With the premiere of the HUNGER GAMES movie, there’ve been more than a few comparisons with that and BATTLE ROYALE, and to a lesser degree, SERIES 7. They talk about the dystopian future, where reality shows provide audiences with pain and humiliation of others for the entertainment of the masses. These movies are seen as warning signs of what is to come. Sadly, people are way off base. These are not a sign of things to come, but a reminder of where we’ve been. We’ve put our fellow humans through hell and back for our own amusement for years already. Beginning in the 1800s, mental patients were made to put on plays and shows for the entertainment of the bourgeoisie class. The wealthy would sit and, with mocking eyes, snickering as the “crazies” would sing and dance for them. The play and film MARAT/SADE famously fictionalized the actual performances directed in the Charneton asylum by the Marquis de Sade. To use that example, it would be easy to separate ourselves from the phenomenon—it’s a work of fiction based off events from two centuries ago. With TITICUT FOLLIES, however, it’s much harder to do so.
TITICUT FOLLIES (1967) is a documentary about the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The title refers to an annual talent show put on by the inmates. Oftentimes, mental hospitals will use talent shows as a form of therapy, to give the patients a creative outlet. Judging by the rest of the film, though, they didn’t seem overly concerned with the inmate’s rehabilitation or therapy. Many are kept naked (for security reasons). They are force-fed in a callous manner, the warden letting his cigarette ash dangle into the food mixture. The inmates are mocked and taunted mercilessly, and when preparing the body of one who died they seem to care even less. Under those circumstances, one has to wonder how the guards view the Follies. My guess is they snickered with the same glee with which they taunted one man’s naked body. Director Frederick Wiseman took an interesting approach to TITICUT FOLLIES. There is no narration, no sign of whose side he took. Everything was filmed with an objective camera, simply putting the information out there. He also didn’t edit it so that one side was made to be more of a hero—the inmates are shown for what they are. Mentally ill, yes, but still criminals, many of which committed horrendous crimes (a number of the inmates were in for pedophilia). Wiseman simply showed us the goings on, and left it to the viewers to make up their minds. Oddly, it was this approach that both allowed the film to be made and got it banned (TITICUT FOLLIES is the only American film to be banned for non-obscenity reasons). The hospital staff was fine with the movie being made. But once reviews started coming in that were critical of their methodology, they moved to ban the movie, stating that it was an invasion of privacy. Only recently has the banning been reversed, and it is possible for general audiences to see this film again. We can look at TITICUT FOLLIES and patient performances and say, “But those can legitimately be used for therapy.” Then I will have to point to the dance marathons that happened during the Great Depression. THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? and the novel it was based on, dramatized these endurance contests. Desperate competitors, lured by promises of free food and the chance at a cash prize, would dance for forty-five, fifty minutes of every hour, nonstop, for days and sometimes weeks. As the hours and days wear on, patrons get to watch as the competitors’ bodies take their tolls, and their minds slowly disintegrate. It was not uncommon for the competitors to hallucinate and have nervous breakdowns in the middle of competition. There are reports of deaths from exhaustion as well as suicides. And all to provide amusement for people willing to shell out twenty five cents.
(NOTE: THIS IS THE COMPLETE MOVIE)
With Sidney Pollack’s adaptation of THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? (1969) we watch as the competitors start out bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, then slowly disintegrate into shells of their former selves, some not surviving mentally or physically. As they deteriorate, the audience grows more and more ravenous. Yes, it was done with a very heavy hand, the characters being little more than caricatures of archetypes, the progression of the plot predictable. As a movie, I’m ambivalent about THEY SHOOT HORSES. While there was nothing specifically bad about it, there also wasn’t anything exceptionally good. Personally, the sympathy came while watching and knowing that, perhaps not the specific events, similar ones took place across the country. People sacrificed their minds and more while others watched, uninterested in the suffering but caring only for their own amusement. Still, that’s not much of an endorsement for the movie.
And even more recent is the documentary HANDS ON A HARD BODY (1997). Every year a Texas Nissan dealership would have a contest where twenty four people compete to win a truck. All they have to do is keep a hand on that truck. While at least one hand is on it, you’re still in the running. Once that hand comes off, you lose. One by one, people either drop out willingly or mistakenly remove their hands until only one person remains. This has often gone past 70 hours of standing in the hot Texas sun, while a crowd gathers to root for their favorites. Out of the three movies, HANDS ON A HARD BODY was certainly the most cheaply made and perhaps the best. Director S.R. Bindler gives us just enough information about some of the competitors to build our empathy, but doesn’t weigh the film down in back-story. We get to the action soon enough. We watch as they struggle with their own bodies and the pain they endure, and we watch as their sanity slowly fades from both sleep deprivation and the drudgery of standing there, hour after hour, day after day. The pacing is spot on—just fast enough to keep the audience from getting bored, but slow enough we get a feel for these people and what they’re going through. And interesting editorial choice is not showing when a competitor’s hands leave the truck. We see them just before or just after, but not the actual event. During the movie a number of folks made claims that the contest was rigged. Because of how Bindler edited it, we can never know completely. If we were to know, HANDS ON A HARD BODY would have been a different movie, one about the contest itself instead of the competitors and their endurance. These yearly contests continued up through 2005, when one competitor broke into a nearby K-Mart, took a gun and killed himself.
Even beyond endurance contests, we love to watch others suffer. In the eighties, the FACES OF DEATH video series was its own media empire. Whether the deaths were staged or not is of little matter; what counts is that people thought it was real, and wanted to watch because of that. Today we have the CKY and JACKASS movies, so we can watch people humiliate and injure themselves for no reason other than for us to laugh at them. Yes, the state-sponsored murder of HUNGER GAMES and BATTLE ROYALE have yet to come to pass. However, people have been suffering and dying for our amusement for years. Are their deaths any less tragic? Are we any less callous for continuing to watch?
WHERE TO FIND THE MOVIES:
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? Is readily available both from MGM, and an out-of-print Anchor Bay version. Used copies are about six dollars and new can run you as little as ten.
TITICUT FOLLIES is available directly from Frederick Wiseman at http://www.zipporah.com/films/22. $35 dollars for individual-use DVDs, more if you want it licensed for public showings.
HANDS ON A HARD BODY. Good luck. The DVD is rare and prized among video collectors. As of this writing, the cheapest available online is $65, with a used VHS running over twenty.