#201) High School (1968)

high-school-1968-frederick-wiseman-documentary

#201) High School (1968)

OR “Most Likely to Impede”

Directed by Frederick Wiseman

Class of 1991

No trailer, but here’s an excerpt. 

The Plot: Following his documentary on a state facility for the criminally insane (1967’s “Titicut Follies”), Frederick Wiseman chose a logical follow-up for his second film: high school. Philadelphia’s Northeast High School is the subject of this documentary, as the camera goes from class to class and observes our education system in full swing. Is this faculty molding my parents’ generation strongly enough for the future? Are they bogging them down with too much discipline? It’s direct cinema, so that’s your call.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a general overview and quotes Richard Schickel’s review, which called the film a “wicked, brilliant documentary”. There’s a thought-provoking essay by Canadian film professor Keith Grant, which focuses on the film’s theme of conformity, but manages to misspell “principal” as “principle”. So close.

But Does It Really?: If you ever went to high school, this film is going to strike a chord with you. As with many of Wiseman’s film, this is “direct cinema”: no commentary from the filmmaker, you fill in your own blanks. Like any documentary, “High School” has obviously been edited to create a certain narrative flow that didn’t exist in the raw footage, but even that is open to interpretation. I enjoyed the film a lot as both a time capsule of a moment in America and as a checkpoint for how far (or not) high school has evolved in the last 50 years. Definitely worth a watch.

Everybody Gets One: We’ll see more of Frederick Wiseman when I cover his follow-up film “Hospital”. This film’s cinematographer is Richard Leiterman, who started off filming stock footage for the CBC before filming several Canadian documentaries. Among his later work is the original TV movie version of “It”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Filmed in the spring of 1968, “High School” comments on such topical issues as Vietnam, the MLK assassination, the ongoing space race, and the debate over miniskirts as formal wear. Plus you get this peppy little tune from bubblegum group 1910 Fruitgum Company.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Best Documentary nod for “High School”. That year the winner was the inspirational “Young Americans” “Journey Into Self”. None of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries were ever nominated for an Oscar. Wiseman did, however, eventually win a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2016.

Other notes

  • (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”. Now THAT’S how you open a documentary!
  • These kids are all in their mid-to-late 60s now. One wonders what their reunions are like.
  • I took three years of French in high school. Very little of it stuck. But I met my senior prom date in that class, so that’s something.
  • The extreme close-ups throughout the piece are an interesting choice. Are you watching this, Chick Strand?
  • My favorite person in the whole movie is a man I’ve dubbed “Counselor Crewcut”. He dispenses detention along with really bad life advice.
  • Speaking of disciplinary types, it seems Northeast had their own Strickland-esque hall monitor. Doesn’t this guy have anything better to do?
  • This English teacher is not doing “Casey at the Bat” any favors. Not exactly Jerry Colonna, is she?
  • We really need to start teaching Home Economics in school again. So many life skills I missed out on.
  • This school’s sex education is a bit confounding. They’re strongly anti-promiscuity, but also for birth control. Seems like mixed signals.
  • And then we get to the English teacher who uses Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Dangling Conversation” as an example of poetry. She’s the cool teacher. Wait until rap becomes a thing.
  • For a film set in a high school, the emphasis is primarily on the teachers and parents. Virtually none of the film is from a student’s point of view. Another point in favor of Keith Grant’s “schools are factories, students are products” thesis.
  • Do yourself a favor: skip the part where they discuss how much college tuition was in 1968. I almost punched my TV in anger.
  • Northeast High’s Space Research program was one of the first in the country, and is still going. Please donate; their funding keeps getting cut.
  • That’s “Hey Look Me Over!” being played by the marching band towards the end. Wow, that’s dated.

Legacy

  • Northeast faculty was divided over how the film portrayed their school. Facing what he referred to as “vague talk” of a lawsuit, Wiseman agreed not to show the film in Philadelphia. While it did play elsewhere in the country, the City of Brotherly Love wouldn’t get a public screening of “High School” until 2001.
  • At the age of 88, Frederick Wiseman is still going! His latest film is 2017’s “Ex Libris – The New York Public Library”.
  • Wiseman returned to the subject of high school with 1994’s “High School II”, this time covering New York City’s Central Park East Secondary School. I couldn’t find footage from that film, so here’s 1994’s “Ski School 2”.
  • Northeast High School would allow cameras onto campus again in 2009 for the reality series “Teach: Tony Danza”, which followed the “Who’s the Boss” star as he taught high school English. Production was halted when the footage was deemed “not dramatic enough”. And if you can’t find the inherent drama of being a teenager (or a People’s Choice Award winner), you’re not doing it right.
  • Oh god, must we musicalize everything?

Listen to This: Amazingly, Otis Redding’s rendition of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is nowhere to be found on the National Recording Registry. The song is, however, included on the Registry by way of The Staple Singers’ cover. Otis Redding appears on the list thanks to his performance of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)”.

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