The battle over 'Titicut Follies'

R. Marc Kantrowitz, The Daily Record Newswire

A tube is shoved down the nose of a mental patient who’s several days into a hunger strike. Liquid is then poured through a funnel attached to the top of the tube to feed the squirming subject.

As the doctor peers at the patient, the camera records the procedure. The audience wonders whether the quickly growing ash at the end of the doctor’s lit cigarette, quivering in his mouth as he talks, will tumble into the tube.

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“The Titicut Follies,” filmed in 1966 by Boston University law professor and filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, depicted life at Bridgewater State Mental Hospital. So controversial was the documentary that it became the only film in American history to be banned for reasons other than obscenity or national security.

The documentary opens with the institution’s annual, eagerly awaited patient-staff variety show, named after the Indian word for the nearby Taunton River.
Ten or so well-dressed singers belt out “Strike Up the Band” to a highly appreciative crowd. It is difficult to discern the inmates from the staff.

Scenes that follow enter the Twilight Zone of degradation and absurdity. Segments come in rapid succession.

At night, naked inmates are escorted to their solitary cells, with only a mat serving as their bed. In the morning, still naked, they are retrieved, carrying their buckets of human waste to a location where it is dumped. One patient, Jim, is led to a room where he is ridiculed while he is roughly shaved. He grunts in response to the guards’ taunts.
When he is returned to his cell, he stomps around, marching to his inner ravings as he lifts his legs at odd angles, his genitals bouncing to the beat.

In the yard, one inmate talks non-stop gibberish to a non-existent audience; an elderly inmate plays his trombone to a fire hydrant; a man with unlaced shoes and no socks stands on his head reciting a religious ditty; another sings “The Ballard of the Green Berets.”

Meanwhile, a patient who is given a bath slurps in the dirty water, and in a group room, zombie-like figures walk expressionless, reminiscent of the vacant stares of Holocaust victims.

The film ends like it starts. A group of singers, proudly belting out a tune. It is still difficult to tell the guards from the inmates. They receive a rousing response from the crowd.

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State officials were shocked at the nudity, the exploitation of the unclothed inmates, and how the film did not truly represent the conditions of the admittedly overrun institution badly in need of reform.

When they sought to exercise a veto power they thought they had, Wiseman informed them that no such power existed, and, regardless, the film was true to its cause.
As there was no written contract to fall back on, the battle became one of blurred and selective memories of words exchanged but not necessarily heard. It took more than two decades to resolve.

At issue were two competing fundamental rights: Wiseman’s First Amendment right to make the film versus the right of privacy of some of society’s most vulnerable citizens — the mentally ill. Even if they had signed releases, which many had not, were they competent to do so?

Civil libertarians were torn on the issue. The attorney general of Massachusetts, Elliot Richardson, was not, going into court in both Massachusetts and New York to stop the release of the film.

The opposite conclusions of the two courts were indicative of the polarizing views engendered. New York allowed the documentary to be shown; Massachusetts banned it.
The New York court found it to be of great public interest and the inmates depicted “without any attempt … to place undue emphasis on nudity or sex.”

Conversely, the Superior Court judge in Massachusetts called the film a “nightmare of ghoulish obscenities ... [a] crass piece of commercialism ... [which emphasized] crudities, nudities and obscenities ... to titillate the general public … .”

The judge was so incensed that he went over and above what was requested of him. The commonwealth sought to have the film banned; the judge ordered it destroyed.
On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court found the documentary to be a “massive, unrestrained invasion of [the patients’] intimate lives.” As Wiseman had not secured releases and violated the permissions given him, the ban stood. However, the SJC recognized the film’s obvious benefits and allowed it be shown non-commercially to professional groups of doctors, nurses, lawyers and those in the mental health field.

Meanwhile, outside of Massachusetts, it was commercially distributed, winning best documentary in the Mannheim Film Festival.

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The war ended in 1991, with even the commonwealth agreeing that there should be no restrictions on the film.

The state, however, did not speak for all. Two former inmates who completely turned their lives around did not wish, for very obvious reasons, to see their old selves publicly displayed as naked, dithering idiots. One, who initially had been illiterate, earned two master’s degrees after he was released. He went on to become gainfully employed and have a family.

For them, their hell may well have just returned.

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Judge R. Marc Kantrowitz, who sits on the Mass. Appeals Court, is writing longer versions of his Law ‘n History columns for a book. He can be contacted at rmarckantrowitz@comcast.net. The above column is based primarily on the documentary itself and on “Documentary Dilemmas” by Carol Anderson and Thomas Benson.

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