For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

The World of Wiseman: “High School” (1968)

The first in a continuing series on the films of Frederick Wiseman.
"On the night of December 6th, police shot 15-year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in cold blood in the Eksarhia district of Athens. Since that night, Athens and tens of other Greek cities have been burning."
- "What this blog is about" December 8, 2008, On The Greek Riots
"Society does have a way to take care of regular responsible stable unions. I think promiscuity is what any society cannot tolerate."
- The girls' Sex Ed teacher, on marriage, in Frederick Wiseman's High School
"Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process." - Stanley Milgram, "The Perils of Obedience"
I have only seen one film by Frederick Wiseman, 1968's High School, his second feature film as director after Titicut Follies. Wiseman profiles Philadelphia's Northeast High School solely by observing the interactions between students and teachers, and creates a portrait of the way power works in the modern educational factory.

Wiseman uses the observational aesthetic of 'direct cinema' to explore the interpersonal components of power. He captures and selects the moments in which the institutional aparatus of control and training is caught in motion, as executed by individuals in positions of authority. His camera watches students in their interactions with teachers or deans, but almost nothing else. Students interact with each other incidentally if at all; faculty members never consult or converse. Wiseman leaves out the details of how the power-system comes to be, and focuses entirely on its execution. Wiseman also catches the first few cracks in the system's completeness - the moments when students relate to their elders as human beings rather than children.
Throughout most of human history, authority and oppression were easily personified. To the early Greeks, tyrants offered release from the rule of kings - the Greek word τύραννος [tyrannos / tyrant] describes a ruler who comes to power by his own means rather than through hereditary or constitutional power. 'Tyrant' is a descriptive term but not a judgmental one. Hereditary power operated without the need for popular support; tyrants frequently seized power behind a wave of populism. Tyranny represents the first stirrings of the democratic impulse, but falls prey to the same demons of power as kingship. The shift towards a re-established δημοκρατία [dimokratia / democracy] under Cleisthenes was matched by an anti-tyrannical rhetoric that shifts the meaning of 'tyranny' toward our current definition (see: the valorization of Harmodius and Aristogeiton in statue form, in song, and in the Cult of the Tyrannicides). 'Tyranny,' though, in this late Greek sense, does not disappear even in the post-Athenian 'democracies'; it becomes many-headed as it grows more diffuse. Hydra-power replaces autocracy. Cut off one head and two grow back in its place.
Wiseman's direct cinema is a form of sociological examination. By showing how institutions function, his films are an implicit indictment of the oppressive nature of institutions in general and in their specific forms. Each of the scenes in High School works independently as this sociological examination, and added up they create a broader portrait of the way this oppression is executed and received by participants in the institution. But what's most interesting to me about Wiseman's formal choices is the use of juxtaposition to create a sort of narrative progression between scenes. Each scene adds a new dimension of understanding to what we've already seen, a fuller portrait of the methods and limits of power's place in the school's system. As the film progresses, these limits become more clear, and High School becomes a work of history that explores the methods of institutional power in a time and place. A film about a mostly conservative American high school in 1968 can't help but capture a world on the cusp of irrevocable changes that even the changers can't quite imagine. But we should also remember that the institution itself will adapt to the new world and discover new ways to project its systems of control.
Harvard psychologist Herbert Kelman splits social influence into three main types. Identification is conforming to someone liked and respected. Compliance consists of public conformity that does not change one's core beliefs; internalization is both a public and private conformity. A question: Is education the use of compliance to create internalization?
The Dean: "I'm sick and tired of you talking."
The Dean: "We'll determine whether you take exercise or not... We'll determine that."
The Dean: "No one's gonna put you in an uncompromising position."

The burgeoning independence of the high school student requires a new form of power to replace the adult-child power dynamic. One must teach young adults to play by a set of systemic rules; the locus of power shifts from the individual (parents, teachers) to the society (rules, conditions, expectations). Identification and authority are replaced by compliance and internalization. Power becomes spectral, diffuse - and omnipresent.
"[...] if I use my age, my social position, the knowledge I may have about this or that, to make you behave in some particular way—that is to say, I'm not forcing you at all and I'm leaving you completely free—that's when I begin to exercise power. It's clear that power should not be defined as a constraining act of violence that represses individuals, forcing them to do something or preventing them from doing some other thing. But it takes place when there is a relation between two free subjects, and this relation is unbalanced, so that one can act upon the other, and the other is acted upon, or allows himself to be acted upon.
Therefore, power is not always repressive. It can take a certain number of forms. And it is possible to have relations of power that are open."


"Relations of power are not in themselves forms of repression. But what happens is that, in society, in most societies, organizations are created to freeze the relations of power, hold those relations in a state of asymmetry, so that a certain number of persons get an advantage, socially, economically, politically, institutionally, etc. And this totally freezes the situation. That's what one calls power in the strict sense of the term: it's a specific type of power relation that has been institutionalized, frozen, immobilized, to the profit of some and to the detriment of others."
The Protesting Student

The Dean: "When you're being addressed by someone older than you or in a seat of authority, it's your job to listen."
Student: "I don't feel that I have to take anybody screaming at me for nothing."
The Dean: "there's a point to that, but in the meantime..."
The Dean: "We're gonna have to establish that you can be a man, that you can take orders."
Student: "It's against my principles, you have to stand for something."
The Dean: "Yes but I think that, principles aren't involved here... I think it's a question now of uh, of uh proving yourself to be a man, it's a question here of how do we follow the rules and regulations. [...] And I think that you should prove yourself, you should show that you can take a detention when given it."
Student: "I should prove that I'm a man and that's what I intend to do by doing what I feel in my opinion is what I am doing is right."
The Dean: "Are you gonna take a detention or aren't you? I feel that you should."
Student: "I'll take it, but under a protest."
The Dean: "Alright then [smiles], you'll take it under protest, that's good."
Student: "Today?"
The Dean: "Yes I'd like you to take it today."
Student: "Today after school."
The Dean: "Yes."
Student: "Alright, what room, 120?"
The Dean: "118."
Student: "Alright."

