By Dan Spada
Frederick Wiseman‘s firmness in not situating himself as a cinéma vérité filmmaker is entirely justified, even though there are links to be drawn between the markers of that style of filmmaking and his oeuvre. A few ways in which his films, and in particular High School (1968), do not properly align with the stylistics of cinéma vérité include the lack, or subversion by interruptive focusing, of long takes and the strategic use of editing, used to narrative ends, both of which draw attention to the subjective structure inherent within all, but specifically, his exercises in non-fiction filmmaking. Bearing the absence of narration, the fly on the wall “observer” approach, and “intimate” involvement, Wiseman’s films still seem to actively self-define against a cinéma vérité deployment. Setting up the institution as the protagonist and emphasizing different relations of power, some entirely human, but both physical and psychical, Frederick Wiseman’s High School exposes its differences from the cinéma vérité school of filmmaking both aesthetically, as well as, by extension, rhetorically. Wiseman presents the viewer with an assortment of scenarios that show the functioning of different relations of power (teacher-student and individual-institution, among other more specific ones).
After bringing the viewer into the school, and then into the classroom, with a wealth of expressive close-ups in tow, Wiseman settles into multiple scenes of disciplinary action, enacted upon both male and female students. The character of Mr. Allen, both an arbiter of social control and a teacher, is introduced within the first few minutes and turns out to be the most prominent disciplinarian over the course of the film’s 75 minute running time. His various scenes include reprimanding a student for not wearing proper attire to a gym class, being the mediator between a student and his off-screen teacher that (misguidedly, in the student’s explanation) gave him a detention, and, finally, reprimanding and doling out a suspension to a student who has hit one of his peers. Just briefly describing Mr. Allen’s scenes with a few words gives the impression that the split between powerful and powerless is simple, but looking at the language of the filmmaking and the language of the social actors allows for a more complex interpretation.
The scene in which the student protests his assigned detention, like the rest of the film, does not include a direct (visually) or indirect (aurally) inclusion of the filmmaker. It is thus the viewer’s job to deconstruct the filmmaking techniques to come the best possible reading of the scene at hand. Also like the rest of the film, this scene does not hinge on an interview, archival material, or a reenactment, but exists as an everyday, unrehearsed reality (however selected by the director to be filmed and included in the final cut). The way in which Wiseman edits his shots together assists in the viewer’s reading of the characters and situations; the way he edits his scenes together is rather like the creation of a sandcastle, the building up of components to naturally make a cohesive whole in the end, instead of the collage-like compositions of non-fiction films classically defined as cinéma vérité. Wiseman’s editing, on both the small and the large scale, draws attention to itself.
The scene begins with a medium close up profile shot of Michael, the student who has defied his teacher by walking out of class after being wrongly accused, in his portrayal of the unseen situation, of goofing off, and then pans left and downward to Mr. Allen, who is seated.
The camera then pans back right and up to Michael, who explains his case, slowly zooming in so his head fills up the frame.
After Michael finishes speaking, the camera pans back down to Mr. Allen (maintaining the close up from the previous shot) saying that he showed poor judgment and that it is his job to respect and listen to someone older than him or in a seat of authority.
The camera pans back right and down – now Mr. Allen’s hand fills up the frame, holding a card over his desk with, presumably, the information regarding Michael’s incident. Mr. Allen references the card to go against Michael’s claim that he was not assigned a detention: he reads it, and the camera pans back over (right) and up to his face.
Michael explains that it was another teacher, Mr. Walsh, who assigned it to him, while the camera lingers on Mr. Allen’s face as he listens to Michael, and then the camera pans back over (left) and up to Michael. The camera then zooms in on Michael’s facial features. The extreme close up of his face is momentarily obscured by what looks like a bobbing head in the left hand corner of the frame.
The conversation shifts in tone at the moment of this close up. Michael’s defiance, emphasized by the extreme close up on the vector of expression (his mouth), is made clear. The camera pans back over (right) to Mr. Allen’s face, while he listens to Michael explain himself. Wiseman then cuts away to an insert – an extreme close up of Mr. Allen’s hands, with a class ring on his left hand ring finger. He puts the card down, picks up a pen, and folds his hands. The camera then cuts back to an extreme close-up of Michael’s face. The camera momentarily loses focus, quickly regains it, then zooms out a little so Michael’s head, with the exception of his hair, fills the frame.
Another shift in tone occurs: the camera cuts to an over the shoulder shot from behind Michael (who is not sitting), showing other bodies in the room as Mr. Allen goes off on how Michael should be a man and take orders. Wiseman then cuts to a shot, clearly not in sequence from the last one (the audio jumps to a whistle being blown), of a close-up of Michael’s face (not standing up), as he makes a plea for his principles. The camera then pans back down and over (right) to Mr. Allen as he repeats the line about Michael proving himself to be a man. The camera zooms in on an extreme close-up of Mr. Allen’s mouth. Wiseman cuts back to Michael, who is now standing with his left arm behind his back, clutching his right arm, listening to Mr. Allen. The camera cuts back to a close-up of Mr. Allen’s face as he implores Michael to take the detention, zooming out to a medium-close after a few seconds and then quickly panning back over (left) to Michael.
The viewer is on the cusp of an abrupt ending: the camera cuts back to a medium shot of Mr. Allen asking, finally, if Michael will take the detention, as the background noise of chatter increases in volume. The camera stays on Mr. Allen as Michael says he will take it under protest. An unmistakable smile runs across Mr. Allen’s face. The camera pans back over (left) to Michael one last time, as a girl walks across the bottom left hand corner of the frame and Michael confirms the details of his detention. Wiseman then swiftly cuts to a school authority walking down a hallway making sure that students are where they are supposed to be. Throughout the entirety of this successive sequence, the authority figure remains faceless, stalking the halls and students within them ever so aggressively. The transition from Mr. Allen and Michael’s dispute to this man’s disciplinary tactics is meaningful insofar as it shows two different kinds of power relationships within the same structure (teacher-student) and institution (the school).
The scene between Mr. Allen and Michael is just one in which Wiseman complicates the idea of his filmmaking being that of the cinéma vérité variety, pushing against the notion that there is anything but subjective cinema, even when it defines itself as documentary. He does this by using short, syncopated takes that emphasize certain aspects of a person or a setting and thus displaces common conceptions of power and power relations (Wiseman is in step with the intellectual leanings of Michel Foucault on this subject it seems). Mr. Allen could be seen as stepping in for society at large, in a way, teaching Michael the importance of compromising and its relation to the way we are seen as adults (rather than children, or students). Wiseman’s focus on Mr. Allen’s ring points to the possibility of a generationally-focused interpretation, one that relies on a certain passing down of ideas on character and specific values one should have. This student’s protest lays the foundation for what’s to follow, which Wiseman wisely builds on, the camera gazing over and into both interested and disinterested young faces, and across institutional landscapes and the people that run them.
About the writer: Dan Spada has a Bachelor’s Degree in Women Studies and Film from Hunter College. He currently works for Tribeca in the Acquisitions Department. Dan was on the Pre-screener Committee for the Hampton’s International Film Festival taking place this October (2014) and was on the selection committee for this year’s Rooftop Films Summer Series.