Saturday, August 21, 2004
Asylum Seekers

As many of you know, here at home I suffer from an appalling lack of bandwidth; even jpegs tend to make my poor dial-up connection groan with effort. Thus, I tend to save my bandwidth-heavy surfing for the Co-op, where I have a sorta-kinda-fast DSL connection.

For this reason, I ended up at the Co-op this afternoon just as Tim was about to screen (for a select audience of Co-opticons -- ie, whoever happened to be there) a film for which he'd been searching for well over a year: Frederick Wiseman's Titticut Follies. (He'd finally found it at the library at the University of Kentucky at Louisville; they'd let him have it long enough to dub a copy.) Since we'd spent some time discussing it in the past, he asked me to hang around to watch this rather notorious film... to be honest, I was actually anticipating disappointment (so many "notorious" films turn out to just be stupid and/or crass). Suffice to say, I wasn't disappointed in the least.

A quick look at the link above will tell you a good deal about the film; at least as much as most interested parties know. It is the only film ever banned in the US for reasons other than national security or obscenity; it's also the first film of a director who's work is generally obscure, and almost always spoken of in mysterious terms. Wiseman's work is hard to find, but then again, so are most documentaries.

The reviews at the link should give you a reasonably good idea of what the film consists of -- it's genuinely disturbing -- although no review can really get the impact of the film across. What struck me more is that here is a film that, were it more accessible to students of the genre, would surely be considered a pivotal film, much like the Maysles brothers' Salesman or Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line: a film made at a point of transition, when a whole new paradigm begins to emerge. This has to be, I suspect, one of the earliest examples of the sort of cinema verité exposé piece the Maysles are largely credited with developing; it seems to me that it would be nearly impossible to make this film now. (I also have to wonder whether this film had anything to do with the difficulty involved in shooting documentaries in prisons, hospitals, and other institutions; I'm betting it has a lot to do with it.) The Maysles, and to a lesser extent D.A. Pennebaker, were doing similar things, and you could make an argument that their more mundane material actually produces a more profound film (for those inclined that way). In this case, though, the content and the technique are indisinguishable; only the steady, unflinching gaze Wiseman fixes on his subjects could produce something this powerful.

I have asked Tim to make me a copy of the film if he can -- yes, it's illegal, but alas, most documentaries are unavailable by any other means. (I have a growing collection of bootleg docs.) As much as I'd really rather not see that again, it seems to me that it wants repeated viewings. I'd also be extremely interested in seeing Wiseman's other films; it looks like a very compelling body of work. Could it be we've located the unsung genius of the documentary genre?

If you can find it, it's definitely worth a look. I think I've found a new hero.
11:24 PM ::
Amy :: permalink