The pre-Nixon-era mental hospital is a preoccupying terror of U.S. popular culture to this day. This isn't without basis; madness, and its attendant visions and rants, is a preoccupation of narratives throughout the world and since time immemorial. American stories explore and re-explore the tension between, and guilt baked into, competing reactions to the mentally ill: that we as a society should never have locked "them" away, but also that, once we had, we never should have let "them" out again.
The fictional attempt to resolve or clarify on film our visceral anxieties about these institutions tends to lead to Gothic fantasias: senseless assaults, canopies of Fincherian mildew, inchoate howling, fantastically gruesome lobotomies, photos with cosmetically burnt edges, abandoned bedsprings creaking in a breeze with no apparent source. And that's just Session 9.
Titicut Follies provides a useful contrast, a crisp statement. The way its scenes unfold, at length, allows their details to emerge slowly from the sensory glare. Horror films recreating these mental hospitals try to replicate that glare, the more sensationally the better, to distance us from "them." Frederick Wiseman, I think, asks us whether there is a "them." One patient protests that he's not getting any better in the hospital, and at first, you see his point, or at least agree. Wiseman lets the footage run, and at about minute six, seventeen identical iterations and non-logic jughandles later, it's clear that this isn't a discussion but a compulsion.
The guards nagging poor, naked Jim about keeping his room clean; the staffer who's always singing and doing shtick, who looks like an illustration from a turn-of-the-last-century carnival game, whose eyes and smile, like those of the patients, don't match up…the line between us and "them" seems faint and artificial.
Wiseman doesn't push that point, or maybe he does so by standing pointedly back from it; forty-odd years later, the audience knows what brutalities to expect in the material, so it's harder to assign intent. But we can assume a certain level of scorn from the final title cards.
End Title 1: "The Massachusetts Supreme Court has told us to say that X."
End Title 2: "X."
Tags: documentaries Frederick Wiseman movies Titicut Follies