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 commitment and presumed criminal insanity seem to have been largely attributable to his inability to make himself understood in English. By this time his confinement has indeed nearly driven him mad, and the psychiatrists, self-important and self-confined in their obsessive preoccupation with the taxonomy and language of mental illness, are quite unable to see him as a person or ask themselves what they are doing to him. His confinement is continued, with the prospect of being interminable.

Having gone to see Titicut Follies expecting to be shocked by the exotic horrors of the snake pit, I emerged with a much sadder sense that what I had seen differed only in degree from everyday life. These patients were afflicted, certainly, but the nature of their disorder was clear enough, very common in America, and serious indeed. They suffered from disastrously low status compounded by poverty, which had drastically lowered their resistance to incarceration.

The people confined in Bridgewater simply appeared much too familiar and ordinary to justify the institution’s existence. If the citizenry of the Boston area were able to sleep at night knowing that Henry Kissinger was at large among them, driven by who-knows-what fantasies, they could damned well have accepted the presence of these poor wretches. In view of its reasons for allowing Wiseman to make the film, the hospital administration was evidently prepared to have Bridgewater’s deficiencies and inadequacies exposed. But Titicut Follies cuts deeper and suggests that the hospital’s social function may be useless and occasionally monstrous. The film shows quite clearly that the primary consequence of defining, and confining, the patients as criminally insane is to justify keeping the hospital running; the question of improving its services hardly arises.

What causes the authorities who first approve to later repudiate Wiseman’s films and what shocks them into hostility is the tendency of his work to reveal that the institutions scrutinized are not merely defective but often superfluous: self-serving and self-perpetuating. The original conception of the medieval Ship of Fools showed the passengers as starving at a table laden with food. Each had strapped to his arm a spoon so long that he could feed his neighbor, though not himself—but this he would not do. The picture of society that builds up through Wiseman’s work is just the converse, and surely no less fiendish. It appears to consist of interlocking sets of social institutions, seldom useful in themselves, which provide roles for their members and sustain one another through a system of cross-referrals which serve to validate the raisons d’être of all, using the clients who are supposed to benefit from their services as expendable counters in their own games.


The idea that official institutions exist to exploit more than to serve their clients is both valid and well-suited to the temper of our times. It is central to much of Wiseman’s work and helps account for its power. When this implication is weak or absent, his films take on a different and, I think, less distinctive tone. Hospital, for example, is a study of an institution physically hardly more adequate than Bridgewater: a large general hospital perpetually inundated with the victims of urban violence and decay. But the impression it conveys is not merely of squalor but of continuous, grinding, backbreaking resourcefulness under impossible conditions. Its patients are real clients, their needs are desperate, and, somehow, they are seen, however fleetingly, as human beings; and their medical emergencies, at least, are dealt with. The result, however, is a film with very little irony; the viewer gets a justified feeling of déjà vu, since great urban hospitals and their dedicated, overworked staffs have long been a staple of commercial TV. Hospital, indeed, was the second of Wiseman’s films to be shown nationally on—educational—television.

Only one other has been shown on national TV so far: Law and Order, which suffers to a lesser degree from the same difficulty as Hospital. The police as a social institution are ambiguous. Undoubtedly, they have come to contribute far more to violent disorder than to its prevention; if they did not exist, it would certainly not be necessary to invent them, at least for the purpose of maintaining law and order. But in many cities they do contribute substantially to peace and security by serving as a dependable and ubiquitous source of rapidly available informal social service: cooling out family quarrels before they become more serious, finding lost children, obtaining emergency medical service for the seriously ill, and just giving desperate people who were brought up to believe that the policeman is their friend someone to call on when in trouble.

This kind of highly essential service makes up a lot of the Kansas City policemen’s job, but Wiseman’s film suggests that they do it pretty badly. In their own minds the priority is reversed: they fancy themselves as law enforcement officers and social disciplinarians, and treat the desperate poor and especially black people who really need them with a peculiarly and distressingly virginal aversion and contempt. Except when they can dramatize their own separateness from them by busting somebody, the police hate to get involved with low-class people in nasty situations.

