Friday, August 23, 2013

Titicut Follies (1967)

WHO: Frederick Wiseman was a Boston University law professor who had produced one of Shirley Clarke's feature films (The Cool World) when he took his students to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater, where he was appalled enough at the inmates' living conditions that he became inspired to make his first documentary film about it.

WHAT: Titicut Follies was the result of Wiseman's first stab at directing a documentary, and it quickly became a lightning rod for controversy, becoming banned from screenings within the state of Massachusetts until 1991 when its legal injunction was finally lifted. In the meantime, the film had become a documentary classic and the foundation of a prolific filmmaking career for Wiseman, now considered a major figure in an important strand of filmmaking sometimes called cinéma vérité, observational cinema, or direct cinema, all terms he's gone on record as disliking when applied to his work. Paula Rabinowitz uses another term, "living cinema" in a discussion of Titicut Follies.
Living cinema puts down institutions by miming them precisely and thus showing that they are highly unstable, filled with private zones of pain, humiliation, anguish, joy, pleasure, and mockery. They work on those subject to them through everyday encounters with authority. THey are shameful places because they are so shameless in their guilelessness, their arrogance. In an excruciating scene from Titicut Follies, Dr Ross forcefeeds a resisting patient and keeps up a running commentary about what a good boy this patient is. We watch as the doctor's cigarette ash grows impossibly long, horrified, praying it won't fall into the funnel filling with the liquid which is poured through the patient's nose into his stomach. The sheer casualness of the scene, the regularity with which this must have happened, is clear from the relaxed banter; nothing out of the ordinary here.
WHERE/WHEN: 8PM tonight only at Oddball Films. Seating is limited, so it's best to RSVP by e-mailing or calling ahead at (415) 558-8117.

WHY: As Wiseman's career as a filmmaker sprouted from his career in academia, it's perhaps no surprise that he has chosen to focus his films on institutions (they've been called "walled city" films because they usually look intensely at a particular location, whether a zoo, a hospital, a dance company, etc, as kind of a microcosm of larger society.) What's more surprising is the fact that, although he's made films at primary and secondary schools (e.g. High School and Mulit-Handicapped) and military training facilities (e.g. Missile) he's never made a film about a University. 

I believe he's also never made a film about a Frisco Bay institution. Until now. Wiseman's latest film, just now being launched on the international film festival circuit, is called At Berkeley, and promises to be a particularly illuminating look at the only Bay Area campus of the University of California. I've been excited to see Wiseman's films before, but I'm dying to see this one, and only wish I could attend the Venice, Toronto or New York Film Festival, which are set to, respectively, host the World, North American, and U.S. premieres of the documentary.

Though At Berkeley will at some point appear on our local PBS affiliate I'm sure, as it was produced with public television dollars. But Wiseman's films deserve cinema screenings. I wonder what Frisco Bay venue might be likely to showcase it. The Pacific Film Archive is the local venue which has probably screened more Wiseman films than any other, having held a hefty retrospective ten years ago and having given Titicut Follies its most recent local showing before tonight. But since the PFA is part of UC Berkeley, I wonder if it may want to stay at arm's length from the first inward turn of Wiseman's camera. The history of institutions unhappy with his portrayals begins with Titicut Follies but has continued throughout his career; most recently it was Madison Square Garden which has effectively squelched any public screenings of Wiseman's 2004 film The Garden to this day.

The first hope comes in the form of the Mill Valley Film Festival, which sometimes is able to co-ordinate dates with NYFF in order to allow a West Coast premiere shortly after the East Coast one in New York. If not them, the San Francisco Film Society is another candidate, although At Berkeley would only fit into its just-announced Fall Season if the mission of its Cinema By The Bay showcase in late November is expanded from its usual focus on works made by local filmmakers, to include works made locally by outsiders as well. A move that might not sit very well with local makers. But Cinema By the Bay screens at the Roxie, which has given week-long runs to Wiseman's most recent features, Crazy Horse, Boxing Gym and La Danse: the Paris Opera Ballet. But At Berkeley is a very long film to make economic sense in a regular theatrical engagement; at 244 minutes it's even longer than the last film not to make it to a Frisco Bay cinema screen, State Legislature. Who knows if even the local angle can overcome such an impediment outside a film festival setting? At any rate, the Roxie has recently been revealing its fall calendar, and so far there's no sign of a Wiseman film through mid-October (though there is a week of 35mm prints of Rainer Werner Fassbinder films and another week of what may be the ultimate "stolen location" movie Escape From Tomorrow

Whether or not Frisco Bay cinemagoers will have a chance to see At Berkeley before it airs on television, they'll surely get more out of it if they're somewhat familiar with Wiseman's style. So attending tonight's rare showing of Titicut Follies is highly recommended for anyone who hasn't seen it before.

HOW: Titicut Follies screens in 16mm along with two terrific short collage films by Arthur Lipsett, one of the early filmmaker influences on a USC film student named George Lucas.

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