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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

High School

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

I can’t tell you how many times a total stranger has approached me on the street and asked me, politely but firmly, “Dr. Jahnke, why doesn’t your beloved Bottom Shelf column appear on The Digital Bits as frequently as I, your loyal reader, would like?” Of course, the reason I can’t tell you is because this has never happened. Still, it’s a fair question and one that has plagued me far more than any essentially volunteer gig has a reason to.

There are plenty of reasons (or excuses, depending on how charitable you feel). I have a day job to answer to. It takes time to plow through all the extras and what-not on some of these discs. I have other writing projects cooking here and there. I make at least a feeble attempt at having a life outside of watching movie-films all day long. And years ago, I decided to build every column around reviews of multiple titles arranged by a sometimes-very-tenuous common theme. Many of those things I canít do anything about. That last one, I can.

As an experiment, Iím changing the format of The Bottom Shelf. Instead of clusters of reviews, each column will focus on just one title. The idea being that this will increase the frequency of the column to (ideally) weekly. Think of it as Dr. Jahnkeís Movie Oí the Week, although thatís not entirely accurate since TVD will continue to pop up from time to time. The title of the column will remain The Bottom Shelf, if for no other reason than Professor Bill Hunt spent almost five whole minutes designing the spiffy logo that adorns the top of the page and it would be a shame for all that effort to go to waste. Besides, the focus will remain on indie, culty, foreigny type discs. Sure, the odd A-Ticket ride will sneak through the cracks now and again (studios are insidious that way). Hell, Iíll probably even throw a few Blu-ray titles in every once in a while, bearing in mind that talking about technical stuff like audio and visual quality bores me quicker than televised golf. As always, what we talk about over in this corner of the Bits is the movie itself and, to a lesser extent, the goodies included on the disc. Iím not here to tell you if the latest high-def blockbuster will make your eyes bleed or simply bruise them. Iím here to talk about the movies themselves and hopefully once in a while steer you toward something you might have otherwise passed over. Sound good? If so, letís begin.

High School

High School
1968 Ė Zipporah Films

For years, Frederick Wiseman has been a filmmaker I’ve known by reputation only. He is widely considered to be one of the most important and influential documentary filmmakers of the past forty years. However, his films have often been difficult to find. Not impossible... Wiseman self-distributes his work and has made them available on home video for sale to libraries and schools over the years. But tracking them down did require a search. Wiseman’s Zipporah Films has at long last made his work available for sale to the general public on DVD. At present, approximately 25 of Wiseman’s films are available through www.zipporah.com, making these landmark works easier than ever to sample.

I started my exploration of the works of Frederick Wiseman with his second film, 1968’s High School. As the title leads you to expect, the film follows a typical American public high school, Northeast High in Philadelphia. As with all of his films, there is no narration, no narrative structure, no direct interviews with the people on camera. Rather, Wiseman unobtrusively lets his camera roll, capturing conversations, confrontations and everyday moments.

None of this is to say that High School is lacking drama or even objective. Sure, compared to the in-your-face style of Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, Wiseman seems as neutral as Switzerland. But he gets his point across by carefully choosing where to point his camera (pay particular attention to the many close-ups of hands and feet) and especially through incredibly skillful film editing. This is a story told as much through transitions between scenes as in the content of the scenes themselves.

Seen forty years later, High School stands as both a snapshot of a bygone time and a startling reminder of how little some things have changed. My own parents were graduating high school around the time this film was made and the yearbook pictures Iíve seen of them looked exactly like the kids we see here. Watching High School, I hoped I never made some snarky, angst-ridden teenage comment to them about how they didnít get what I was going through at the time, although Iím sure I probably did. Then, as in my day and Iím sure continuing today, we had authority figures running down kids in the hall and checking for passes. Thereís the vice-principal encouraging a student who feels he unjustly received detention to ďbe a manĒ and take the punishment. Thereís the droning English teacher and the would-be ďcoolĒ teacher attempting to relate to her students by playing a Simon & Garfunkel song as poetry.

On the other hand, there are moments that highlight the differences between the generations. I canít imagine a student at a public school today being told they canít attend the senior prom because they canít afford to rent a tuxedo or a girl being praised for her fashion design in class because her dress hides her ďweight problemĒ. Then too, there are situations facing todayís kids that the class of í68 couldnít begin to imagine. Even so, High School shows how the stage was being set for school violence even then, with adults not listening to the students in their care and creating an atmosphere that fails to encourage learning on even the most basic level. I also suspect that if an identical movie were made today, the students (and probably the faculty) would be more aware of the camera and more likely to ďperformĒ for it. There are moments in High School where students look directly into the lens but itís more of a confused glance than a stare. They know itís there, they know theyíre being filmed, but theyíre not sure why. People today still might not know why exactly theyíre on camera but they have a lot more awareness of what could happen with that footage, either in a film, on TV or the internet. In 1968, the cult of celebrity was still a number of years away from taking hold.

Like all of Zipporahís DVDs, High School is presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio with absolutely no extras. This is intentional and fully in keeping with Wisemanís approach to filmmaking. He believes his films should speak for themselves and viewers should draw their own conclusions about them. Disappointing for lovers of extra features perhaps but totally understandable given Wisemanís aesthetic.

High School is a fascinating documentary and ranks up there with Salesman as one of the most compelling non-fiction films Iíve seen. Iím looking forward to delving further into the work of Frederick Wiseman and you can expect reviews of more of his films here in the weeks to come.

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/B-/--


Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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