HIGH SCHOOL, Frederick Wiseman's peek into the world of American high school education (circa 1968), represents a landmark among documentaries. Though some aspects of the situation depicted have changed in many communities, sadly, much has remained a part of American culture.
HIGH SCHOOL takes place over the course a few days in the Northeast High School of Philadelphia in 1968. Instructors of French language, music, and other disciplines teach their pupils in a series of short scenes. In a private conference, two parents argue with a counselor about a student. In an
auditorium, the assistant principal grills the hall students about their behavior. Some female students take gym and sports classes, while some male students take home economics. The girls also take a design class and participate in a fashion show, while the boys take sexual education. An English
teacher uses a Paul Simon song as an example of modern poetry in her class. The assistant principal confronts a school bully in his office. A counselor teaches a student about respect for his teacher in front of the student's parents. At lunch, the students discuss their future in college, while
the teachers argue about political issues, including jobs and foreign aid. A social studies class discussion leads to reflections about the quality of the school. The sexual education teacher promotes abstinence from sex in a lecture to all the boys in the school. A science project recreates a
mission to the moon. Finally, the principal reads a letter to the school from a graduate who is volunteering to fight in Vietnam and claims that this as a sign of the school's success.
Like so many of the films of Frederick Wiseman, HIGH SCHOOL offers something more than the mere recording of events. Through a decisive selection of scenes, Wiseman makes a statement (however complex) about culture, society and the role of institutions in individual life. By starting with a series
of scenes in which teachers and administrators instill a sense of harsh discipline on impressionable high school students, then finishing with the principal's praise of a student who joined the army to fight in Vietnam, HIGH SCHOOL could be read as a devastating critique of how American society
literally trains young people to support its military machine.
Despite the implied message, HIGH SCHOOL allows viewers to form their own opinion of the events, such as in the classic sequence where the English teacher uses Paul Simon's "Dangling Conversation" as a way to "connect" to the students. Wiseman refrains from harshly judging individuals, but he
doesn't shy away from exposing the prejudices and inequities that result from the patriarchal and imperialistic attitudes. Only male students, for example, participate in the space-mission science project. In the social studies class discussion about minority students, only one minority student is
actually present. Even acts of apparent gender-reversals emerge as sops to the progressive politics of the day and expose an insidious reactionary quality--e.g. the female students' sports activities devolving into a fashion show where the instructor tells one girl she has a "weight problem."
HIGH SCHOOL differs dramatically from HIGH SCHOOL II, Wiseman's 1994 study of a truly progressive East Harlem high school, but the two films make suitable companion pieces (even if the world depicted in the first film is still more common today than the world in the second film). Formally, HIGH
SCHOOL differs from some of Wiseman's other early black-and-white efforts (e.g. TITICUT FOLLIES, HOSPITAL), in that its cinematography (by Richard Leiterman) reflects the harsh light of the setting, while the hospital settings of FOLLIES and HOSPITAL reflect a murky, horror-film atmosphere. Yet
all these films share a common goal of increasing awareness about establishments that systemically exploit their inhabitants while claiming to help them.
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- Review: HIGH SCHOOL, Frederick Wiseman's peek into the world of American high school education (circa 1968), represents a landmark among documentaries. Though some aspects of the situation depicted have changed in many communities, sadly, much has remained a part… (more)