Thursday, December 01, 2005

High School (Wiseman, 1968)

I didn’t mean to be an individual.

The words above come from a teenage girl at Philadelphia’s Northeastern High School that has been pulled aside for discipline after wearing a skirt above the kneecaps. They also serve as a critical illustration of the values that we find encouraged by the teachers and administrators over the course of Frederick Wiseman’s High School. There is inherent humor merely in the fact that Wiseman chose to follow up his expose of a Massachusetts mental institution in Titicut Follies with a documentary on the American education system. It is not long before we begin to see the frightening connections and similar themes as Wiseman uses his fly-on-the-wall style to record the authoritarian coercion that goes on (or went on in the 60’s at least) during the instruction of bright young minds. In addition to the young girl that is reprimanded for dressing ‘promiscuously’, we also see another girl nonchalantly referred to as overweight by a teacher in front of numerous other students, a history lecture in which the stereotype of the dominant Jewish mother is taught as fact and sex-ed lectures in which the young people are assured that scientific evidence demonstrates that premarital sex will undoubtedly lead them to unhappy lives.

It is in the powerful final scene of Wiseman’s film however that the overall message is revealed and the film takes on a deeper meaning. Resisting the temptation to reveal to you exactly what literally had me saying ‘Wow’ to myself, I will simply say that Wiseman makes a powerful assertion that the preparation these students make today for being obedient young men and women will be used later by their government when the time comes to wage war. Today’s model student will make tomorrow’s model soldier. The issues I had with Wiseman’s film were essentially the same ones I had with Titicut Follies. I find it impressive that he is able to capture his subjects without having them realizing that they are not coming across favorably, but it all can seem kind of passive-aggressive, as if Wiseman is lying in wait for somebody to say something stupid. This minor complaint may have more to do with my idea of how documentary films should be approached than it does with a fault in Wiseman’s approach. He clearly has made an artistic decision that is consistent and captured several horribly revelatory moments in the process. High School is a film that I wish was more readily available, because it still has relevance today, illustrating the unspoken place of public education in the overall scheme of how America operates.



Blogger Ducky's here said...

Fred Wiseman is now releasing his films on DVD. To my knowledge they are only available on his Zipporah Films site.

If you think High School packs a punch (and it surely does) then try "Welfare". His editing style really comes to the fore.

9:28 AM  

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