High School (1968)

There's something entirely disturbing and completely illuminating about how Frederick Wiseman's "High School" plays out, so short, so measured, and so powerful. It consists of observing with a purpose, for the camera manages to just sit into many classrooms and many situations that seem tense; and one would begin to assume that the manner in which everyone plasters a fake face on, this could play out as a promotional video for Northeast High School. Yet the film is far more clever than that and the viewer is assured time and time again that, while there is a bias, Wiseman is smart enough to let you figure out what that is.
I think—in "Catcher in the Rye" fashion—we all have a grudge of some kind against highschool. Whether that's how you were treated, a certain teacher, or the institution itself, there are rare cases where these years are the easiest for teens.
With a movie about a well-repsected highschool, the viewer immediately assumes a difference between the education these kids are getting and the education that lower income families are subjected to. One moment has an adult explaining why there is a severe dress-code at the senior prom. How you dress reflects the level of respect you are giving to the establishment and your peers.
In this way, we can actually see the children's minds being shaped, like a big brain filled with Play-Doh. One figure, I believe the vice principal, continually is able to get students to do exactly what he wants and if not, he suspends them. One teen is trying to get out of gym because he has "a doctor thing", but this man doesn't want to hear any excuses. The scene ends with the teen shooting off his mouth and getting suspended.
Respect is demanded from the male teachers, something that underlies the masculine way they posture and their constant corrections, as if their power rested on a thin wire and only the smallest puff of air from their students could knock it over. This reminds me of "The Tree of Life" and Brad Pitt's character. He acts like the men in this movie, tough, rough, not taking any crap from his students.
You have to honor your elders, even if they're completely wrong. Why? Because they're older than you.
One students tries to argue out of detention because he hasn't done anything wrong. The camera ogles the boy, making sure that we understand that he's the stereotypical nerd. He complains and whines and eventually says that he will stick to his principles, which means not taking detention. Super cool, the vice principal starts talking and that powerful, loaded, unfortunate phrase "be a man" comes out. In this guy's mind, being a man means taking the detention...or so he tells his student, mainly because we assume he just wants some peace and quiet. The boy's "moral character" starts to crumble and soon he takes the detention, defeated.
This is not the only time we see a student being subjected to manipulation with the idea of "their good" being used. One girl is meeting with her parents and a counselor figure about her future and her current grades. She doesn't want to go to a typical college but her father wants her to. The counselor then starts to ask all sorts of questions that we can tell will hopefully lead her back around to siding with her parents, it makes my skin crawl watching it.
But that's the power of the movie, and it isn't all bad. Some teachers have obvious passions for their work, like one English teacher who uses Paul Simon's music as an example of poetry. To some viewers in the 1960s, this might be horrifying; but to me, I see a woman dedicated to her craft and installing a love of English in her students.
"High School" is shameful at times. One scene involves a beauty pageant of sorts for a fashion class that see the teacher insulting the girls by calling them fat or saying that their legs are too big. Body image issues aside, the teacher is just cruel. Another moment has a sex ed class for boys in which the instructor is sarcastic and crass about women.
But the end is the best moment, and I'll leave that up to you to find out.
"High School" is keenly measured, and wonderfully paced. It's exactly what you'd want out of documentary and supposedly features no commentary. Just because there is no narrator, does not meant that we don't completely understand what Wiseman was trying to accomplish by the end of the film.

Score: ★★★½

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