Dubious Documentaries #6

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Visitors
Directed by Godfrey Reggio—2013—87 minutes

Any of you who have read my book “Documentary 101” (don’t all speak up at once!) will know the conflicted feelings I have for director Godfrey Reggio and his “guided meditation” films. He first made his name back in 1982 with cult favorite “Koyaanisqatsi.” Right from the start, all the genre elements were in place: awe-inspiring large format cinematography, trippy special FX and hypnotic Philip Glass music. All were in the service of an un-narrated parade if images keyed into themes of nature, travelogue, ecology and implicit criticism of our rampant technological age.

It was a stunningly beautiful and dynamic film, but clearly wanted to be more than just eye candy for the stoned midnite-movie mavens. Reggio, whose background is in philosophy and social activism, was clearly in thrall of pre-Colombian landscapes and the wisdom of indigenous populations (Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance”). Everyday people, on the other hand, are depicted as either rats in a maze or sardines in can, in repeated sped-up scenes of rush-hour train stations or clogged-up freeways. A non-verbal experience like the one Reggio was offering lets viewers provide their own context and what I saw as a blame-the-people tendency got acutely annoying for me when it was repeated in the sequels, “Powaqqatsi” (1998) and “Naqoyqatsi” (2002). The powers-that-be that play a major role in the environmental havoc that the director clearly abhors remain behind the closed doors of boardrooms and presidential palaces.

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Who are you calling “dubious”??

To his credit, Reggio has switched gears for 2013’s “Visitors”, now available on DVD. Known in his earlier works for triple-time shots, here the pace has been slowed down to a crawl. The entire film, shot in B&W using pristine 4K ultra hi-def format, consists of only 74 shots lasting an average of 70 seconds each. It opens with an enigmatic stare down with a lowland gorilla (a highlight) before the staring contests continue with a diverse succession of humans. These are thankfully interspersed with richly pictorial (but static) scenes of mysterious abandoned buildings, a primordial bayou, a closed post-Katrina amusement park in Louisiana, etc.

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Reggio has said that to be forced to gaze upon the supposedly familiar form of the human face until it becomes unfamiliar is a path to really seeing it for the first time. Maybe, but the best way to get to know people via cinematic means will always be through a strong narrative. “Visitors” was a film I found alternately enthralling and enervating, a bit of a seat-squirmer in theaters but one that may be helped on DVD by judicious use of the “next chapter” button on your remote. Honestly, this would have worked better as a multi-screen video installation in a contemporary art museum, or even as a coffee table book of stills.

My book “Documentary 101″ is now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: http://booklocker.com/books/6965.html Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

Dubious Documentaries #5

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For better and worse, there is little that you can’t see nowadays online or on the hundreds of cable outlets that provide us with a ceaseless tsunami of content. But back in the pre-Interweb days of 1962, when content on the handful of TV stations available was tightly controlled, a spicy but nominally respectable documentary like “Mondo Cane” (A Dog’s World”) could become a big hit. Which it did. Using a deft combination of National Geographic nudity, remedial anthropology and bargain-basement shock tactics, this Italian production did boffo box office in many countries, including the U.S. and Canada, and spawned not only a sequel but a whole genre of sensationalist pseudo-docs called “mondo films.”

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Pellicole simili che sconvolsero il mondo!

Sex and mortality are two recurring themes and the fact that many scenes seem staged or too subjectively edited to pass as real reportage didn’t seem to matter much back then, and probably wouldn’t scare away many pop culture connoisseurs today. Without much rhyme or reason, but with a certain devilish flair, “Mondo Cane” flits from topless manhunting in New Guinea, to dogmeat restaurants in Taipei, to drunken follies in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, to naval port temptresses, to cargo cults and various victimized animals without pausing to catch its breath or consult its ethical bearings.

Each segment is approached with a consistent combination of index-card research and casual titillation (with special emphasis on the first syllable of that last word). Even when the subject matter is less than enthralling, the producers work up a little a little purple prose for good measure as with this quip to go along with some footage of a Pasadena pet cemetery—“This place is so pathetic even we could shed a tear for these little tombs of illustrious creatures.” Ouch!
For me, “Mondo Cane’s” undeniable value as a cult classic curiosity was undercut by the constant snarky narration and Lawrence Welk-style soundtrack. But even if this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, at least get the two and a half minute re-cap as seen below in the film’s inimitable trailer.

