High School (1969)
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This film came out in 1969 and I graduated in 1999. So there is a thirty year gap between these students and myself. Yet, in many ways, this seemed all too familiar. My impression is that school has increasingly become oppressive for students, but the old back-and-forth between students and authority is still here. The kid who does not want to change for gym class. We did not learn that Paul Simon was a poet, but just within the last year (2016-2017) Bob Dylan has received a Nobel Prize for Literature. So the same idea is there.
The camera has a strange lingering on teenage butts. Maybe we can dismiss this as a product if its time, but today if someone went into a high school and zoomed in on a girl's butt in gym shorts, that would not be seen as very appropriate.
And what is up with the gynecologist? The sexual education comes across as surprisingly progressive, but this guy is saying things he may not know to be creepy... saying he gets paid to put his fingers inside teenage girls? And laughing about it? Ummmm... what do you even say about that sort of thing? I expect locker room talk from high school boys, but doctors?
The end result is a vast canvas, which when put together with all of Wiseman's other documentaries, creates a human panorama akin to Balzak. This is the late 20th/early 21st century rendered, in all its expansiveness, in all its complexity, with humility by a little man and a tiny camera.
The importance of Wiseman is that he dares to show, not only how much humanity has accomplished, but to what extent we've become slaves to the institutions, facilities, jobs and social structures that we inhabit. Whilst most films centre on a hero or heroes scheming to overcome some obstacle or complete some quest, Wiseman's world is one in which forces continuously exert pressure on the individual, shaping how he thinks and behaves. To Wiseman, society is a complex lattice of overlapping social structures and institutions and mankind is both the God who creates them, and the pawn who succumbs to the tides of their walls.
And this juxtaposition (man as God/man as pawn) permeates Wiseman's entire filmography. Though touted as a kind of "anthropological" director or a film-maker concerned about "studying institutions", Wiseman's real aim is to highlight the follies and absurdity of human nature. Think the monkeys masturbating in "Primate", the city street-sweepers who sweep snow with futility during a blizzard because "that's their job", the suburban white kids being shown how to put a condom on a giant black dildo in "High School" or the doctors so desensitised to death that they joke about their vegetable patients. This is black comedy at its darkest, its most absurd, its most surreal.
Wiseman's films, when viewed in tandem, start revealing their own patterns, their own rhymes and rhythms. Watch how "Ballet" mirrors "Le Dance", "Zoo" mirrors "Primate", "Basic Training" mirrors "Missile", "High School's 1 and 2" echo his work in "Juvenile Court" and "Public Housing". Likewise, observe how "Hospital" mirrors "Near Death" and "Deaf" mirrors "Blind". This is not a film-maker jumping randomly from institution to institution, this is a human portrait on a grand scale.
That said, Wiseman's "High School" works well as an individual film. Shot in a Philadelphia high school, whose academic reputation is esteemed, the film coolly observes the institution's various comings and goings on. It's all quite innocuous at first, until Wiseman's theme begins to come into focus. Education isn't the point of this institution, but socialisation and indoctrination. Consider one scene in which a teacher informs a student that he must sit detention, regardless of his guilt or innocence, because it proves that he can "be a man" and "obey orders". Consider the words of the gynaecologist brought into the school, the staff's obsession with instilling obedience to administrative authority, and the final scene, in which a teacher reads a letter from a former student fighting in Vietnam and then suggests that his service is proof that the school is succeeding in its job. It's spooky stuff.
8.9/10 – Worth one viewing.
Wiseman used a number of creative decisions in composition and editing to give "High School" its rhetorical voice. Perhaps most noticeable is the film's black-and-white format. Though likely to have driven by cost, it powerfully conveys a sense of banality of the atmosphere of the high school. Audience are aware of this being a conscious choice on the part of the director to not include color, but could this very decision also be a metaphor used to represent the actions taken by the authorities of the school and their consequences a dull, sterile environment in which students are sapped of their own individualistic colors.
