Frederick Wiseman, one of the US's finest documentary filmmakers, burst onto the scene with this controversial example of cinema verite. Capturing the often inhumane conditions of a state-run institution for mentally ill and criminally insane men, the film was banned from public screenings
for a quarter century by a Massachusetts judge, who felt that the inmates' right to privacy had been violated by Wiseman.
The film's title is taken from a yearly stage show put on by the residents of the film's setting, the Bridgewater Correctional Institution. The show's crude song-and-dance routines bookend this black-and-white profile of their lives. The patients are a mix of the criminally insane and more
conventional examples of mental illness. Each morning, they awaken from their small, empty cells, and unclothed, are taken for their morning shave. Patients are also routinely strip-searched by the guards, and interviewed--or, more correctly put, interrogated--by doctors, who question them about
their most personal history.
The inmates have plenty of time to interact amongst each other, whether they're babbling incoherently about religion, roaming the courtyard, singing along with a television show, or debating the pros and cons of Communism. The guards are also shown, doing their best to deal with their
unpredictable--but primarily docile--charges. The greatest tension occurs between the doctors and the patients; in one case, one criminal inmate pleads with a doctor to be returned to regular prison life. Later, when an inmate refuses to eat, a doctor restrains and forcibly feeds him, by inserting
a tube up his nose and into his stomach. And when another patient complains that his medication is making him ill, the doctors determine that he actually needs to have his dosage increased. The only inmate who's ever shown leaving Bridgewater does so in a coffin.
Throughout his lengthy career, Frederick Wiseman has continually focused on American institutions and the people who are trapped within them. This was his first feature-length documentary, and its immediacy is difficult to ignore. Shot during a four-week period, with a hand held camera and no
voice-over narration, this bleak masterpiece set the tone for hundreds of cinematic exposes to come. Wiseman's camera is honest without being offensive, as it probes the inhumanity of the patients' daily activities. The patients appear to have little control over their own behavior, while they
receive little practical help for their condition. In the process, the Bridgewater guards emerge relatively unscathed from Wiseman's portrait. It's the doctors who play the villain's part with their over-medication of the patients and their casual heartlessness serving only to breed more
instability within the patients. While the issue of the inmates' privacy was used to keep the film from the public eye, after viewing the extraordinary TITICUT FOLLIES, it's obvious that the court was also out to protect the privacy of state officials, who wanted to run their tax-supported
facility without the burden of public scrutiny. (Extensive nudity, adult situations.)
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- Review: Frederick Wiseman, one of the US's finest documentary filmmakers, burst onto the scene with this controversial example of cinema verite. Capturing the often inhumane conditions of a state-run institution for mentally ill and criminally insane men, the film… (more)