My book “Documentary 101″ is now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: http://booklocker.com/books/6965.html Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

Coney Island: Dreams for Sale

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The smiles inspired by simple pleasures are under threat in “Coney Island: Dreams for Sale” seen this last weekend at the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival. Director Alessandra Giordano has made an appealing and incisive film about the more recent struggles concerning the ultimate fate of America’s archetypal oceanside amusement district. The area has had more downs than ups over the last 50 years or so and now faces the final knockout punch from rampant real estate speculation and bureaucratic bait-and-switch from the New York City government. Giordano focuses on the colorful entrepreneurs that make up a lot of the small boardwalk businesses that have kept Coney Island going through its various rough patches, whether they are old school (like Anthony the Cigar Man) or artsy newcomers like Dianna Carlin (aka Lola Star).

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Photo by Jason Sferlazza

They do battle against various powerful forces reared up against them: a greedy capitalist on a charm offensive, tactical demolition, rent spikes, superstorm Sandy, Mayor Bloomberg in a bad mood, etc. Helped along by neighborhood protests and new interest in the area by the emerging twee subculture, some significant slice of this “working man’s paradise” may yet be saved and “Dreams for Sale” does a great job at framing this David vs. Goliath showdown.

In Celebration of Non-Fiction Filmmakers
Speaking of underdog comparisons, an intimate event like the Newburyport Film Fest, really lets attendees get to know the community of documentary filmmakers through receptions, Q&A and panel discussions. Most are working in semi-anonymity, on long-evolving and labor-intensive projects that usually cannot be financed on any pretense of returning a profit—even if it eventually does. They do it all to expose an injustice, reveal lesser-known but important topical issues, or to reveal ennobling personal stories that make us all want to be better people. These qualities, which seem to swim against the tide of so much of modern society, are ones that I tried to champion in my book “Documentary 101″ and is a feeling re-enforced each time I attend an event like this.

Review and B&W photo of Coney Island’s Astroland by Rick Ouellette

The Newburyport Documentary Film Fest is this weekend

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Those of you from Massachusetts (or the lower reaches of New Hampshire and Maine) who share my love of non-fiction film should definitely try and make it to the annual Newburyport Documentary Film Festival being held in downtown Newburyport, Mass. from Sept. 19-21. See below for the link to their official website and schedule:

http://newburyportfilmfestival.org/

This is a modest (two-venue) happening but intimacy is a big part of the festival’s appeal. There are free panel discussions and coffee times with many of the filmmakers and it’s a great place for those producing documentary shorts: this year there are three different one-hour blocks of short subjects.

Moreover, Newburyport, if you’ve never been, is a great place to spend a day, a city that blends hipness and old New England charm. Check it out if you get a chance.

And if you can’t make because of time or geography, please have a look at their schedule to maybe find out about some great docs to see later at your convenience.

Pearls of Irregular Shape

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Review by Rick Ouellette

Daniel Jamous’ first film, “Pearls of Irregular Shape,” should be an inspiration and a model for local cultural councils everywhere for the way it gracefully shows the enriching effect of the arts in community life. This 55-minute documentary follows seven projects funded in 2011 by the Massachusetts Cultural Council in the town of Brookline where Jamous resides. He alternates between the seven during the hour, often showing the progress of the project throughout the year.

Collaboration and inclusiveness are the key elements. A new mural and garden for the Lawrence School involves the participation of all the students. The Coolidge Corner Community Chorus has a welcoming “no audition” policy. Dance Caliente brings social dancing (and a bit of its history) to a senior center while the Roland Hayes Project takes a similar tack, taking its young adult singers beyond music education by involving them in the story of Hayes, the barrier-breaking African-American lyric tenor who came to live and perform in the Boston area. Other projects include oil painting, electronic music and outdoor environmental sculpture. At a time when operating budgets are stressed at every level of government, a work like “Pearls of Irregular Shape” stands as a great example of how diverse arts funding can have a positive and lasting role in civic life.

See more at: https://www.facebook.com/pearlsofirregularshape

Rick Ouellette is the author of Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film
More info and excerpt at http://booklocker.com/books/6965.html

Transistor Heaven: The Secret History of a Top 30 Countdown, 1971

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At 13 years old, you’re old enough to leave the house and mess about on your own, but not quite old enough for a real summer job once school vacation rolled around. Back in 1971, a paper route or mowing the odd lawn would be enough to keep you in cream sodas and 45s for the time being. It was the type of singles below that would infatuate us later baby boomers either on our record players or over the humid airwaves on stations like the old WMEX 1510 AM, whose playlists I once collected and managed never to lose. With the transistor radio pressed to the left ear with one hand, while the other flung copies of the old Boston Evening Globe at suburban ranch houses, here is how it went down 43 years ago today—a typically great countdown of the post-Woodstock, pre-disco age.

