Ship of Fools

The Films of Frederick Wiseman: Titicut Follies, Hospital, Law and Order, High School, Basic Training

by Frederick Wiseman

In 1967 Frederick Wiseman released the first in a series of films he has produced and directed which have realized new possibilities in the use of the motion picture in revealing and recording the functioning of social institutions. This was Titicut Follies, which was filmed at Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, an enormous old institution located on the banks of the Titicut River in Massachusetts. The film takes its title from that of an annual musical review whose skits the staff and patients collaborate in producing. Since then, Wiseman has made High School (1968) at Northeast High School in Philadelphia, Law and Order (1969), a study of the Kansas City, Missouri, police department in action, Hospital (1970) at Metropolitan Hospital in New York City, and, most recently, Basic Training (1971) at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Technically there is little about these films that is either novel or impressive. They are 16 mm. black and white films running about eighty minutes each. They were all made, of course, with the active cooperation of the institutions observed, over periods of weeks or months. The final version is made available to institutional officials before the film is released; there is seldom serious objection and usually general approval at this time. Conflict arises later, when the film is exhibited and reports begin to filter back to the institution that reveal the extent to which those who run it lack the gift to see themselves as others see them.

This was notably true of Titicut Follies. The Bridgewater administration at first welcomed the filming as a way of literally dramatizing its need for increased financial support from the state. But shortly after the film was released they enjoined its further distribution on the grounds that it invaded the privacy of the patients who, being certifiably insane, had no legal power to consent to appear in it. Respect for privacy is admirable, and much too rare in our time, but this is a difficulty which, if it was to be raised at all, could obviously have been anticipated before allowing the film to be produced.

The delayed development of hostile reactions by the subjects of Wiseman’s films is one of the more revealing social responses his work evokes. Titicut Follies is, indeed, a disturbing document, but not for quite the reasons I, or presumably Bridgewater’s directors, had expected. The hospital is overcrowded and squalid. The patients are neglected and treated with a contempt that sometimes slops over into physical brutality when such treatment as they get is administered. But this the staff must have known. There are also scenes of rough, hasty compassion and real concern for patients on the part of attendants, and of relationships among patients at least as genuine and deep as would be found in any normal segment of contemporary social life.

The most frightening scene in the film is also the most restrained and bourgeois: a staff meeting to consider the case of a young patient whose original …

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