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Film / High School

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Male Administrator: It's nice to be individualistic, but there are certain places to be individualistic.
Female Student: I didn't mean to be individualistic.
Male Administrator: No, I'm not criticizing!

High School is a 1968 documentary feature by Frederick Wiseman.

The film is a portrait of a fairly ordinary American high school, specifically Northeast High School in Philadelphia. Such standard school activities as classroom lecture, gym, band practice, and lunch are depicted. A running theme is the role of high school in imposing conformity and obedience in American teenagers, as authoritarian teachers stamp out their students' individuality and turn them into automatons, while reducing their "education" to rote banalities. The Vietnam War is a lurking subtext, as shown when a former student and current soldier visits an old coach, or in the last scene when a teacher reads a letter from a former student serving in Vietnam.

Wiseman made a second high school documentary, High School II, in 1994.


  • Conversation Cut: A teacher lecturing asks "Are there any questions?" Then there's a cut to an entirely different teacher in a different room asking "Any questions?" before kicking off a typing test.
  • Cool Teacher: One teacher, notably quite a bit younger than the others, is trying to be. She uses "The Dangling Conversation" by Simon & Garfunkel in a poetry lesson, reading Paul Simon's lyrics before playing the song. Notably the film cuts away without showing if the teacher managed to engage her students.
  • Day in the Life: Structured to give an impression of a single day at a high school, with the camera arriving in a car in the morning, lunch in the middle of the movie. Filming actually took five weeks.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Filmed in black-and-white as was typical of the cinema verite documentaries of the day. Here the grainy b&w photography helps to emphasize the prison-like nature of a public high school.
  • Documentary:
    • Done in cinema verite style, although Wiseman disliked that term, preferring "observational documentary". In any case, the film eschews standard documentary tropes like a Narrator or Talking Heads, instead using a fly-on-the-wall technique to document what's happening.
    • Notably, there is zero attention given to student interactions with each other outside of class. The whole film is focused on the teacher-student relationship.
  • Epilogue Letter: The film ends with a teacher reading out for the students a letter from a former Northeast High student who has gone off to fight in Vietnam. The student in the letter says that if he's killed his insurance money can go to a college scholarship. The teacher then says, in the last line of the movie, "Now when you get a letter like this, to me it means that we are very successful at Northeast High School. I think you will agree with me." The message as framed by Frederick Wiseman seems to be that a young man going off to die in a Vietnamese rice paddy is the natural endpoint of the enforced conformity of high school.
  • High School: Yep! Apparently the teachers of Northeast High liked the film when they first saw it and didn't realize it was supposed to be a negative portrait of oppressive authority until they saw critics' reviews.
  • Instructional Film: There's a sex-ed movie played for girls. We see a surreal sequence in which the sex-ed movie demonstrates the effects of gonorrhea by showing a woman's ovaries and Fallopian tubes becoming grossly bloated.
  • Match Cut: A shot of a girl taking practice swings at a softball on a tee cuts to a worker in the cafeteria chopping meat.
  • Men Act, Women Are: The gynecologist giving a staggeringly inappropriate lecture to a hall full of boys about women's anatomy says "Nature sets us up so that the male is the aggressive and the female is the passive."
  • Round Hippie Shades: The one student who plays at rebelling against authority, calling Northeast High a "garbage can" for failing to engage with social injustices, is appropriately wearing tinted Lennon Specs.