High School

PBS Premiere: Aug. 28, 2001Check the broadcast schedule »


Around 1970 both of us became familiar with and fascinated by the work of a new documentary filmmaker: Frederick Wiseman. Wiseman did not originate the direct cinema film style. Robert Drew and his associates had used lightweight, 16mm hand-held cameras, fast film stock, directional mikes, and zoom lenses in their ground-breaking film Primary in 1960 to get behind the scenes of the Humphrey-Kennedy primary campaign in Wisconsin. Throughout the sixties, filmmakers in France, Canada, and elsewhere were producing observational documentary free of narration and staged scenes. But Fred Wiseman brought a unique focus to the genre.

In the mid-70s we began using Wiseman films in our classes, Carolyn at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Tom at The Pennsylvania State University. Of course, we had no idea that Wiseman's institutional series would continue for over three decades and that his reputation would grow to the point where many critics and scholars, especially Europeans, consider Wiseman one of the best American filmmakers of his generation.

We did know that we and our students immediately and deeply admired the films and were provoked by them into discussions marked by a special seriousness. Wiseman documentaries invite their viewers to consider the institutions on display and to debate the complexities and absurdities of institutional life. Our students have responded eagerly to these invitations. Also we have found these films rich and accessible texts for exploring the paradoxical concept of "reality fiction" and for investigating how Wiseman challenges our attitudes about institutions through a sometimes elusive rhetorical structure.

Despite the somewhat ludicrous situation of "teaching" a film so critical of teaching, we have shown High School to several generations of classes at U-Mass and Penn State; it has stimulated many students into producing some of their best thinking and writing. Why is this so? It's not just because they've all been to high school (often large public high schools such as Philadelphia's Northeast High School pictured in the documentary) and usually have strong feelings about that experience. And it's not just because High School is Wiseman's most compact film (running at 75 minutes compared to what became a common running time of three hours or more). Made early in his career, Wiseman's second documentary makes its rhetorical points more obviously than his later, more subtle, films, both in Wiseman's editing and in the camera work of Canadian Richard Leiterman. Leiterman, in an interview with us said he "was enraptured by the close-up" and the symbolic possibilities of (then new) fast zoom lenses when shooting the footage for High School.

In a word, students "get" High School.

In our teaching, we propose that Wiseman has structured the documentary material he gathered at Northeast High School into an exploration of "the politics of the double bind." Although few undergraduates know the term "double bind," especially in its original clinical meaning, most viewers immediately recognize, and remember, the dilemma of contradictory expectations sometimes imposed on high school students by administrators, teachers and parents and the resulting confusion and apathy experienced by students.

Sophomores often howl in response to seeing a strong-jawed administrator tell a frustrated boy, "All right then, you'll take it [detention] under protest. That's good." They wince in recognition when a teacher simultaneously praises and insults a student who has designed a dress knowing "she has a weight problem" and a girl with a too-short prom dress is scolded into disclaiming individuality. Such examples recalled by students from the language and behaviors shown in the documentary will typically begin a class discussion that moves to examples of how, through editing choices, Wiseman urges us to see links between the "scenes" he has constructed to consider how power is exercised, and abused, within the high school he re-constructs on screen.

For instance, excerpts from an instructional film on the consequences of venereal disease recall earlier sex-instruction assemblies riddled with mixed messages. A direct cut after the line "there is danger that [the mother] may transmit the disease to the child when it passes out of her body" links this caution to the final scenes, all of which demonstrate the success of the high school in preparing students for military service.

Although militarism was a more salient topic in the midst of the Vietnam War, when High School was first released, than it is today, the issue of how to educate young Americans not only persists, but has intensified as a matter for public debate. As we return to our classrooms for another academic year, we wonder whether, after watching the "reality" programming that has recently saturated television network schedules, the students entering our universities will find Wiseman's films engaging? Will so much familiarity with some aspects of direct cinema style result in boredom or ignite a special appreciation for a more thoughtful approach to documentary? Will students consider High School "classic" only in the sense of required-viewing-with-historical- significance, or will they connect with the documentary as strongly as some of their grandparents did in 1968? Will they agree with POV programmers that High School belongs on a schedule of documentaries, each with a "point of view" relevant to viewers in 2001? We certainly do.

About the Writers

Carolyn Anderson is Associate Professor and Undergraduate Program Director in the Department of Communication, University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Tom Benson is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Rhetoric, Department of Speech Communication, The Pennsylvania State University. Publishing separate essays on Wiseman's documentaries in the early 1980s in academic journals and presenting work at conferences, Anderson and Benson then began a collaboration that has resulted in a series of articles and two books on Wiseman's films: Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman (1989; Southern Illinois University Press; revised edition forthcoming in early 2002) and Documentary Dilemmas: Frederick Wiseman's "Titicut Follies" (1991; SIU Press).