“Maggie May” Rod Stewart. Rod the Mod’s breakout solo hit dominated the local charts that whole summer, as did the album as a whole. Maybe us young’uns were in awe of a singer who would happen to know a seducing older woman who would actually “wreck the bed.” But by late August, the inevitable backlash set in, with some WMEX DJs grousing about its overexposure. But it was nothing like the backlash from his old rock fans when he dropped “Do You Think I’m Sexy” some seven years later. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” The Who. Another classic that hasn’t left the radio since its ’71 debut. But here you’d be listening to the lean-and-mean single version, which clocked in at 3:37, a full five minutes shorter than what was on Who’s Next. This edit, which blows by like a bullet train, pre-figures punk rock and was matched with a great B-side as well (“I Don’t Even Know Myself”). “Color My World” Chicago. With its drowsy six-note piano motif and Hallmark lyrics, this song was the inevitable slow dance choice at school cafeteria mixers. Awkward! It was also an early indicator that Chicago as a band would soon go from cool to clueless. “Signs” Five Man Electrical Band. The Sixties may have ended but that didn’t mean we had to stop getting up in the grill of The Man, as this Ottawa quintet so righteously proved. C’mon, all together, “If God were here he’d tell it to your face/Man, you’re some kind of sinner!” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” Joan Baez. Like a surprise cavalry attack, Joan’s dilettante version of the Band’s masterful Civil War drama charged into the Top 5 before anyone could react in time. As Janet Maslin (then a Rolling Stone record reviewer) pointed out, the original Robbie Robertson lyrics were printed right inside her own album jacket, making inexcusable such gaffes as singing “so much cavalry” instead of “Stoneman’s cavalry” and declaring “there goes the Robert E. Lee” as if the narrator were watching a riverboat and not the legendary Confederate general in the flesh. “Smiling Faces Sometimes” Undisputed Truth. Blue-chip advice on dealing with frenemies from this R&B vocal trio from the Motor City. Hear them out; they’re “only trying to school ya.”

“Reason to Believe” Rod Stewart. Back to the Summer of Rod. His pensive take on the great Tim Hardin ballad was originally the A side but Maggie was not to “B” denied. “So Far Away” Carole King. It was also the Summer of Carole, who assured us that the age of the woman singer-songwriter had well and truly arrived with the blockbuster Tapestry album. “So Far Away” and “I Feel the Earth Move” (at #8 and #11) followed up “It’s Too Late” which had been #1 nationally for five weeks that spring. “Ain’t Got Time Anymore” Glass Bottle. One-hit wonders who harkened back to the AM pop style of the later 60s. “Ain’t No Sunshine” Bill Withers. Two “ain’t” songs in a row? What would your 7th grade English teacher think? Withers’ brooding acoustic-soul classic made the biggest leap up the chart this week. “Deep Blue” George Harrison. The flip side to the “Bangla Desh” single made it much higher in the survey, helped no doubt by WMEX’s quirky methodology.

“If Not for You” Olivia Newton-John. If not for this limp Dylan cover, the Top 30 would be a much better place. “Beginnings” Chicago. A damn sight better than “Color My World” though it was a bit odd that Columbia Records was going back to the first album for hits even though Chicago III was already in the stores. “I’d Love to Change the World” Ten Years After. The only hit single by Britain’s blues-rock titans, who had wowed the hippie hordes at Wodstock exactly two years earlier. “Rain Dance” Guess Who. Eccentric later hit by Burton Cummings and Co. and much appreciated by future hipster kids in our subdivision. “Story in Your Eyes” the Moody Blues. Gateway prog for the same group as above. “Stop, Look, Listen” Stylistics. The first of many elegant U.S. Top 40 hits for one of the premier Philly Soul groups. “One Fine Morning” Lighthouse. Kick-ass Canadian brass rock which also featured some blazing lead guitar, which you could hear in full if you caught it on an FM station, something we were catching wind of by then.

