Frederick Wiseman's "High School"

Aside from the Introduction and Epilogue (I decided to collapse the two epilogues in the chapter list into one) I am planning two mini-chapters, no more than five pages, to help provide context. They're really just excuses for me to talk about two movies that I think are awesome that I would otherwise probably not include.

Anyway, here is what I wrote today about Frederick Wiseman's 1968 documentary High School. I'm really not happy with what I wrote. It didn't come easy, and it reads like it. It's a shame because Wiseman's film is totally brilliant. He has this really wicked sense for editing. From what I have seen of his style, the material is pretty stark. One hand held camera, no lighting, only diegetic sound. But the editing is merciless. He can say so much with just how he opposes scenes and shots. Incredible.

So here's the junk. Any thoughts?

“High School shows no stretching of minds. It does show the overwhelming dreariness of administrators and teachers who confuse teaching with discipline. The school somehow takes warm, breathing teen-agers and tries to turn them into 40-year old mental eunuchs… No wonder the kids turn off, stare out windows, become surly, try to escape… The most frightening thing about High School is that it captures the battlefield so clearly; the film is too true.”
–Peter Janssen, Newsweek
The images are simple, in grainy black and white, with the distinctive quiver of a hand held camera. The documentary style is equally as stark: there are no interviews, no voice-overs, and no narrative structure to be easily grasped. With the exception of an Otis Redding song played during the opening credits, all of the sound comes from the source material; there is no carefully orchestrated soundtrack and no collection of contemporary popular songs to lend allure or to enhance the mood. Frederick Wiseman’s 1968 documentary High School is not likely to appeal to the average high school student, and though it may not immediately resemble the other high school movies discussed in this text, it is in many ways, a genuine prototype for classic teen films like The Breakfast Club, Dead Poets Society, and Pump Up the Volume.

High School was shot in 1968, in an upper-middle class, mostly white area of suburban Philadelphia. In terms of facilities and resources Northeast High School appears to be well equipped, at least not any more or less so than the average American public school at that time. During an interview with Cynthia Lucia for the October 1994 issue of Cineaste, Frederick Wiseman remarked on the effect his film has had on audiences. “One of the amazing aspects of making High School has been the fact that, over the years, I have met people who have graduated from high school anywhere from the 1920s on into the 1990s, and they tell me it's just like their high school” (Lucia). The film is honest and unmerciful, and it accurately depicts the typical high school experience.

Many of the teachers are smug, condescending and self-important. Some of them are bullies. The Dean of Discipline is a hefty man with a forceful voice, and he doesn’t hesitate to use either asset to maintain his control of a situation. In conversation with one student he makes it clear that he equates “being a man” with following orders. Another disciplinarian, whom the camera follows from a cautious distance as he makes his rounds, practically barks at the students he meets in the hallway: Whaddya doin’ here? Where ya goin’? You got a pass? They respond to him with fear and concealed amusement.

Other teachers are insensitive, and superficial. Publicly criticizing their student’s weight and physical appearance. Still others are simply racist and/or sexist. One remarks on the “matriarchal” structure of the middle-class Jewish family, which he compares to the natural familial structure of “lower animals”. In easily the most awkward of the film’s several cringe-inducing scenes one adult addresses an auditorium full of unruly teenage boys, responding to anonymously written questions about “the facts of life”. At one particularly low point he reads, “Is it possible to get a girl pregnant by rubbing the surface of the vagina?” and then responds with an off-putting cocksure air, “With what, your nose?” The auditorium quite literally erupts with laughter and applause.

As this scene proves, the students are equally deserving of the viewer’s disapproval. They frequently whimper under the weight of their superiors, often resorting to subtle manipulation to avoid censure or punishment. Some of them attempt, however unsuccessfully, to assert their independence, even though many of their gains are purely symbolic. One boy persistently states and restates his innocence to the Dean of Discipline though he finally assents, agreeing to serve his scheduled detention, he adds that he will do so “under protest”. Though their struggle is rarely flattering and never graceful, there is no confusion as to who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed, and the viewer’s sympathy always goes out to the students.

Yet, there is one scene showing students and teacher occupying the same uncomfortable ground. A young teacher, her short black hair, dangling silver earrings and short striped jumper just inches above her knees – and just a few short minutes after an extended debate over appropriate skirt length: below the knees – is almost completely indistinguishable from her students. She appears to have little more than her four years of college ahead of them, and she is visibly eager to gain their approval. That day’s lesson plans include the poetic merits of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Dangling Conversation”. While she peers over her class as they listen to the song, she seems just as interested that they develop an appreciation for her, as she is that they develop an appreciation for poetry. It is both endearing and pathetic at the same time.

Wiseman’s camera often revels in and ruminates on the details. He frequently focuses on posture or mannerisms, pushing in on a tight shot to reveal a mother’s hands nervously fidgeting with a chair. At other times he draws out aspects of physical appearance, highlighting a guidance counselor’s implausibly thick bifocals. All of these elements are combined to create a portrait of high school life that is as frustrating and discomfiting as the real experience. In his May 1969 review of Wiseman’s High School, Peter Janssen observed that, “high schools are prisons where the old beat down the young, where raw material is run through the machine and stamped BLAND” (Janssen). The undeniable energy that exists on screen in Wiseman’s film is created by the constant tension between the students and their parents, teachers and administrators who almost never miss an opportunity to assert their authority, however speciously held that authority might be.

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