High School (1968)

Frederick Wiseman’s fly-on-the-wall documentary style is, at its best, some of the most powerful documentary filmmaking of the last fifty years. Titicut Follies (1967) is a masterpiece, and few films so efficiently capture the absurdity of reality so thoroughly in the first ten minutes.Add to that madness it’s unique distinction of having been the only American film banned from release for reasons other than obscenity or national security—in this case the privacy of the various inmates he filmed—and you have something special.

I am also a huge fan of his 1997 documentary Public Housing, which is a painstaking look at the day-to-day life in a public housing project on the South Side of Chicago (and it very well could have been the inspiration for a large part of the first season of The Wire).

So while I was searching around for stuff on Wiseman recently, I noticed that his second film made the year after Titicut Follies is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a lower middle class high school in Philadelphia titled High School. Below is a scene I found from the film thanks to MOMA (nice to see MOMA giving out embed code), and it is scary how quickly it becomes apparent that the role of school seems to be designed to crush the spirit of the student, and teach them to fall in line.

“We are out to establish that you can be a man, and that you can take orders.”

And what’s remarkable to me, is that in this scene the kid is vehemently arguing his case, trying to communicate his position to the Dean. But, alas, like most of us, he finally concedes principles to institutional authority and decides to accept his unjust punishment.

I really wanna get my hands on this one, I think a few mashups would be in order 🙂

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7 Responses to High School (1968)

  1. Gardner says:

    Wiseman’s without peer. I saw Titicut Follies at a film conference in 1991, just after Massachusetts had dropped its ban on the film. You could feel the tension in the auditorium. The film studies crowd can be jaded about filmic spectacle, but this one was a shocker, and not just because of the subject matter (though that was plenty disturbing). It was also Wiseman’s subtle editing, the way he told the story–well, it’s clear why he’s one of Errol Morris’s favorite filmmakers. I’ve also seen Law and Order and Aspen, but never High School. Now I know the next title in my queue, though I’m dreading it too.

    I wonder if Illich saw this movie.

  2. Reverend says:

    The Netflix queue, of course, why didn’t I think of that 🙂

    And out discussion about Prelinger and the archivist as artist got me thinking about Wiseman, and here is Prelinger’s blog post on that topic that I find myself constantly thinking about:


    And then add to that idea the documentary he did on Detroit recently, and you really have something:


    And here is the film, free for the watching and mashing on the Internet Archive, of course:

  3. Sami says:

    Good corporate citizens is what they are creating:

    Also is a failed artist worth more than a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or CEO?

  4. Gardner says:

    This exchange, and the clips that started it all, continue to haunt me. Sami’s contributions really up the ante, in very important ways. So here are some thought exercises:

    1. Fred Wiseman is an educator. Now he’s an online educator.

    2. The talk with the young high school boy is just incredibly disturbing on many levels. It’s a version of the conversation between Nurse Ratched and Billy in “Cuckoo’s Nest,” perhaps even worse because it’s so normalized.

    3. Wiseman’s framing of that shot, with the American flag behind the principal’s head, is burned onto my retinas. (That’s not a thought exercise, strictly speaking. Still.)

    4. Bryan A. speaks of “delight in social archiving.” I’m interested in how the notion of the archivist may overlap, guide, or provoke our ideas of what it means to be liberally educated. Real archivists are incredible folks, I’m learning. Talk about narrate, curate, share….

    5. This is all plangent stuff.

  5. Having attended Catholic school in the 1960s, I don’t know if I can watch this entire documentary without having to go back to therapy.

    Jim, is that kid you? He has your glasses…hmmm…

  6. Pingback: Summer of Love: 21 Great Stories « bavatuesdays

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