“I Just Wanna Celebrate” Rare Earth. The first successful white band to record for Motown (who named a label imprint after them) and this song, famous for its count-off and thunderous beat, had a refrain that made it popular in commercials and soundtracks ever since. “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” the Bee Gees. After three months on the survey, plenty of us were tired of hearing Robin Gibb’s tremulous rhetorical question, but it wasn’t going without a fight, barely getting pushed out of the top 20 this week. “Sweet City Woman” the Stampeders. Those Canadians keep right on coming. It’s Instant Summer once you hear that triple-time banjo strum, cowbell and lyrics filled with romantic anticipation—the biggest hit for the Calgary-based trio. “Baba O’Riley” the Who. If the ‘MEX staff wanted a great album track on the countdown then on it went, though I wondered how a song that was debuting at #23 could have been on the charts for five weeks. “All Day Music” War. The first post-Eric Burdon hit for the multi-ethnic Long Beach band, and one of several associated with the warmest of seasons.

“Friends of Mine” McGuiness Flint. These appealing and unassuming folk-rockers probably couldn’t get played nowadays unless they owned a radio station. For shame. “Ride a White Swan” T. Rex. If you listened to the New Music Authority on 1510AM you wouldn’t have to wait around for “Bang a Gong” to get hip to Marc Bolan and his elfin ways. Of course, the first of many HUGE hits for him in the U.K. “Sooner or Later” the Grass Roots. One of the latter-day smashes for these AM pop princes. I’m pretty sure Creedy had left the band by then. “Go Away Little Girl” Donny Osmond. You know, I always thought that this ditty should have had an answer song from the fairer sex. There would be a mid-song spoken word part where the girl would say “Why don’t you go away first, Donny, and we’ll call it even.” “Wedding Song” Paul Stookey. Wow, two clunkers in a row. I said it was a great Top 30, not a perfect one. “Imagine” John Lennon. This actually didn’t become a hit until the fall and an international anthem after that. But that didn’t stop the new Music guys, though the progressive AM business model would not hold and as we young teens grew up and it was quickly onto WBCN and other FM rock outlets, including college radio in the 80s and beyond.

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Well, I’m not sure what, if anything, happened to Lodi—though album-oriented groups like Yes were quickly migrated to the FM band. Speaking of albums, this top 15 list (with a few exceptions) is like a veritable Mt. Rushmore of classic rock LPs. But those aged 11 or under at the time get a pass if the first of these you owned was Sound Magazine.

Dubious Documentaries #4

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The Silent World
Jacques-Yves Cousteau, with Louis Malle—1956—86 minutes

Cousteau’s Oscar-winning 1956 documentary, based on his bestselling book of the same name, was his first film and a template for all the exploration/discovery type programming that would become a television staple in years to come. Rarely available on home video, I saw a screening several years ago at the Harvard Film Archive along with a sizeable student-age audience; it must have been assigned viewing for some course or the other.

Welcomed by Cousteau’s universally-recognized, French-accented narration, we settled in for a vintage seagoing nature doc, little suspecting what lay ahead. At first, Silent World proceeds as a conventional, if visually spectacular, science-travelogue film. Future auteur Louis Malle, fresh from film school, does a lot of the cinematography and there are several spectacular scenes: a diver’s-eye view of plunging headfirst to a depth of 150 feet in clear tropical waters, a school of racing porpoises jumping ten feet in the air in patterned intervals, the Calypso pitching and rolling through an Indian Ocean monsoon as shot from the crow’s nest looking straight down at the bow. The educational aspects, like the part explaining the ocean’s deep scattering layer or “false bottom,” were intriguing.

But the murmurs of appreciation turned to nervous laughter and gasps of disbelief with the mid-film arrival of the two notorious scenes that have since been dutifully noted on the film’s Wikipedia page. First the Calypso crew uses some TNT to blow to bits a coral pool in the interests of “scientific” investigation then call the results “tragic” (?!) before salting away the dead fish. Not long after, their vessel is steering (a mite too close) beside a herd of sperm whales when the baby of the bunch is accidentally killed by the ship’s propeller. When sharks, doing what comes natural for them, attack the wounded whale, the crew decides they must exact revenge upon their “enemy” and pull about a half-dozen sharks up onto the deck, slaughtering them in a spasm of ill-considered violence.