But whether they like it or not the Kansas City police, like the doctors in Hospital, though in a lesser degree, are involved with and sometimes useful and responsive to the community that supports them and, hence, not quite as effectively revealed by Wiseman’s apparently artless dissection. His masterworks deal with two institutions that are remarkably similar in their values, their dependence on legal coercion to provide themselves with a clientele, and their centrality to American life. Both are very expensive and neither is required by the society that supports it to justify its costs by any demonstrable benefits conferred on its clientele. Both have been viewed as virtually sacred components of the American Way of Life, and both are rapidly losing the confidence and respect of middle-class Americans while much more successfully retaining the confidence of the working class. Both are therefore heavily involved—far more so than they would wish—in the current hostile polarization of American society.

The two institutions, of course, are the high school and the military. Frederick Wiseman’s High School is, with the possible exception of James Herndon’s books (which are about junior high schools anyway), the most expressive and revealing document portraying these institutions—what happens in them, what they are really like, how parents as well as students respond to them, what the values reflected in their practices and conveyed through the experience of attending them must be. Much of what is shown in High School would be familiar to any serious critical observer of secondary schooling in North America. But there are two special insights it affords—one by its content and one by the response it evokes from teachers and prospective teachers—that were new to me, though they should not have been, and therefore seem worth reporting.


The first of these is the extremely hostile and degrading form of male chauvinism that pervades the high school and is taken for granted there—the more striking since Northeast High School has long had a woman principal and a primarily white, middle-class clientele that does not appear to be hung-up in the more conventional forms of machismo. This comes through, moreover, in official and formal activities rather than in peer group life among the students. There is, for example, a sex education lecture presided over by an athletic coach but delivered by a local physician to a segregated all-male student audience which is one of the ugliest experiences I have ever seen recorded on film. The idea of a woman’s body that is conveyed, with plenty of dirty jokes which are perfectly acceptable so long as a doctor makes them—the audience responds uproariously—is that of an object to be manipulated like any other machine intended to provide customer satisfaction.

The jokes, too, have a clearly didactic function: to teach that any real feeling in connection with sexual relationships would be a serious offense against accepted practice. The scene is complemented by others of home economics classes in which girls are taught how to move and dress in ways the high school regards as likely to conceal their bad figures and make them appealing; and of a sugary but inflexible girls’ guidance counselor ruling against a girl whose parents are trying to support her decision not to buy a “formal” for a senior dance. The degradation of the girl’s role in High School is pervasive, suffocating—and official.

The other unexpected insight High School provides comes from the fact that audiences of teachers and prospective teachers generally approve of it. They usually compare Northeast High favorably with the schools they went to or teach in: What’s wrong with it? The teachers really care, and the English teacher is so resourceful in adapting the curriculum to the students’ interests that she teaches them Simon and Garfunkel lyrics. She does indeed, while they sit there with the blank faces of Southern Negroes of yesteryear compelled to listen to an Amos and Andy broadcast.

But of course many teachers view this film with delighted recognition when it is shown to them. The high school is the very heart of America, and Wiseman has captured its strength and rhythm perfectly. And in doing so he has provided an almost equally perfect projective device for its viewers. None of Wiseman’s films includes any explanatory comment whatever; nothing is seen or heard except what the cameras recorded at the scene. This, obviously, does not of itself ensure that the films will be unbiased, for what can be shown is a very small proportion of the total footage recorded and opportunities for editorial bias are very great. Wiseman claims—undoubtedly honestly—that he rejects material far more horrendous than what he includes. But even to say this requires, of course, a value judgment and a position from which to make it.

The films have a point of view, sometimes revealed directly in the frequent close-up shots of the cruel mouths of the pushier and more manipulative characters or in Wiseman’s sensitivity to and conception of what is significant. He seems never to overlook the swift, darting glances by which petty bureaucrats reveal status anxieties when their real audience is different from their ostensible one—the band conductor in Basic Training who keeps looking over his shoulder to gauge the response of the entering brass at the trainees’ assembly, while his band’s music, never under much control, falls apart. The obese, greedy, manipulative chaplain in Basic Training is, even though he was really there at Fort Knox, a magnificent creative achievement—and a very courageous one in 1971, for the man is coal black: an officer, a gentleman, and a living monument to the strides the armed forces are making toward integration. He is also a living character out of an Octavus Roy Cohen story; but then, nature sometimes goes on imitating even poor art far too long.

