Comma, Space: Frederick Wiseman's "High School" (1968)

Frederick Wiseman: 300 Million Milliseconds is an on-going series by Craig Keller exploring in chronological order of release the complete body of work of the great American documentary filmmaker.

The first entry in the series, "Ghost Meets the Man: Frederick Wiseman's 'Titicut Follies' (1967)" can be accessed here.

The film can be purchased on DVD from Zipporah Films' website here.


Philadelphia's Northeast High School is the setting for Frederick Wiseman's 1968 film High School. The movie consists of a series of enchainings that guide the viewer from one classroom, office, or assembly facility to the next, suggesting something in their contiguity of the period structure of the typical American public school from 8 to 3. Wiseman assembles his filmic Everyday from material shot across an unspecified stretch; the result is a compression, conflation, of several sessions; the implication, that such an interchangable, programmatic Ennui of Days mirrors the similar quality of the term shared by the young people enrolled in the American public school system or by the individuals incarcerated within the American prison complex. Further, a sporadic interspersal of scenes whose dramatic thrust relies upon the arrival of News from the East inculpates the High School, even if obliquely, as rough-draft for the still more stringent and potentially lethal systemizations of military boot-camps and ensuing tours of duty in the war in Vietnam.

The picture establishes its major theme of Expectation as Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" sounds over the five opening shots picked off from a moving vehicle (traditional establishment-of-milieu gesture, yet place discernible as Philly for area residents only, maybe not even then) which culminate in a glimpse of the school itself. Like a crudely framed invocation of Citizen Kane's first moments, the utilitarian brick duplexes, project housing, signage, infrastructure, sprawl, and chain-link quantify the socioeconomic residua of Northeast: fallen beacon in default of social contract, Xanadu denuded again.

The rambling hallways of the school make up an isolate interior that stands as symbolic manifestation and aggravating circumstance of the isolate interiors betrayed by adolescent faces over the next 74 minutes. One might consider High School a reckoning with normalcy, merely a portrait of The Way Things Are; at the time of release, audiences likely perceived High School as a "we-can-relate-to-this" story. Indeed, and necessarily, the film represents a time capsule — a cinematographic record not only of those sorts of characters frozen immemorial in Lions Club halls' gilt-framed photographs but also of the attitudes and fears of an era. Only from the vantage of the future has High School assumed the form of secret look or infiltration. Nevertheless it remains the single Wiseman film whose milieu its audience is most likely to have experienced collectively.

The school-day begins.

1. A teacher leads a classroom discussion about cause-and-effect.

2. A Spanish-instructor runs her students through a language lesson on the subject of Sartre and existentialism.

3. Wiseman cuts to the practice room of a school band rehearsing sufficiently a modernist work.

4. The filmmaker introduces Mr. Allen, flat-topped hair-trigger disciplinarian, presumably school principal (a half-hour later Wiseman reveals that Allen holds classroom duties as well), who threatens an awkward 15-year-old boy: "You'd - better - be - in a gym - outfit..." in x number of minutes. The youth responds with something like a meek "yessir" — innocuous enough, the give-and-take protocol of teen-to-adult talk in 1968 (and citizen-to-policeman talk in 2012) — before receiving a don't-you-yessir-me in return. Language is a minefield at Northeast, an occasion for testing the explosive boundaries of power relationships at the school; the threat of suspension hangs over any student called in by Mr. Allen for a session that does not solely permit the deposition of an alleged transgression but serves also, and potentially more punitively, as the setting for a random number of go-rounds in verbal roulette. (Later in the film, a boy summoned for questioning by Mr. Allen after punching a nerd in the mouth is again reprimanded for the very usage of the word "sir": Wiseman records the boy's intonation in that scene as resolutely neutral; nevertheless, Mr. Allen metes out suspension.) The filmmaker cuts away from this early scene to a transitional shot containing a hallway post: "Words Are Like Parachutes — They Only Function When They Are Open" — a phrase that manages at once to read as ironically disingenuous, and to foreshadow the recited contents of the letter from Vietnam that closes the film.

Digressions: (a) High School is full of phrases, verbal conceptions and constructions no longer in wide use in America: "You really must" / "her character" / "seat of authority"

(b) Male teachers and students wear class rings. (Mr. Allen's carries the imprimatur of the University of Pennsylvania, 1940.) Pride and poshlost.

(c) High School is about the relationship between teacher and student, not between student and student. The teenagers exist primarily as faces, and those faces are blank, like the models' in Bresson. How does the isolate interior dream? (As in Wiseman films like Titicut Follies, a prevailing subject is that of the irreconcilable division between authority and subservient.)

Does this authoritarian domain damage the kids, does it stunt them emotionally, or does it instill rebellion, does it give them their first taste of institutional hypocrisy? "You got a pass?" + "Let's get on the ball!" grumbles the teacher-cum-hall-monitor, his face hidden. Even today in 2012, is the jury still out on the Class of '68?

