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Cinedelphia Film Festival Review: HIGH SCHOOL (1968)

Welcome to Screen Invasion’s coverage of the first annual Cinedelphia Film Festival, a celebration of the City of Brotherly Love’s lesser known cinematic history (the motto: “we’re more than just Rocky”). A month long filmic carnival running from April 4 – 27, the Fest offers everything from a tour of The Stoogeum, a local museum dedicated solely to the Three Stooges, lost or little seen short & repertory films, and full blown local premieres, such as the Fantastic Fest favorite, Vanishing Waves. If you’re in the area, join in on the fun, and if you’re a SI reader, get ready for select coverage of Cinedelphia’s feature film selections. 

For our third night at the mausoleum, we get to explore one of the only films ever banned in the city, Frederick Wiseman’s controversial 1968 documentary, High School…

High School shows no stretching of minds. It does show the overwhelming dreariness of administrators and teachers who confuse teaching with discipline. The school somehow takes warm, breathing teen-agers and tries to turn them into 40-year-old mental eunuchs. — Peter Janssen, Newsweek

Frederick Wiseman’s 1968 16mm B&W cinema vérité documentary High School is a thing of legend in Philadelphia. Unable to be shown the City of Brotherly Love through 2001 as a result of threats from the local school board that promised legal action should Wiseman ever exhibit his work, the “banned film” gathered a strange shroud of mystique among local film buffs. Until PBS aired the documentary via their P.O.V. Classics series, those who sought Wiseman’s searing expose on teenage oppression usually had to resort to poor quality VHS bootlegs and private screenings. And while Wiseman was no stranger to controversy or litigous challenges to his work (the filmmaker had already found himself embroiled in a lawsuit with the State of Massachusetts concerning his debut film, Titicut Follies), it was still one of the rare occasions in America where a region had banned a piece of art outright for no real reason besides sheer, unadulterated spite.

When looking at the film through the lens of what documentary film has evovled into, High School feels decidedly crude yet wholly fresh. There is no gloss to Wiseman’s improvisatory handheld camera and harsh, grainy black-and-white visuals. The sound is often garbled and muffled and cloudy, seemingly sounding like lost transmissions from a time most involved surely want forgotten or buried in the years that followed. But the acerbic aesthetics serve as a solid frame for an all-too recognizable sub-society of “oppressed youth”; burly disciplinarians barking orders of conformity, glazed eyes of peers as educators struggle to keep their attention, hard brick and metal surroundings that feel much more like a detention center than a place that promotes creativity and learning. There is no device here, simply a presentation of fact uninhibited by a pre-conceived agenda — the representation of an assembly line approach to molding youth that would more than likely cause Roger Waters to cry.

While there are certainly parallels to be drawn with the modern day, Wiseman’s profile truly is nothing short of distancing in just how archaic and capsuled it all feels. Some of those featured almost come off like caricatures from some sort of Mad Men high school spin-off: thick bodied administrators in short-sleeved dress shirts and skinny ties with wax in their buzz cuts bark at kids like hounds as blunt force evaluations of the seemingly unnoticeable physical flaws of Northeast High’s female population are pointed out during a student fashion show. Crude diagrams of fallopian tubes are projected during sex-ed sermons, scored by nervous chuckles and a plethora of questions from young men who clearly have no working experience with female anatomy. A youthful teacher’s futile attempt to “connect” with her class via Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Dangling Conversation” is certainly a highlight, as the pupils glaze over and fall asleep even as something from their popular culture is utilized as a  sort of “hipster” teaching tool. One teacher argues with an arrogant peer about the role of the person in front of the classroom, taking umbrage with the notion of “discipline before tutelage”. Tuxedos at the senior prom are given the same stringent rules as military uniforms and horrifically unflattering gym class unitards are captured in all of their ghastly reality, their wearers dancing and twirling as if they were auditioning for an early Polanski film. But there is no costume designer, dilligently attempting to replicate reality behind the scenes. This is the way things were.

No filmic connective tissue is woven throughout; the scenes are simply cut together with a vague eye for thematics keeping them from feeling utterly disconnected. Those looking for “talking head” interviews attempting to contextualize the period or the actions of those therein are going to walk away seriously disappointed after the scant 75 minute runtime. Wiseman doesn’t seem to be interested in providing answers, simply the events as they happened, rendering High School to be one of the purest examples of early vérité. In fact, if it weren’t for the titles cards and inclusion of Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”, most would probably have a difficult time distinguishing the film from a crudely edited home movie.

There certainly are moments where the teachers’ presentations break through to their students; some of the kids really seem to enjoy an out of place feeling space-simulation program.  But the actual moments of engagement for the students of 1968’s Northeast High are fleeting and far between. But Wiseman never imposes a viewpoint onto his subjects, allowing us to wonder if the administrators aren’t evil, but simply incapable of or unsure of their faculties to challenge the minds they’ve been tasked with. Arguably, this may also be High School’s greatest strength — the ability to simply stand back and wait for the Philadelphia public school system to damn itself.

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The Author

Jacob Knight

Jacob Knight

Jacob Knight is a screenwriter, novelist and journalist from Slotter, Mass. He is most times fueled by scotch, horror films and the Criterion Collection. He currently resides in Philadelphia, PA with his wife and cantankerous Westie pup.