Except for occasional visiting relatives, and a Louisville whore who is discussed but not depicted, there are no women in Basic Training to be degraded. But what it shows about these young soldiers certainly tells us what the institutions of American society make of sex, and what this costs. People who despise women cannot love young men—though they may claim to—since they will then also despise as feminine what is loving in themselves, especially if it is directed toward a male object. And Basic Training, though it has a cast of hundreds of young athletes, must be one of the least sexually arousing films ever made. I swear this without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion with reference to the sexual tastes of the viewer: there is nothing here to turn anybody on.

For a central function of Basic Training is to alienate young men from access to their own feelings and values, and to destroy their capacity for spontaneous perception and response. Its effectiveness has been demonstrated at Song My and elsewhere, and Wiseman shows just how it is done and how the process looks, in the gracelessness of the soldiers’ movements and the tuneless songs—“Mr. Nixon drop the bomb;/I don’t want to go to Nam!”—they sing under orders. Even a sadist would get no satisfaction here; there is plenty of verbal humiliation but nothing as human as a beating or a fight. One of the ironies underscored in the film is the fact that though soldiers are taught to shriek mechanically as they lunge at bayonet targets, they are sent to disciplinary barracks for exhaustive punishment if they get into personal fistfights. As in Dr. Strangelove, no fighting is allowed in the War Room.

Wiseman’s work will continue and the best may be yet to come. But this set of films is in itself enough to record and fully document the process of depersonalization in American institutions, and to show that this process is essential to the stable functioning of American society. The process seems essentially unrelieved. In these films freaks don’t make it, as they occasionally do in real life—though not, as a rule, when that life is lived within one of those institutions. Dr. Levy has survived, so far, but Captain Levy hasn’t. Yet Wiseman’s films do give strong grounds for hope, by their very existence and character. They could only have been made in a deeply polarized society, swept by confused alarms of struggle and flight, and one whose armies, God knows, are ignorant enough. The outcome of the struggle is therefore still in doubt to some degree. Our side may prevail, for a while. Optimism seems extravagant, but Manichaeanism is very much in order.

Only in a profoundly polarized society could the school and hospital administrators, the police chiefs and generals who authorized these films have looked on their work as depicted there and found it good, while those of us who have learned to distrust our society and its authorities find it shocking. This is not a matter of ambiguity; these films are not poetical and there is not much room for debate about what they mean—only about how one ought to feel about what they show. On this issue the nation is abysmally divided. Abysmally but not, I fear, equally. The institutions Wiseman has shown are those our society assumes to be necessary and useful. They and their functions are treasured all along the mainstream of American life. It is those of us who find them destructive and inhuman that are the flotsam on that mainstream—and, if l’homme moyen Americain can manage to get his hands on us, its jetsam as well.

Frederick Wiseman’s motion pictures may prove to be of great assistance in preventing this from happening. For they are immensely helpful in restoring a sense of proportion to those who find themselves appalled by the present consequences of American institutions in action. They show us clearly how outnumbered we are, and how little our values count for in the actual operations of American society. Liberals are depressed by such information and resist it, preferring to continue to believe, in the bared and menacing teeth of the evidence, that most of their fellow citizens agree with them—or would, at least, if not angered and confused by years of liberal neglect.

But it is military intelligence of inestimable value in the struggle that now goes on and seems destined to continue and intensify. The indiscretions of Agnew would in themselves have been sufficient to provide this information, but coming from him it tends to be dismissed. From Wiseman it may be accepted; taking no sides, he does not identify the adversary for those who do not yet recognize its features, but he certainly shows it in action. Books like The Middle Americans, by Robert Coles and the photographer Jon Erikson, which possess a different kind of validity, present more wistful and appealing pictures of these, the neglected Guardians of Attica. But these are still photographs. Movies, as any high-school coach could tell you, are a lot more useful in preparing for combat.

This Issue

October 21, 1971

  1. *

    All these films except Titicut Follies are distributed by Zipporah Films, 54 Lewis Wharf, Boston, Massachusetts. Titicut Follies is currently distributed by Grove Press Films, 53 East 11 Street, New York City.