Criterion Prediction #107: Titicut Follies, by Alexander Miller
Title: Titicut Follies
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Synopsis: Wiseman’s debut feature is an unflinching look into State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, MA. Titicut Follies is a spare and unflinching look at the various facets of life in the institution, from the inmates to the guards and doctors.
Critique: Frederick Wiseman and camera operator John Marshall were under the supervision of Bridgewater Corrections staff at all times, which makes it even more frightening to imagine what they didn’t capture. Titicut Follies is the stuff horror movies are based on, and there are some truly terrifying images of dehumanization throughout. Stripped bodies, force-feedings, archaic and unseemly medical practices (these doctors are one step away from using leeches) and mind-numbing psychiatric evaluations only scratch the surface of what’s recorded from this variety of degradation.
Wiseman finds the minutiae of his material in post-production and Titicut Follies takes us through the mechanics of the institution, shifting focus through a handful of individuals but etching out a cohesive nonfiction narrative. It’s a difficult movie to endure but a vital one that embodies the defining characteristics of a prolific career.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: Frederick Wiseman is one of the most important documentarians in the medium. Over the course of five decades, he averages about a film per year, maintaining a low profile, working with his distribution company Zipporah Films and financing his projects through Public Broadcasting as well as endowments from non-profit foundations.
It’s about as systematic as any filmmaker could be in terms of managing their career, which makes the argument for his presence in The Criterion Collection somewhat chancy since Wiseman’s enjoyed such a lengthy vocation with his no-frills business acumen.
However, the movie-savvy masses that gobble up Criterion titles would gravitate to Wiseman’s work as it’s the purest form of documentary filmmaking one can imagine. As a director, his commitment to his subjects expand objectivity to an almost glacial level of ethnography, but his technique in crafting and editing the material in post-production is masterful in emphasizing the humanism at the heart of his studious oeuvre.
Titicut Follies would be at home in The Criterion Collection but this is also a call to arms for a possible box set or an Eclipse Series to showcase his pictures.
So it’s possible that the information needed to encode Wiseman’s earlier films could be an economical procedure given that High School, Hospital and Law and Order were shot on 16mm, so the visual splendor of a restored Blu-Ray release isn’t a necessity and with lower resolution more content could be written on the discs.
You can go on zipporahfilms.com and look at each of his titles and their screening prices for both public and educational performance rights. These people are open to sharing their work and, from personal experience, they are easy to work with. Maybe someone at Janus Films could reach out to them as well?