This smiles happens almost instantaneously, quickly stifled. A flash of power's force -- A joy at its wielding. A laughing inevitability of control, a burst of power-jouissance.
Interpersonal mechanisms of socialization are also institutional ones -- and vice versa.
Principal: "Its nice to be individualistic, but... there are certain places to be individualistic."
Student: "I'm not trying to be individualistic..."
Principal: "No, I'm not criticising..."
1968: A Partial Timeline
March 8 - Warsaw
1,500 students protest the communist government's ban of Adam Mickiewicz's play Dziady from its performance run at The Polish Theater in Warsaw. Police and communist party "worker-squads" attack the students; within four days protests and mass student strikes spread across Poland. Thousands of students are expelled, and nearly 3,000 arrested, over the coming weeks.

March 17 - London
A demonstration in Grosvenor Square against U.S. involvement in Vietnam leads to violence; 91 are injured, 200 demonstrators arrested.

March 19–23 - Washington, D.C.
Students at Howard University stage rallies, protests and a 5-day sit-in, laying siege to the administration building, shutting down the university in protest over its ROTC program, and demanding a more Afrocentric curriculum.

March 22 - Nanterre, France
Daniel Cohn-Bendit and 7 other students occupy the administrative offices of the University of Nanterre.

April 23–30 - New York
Student protesters at Columbia University take over administration buildings and shut down the university.

May 6 - Paris
20,000 students, teachers, and supporters march on the Sorbonne, which had been closed by the government. Police charge wielding batons; students hold them off and set up barricades before police charge again and arrest hundreds. Within a week, students would retake the Sorbonne and establish an autonomous "People's University." By the end of the month, 10 million workers across France - 2/3 of the French work force - would be on strike, in solidarity with the students and each other, demanding fundamental changes to the position of the worker - rather than just an increase in wages.

October 2 - Tlatelolco, Mexico City
After 9 weeks of student strikes, 15,000 students march through the streets of Mexico City to protest the army's occupation of the university campus. 5,000 students and workers congregate in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco for a peaceful rally. At sunset, police and military forces equipped with armored cars and tanks surround the square and begin firing live rounds into the crowd, hitting protestors and innocent bystanders. The killing continues throughout the night.
The specter of Vietnam:

A soldier returned from duty in Vietnam speaks with a former coach about other classmates turned soldiers. In the background, students exercise.

This film is made in 1968, but the students seen thus far seem almost relics of a late-'50s conservatism. The rebellions of students seem minor - a debate over detention, or over the length of a dress.
A teacher asks his class how many of them would join a club that had 'negro' members. All raise their hands, at different speeds. One young man towards the back of the classroom along the wall waits a bit longer than the others.
This teacher then asks how many would join a club that had a majority of 'negro' members. Again, everyone raises their hands. Most do so more slowly than the last time. This boy along the wall is the last to raise his hand. He waits so long that it seems he will not do so. He is not considering the question, but considering the right answer. Not as his teacher sees it, but as viewed by his peers.

In nearly the next scene, a group of students discuss the flaws of Northeast HS. They complain about conformity in the student body and the pressures to conform coming from the faculty. One mentions being told by a Dean that he didn't look like a "Northeaster." These students are the only ones in the film with long hair, who wear beaded necklaces, who express physical affection. It is the only group in the film that contain any non-white faces. They are the only students in the film who express actual opinions, who speak like adults, who talk to their faculty advisor like an equal.
Principal, to a student's father: "You cannot impose preconceived values and dreams on an individual."

How strange to hear that from a school official in this film!

And yet -- an obvious confirmation of the school as the primary locus of power, enforcement, and values.
In the absence of internalization, might compliance be only a temporarily sufficient means of keeping a society's rules intact?

Sic semper tyrannis.

"Daytime in Athens was relatively calm. High school students attacked, once again, the riot police units outside the parliament on Syntagma Square. Eksarhia, through which we walked during the day, resembled a battlefield in limbo: burnt cars blocking off its main streets; Stournari Ave is completely smashed up, barricades constantly burning across it.
"A beautiful slogan is echoing across the city: “ο λαός θα πεί την τελευταία λέξη/ αυτές οι νύχτες είναι του αλέξη” - “the people will have the last word/ these are Alexis’ nights"."
- "#4, 18.52: ATHENS - "These are Alexis' nights"" December 9, 2008, On The Greek Riots

Great piece.
I just received my copy of Wiseman’s Missle in the mail yesterday. I’ve never had the chance to see any of his films, although I have read a transcript T. Follies. Looking forward to Missle.
Great analysis. One of my favorite films.
The birth control lecture: “It’s a medicine you take according to a prescription. You must obtain them from a doctor, and you take them just as you do any other medicine; regularly and continuously. You have had practice at controlling your feelings and impulses ever since you’ve been a baby. By the time you get to be a high school senior you don’t eat all the chocolate cake you want to because you don’t want to get fat. You do your homework whether you want to or not, and you take your college boards even if you don’t feel like it that day. You don’t walk into a Strawbridge’s and steal dresses off the rack. There is no better answer: you have learned by now as part of being human that you can’t have what you want when you want it. The girls who haven’t learned that and the boys are impulsive and they never connect what they’re doing today with what happens tomorrow.”

Please to add a new comment.

Previous Features