Originally from Michigan but educated in the south by the Savannah College of Art and Design, Jacob Ethington is a playwright and screenwriter who's always willing to relocate if necessary. Excerpts of his work are available to read on this site along with blog posts about media that he loves.

"Titicut Follies" (1967) Review

"Titicut Follies" (1967) Review

You know you're about to see something grim when the documentary in question was originally released in 1967 but couldn't be legally shown due to a Supreme Court ruling that was changed in 1992.

I have to commend the theater I saw this film in for daring to show Titicut Follies. The "daring" part has nothing to do with the aforementioned legality, just that Titicut Follies is a hard documentary to stomach, and that turn of phrase is more literal than you think. Its reputation proceeds itself in the world of obscure documentaries, an unflinching look at a mental institution in Massachusetts called Bridgewater State Hospital. 

The audience doesn't receive any narration, interviews, or real framing for what happens in Titicut Follies, except that it starts with a group of men performing a song, all dressed up. Some of the men are smiling, but others seem slightly off kilter. After they're done performing, a charismatic guard at the State Hospital tells a joke:

"These two beetles are walking down the street, and they saw Father Mulligan and he had a broken arm. And they said, 'Father, how did you break your arm?' He says, 'I fell in the bathtub.' 'Gee, that's too bad Father.' So they continue to walk down the street. So one beetle says to the other, 'What's a bathtub?' And the other beetle says, 'What the hell do I know, I'm not Catholic!'"

And then the next scene is new inmates being processed and stripped. To call Titicut Follies jarring is an understatement of an enormous magnitude. It fully immerses you in some truly upsetting conditions as inmates are forced to live naked in brick walled cells, the doors without any classic prison bars but solid minus peepholes that only the guards can open.

I'm going to put a couple asides in this review, but there's a story I heard from a now retired x-ray technician. He overheard that a friend of his was in medical school and was going through his residency and was going to be entering a mental institution for his rotation. The x-ray technician came up to him and joked, "Oh, you mean the only place where you can't tell the doctors from the patients?"

Titicut Follies feels like that story come to life on a cruel scale. You know that a mental hospital is in bad shape when a paranoid schizophrenic is giving a fairly convincing argument that his living conditions are progressively making him worse and worse instead of better and better. What makes the documentary so powerful is realizing that in the year that I'm writing this, 2017, that this only happened 50 years ago in our country.

And it was devastatingly controversial at the time. I already mentioned that the film was legally pulled out of circulation in the late 1960s and still comes up in ethics debates about documentary filmmaking. I won't fully detail the history, but it came down to "a right to privacy" issue that was more likely the state government of Massachusetts trying to save face from the fact that an extremely corrupt system had been so candidly shown off to audiences, some around the world.

Even with 50 years passing between its release and the moment I saw it in a theater, it deeply disturbed me. It's not like director Frederick Wiseman captured inmates being beaten or anything like that. Instead he captures the inmates dehumanization, which the staff is more than willing to show off because they see nothing wrong with their broken system. It doesn't occur to anyone that maybe the reason that they have to force-feed some of the patients through a tube inserted into the nose and down the throat into the stomach is because of the hell they've built. It doesn't occur to them that maybe the reason an inmate refuses to keep his room clean is because he's completely naked in that room, and not by choice.

Again, sometimes it's hard to tell the patients from the doctors. Well, sometimes. Most of the patients are clearly in dire straits, whether they're completely non-verbal or proselytizing about how they're going to predict the future of the Vietnam war and who the new pope will be.

The lack of cohesive structure makes Titicut Follies slow to start, but it ultimately becomes a horrific time capsule that's worth seeking out. It used to be a lot harder to watch Titicut Follies, but I'm glad that it has slowly found more paths to legal distribution and that there are theaters still willing to show it.

This is where I have to give a shout out to the State and Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I'm currently residing in Michigan while job searching and it's pretty difficult for me to see art house and independent films in my local area. I drove an hour to Ann Arbor to see Titicut Follies because I couldn't believe that I was going to have a chance to see a film like this on any screen that wasn't my own and I'm grateful that there's a theater programming films like this in Michigan anywhere. So, kudos to whoever runs those organizations, you guys are doing great work and I'm definitely planning on returning in the near future to review more films there because...

Guys... They're showing The Zodiac Killer (1971) at this place.

The Zodiac Killer.

I can't tell you how excited I am about that.

But yeah, see Titicut Follies too if you can. It's great.

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