finally, in a Lacanian sense, Wiseman’s disruption has confronted the audience with the Real; something that remained out of reach, latent, and repressed has come to the surface for an instance. But like the Real, that something which in the scheme of the overall film would seem to be the Truth, is immediately lost, somehow absorbed into each individual audience member. The filmic mechanism and its characteristic movement forces the vanishment of that kernel of momentary reality. Moreover, if someone tried to access that moment in the form of a still image, he or she would find that such a kernel remains elusive since such an attempt would disrupt the film’s indexical nature. After all, a film depends on movement to achieve all its effects.
In such a filmic moment, Wiseman, I believe, reveals what I call the filmmaker’s signature. Wiseman unveils a truth that in his film takes over, by filtering all that the audience has witnessed up to that moment in the film. The audience is forced to reassess all that it has seen and heard before and is similarly called to keep the event in mind as the film moves on. Up to this moment, Wiseman has given us the liberty to question his film, its stylistic methods as vessels of truth, but, in this moment of disruption, Wiseman unveils a greater Truth which he’s removing from our criticism; Death and its disruptive force on the film is unquestionable in its finality. Said moment becomes Wiseman’s true intention; this institution, which is responsible for the safety and care of its patients, has failed.
Anderson, Carolyn and Thomas W. Benson. Documentary Dilemmas: Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies. Southern Illinois UP: Carbondale, 1991.
Chanan, Michael. The Politics of Documentary. BFI: London, 2007.
Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Indiana UP: Bloomington, 1991.
Winston, Brian. Claiming the Real: The Griersonian Documentary and its Legitimations. BFI: London, 1995.
---. Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries. BFI: London, 2000.
Wiseman, Frederick. Titicut Follies. 1967. Zipporah: Cambridge, 2007.