XL Popcorn – High School

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 753/1007Title: High School
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Year: 1968
Country: USA

There aren’t a lot of documentaries left on this list, so I’ll probably have to pace myself a bit in order to ensure that I don’t prematurely run out. Whilst I have come across a number of documentaries that I either didn’t get or was underwhelmed by, they’re always interesting to contemplate afterwards.

Anyway, so a few months ago I watched Chronicle of a Summer. This was an early experiment in a new style of documentary film-making that coined the term ‘cinema vérité’. With today’s film, High School, we see how a similar idea developed in America under the name ‘direct cinema’. This is by far not the first film to do that (for example, political documentary Primary pre-dates it by 8 years) but High School presents a rather interesting time capsule.

As I have noted in my 1001 songs playthrough, the time that High School was made was during a turning point in politics where students were beginning to rebel and protest. We see glimpses of it here in some of the interactions, whilst also noting just how old fashioned the school is in terms of the teaching and inflexibility. Something that really sticks in my mind is a scene where a student asks about clothing for the school formal dance and is told that there was a male student who won’t be going as he cannot afford the money for a tuxedo rental.

Coming from a teaching background I have had the awkward experience of enforcing arbitrary rules that I didn’t give two figs about because those were the rules of the school. One example was with regards to always taking off coats in the classroom no matter what. My room got freezing in winter and I would regularly put on my lab coat for extra warmth – but the students had no such choice (the one time I relaxed the rule was the time I was caught not enforcing the rule… which is always how it goes).

Anyway, something that really struck a chord with me (aside from how old-fashioned it was) was how bored the students and the teachers were. Also, in many ways, how education hasn’t changed too much when you see more modern documentaries set in schools. It brings a bit of Sisyphean futility to the proceedings, which makes the awkward laughs that the film induces all the more needed.

Being a piece of direct cinema, I do miss a narrator or an obvious sense of structure. However, as it is High School paints a picture that acts as a perfect (and almost unbiased) time capsule of the late 1960s.


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