Screengrab Archive #1: Titicut Follies

by Andrew Osborne


Before I got my driver’s license, the only way to get to Boston from my hometown of Middleboro, Massachusetts (besides a ride from Mom & Dad) was a local bus that stopped at a prison in the neighboring town of Bridgewater to pick up the newly released ex-cons and ship ‘em home (or the nearest equivalent). Years later, I discovered the prison was actually the notorious state hospital for alcoholics, sex offenders and the criminally insane profiled in Frederick Wiseman’s controversial documentary Titicut Follies, a movie even more disturbing than all those long-ago bus rides. In stark black and white, Wiseman shows the subhuman conditions of the 1960s version of the facility and the desperation of the inmates (including one poor bastard I still remember vividly, years after the first and only time I watched the film, who keeps explaining, over and over again, that he’s perfectly sane and would really, really, really like to leave the premises). As an avid psychedelic drug enthusiast in my younger days, winding up in a mental hospital (mistakenly or not) has always been high on my list of worst-case scenarios, but Titicut Follies (named for the grimly surreal inmate “talent show” depicted in the film) is worst-case by way of 18th century Bedlam: “We see men needlessly stripped bare, insulted, herded about callously, mocked, taunted,” Robert Coles wrote of the film in The New Republic. “We see them ignored or locked interminably in cells. We hear the craziness in the air…” Massachusetts was so embarrassed by the film they tried not only to ban it, but also to have all copies destroyed (!) on the grounds that somehow the documentary violated the patients’ dignity more than, say, being held indefinitely in cell blocks without toilets and periodically hosed down. Wiseman asserted repeatedly that he’d received permission from all the patients who appeared in the film (or their guardians), yet (according to Wikipedia, at least) the film wasn’t legally cleared for general public release until 1991, at which point the Massachusetts State Supreme Court also stipulated the film would need to include a “brief explanation…that changes and improvements have taken place at Massachusetts’ Correctional Institution in Bridgewater since 1966.”  One would hope.


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