Frederick Wiseman makes movies for people who read into movies. His fascination with American institutions means that most professors should feel comfortable screening a Wiseman film for their class, assured that their students will take away a message or two since, well, you’ll either learn or sleep when watching a movie called High School. You learn a great deal from Wiseman’s deconstruction of public secondary education — far more than a draconian or worse, boring teacher might want you to. To glean something from High School, you must take an active role while watching it. As a result, High School not only heightens your awareness of the flaws in a school you went to or currently attend; it implants its messages into the very construction of the film, teaching you how to unpack it as you do the unpacking.
If you ride passively along with the film for its first few minutes, you have little choice but to take action once the girls in gym dance to “Simple Simon.” These medium-to-close shots of girls from the waist down are uncomfortable, to say the least. They fixate on the gyrations of these girls without affording the slightest glimpse of their faces — textbook misogyny, you know. A modern viewer may be tempted to call out Wiseman as a chauvinist on the evidence of these shots alone, but first consider the rest of the movie he builds around this awkward interlude.
The shot immediately prior to the gym dance is of a hall monitor, whose back we only see in a sustained, handheld tracking shot. You do not see his face, either, but Wiseman gives us a sense of his lumbering physique as he prowls around the halls and makes quibbles with loitering students. He walks toward the gym doors and looks through their window, when Wiseman cuts to the girls dancing. That cut implies the shots following belong to the hall monitor’s point of view, yet Wiseman does not personalize the hall monitor in any way — withholding his name, as is typical for Wiseman, and hiding his face, which is not — so he stands in, instead, as a manifestation of the school’s male authority. Wiseman does not so much accuse that individual hall monitor of peeping on female students as call out the entire male-centered educational system for seeing the girls under its care through that inappropriate, objectified lens.
As Wiseman stresses, however, the system in place only works because the women in control have bought into it, too. The “Simple Simon” scene foregrounds the matter of adolescent female sexuality, so that we keep it in mind. Just a couple minutes later, Wiseman shows us an older woman lecturing girls about fashion, posture and body image, or, rather, insulting every one of them for falling short of her idealized, depersonalized standards. With close-ups on her face, in contrast to long shots of the silent girls, Wiseman lets us witness the confidence and shocking disregard for self-reflection that characterizes an influential female administrator in public high school. She is supposed to be a role model for the girls under her stead, girls who, like their male peers, have not developed the critical facilities just yet to take their teacher’s words with a grain of salt, or, better yet, start a feminist revolution.
In their place, Wiseman applies a discerning, critical eye onto the happenings in high school, where bad teaching leads to harmful conditioning, societal injustice and deep-seated unhappiness. It says a lot of good that, in 2014, we laughed at the fashion show rehearsal. Wiseman and the rest of the world’s progressive filmmakers, writers and thinkers have done a good job indoctrinating us into questioning indoctrination.