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School Bored

There's a Method to Frederick Wiseman's Dullness in High School

By Adele Marley | Posted 8/29/2001

High School

Frederick Wiseman

If "kicking and screaming" or "over my bleached, disintegrating bones" are ways you characterize the conditions under which you would to return to high school, you're in good company. Along with most of the general population, veteran cinéma vérité documentarian Frederick Wiseman feels your pain--or he did, anyway. His 1968 documentary High School is a searing exposé about the suffocating oppressiveness of an upper-middle-class high school where the faculty use ridicule, double-talk, and manipulation to browbeat students into submission.

This film is, rather incredibly, considering its age, making its American television premiere this week courtesy of the PBS documentary showcase P.O.V. Wiseman's films are pretty much a PBS mainstay, but Maryland Public Television passed on broadcasting Wiseman's most recent offering, the 1999 opus Belfast, Maine, a four-hour examination of a working-class New England town that has been described as Wiseman's Nashville. With its late Sunday-night time slot, High School is a victim of similarly indifferent scheduling.

Stay up. If for nothing more than its position in the Wiseman oeuvre, High School shouldn't be missed. It was his second film, following Titicut Follies (1967), a harrowing indictment of a Massachusetts mental hospital that catapulted the former law professor to the front ranks of the '60s "direct cinema" movement (populated by the equally legendary likes of the Maysles brothers and DA Pennebaker). Titicut brought to light the hospital's abysmal treatment of its patients, who are discarded and forgotten like "the dirty secrets of a civilized society," as critic Amos Vogel wrote in 1974. At the time of the film's release, many critics felt differently, opining that Wiseman had exploited his subjects and invaded their right to privacy. This sentiment was echoed by Massachusetts state legislators, who got the film withdrawn from release via court order. (It only became available again to the general public in the early 1990s, when the ruling was overturned.)

Curiously, hospital administrators were pleased with the film, until reviewers took shots at them in print. Likewise, the superintendent and board of education in Philadelphia lauded the accuracy with which the city's North East High School was portrayed in Wiseman's sophomore effort. (High praise, given that predominantly white North East was considered to be one of the jewels in the Philly school system's crown.) But the school's principal complained after reading reviews of the film and gauging public reaction, resulting in yet another ban, albeit one limited to Philadelphia.

Those looking for too-hot, censorship-caliber footage in High School should be prepared for a shock. What you get wading through Wiseman's 75 minutes of disjointed, narration- and subtitle-free scenes featuring parent/teacher conferences, gymnastics routines, monotonous recitals, classroom discussions, and "mandatory" pep rallies is a major case of the yawns, accompanied by the kind of glazed-over expression frequently seen on the mugs of North East's walking undead (aka the student body ). Wiseman doesn't interview his subjects, and they don't address the camera in any way.

This, and the lack of explanatory devices and theme music (incidental music is allowed), might seem to signal a wish on Wiseman's part to be considered totally objective (at the risk of boring his audience silly). But there is more here than meets the eye. Wiseman's "objectivity" forces viewers to experience what high school is really like for High School's students--and to empathize with the kids. Hardly a surprising strategy considering the film's historical context. High School was shot as the civil-rights movement was peaking and the anti-Vietnam War and women's-lib movements were moving into high gear. What else would Wiseman be doing in a suburban high school but finding an inventive way to flip off The Man?

The Man blithely provides plenty of finger fodder. Left by Wiseman's unobtrusive methods to their own devices, nearly all the authority figures in High School come off as colossal jerks. Students are relentlessly harangued into conforming, and attempts at individuality are quashed. One student lands in detention, which he submits to under protest (like any good conscientious objector); the bullying coach in charge of detention congratulates him on "taking his orders like a man," ignoring the youth's insistence that he is submitting only under duress. In another sequence, girls taking home economics model self-styled evening gowns for their prissy, weight-obsessed instructor, who informs the mini-skirted girls that all women have fat legs and, as a rule, shouldn't wear skirts above the knee. This is echoed in a later scene where a young woman argues about her prom-dress selection (a knee-length skirt) with two faculty members, who curtly advise her to don a formal full-length dress and to "stop being so individualistic."

Students at North East are given all kinds of absurd, contrary, confusing, and sometimes downright hypocritical feedback about socialization, appropriate attitudes, gender roles, and sexuality, all of which jibes well with the school's m.o.--to turn out an 18-year-old "product" that's obedient and easily controlled. This serves Wiseman's m.o. too: High School's authority figures are allowed to drone on and on, spouting ludicrous rhetoric, giving the filmmaker plenty of rope. All he has to do is turn on the camera and hang them.

Over the years, Wiseman has softened his famously contrary approach. None of his other films (save 1974's Primate) sparked as much controversy as the first two; he even seemed eager to balance the karmic books with 1994's High School II, which showed the optimistic flip side of institutional learning by focusing on a successful inner-city high school in New York. Admirable, sure, but strangely uncompelling; I'll take the unvarnished, down-and-dirty muckraking Wiseman pulls off in its predecessor any day.

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