Authority and subservient, adult and adolescent, mature and nubile, concertedly repressed and unconsciously exhibitionistic. In the subtle cut from one shot to another, temporally discontiguous and plucked from the B-roll, Wiseman communicates the libidinal charge of the high school hallways, of stalkers not even aware and prey unassuming. (See also a thematically similar montage, the "girl-watching" sequence of Welles' 1974 F for Fake; when Wiseman cuts back from the sauntering teen in short-skirt, his caption reads "Art 1968.")

1. The most overtly linked sequence, as explicit as the immediately above-remarked is nearly invisible, moves from a shot of the hall-monitor slouching to peer through the narrow pane of a door into — or so the montage suggests, in another erotically disposed 'sleight of hand' — the interior of a girls' gym class. Regimented physical-education commences, and thirty asses, sixty legs, jumping-jack in synchronicity to the post-synched cue of The 1910 Fruitgum Company's "Simple Simon." One, two, three.

2. The display of athleticism gives way to a classroom recitation of Ernest Thayer's "Casey at the Bat," then a cut to tee-ball back in gym class. Perhaps no line in High School is more thematically poignant or devastating than: "Great Casey has struck out."

3. A hand-off from the bat of the poem to the knife chopping walnuts in home-ec duty. The teacher presiding over Betty Crocker's instructions shows up in the scene directly adjacent where she directs rehearsals for the girls' fashion show. (This teacher appears once more at film's end to read the aforementioned letter from Vietnam.) She matter-of-factly criticizes body shapes, singling out at least one "weight problem" and remarking that this particular specimen has "done everything she can to cut it down" with her outfit, since she knows she's bigger than the other models.

4. On to typing class, composed mostly of girls. As the keys clack, we become gradually more aware of the teacher's speech impediment. The strong Philly accent further emphasizes his suitability, and ironic position, in relation to his classroom subject: the mechanically written word smooths out regional anomalies; "Comma, space." 

5. On to a seminar whose focus is family planning, composed wholly of boys. The history of the patriarchal system is discussed, with reference made to the biblical Moses, colorfully characterized as the "head honcho." 

6. A cut-in on the words: "...because society does have a way to take care of regular, responsible, stable unions" during a lecture before an all-girl assembly on the topic of birth-control and the Pill. The camera pulls back to display an inscription on the podium: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do do it with thy might." An insert shot of a faceless student examining her hand during the talk reveals a ring identical to one previously spotted during the typing class, there on the left-hand ring-finger, here on the right. Trends, pregnancy, marriage, distracted contemplation of potential future, etc.

7. Back in the administrative/disciplinarian quarter. A debate with a beautiful girl whose prom gown purchase doesn't qualify as floor-length; a debate over the semantic connotations of "formal" ensues. The adult woman present assures the young girl that her own gown will respect the sartorial requirements demanded by the event: "And I can't WALK in it! I can't get in the CAR comfortably!" Wiseman cuts to a new gym scene, wherein the same woman sounds further implorations on matters of relative gravity.

8. Shots of custodians frame the next scene, which centers around a young, pretty English-teacher whose eyewear, haircut, and lesson-plan ally her with the generation seated. She teaches Simon & Garfunkel's "The Dangling Conversation" and upon playback of the recording, Wiseman takes the opportunity to gaze studiously upon the girls' and boys' faces, then the teacher's own expression, which is comparable to that of La Chesnaye showing off his contraption in The Rules of the Game. The janitors at both ends of this scene act as pillow-shots, marginal figures, another conversation-of-sorts left to dangle in the annals of Northeast routine.

9. A thickly bifocaled woman, another disciplinarian, poses the following to another female intransigent, which I'll reformulate here as verse:

Who breaks
the circle?
When things go around and
around and around, someone has to
be mature enough
to move out of the circle and
into the straight — right?
Somebody's
got to break away
from it. And you're intelligent,
you're mature, you
have a background —
you,
you can be the one that
can do it.

10. Skipping forward to the final scene: the fashion-show overseer reads aloud from the podium at yet another assembly a letter from Vietnam by a Northeast alum turned serviceman. The letter, effectively a substitute commencement speech, sad but a little opaque, not entirely effective or convincing as a morale-booster or future-reassuring palliative, acts as a neurotic piece of closure. The abruptness of the ending jars the viewer and forces her to draw a relationship between the outside world and Northeast (an outside world already hinted at in the scenes of: labor union discussions led by Mr. Allen; an umpteenth sex-ed/family-planning education-session ordained by a career gynecologist; a passing call to convene around the assassination of MLK; the visit by an enlisted soldier to chat with a former teacher at the playground), between the systems educational and military. I find the graduate's letter confused and unwittingly pathetic in every sense of the word. I see that my notes about this scene read: "it is the desire of empowered authority to ventriloquize its doctrine," "teen periods," and "stagecraft."

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