High School (1968)

“The world will recognize you only by your performance.”

Synopsis:
Frederick Wiseman documents life in a Philadelphia high school, circa 1968.

Genres:

Review:
Frederick Wiseman remains one of America’s most provocative yet least seen documentarians. Like his contemporary, Emile de Antonio, Wiseman eschews voice overs, instead relying on judicious editing and extreme close-ups to tell a particular “story” of a time and place. His camera eavesdrops on the most mundane of interactions, shifting from room to room and then back again to continue where things left off. The overall effect is oddly hypnotic, yet sometimes disturbingly voyeuristic, as when he focuses for several minutes on teenage girls’ midriffs and buttocks while they are performing calisthenics, or zooms his camera in so close on a participant’s face that it’s possible to see his skin pores.

High School is full of countless memorable moments, which, taken together, distill the essence of power and gender relations in an institutionalized setting. Wiseman visits nearly every type of classroom at this upper-middle-class high school, affording us a broad range of views: a fashion show (girls are criticized for not appearing pretty enough); a sex ed class; a girls’ calisthenics exercise; boys (but not girls) studying rocket science; and an idealistic English teacher attempting to reach her students through music. We are also privy to disciplinary actions, including one between a girl, her parents, and a (male) authority figure; and one in which a boy is chewed out for insubordination. The power of High School is the way in which each of these scenes allows for multiple, competing interpretations. Interestingly, the participants were initially pleased with the way they were portrayed in the film, and only became disgruntled once they started hearing critical feedback from the general public.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A subtle yet cynical look at power relations, gender roles, and normalizing curriculum in American high schools
    Power
  • Effective use of extreme close-ups and judicious editing
    Closeup
  • The disturbing fashion show sequences
    Fashion show

Must See?
Yes, if you can locate a copy — not an easy task, given that Wiseman has inexplicably never released his films for home viewing.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “High School (1968)”

  1. I suppose this is a must – but I have feelings of ambivalence about this documentary, as I can’t say I see its overriding point, other than as a (granted) valuable sociological document from the ’60s.

    Its scope is large, even if it does concentrate on a single high school. We do get an overview of a very specific set of rules, a very specific period with very specific attitudes; it’s intriguing to see those in authority representing the more staid ’50s – and the division of those trapped in that period and those more open to the coming age (perhaps that is Wiseman’s point – as it’s a crucial turning point in America). Still, I kept wishing there would be more of an established point-of-view on the part of the filmmaker.

    It’s touching to see the earnest teacher who has discovered Simon and Garfunkel and wants so much for her students to appreciate ‘The Dangling Conversation’.

    One of the strangest sequences has an English teacher reading…is it a poem entitled ‘Casey At The Bat’? – to her teenaged class. Why?!

    Among the more interesting sequences involves a student resisting, then being nudged into consenting to detention.

    But, by far, the best is the juxtaposition of a group of boys in drag as cheerleaders (much too short) with the succeeding, J. Edgar Hoover-esque, sex ed Q&A statement by a gynecologist:

    “The more intercourse either a boy or a girl has prior to marriage, the less likely they are to make successful marriage partners. …the higher the divorce rate, the greater the sexual inadequacy, and the failure of compatibility. As is with everything else, the real pros in the field keep it to themselves and aren’t profligate about it. …’Is it possible to impregnate the girl by rubbing the surface of the vagina?’ With what – your nose?” Understandably, gales of laughter from the all-male audience.

    The final sequence – in which a teacher reads a letter from an ex-student, writing from Vietnam, does give one pause.

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