Also prevalent in the film is the use of juxtaposition to create situational ironies in order to further criticize, in a rhetorical matter, the institutional restraints of high school. Towards the beginning of the film, a scene is shown in which the professor is reading tasks off the bulletin of the day to a class. The next scene shows a foreign language class in which the teacher is lecturing on existentialism and various existentialist philosophers. The two scenes seem similar; in that both are in classroom settings and show a teacher lecturing and students listening, but the subjects in discussion contrast each other in their differences. The latter scene can even be interpreted as ironic itself, in that the subject lectured about, existentialism, suggests and requires abstract and free-form thinking, while it shows students reciting the material in an orderly manner.
In the absence of a spoken narrative, the voice of "High School" relies much its effect on the indexical abilities of the documentary form and constructing messages out of the indexed recordings. One situation shows a student presenting a seemingly unfair scenario to a staff and expressing his disapproval of a teacher because that teacher had yelled at him and then unjustly given him detention. The staff is shown as uninterested in finding out more of the situation, and instead takes the side of the said teacher and starts to lecture the student about respecting the authority. The documentary form, especially the "cinema verite" model, has the ability to give the illusion of representing unbiased reality
Wiseman's use of the indexing quality by showing various scenes in their entirety therefore strengthens the film's voice, as the audience is made to believe they are seeing the whole truth in a few scenes, and encouraged to extend that belief to the entire film. Though that is not to say the "High School" assumes a low audience activity. In fact, the role of the audience is pertinent to the effectiveness of this film. For example, Wiseman appeals to the emotions of the audience to achieve a stronger rhetorical effect. In the closing scene, a teacher tears up while reading a letter from a former student who is now a soldier serving in Vietnam. In the letter the former student does not only confess of his gratefulness for having attended that school because it made him a better person, but also reveal his devotion to the cause of the war and wants his insurance money to go to school if he is killed in Vietnam. The close-ups of the teacher's face reveal a wealth of emotions, expressing joy, perhaps out of self-gratitude for having helped in someway to shape the former student. The audience may perceive the letter as absurd and see it as a real-life consequence of the institutional constraints of the high school that reinforced blind obeying of authorities. Moreover, the tears of joy on the teacher's face may potentially reveal something even more horrifying the teacher is actually proud of her work and stands by the function of the school as an institution and the staff as authority figures.
What I do remember about the pieces I saw was they were real but not quite true. These are images from long ago, but there was something of the fact that most teachers were trying and not intending to be caricatures as I remember them appearing in the film.
What really got me to write was the description of the disciplinarian dean. I also had him as a 12th grade history teacher. Everything said about him by geprescott was very accurate. Our class was not required to read the Sunday New York Times, but I remember the year long project was to choose a country, research it, and then write its foreign policy. I picked the Soviet Union, did my research, and wrote a paper aimed at making life as difficult as possible for the US. I don't remember the actual comments but I remember being pleased with the final grade.
I never saw this entire film and am not sure where to find it now. I'd like to watch it with my kids.
Wiseman has directed several films that run longer than three hours, mind-numbingly intense documentaries which fiercely tear into their subject matter and are nearly completely thematically ambiguous, but "High School" is more a straightforward documentary, reminiscent in places of the sort of film the Maysles Brothers made, and of "Titicut Follies", perhaps the only other Wiseman film with a definitive approach to the subject matter. The film doesn't feature the sort of objectivity some of Wiseman's other films do, and even the sequel to this feature, "High School II", which looked at a 90's high school, is far more ambiguous and much longer than this lean 75-minute feature, but around as good.
Still, the film is not marred by simplistic messages and a preachy attitude. Wiseman's films, as they normally do, allow a remarkably candid, voyeuristic experience for the audience, letting us see some of the social attitudes of the era as well as capturing the timeless feel of the high school experience. In what is perhaps the film's greatest scene a teacher formally recites "The Dangling Conversation" by Simon and Garfunkel, then plays the song for the class. You see small mannerisms change, the teacher suddenly has a hopeful look in her eyes rather than one of a tired educator, and Wiseman brilliantly captures the class's reaction without the scene ever feeling contrived or forced. It's just the sort of scene that Wiseman does perfectly, asking the audience to interpret the images for themselves, never overstepping his boundaries and preaching to the audience.
