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I attended Northeast High School shortly after the movie was filmed. It
a disturbingly accurate presentation. Mr. Wiseman's cinema verite
has encapsulated that time and space in the way to which historical
endeavors aspire, but rarely achieve. The black and white format, while
most likely driven by technology and cost, perfectly underscores the
but far from sterile, environment. While no accounting, regardless of
volume, objectivity or technical accuracy, can fully convey an experience,
this film merits its standing as an excellent historical
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.
I love this film. It really makes you think about how high schoolers are
oppressed. I love the style of this film because it has no narrative, just
shots from a high school. There is no one telling you what to think or what
is going on. Therefore you are forced to think for yourself about what is
going on. It is very interesting to hear the reactions of teachers and
students after viewing this film, as they have different
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.
Lately I've been exploring the issue of ethics in the films of Fredrick
Wiseman. In my entry on "Titticut Follies", among other things, I discussed
how Wiseman's clear judgmental stance might be considered by some to be a
breach of documentary ethics. Some feel that the goal of documentary is to
be as objective as possible, others feels that it should be used as a tool
for social change. Wiseman falls somewhere in the middle.
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.
Sometimes the best films are those truest to themselves. There's
nothing phony about this movie. It's a time capsule. It captured a
cloistered, closed system from within. The results are spellbinding.
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.
This is one of the first "cinema verite" documentaries, and it shows that even that documentary form can be opinionated. After you see this film, you'll remember exactly how high school was: oppressive. The film focuses on the idea of faculty always getting its way over students, often unfairly or underhandedly. It's interesting to note that the school faculty loved the film, even though it was meant to show them in a bad light. Artless as they obviously were, they didn't understand the implicit meaning of the film, and focused only on the obvious: that they had power over the students, and could abuse it as they pleased.
"High School" is enthralling in one sense; if you are
obsessed with the mundane "American Splendor" of generations
past, then you will adore this documentary. For its time, it was
brilliantly avant garde and remains so even today for its muted
commentary on administration and the growing disparity between older
generations and the younger high schoolers of the late 60's.
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.
Frederick Wiseman is, of course, one of the best documentary
film-makers, a wonderfully evocative but not manipulative cinema verite
director who has consistently been making quality documentaries for
several decades. "High School" is now available from Zipporah films,
albeit for a higher price than many films ($35), and it is arguably his
most accessible feature.
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.
High school is a Frederick Wiseman fly on the wall film that was made in the year i was born , 1968. The format is pretty much the same as his first movie " Titicut Follies" but without the controversial subject matter. There is no commentary so you really do have to make your own mind up about what you are seeing. A lot of what we see is not too different from todays schools except one major thing - Politeness. These kids don't have the attitude of the modern day child and it's really nice to see. There is one scene that does show it's age though and that is when a gynaecologist takes a sex education class and it's amazing how frank yet archaic this man is. High school is OK if your a fan of Frederick Wiseman ( and i plan on watching his whole catalogue) but there are better documentaries around from this period.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Along with Emile de Antonio, Frederick Wiseman is one of the godfathers
of documentary cinema, having established the standard for what is now
known as "observational" or "objective" documentary film-making (a term
which Wiseman rejects). But unlike most documentary filmmakers,
Wiseman's films all focus on institutions. His subjects are whole
organisations, and his drama is derived from simply observing the
various cogs and people at work within these societal machines. High
schools, welfare offices, zoos, hospitals, ballet groups, army basic
training camps, small towns, ICBM bases and business corporations are
just some of the institutions he's tackled.
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.
I just tripped over this review and was brought back by the comment
from geprescott in 2003. I was also a student at Northeast High School,
graduating in 1970.
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.
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