On Friday at 7 PM, DePaul University will present a lecture by the great documentary maker Frederick Wiseman, who’s spent 40 years quietly investigating America’s institutions and their power over the individual. The lecture is free and takes place at DePaul University Schmitt Academic Center, 2320 N. Kenmore (in a large hall, I’m told); for more information call 773-991-2959. Also on Friday, at 9 AM, Wiseman will be interviewed on Chicago Public Radio’s Eight Forty-Eight.
And on Sunday at the Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee, at 5 PM, two films from very different points in Wiseman’s career will be screening in 16-millimeter: Titicut Follies (1967, 84 min.), his first film as director, and the masterful Public Housing (1997, 195 min.), which looked at life inside the Ida B. Wells complex.
After more than 40 years, Titicut Follies still has the power to shock and anger. It documents the grim conditions inside the Bridgewater State Hospital, a facility for the criminally insane that was administered by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. The movie opens with a patients’ talent show—the “Titicut Follies,” named for a nearby river—in which men in white dress shirts, black clip-on bowties, and cardboard grenadier helmets belt out George Gershwin’s “Strike Up the Band.” But the scenes that follow are harrowing: the men are herded around naked like animals, washed down with a rubber hose, warehoused in bleak, chilly-looking cells. In a recreation yard, one inmate blats on a trombone, others play baseball, while still another marches around ranting. The doctors are cold and detached, abandoning their patients to the affable but pitiless guards. By the end of the movie, when Wiseman returns to his little chorus, it seems like a detail from a Hieronymous Bosch painting.
The movie established Wiseman’s rigorous documentary aesthetic—no narration, no voice-over, no graphic illustration, and certainly none of the personal song and dance we’ve come to expect from entertainers like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. But Titicut Follies wouldn’t be seen by the general public for years after it was made. After it premiered at the New York Film Festival in October 1967, a Massachusetts superior court judge prohibited the film’s distribution, questioning the legality of the permissions Wiseman had obtained from patients. For years Titicut Follies was restricted to students and professionals in the fields of medicine, law, and social work; finally, in 1991, a different judge ruled that enough time had passed that the movie constituted no invasion of privacy, and the movie debuted on PBS the next year.