"High School" is almost certainly Wiseman's most accessible film. At 75 minutes in length it goes by quite fast and although it isn't necessarily designed as entertainment it is more or less easy to watch except for those who had traumatic high school experiences. "High School II" is a more complex and ambitious film (and, of course, seen by far fewer people), but "High School" might have the edge in terms of just how effective and lean it is. It's a perfectly-structured documentary with a stunning final scene, and may be one of my favorite films.
I can tell you that he did NOT capture the essence of our high school, due mostly to the disruption caused by the camera crew. I received a better education than anyone else I met in college. Since I double-majored in Electrical Engineering and Humanities at Notre Dame, I was grateful for the college-prep curriculum I had received at NE. My high school Chemistry, Physics, Calculus, History, English and Latin classes left me well-prepared for college.
Like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in Physics, where observing a subatomic particle changes its nature, the presence of the camera crew changes what happens in each venue. For example, there's a scene where an English teacher (Mrs. London) plays records all period because the camera's presence prevented students from paying attention to the scheduled lesson. Wiseman made it seem like "Here's what kids are learning all day long."
Coincidentally, I lived in Panama for three years. Wiseman's 1977 movie "Canal Zone", about the Panama Canal, presented a similarly incorrect view. Cinema Verite - - at least Frederick Wiseman's version - - is not worth the publicity it receives.
Once again, Wiseman lets his cameras roll and leaves it to the viewer to draw conclusions. But don't be surprised if the conclusion you draw is that this particular high school is a fascist, Orwellian hell for its students, where the faculty are dictators and the attendees their cowering subjects. No other moment in the film nails that point home more than the one in which a bullying principal needlessly humiliates a student.
My high school experience wasn't like this, but regardless, this movie didn't make me want to revisit my high school years anytime soon.
If you can get your hands on a copy of this, sit back and enjoy!
There is something purely amazing in viewing such settings in this vignette as they were, undoctored by Hollywood's lens. I am fascinated by the details of a time that I will never know personally and "High School" provides a brief glimpse into the mindset of the young adults of 1969 who are not unlike ourselves.
If you dig documentaries, please give this one a shot. Maybe you'll become as obsessed with "High School" as I have.
I remember the staff and how they made me feel. From comments I have read here and elsewhere, the movie provides the right mix of raw material for the audience to experience what I did. Or, if they "just don't get it," like the staff at the school, they will see what the staff did when the movie was made. Only after viewers expressed what they saw did the cast become incensed with what they later recalled as deceptive, malicious, slanderous abuses of trust. One teacher remarked to my class that the cameras were equipped with secret mirrors, so they could surreptitiously capture other than what they appeared to be filming. The movie was banned from Philadelphia for a number of years. This was during the Cold War. I remember wondering if people in the Soviet Union were allowed to watch it, and if I would be arrested should I smuggle it into the city.
With pathetically few exceptions, the teachers and administrators were generally condescending, arbitrarily authoritative, and guided by their own biases. They cared little for the students as learners or human beings, were poorly qualified to communicate, let alone teach, and were surprisingly more ignorant of current events than most of the students.
There was one notable exception, and I wish Mr. Wiseman could have found a way to weave it into the film's cloth without betraying its honesty.
The dean of students, figuring prominently in the movie, known as "The Mean Dean" in my day, taught my 12th grade history class. I was fortunate not to have known him in the more familiar context. At least that's what my memory tells me. With his Frank Rizzo haircut, overwhelming physical presence, brutal manner of speech, and distinctive gait owing to severe WW2 injuries, he contrasted with all of the other social sciences teachers in every way.
