Of the old-school doc gods, Frederick Wiseman is our resident all-American archivist, with a 30-year trail behind him of common life stuff cast in amber: work, aging, illness, commerce, the righteous lunacy of public institutions, zoos, ballets, high schools, military camps and cops. There’s no dusty corner of the country’s unexceptional daily life that he hasn‘t swept out, but it all began somewhere a little more than ordinary: the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater, which in the 1960s was still a careless basin of human abuse, and which Wisemen entered, with a camera, God knows how, while in his 30s, and filmed. The man’s filmmaking strategies haven’t changed since—he films his subjects head-on, without narrative, narration, talking heads, music or interaction of any kind—and Titicut Follies (1967) is, famously, an infernal ordeal, in which psychotic patients are stripped, force-fed, hosed down and humiliated in cement rooms as the guards giggle and ask them mocking questions for the camera’s sake. But it’s a thornier patch still: is Wiseman exploiting them, too? He’s said in interviews that the patients signed permission forms—but can they, really, when they’re marching and drooling and chanting psychomanic nonsense? However doggedly Wiseman’s technique insists on fly-on-the-wall objectivity, is that what it is, in the room with a camera and boom mic, or later in the editing room? They’re not easy questions, especially when you consider how Titicut Follies terrified the Massachusetts state government into multiple lawsuits and a 20-year ban, and helped to precipitate just by its presence a nationwide reform of state hospitals like Bridgewater. It’s not a just mere movie, finally, but a dogfight between ethical contingencies.
Titicut Follies plays this afternoon and next Friday evening at MoMA, as part of the first leg of a major yearlong exhibition of newly struck and acquired prints of Wiseman’s films.