By Tony Schwab, Staff Writer
Famed documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s “High School” (1968) reveals a tension between two ways a documentary can appeal to its audience. On the one hand, it can be a work of art, creating a complex journalistic view of its subject. On the other, it can serve as a time capsule, especially many years after its original release, showing how things actually were and cutting through the mythologizing that builds up around any era. While documentaries, so often distracted by political motives or the need to “be objective,” don’t always result as artistry, even the most mundane eventually have interest as snapshots of an era. “High School” is the rare documentary that succeeds in both ways.
Famously, it takes an extremely cynical view of life at Northeast High School in Philadelphia. Everything mundane about the school is shown. Teachers lecture students, either angrily or well-meaningly, about how important it is to follow the rules in order to fit in. The classes are all lifeless, with students falling asleep or laughing. All of the big school events, from speeches to pep rallies, look extremely tacky.
Wiseman includes plenty of political material. Martin Luther King’s assassination is mentioned offhand as the subject of one club meeting, making it clear that only part of the school views this as a tragedy. Female students are prepped for a fashion show, with an older teacher openly mocking them for acting in a way unlikely to land them a husband. The Vietnam War is always present, with one student on leave discussing the various alumni who have gone to war, and a letter sent to the school from an active soldier giving the movie a tragic ending.
What makes everything in the film fit together is how vividly it captures the banality of a mediocre school. The indifference the students have and the even more thorough indifference the teachers do. If all this seems a bit played after decades of anti-high school movies, and of sixties rebellion nostalgia, then remember that it came before all of these, and that it gets the feeling much more right than almost anything after.
“High School” is unique in not showing the personal lives of any of its students. The movie is claustrophobically attached to its school and for good reason. It does not console the audience by showing how much fun the students have after school or on weekends. It only shows that they devote most of their week to a very boring education. As a view of America in a period of great social change, the film is equally unromantic. There are no great protests or inspiring speeches. The students are not brilliantly articulate about how they would like to see the world change. They accept the frustrating constraints of the time as just another drab part of the school’s scenery.
“High School” is playing at the Metrograph as part of the “Three Wiseman” series until April 14.