After a couple of more scenes of oceanic misadventure, The Silent World returns to a relative comfort zone until Cousteau asks “can man become more intimate with fish?” I could almost feel the audience brace itself, wondering if it were about to witness the ultimate indiscretion. Although a false alarm, you could hardly blame us at that point. As the Calypso sailed off into the 1956 sunset, I could at least comfort myself in the knowledge that Cousteau would soon become far more environmentally aware. And really, if you cut out the offending scenes, you’d have a one-hour program of some of the best marine documentary material ever. But that night, when the lights came up in Harvard’s Carpenter Center theater, there was nothing else to do but slink away without making eye contact.

Dubious Documentaries #3

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(The first two entries in this series were posted on my Facebook page, before I decided to originate them here. Please feel free to friend me on FB, I am the Rick Ouellette from Bedford, MA)

The Hellstrom Chronicle
Directed by Walon Green—1971—90 minutes

Professor Nils Hellstrom is a man who has “lost two fellowships and a few friendships” because of his left-field theory concerning the imminence of insect world domination. The viewer is told right off that Hellstrom is a fictional creation; actor Lawrence Pressman plays him as a man on the verge of madness in a performance that stops just short of satire. After all, he asks, is the idea really so crazy? Those little buggers have a long evolutionary head start and limitless adaptability—not to mention that they kill more people each year through diseases like malaria than die in wars, car accidents and from old age. Viewers who can excuse the film’s daffy cinematic conceit will move on quickly to the real attraction: the astonishing field footage of the insects in question. The by-now-familiar time lapse and super-macro photography must have seemed extraordinary in 1971 and still holds up pretty well today. “The Hellstrom Chronicle” actually won a best documentary Oscar despite being nominated alongside Marcel Ophul’s “The Sorrow and the Pity.” Ophul’s four-hour investigative film about French collaboration and cooperation amid the Nazi occupation is now acknowledged as one of the great achievements in the documentary field. Amends were made 17 years later when Ophuls won for the similarly-themed “Hotel Terminus.”

Reel and Rock takes a holiday

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When we return from the idyllic retreat overlooking Ipswich Bay, I’ll be continuing my “Dubious Documentaries” series, the first two entries which have already appeared on my Facebook page. Speaking of FB, please feel free to friend me there. I’m the Rick Ouellette with the glasses and the location of Bedford, Mass. Hope your summer’s been great so far.

The Pale Beyond, Part Three

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It’s been about ten months since part two of this series. In the long interval before this concluding entry, a long unfolding social problem has received more and more media coverage. A front-page headline last September in the Wall Street Journal summed it up rather neatly; “The New Asylums: Jails Swell with Mentally Ill.” The story tracked a pattern from the mass closings of outsized state hospitals in the 70s and 80s to the subsequent rise in the homeless population as many patients went from overcrowded (and sometimes abusive) facilities to no care at all. The ideal of a community-based middle way never really took hold and while advances in pharmaceuticals to treat psychological ailments have helped those with less severe cases, many others fell between the cracks during that process and in the years since. The situation just seems to get worse. Today, as I was getting set to put up this post, a major page-one report in the New York Times detailed the severe injuries suffered by 129 inmates at the hands of correctional staff at the huge Riker’s Island jail between the Bronx and Queens. A full 77 per cent of those inmates had been diagnosed with mental illness.

Obviously, this is a difficult problem and a tough one to get right. No one wants to go back to the warehousing asylums of old, where people could be committed for an indefinite stay on some flimsy pretense, like vagrancy or for being a troubled child that a parent could no longer deal with. But this downward spiral of insufficient mental health resources, underemployment, homelessness, drug abuse and petty crime invariably leading to incarceration is disheartening if not scandalous. Where’s the proper middle ground?

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I recently made a couple of visits to historic Tewksbury Hospital, the prominent Old Administration Building of which, seen at the top, was built in 1894 in bewitching Queen Anne style. It’s been continuously in operation since 40 years before that, first as an almshouse (Anne Sullivan lived there before becoming Helen Keller’s tutor and friend) and then used for the treatment and containment of contagious diseases. Although it was operated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and mental health care did figure in the mix throughout its history, it was never a state hospital in the way we would come to think of it—the overcrowded and malignant institutions on large campuses that have in their closed state become havens for urban explorers. But when one of the more infamous such places (Danvers State Hospital, as discussed in previous installments of this series) closed in 1992, the Mass. Dept. of Mental Health moved from there to Tewksbury and—along with the Dept. of Public Health—established the Public Health Museum there two years later.

