High School (1968)

Frederick Wiseman’s second feature length documentary is a frightening indictment of public education institutions, which would seem unfair and cynical except that I can remember specifically living through variants of more than half the scenes Wiseman captures here. The arbitrary punishments and bland affirmations of blind faith in bureaucracy are captured and projected, one after another. The result is a hellish portrait, and Wiseman takes the leverage he builds up to draw some damning connections between the lack of critical thought that goes on in the School and the Vietnam war casualties.

Even the less subtle montages here have a certain gracefulness; one sequence plays the bubblegum pop song “Simon Says” over a group of girls doing synchronized jumping jacks for a gym class. They’re shot from the neck down, and the whole sequence has a texture that recalls a kind of warped Busby Berkeley. The texture of the film is what gives it a great deal of its power; the grim and mindless enforcement of authority is shown to be done not in any kind of histrionic display but in very monotone exchanges; mechanical.

If only more educators could have seen this and not sentimental tripe like Dead Poet’s Society. Thankfully Wiseman is now selling discs for public consumption at prices that, while certainly not encouraging any many shopping sprees, make the films at least accessible to the public in some form.

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