Frederick Wiseman is one of the most important and iconic documentarians in film history. Since the late sixties, he has consistently made films that observe a diverse range of institutions. At the same time, he defined his own unique style and was a pioneer of the ‘direct cinema’ or ‘Cinéma vérité’ movement. ‘Direct cinema’ or ‘Cinéma vérité’ started in the late sixties through Wiseman, The Maysles Brothers, D.A Pennebaker and others. It consists of a minimalist approach that discards the devices now commonly associated with the documentary such as voiceover narration, ‘talking heads’ and direct addresses to the camera. The camera acts as a ‘fly on the wall’, attempting to observe situations in as natural a setting as possible. High School, Wiseman’s second film, depicts Northeast High School, located in Philadelphia. Through the observations of the filmmaker’s camera, the result is an endlessly absorbing look at exchanges between teachers and students, and the desperate need for the older generation to uphold tradition by passing their morals onto students who are growing up in a very complex time. It more than deserves a place in the Criterion Collection where it would fit right in with similar documentaries that the collection already holds.
Wiseman’s objective in High School is clear but he allows us to come to our own conclusions about what we see. Situations are allowed to play out for some time, making the film more objective than most other kinds of documentaries. High School exists both as a time capsule and as an indictment of the relatively subtle authoritarianism present at Northeast High. The film was made when a cultural revolution was taking place. Vietnam looms over the students, the civil rights movement is in full swing and mores are being overturned by the hippie youth culture. The teachers at Northeast High School seem almost desperate to maintain tradition every way they can by belittling the students in a number of ways, some subtle and some overt. Some teachers are unintentionally hurtful while others are kind, considerate and willing to listen. The faculty is never portrayed as villains. They seem merely lost in a sea of tradition and pressure and are just trying the best they can in a multifaceted time. By trying to maintain what once was, they ignore the changes going on in the world outside them and how it might seem conflicting to their students.
The visual style of the film is rich, refreshingly untrained and instinctual. The framing is frequently unsure of itself, acting on a spur of the moment observation. Other times, the camera is transfixed by a particular person and, whether they are speaking or listening, stays on them for the majority of the scene. Wiseman loves zooming in to focus on hands and mouths. In many scenes this is where the camera’s attention is and it becomes a visual motif throughout. A wonderfully effective visual juxtaposition is created in regards to the students. Often, they are framed as a mass product. Other times, their faces are individually shown as they listen blankly in class.
High School is a masterwork and should be treated as such. The Collection already holds several films by the Maysles Brothers who helped pioneer direct cinema. Grey Gardens, Salesman and Gimme Shelter allows them to be appropriately recognized and Wiseman deserves the same level of recognition. Documentaries are present in the Collection but not overwhelmingly so. Other docs such as Crumb, Monterey Pop, For All Mankind, Hoop Dreams and others have all secured spots, and The Life and Times of Harvey Milk is slated for an upcoming release. Generally though, there are not enough documentaries in the Collection. Wiseman is exactly the type of figure that that Collection can acknowledge for his innovative work in cinema.
As of now, Wiseman’s films are distributed through his own Zipporah Films and are not available in any other format. Having High School in the Criterion Collection would grant the film exposure it does not currently have. Countless people would have the opportunity to see it. The Criterion Collection is known for giving certain films a second life by making them available to the general public. That is exactly what could be done for High School. Also, having closed captioning for the film would add an essential dimension. It is often difficult to catch some of the dialogue. As many times as I have seen the film, there are still so many bits of dialogue that are lost on me. There are also excellent opportunities for supplement material. Most importantly, a featurette on Wiseman is necessary. Getting a sense of his life, work and contribution to documentary filmmaking could be informative and retrospective to anybody who has or has not seen his work. A supplement about the making of High School with interviews with Wiseman and anybody else seen fit would also be useful. Perhaps some of the students featured in the film could be tracked down and talked to. Lastly, it would be great to revisit Northeast High School to see what it is like now. High School is an artifact; an invaluable representation of a time period. Criterion can breathe new life into this documentary classic and give cinephiles a fulfilling appreciation of documentarian Frederick Wiseman.