The museum is tucked into one section of the Old Administration Building’s first level. This ground floor is a beautifully restored wood-paneled interior that the unfortunate people being admitted here never got to see, if a preserved sign near the front entrance is any indication.

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Much of the exhibit space is given over to showing the evolving history of methods for treatment of physical maladies, and you can see antique wheelchairs and an iron lung for real. But another room shows a similar backstory for mental health treatment. This will be the chilling highlight for many visitors. The curators, to their credit, do not shy away from showing patient treatments that nowadays would be considered barbaric or shocking. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have a mannequin strapped down to a bed to show any and all comers exactly what insulin-induced coma therapy looked like back in the day:

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Another interesting factoid I learned there: Danvers State once had a baseball team.
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You’re free to stroll the grounds at Tewksbury, which has an old formal gateway and other buildings of architectural interest. But it’s still an everyday working hospital. People ‘round my neck of the woods who want to get a feel for one of the classic creepy institutions can head south of Boston, where the isolated ghost town-sized Medfield State Hospital has been opened for people who want to have a walkabout. This is one of the few places I know that have done this, maybe as a co-opting measure for the hundreds of people who have seen these places as targets for infiltration. Of course, rules state that going inside the boarded buildings is strictly verboten. Still, it’s a great way for us urban-explorer dabblers to daytrip without worrying about getting nicked for trespassing. Now made safe for family excursions, I took along Ryan as my urban-explorer-in-training and lens-changing assistant.

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Although drastic methods like insulin or shock therapy may have been seen as necessary to control the worse-off patients, the power that comes with such authority still tempts abuse as we found out recently here in Massachusetts. Bridgewater State Hospital is site of Frederick’s Wiseman’s muckraking and groundbreaking 1967 documentary “Titicut Follies” (see Part 2 for more). It was reported in June that BSH was in danger of losing its national recognized hospital accreditation after it was found staff had significantly increased the use of isolation and strapping, even after the 2009 death of a patient during the application of restraints. Granted, Bridgewater is actually a medium-security prison that happens to house the most severely mentally-ill people in the state. But it also pointed out the thorny no-man’s land that exists between incarceration and the proper levels of mental health treatment. After a ban of “Titicut Follies” that lasted a quarter-century for “invading the privacy” of inmates (even though he had full clearances), Massachusetts courts finally allowed Wiseman to air his devastating expose of institutional abuse as long as he included a disclaimer at the end saying conditions have since approved at Bridgewater. The director’s one-sentence disclaimer, blankly using that very phrase, spoke volumes.

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Walking off the grounds at Medfield State, we caught view of the above. Who wrote this? Driving away, thoughts bounced around on different angles. Was it a mocking ex-inmate, a droll site worker, an urban explorer? There are certain people who get creeped out at the thought of these sites of suffering being converted into semi-affluent residential communities (possible sales blurb: “Nowadays, you would have to be crazy NOT to live here”) and the sign seemed to reflect that. That didn’t seem to affect folks who streamed into the old Danvers State property, re-purposed by Avalon Communities.

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“And over there is where they invented the full frontal lobotomy. Care for a swim?”

This spring I snuck onto the perimeter of the now-closed Fernald State School in Waltham, Mass. (see part 2), to visit a geographical feature that had always intrigued me but that I’ve never been able to classify. It began just off to the side of the Fernald Volunteer Center, a veritable Boo Radley house that despite its disrepair, always seemed vaguely occupied. During the time we lived on a street just across the way, I’d often turn my bike into a mowed section of field that dipped down below the level of Trapelo Road and continued for several hundred yards. I would pedal along a meandering path behind the also-closed daycare place, and through a wooded section that then opened up into a boulevard-wide lawn that undulated in sunny seclusion before returning to the gloomy main grounds, where once thousands of unfortunate (and usually quite young) patients lived. Until recently, even when there was only a couple of dozen patients left on the vast campus, someone dutifully mowed this obscure stretch of land on a regular basis. Thinking of the shaded sanatorium walks of old, I wondered if this had been a place where patients were brought to for a “country” walk. It would have been a brief respite—if it ever even happened—for a cruelly exploited class of luckless people who were otherwise liable to be the subjects of unconsented experiments: the children who were fed radioactive isotopes or autistic kids given doses of LSD for months on end. Soon this place will cover itself up, unseen and all but forgotten but leaving a lot of questions in the air about what’s left to do after all the hell holes are abandoned in place.

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