Frederick Wiseman Joseph Featherstone - Essay

Joseph Featherstone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frederick Wiseman's remarkable documentary film, High School, is worth seeing. For it shows that our most serious educational problems aren't only in slum schools. What people think of as the good schools are failing their children, too….

[Wiseman] sets out to portray a reputable high school, not a blackboard jungle. High School suggests no remedies. In words alone, its message can be reduced to a string of cliches: the schools are authoritarian, repressive, and so on. On film—on this film, anyway—the cliches take on density and complexity, carrying us beyond slogans into artistic truth. Scene after scene builds to a powerful cumulative effect—not of anger, but of immense sadness and futility: this is how we live. High School is an essay on emptiness.

Though far from sympathetic, the camera eye is not cruel. The teachers seem decent and well-meaning. What they say doesn't matter much. What counts are the numbing lessons the whole institution is teaching its students about themselves and life. (p. 28)

All hopes and dreams are dented, those of parents as well as students. I felt tugged in different directions watching an interview between some parents and a counsellor. The regal father is ambitious for his daughter, perhaps too ambitious…. [Why], one wonders, is the message at Northeast [High School] so insistent, and why is there so much bitter joy in the work of denial?...

(The entire section is 599 words.)