Titicut Follies (1967):

The title refers to the mock-Ziegfeld skits, acted out by inmates, that bookend the first of Frederick Wiseman's institutional autopsies -- a zombified "Strike Up the Band" soft-shoe to an unseen band, as much of a mockery of escape-through-music as the grim interludes in an Edgar G. Ulmer movie. Indeed, his subject, the state hospital for the criminally insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts, stands as a snake-pit from which death comes as the only escape: in the most indelible passage, a prisoner's hunger strike is busted via force-feeding tube through the nose, intercut with shots of the man's body being later on dolled up for the burial. The gaunt corpse receives a gentler shave than one of the living inmates, a former schoolteacher earlier on seen cupping his genitals while taking taunts from bully-officers and bleeding from the barber's razor, before being shoved into a bare cell. That Wiseman's camera is allowed into the cell with him not only adds to the institute's dehumanizing humiliation of the patient, but also questions the inevitably implicating nature of the documentary aesthetic -- despite his rigorous shunning of narration, music and identifying titles, Wiseman understands that "artless distance" is but a myth, and every zoom is an active thrust into the image. The main feeling is one of stripped girth and haunted eyes, an European-accented analyst doting over the details of a child molester's sex life, a patient sliding a sour trombone across the yard while another karaokes to "Chinatown," playing on a telly nearby. A schizophrenic details an articulate, impassioned account of the place's inhuman conditions, only for the directors to quickly diagnose an increase in medication, and the exposé to end where it began, the nightmarishly cheery emcee guard biding the audience farewell. No escape hatch, just the director's "Now what?" -- the thirst for reform, the outrage that leads a lawyer to take up cinema as the extension of societal inquiry, and vérité images aimed to scald the memory. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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