At the start of the school year, he explained that his â?odeanâ? alter ego would never enter the classroom and he held to that. He was honest about his opinions, never declining a straight question. He admitted what he didn't know or understand, and welcomed input from the class. He proudly related how the GI Bill allowed him to make a good life after his horrible experience in the war, his Corvette indulgence that was not popular with staff, and an almost childlike fascination with the complexity of the world. His unambiguous goal was to encourage the students to be skeptical of news and politics, to collect information from many sources, and to analyze and draw their own conclusions. It was one of the only classes in which we were taught to think for ourselves. The only textbook was a mandatory subscription to the Sunday New York Times, which we were required to read. Class assignments consisted of our comments and analyses of articles and editorials. Grading was based entirely on quality of the analysis. He was excruciatingly critical of process, and completely oblivious to content. I donâ?Tt know how he felt about the late Justice, but for me William Brennan and my 12th grade history teacher are my two First Amendment icons. I agreed with almost none of his very clearly expressed opinions. Still, I remember this as the most liberal of any class in my public school education.
There was one other notable exception to the gray abyss of high school. The SPARC extracurricular program, and its associated magnet program curriculum for the tiny clique of "advanced placement" students, was one bright spot in the school district's otherwise unenviable history. But it was so academically and physically isolated from the school mainstream, I don't see how it could have been accurately integrated into this movie. The shame is that the excellent teachers and equipment afforded by the program were not available to the large majority of students.
The reading of the soldier's letter was a perfect closing, as it so perfectly distilled the utter ignorance of that generation of teachers and administrators. There has been some progress in the intervening 30+ years, but there has also been some backsliding. "High School" remains, sadly, a timely insight into the education system in this country.
There are a few scenes that really stand out to me. The main one being the last scene. The woman who reads the letter from the ex-student who is now in Vietnam stressed how "successful" this school has been in creating such a great student. The former student had written her a letter thatn basically stated that he no longer thinks of himself as a person, but as a body. He is humbled by his country and he will blindly obey his orders in the service. He wants his insurance money to go to the school if he gets killed in combat. It is the least he do for a school that taught him such strict discipline - so much discipline that he no longer thinks of himself as a human being with feelings!! That is what I got out of it, at least. It's a great punchline.
I would also like to comment on the closeups of the girls butts in the gym. I did not interpret this as some sexist filmmakers getting their kicks by watching the girls jump around in short shorts. I thought it was more of an ironic connection between the girl that was reprimanded at the prom for having such a short skirt. It was also a connection between the fashion show and the teacher who was trying to teach girls how to be ladylike in a very blunt and insulting manner. The school is forcing the girls to wear these ridiculous gym outfits that have very short shorts. Then they force the girls to play ridiculous games and do stupid excersizes. I think it shows how sexist the high school was, rather than the filmmakers. It made the girls all look like objects, which is exactly what the high school was practicing.
I thought it was really great how Wiseman included the entire reading of Casey at The Bat. The viewer most likely does not want to hear the teacher read this whole thing, yet we are forced to hear the whole poem read, quite dully. This shows how DULL and dehumanizing high school can be. The viewers are feeling exactly the same feelings the students must have been feeling at the time. We don't want to hear the poem, neither do the students. Yet this is the beauty and absurdity of these high school rituals.
I also liked the Spanish class in which the students are repeating the Spanish word for existentialism, and other philosophies. It is very ironic that the students are in this oppressive institution and brainlessly being forced to repeat these philosophies that preach the exact opposite.
The girl who gets defenisve about being too individualistic is also ironic. She swears her short skirt was not trying to make her "an individual", as if that was a bad thing.
It is so interesting to see how different the generational views are. One student is claiming he is "being a man" by standing up for what he believes in when being wrongly accused of acting up in class, while the vice principal says in order for him to "be a man" he must follow orders and swallow his pride. Such different views about manliness!
I could go on and on, but I will not. This is a great film. High schoolers today should watch this film, as well as "No Reason to Stay", another anti-high school film from the 60's. It will re-enforce their gut feelings that high school really does suck.
