Thursday, April 28, 2011

High School (Wiseman. 1968)

"It's nice to be individualistic, but there are certain places to be individualistic."

Cinéma vérité - ever heard of it? Most of my readers will probably answer that question with a no. This is what makes the 1077 Films to See Before You Die so amazing. It introduces people to all sorts of new genres that they would have otherwise never sought out. Cinéma vérité means "truthful cinema" in English. It is a sub-genre of documentary film making that uses naturalistic camera techniques to try and create an actual "slice of life." A sub-genre of this sub-genre is direct cinema. This is what we would now call the "fly on the wall" documentary filming style. This style creates a voyeuristic frame to actual, non-staged events.

The most famous of the direct cinema directors is Frederick Wiseman. Though Wiseman is not a fan of the term, he earned this reputation with films like Titicut Follies (1967) and most famously, High School. This is a film that puts a camera in the most awkward and unforgiving of places - a public high school.

Interestingly shot and uncompromisingly telling, the film would go on to become one of the most controversial documentaries in American history. In fact, the film was actually banned from being shown in Philadelphia for the way it depicted the city's educational system. With this picture, Wiseman became an unintentional warrior in the counter culture movement. He filmed the generational gap between the administration and students as if it were a living and breathing character. Without a script, Wiseman was able to create a good guy and a bad guy using just the words of the people in front of the camera. It is an incredibly interesting look into the public schools of the 1960s.

There is one particular scene where Wiseman is filming young high school girls as they model clothes. We see the high school aged women walking around as the teacher points out all of their flaws. She calls them fat, unattractive and even tells them that they will have trouble finding husbands. This was not a school the embraced people's differences. They make that abundantly clear.

In another scene we see a girl being punished for her short skirt. As the authority figures try to establish common ground with the obviously confused young lady, we hear an adult say "It's nice to be individualistic, but there are certain places to be individualistic." To which the student responds "I didn't mean to be individualistic." The times are a changin'. And this Pennsylvania school is not ready to hear the music.

I will say that as "direct" as this film seems, I do not buy the concept of Wiseman's no bias shooting style. He has the reputation as a filmmaker who just sets the camera down and films what is happening, but is this really the case? How could it be? This is a heavily edited and manipulated work of documentary. And though I believe that what Wiseman presents is true, I do not believe that it is an honest representation of life at Northeast High School. Wiseman made one of the most manipulative films I have ever seen with High School.

This is not a film that I would watch for fun. This is a film that you might come across on PBS. It is an educational look into human behavior and artistic film making. If you are looking for a film to help you formulate an opinion, I would point you toward anything made by Wiseman. He is an interesting filmmaker who directed and shot one of the neatest works I have ever seen. High School is a great movie.

High School: B

My Next Film....Bonnie and Clyde (Penn. 1967)


  1. I don't understand why the "individualism" comment that began this article is used as an example of the authoritarian manner in which this school was run. This was one of the few instances where what the teacher was saying was NOT degrading and abusive. They were discussing appropriate dress for the upcoming school prom, and he was explaining what is commonly accepted as formal dress for such an occasion. When the girl mentioned "at the knee" length he had to explain to her that it was not considered a formal "gown" and that it's fine to be individualistic, but not in all circumstances [like the prom.] I don't see how anyone could argue with that.

    1. I agree to some extent, but I think the specific language used in the quote is meant to strike the chord. Wiseman would not have put so much emphasis on it if he did not want it to be noticed. It is an authority figure telling a student that, while under this roof, you cannot be an individual. There is undeniable symbolism there...