Wiseman has stated that with "Titticut Follies" and his next film, "High School", he had more of a fixed idea of what he was trying to go for (as opposed to his later, more thematically ambiguous films). But even so, that does not mean that the individual member of the audience cannot get what he or she wants out of what has just been seen. In a 1998 interview with "The Boston Pheonix", Wiseman stated: "When [High School] was first shown in Boston, in 1969, one of the people who saw it was a very conservative member of the Boston School Committee. I thought she'd hate the movie. But she came up and said, 'Mr. Wiseman, that was a wonderful high school!' I thought she was kidding me until I realized she was on the other side from me on all the value questions. Everything I thought I was parodying, she thought was great. I don't think her reaction represents a failure of the film. Instead, we have an illustration that reality is ambiguous, a complex mirror that the 'real' film takes place where the mind of the viewer meets the screen. It's how the viewer interprets the events."
In the above case, it would seem that the film is only unfair if you dislike what you see. The woman disagreed with what Wiseman was saying, but she still liked the film, because she felt that the images were strong enough to counter what Wiseman's intentions for the film were. So then does it really matter if he was "parodying" his subjects?
Of course we could look deeper into a film like "High School", at more minute details, to see better, less broad examples of what could be considered unethical practices. In one scene, a teacher teaches a class and we see a close-up of her face, wearing thick, horn-rimmed glasses. About this shot, Calvin Pryluck writes, "One can wonder how the teacher in High School feels about herself since seeing herself seeing her bottle-thick eyeglass lenses larger than life on the screen." Small matters like this are important. But is the woman's appearance Wiseman's problem? Perhaps he chose the close up to emphasize the look on her face. Perhaps then if the woman feels embarrassed, then that is for her to worry about, no one else.
The faculty of NorthEast high school in Philadelphia are the stars. The viewer decides whether their actions are good or bad. There's certain purity at work. Is it an imperfect system? You bet it is. Do rules appear petty and draconian? Yes, they do. But there is hope inside the bubble. The faculty at NorthEast could be teachers at my high school. We have the flat-topped disciplinarian, the hip, young English teacher, the no-nonsense fashion matron, and the boring instructor with the bad teeth.
The scene with the coach and the graduate who visited while on leave from Vietnam illustrated one of the prominent themes; this environment is in a bubble insulated from community and society. In this scene, the coach made a connection between a soldier's war wound and the effect on his sports career. He was so wrapped up in his role as the school coach; he immediately applied news from the outside world to his microcosmic world inside the school grounds.
This theme was also reiterated by a boy in one of the rare scenes where students were the stars. The would-be bohemian said as much; this school is a cloistered, closed system. The bubble theme is further underscored by the sequence where three boys emerged from a space capsule simulator after 193 hours. There was much fanfare for the successful end to 'Project SPARC' including a telegram from astronaut Gordon Cooper, read with typical dragnet-style inflection by the sponsoring teacher.
In fact, several scenes feature extended recitations of written material by instructors who suffer from chronic educational ennui. There is the flat rendition of 'Casey at the Bat', the review of the typing test text, and the dreaded retelling of the "thought for the day" from the daily bulletin. A glimpse of self-awareness offered by a young English teacher was most startling. In the course of dissecting Paul Simon's poem "The Dangling Conversation", she read it aloud first, and followed with the Simon & Garfunkel song version. She told the students to listen to both versions. The poem came alive with the music. A lingering shot of the teacher showed the hope in her eyes that someone will get the message. For me, it's the best sequence in the film. If Wiseman wanted to underscore a failure of the system, it lied not with the disciplinarian tactics or heavy-handed advice dispensed by the staff, but with the inadequacy of the delivery methods used by educators.
The message turns hopeful in the last scene. A teacher reads a letter at a faculty meeting written by the former student on station in Vietnam. Tight camera work reveals the emotion of the reader, in contrast to the non expressive faces of the previous speakers. The written word provides power after all. There's hope on the part of the student to survive outside the system, hope on the part of the administrator reading the note that they do have an impact on their charges, and hope that inside a flawed machine such as the educational system, someone gets the message.