Jul 13, 2018

Review of Frederick Wiseman's "High School" (1969) and Jean-François Caissy's La Marche à Suivre (2014)

I am a teacher, so I am familiar with the strained relationship students sometimes have with authority. And most teachers - especially the best ones - are in tune with this tension between youth and adult, between power, and submission, obedience, and freedom.  However, taking a psychological view, High School is also an exciting time where teenagers are becoming self-reflective, and the adults in the room have a front row seat to their pupils' on-going development. I use the word becoming on purpose. Adolescence is messy progress.


La Marche à Suivre (2014)

High School (1969)


The two movies strike me as one of the best documents of the high school experience. The first, High School, made in 1968 (but released in 1969) by American nonfiction filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, and the second, La Marche à Suivre (Guidelines), a newer movie made in 2015 by Canadian filmmaker Jean-François Caissy, both lay claim to the goal of capturing in observational style the developmental psychology of youth and the educational pedagogies that have since developed to tame said youth. 

Reflecting on Authority and Innocence

For example, in Wiseman's High School, a young girl is in the disciplinarian's office with her mother. Apparently, there was a disruption in the classroom that warranted a conference. The girl is adamant that she did nothing wrong, that she was just "messing around". The girl repeats this phrase several times, "just messing around". The adults in the room pick up on this repetition and they prod the girl to explain what exactly she meant by "messing around". Did she mean innocent talking and having fun with her friends, or did she mean something more like "throwing a book across the classroom"? Do both constitute "messing around"?

Watching the scene, especially because Wiseman does not give narration, nor does he answer questions about what actually happened (for example, who were the other kids involved, and did anyone get seriously hurt), it is the viewer's job to piece together the scene based on the images and dialogue presented. The girl's body language shows she feels she is in the right and the adults are in the wrong, but paradoxically I felt like you could also detect that she was both relieved and exasperated by the adult intervention. It is characteristic of young adults. Even when they know they are wrong, or sense that their logic does not make sense, they are loath to admit it. But at the same time, young people crave guidance and awkwardly appreciate it when adults give them the chance to process difficult emotions.

Two Movies Aligned in Their Respective Projects

In 2015, I saw La Marche à Suivre (Guidelines). These two films are aligned in their respective projects. While Wiseman's theme seems to be the way in which societal structures form a citizenry through authority, Caissy's theme seems to be the way in which adults subtly guide young people to reflect on their actions. I saw Caissy's film first. Only recently (this week, in fact, on my Kanopy account),  did I see the Wiseman movie. Unconsciously, I must have had Caissy's movie in mind when I saw the Wiseman movie so I will admit that Caissy's film has guided my interpretation of the former. Or, better yet, Wiseman's movie prefigures the themes of Caissy's movie.

I often hear adults who are a couple or triple generations older than me complain that "back in the day" teachers had more respect than they do now. But, if you watch Wiseman's movie, you can see that teachers were given respect, but society was also different. Societal structures gave teachers a role that was radically different than the role teachers have today. It was expected that teachers in 1968 scold kids for not wearing the proper dress size, or that a classroom of teenagers would sit quietly through a teacher's reading of "Casey at the Bat." Teachers were meant to be shapers of conscience and models for human behavior. Sure. This idea still holds sway today. Teachers are supposed to be role models but have you ever noticed it seems as if the public pays attention to teachers only when they are not fulfilling their teacherly duties?

Subtle Differences Between Both Movies 

There are differences between the two films that are noteworthy. Caissy chose a Quebecois school, that is fairly rural There are scenes of kids being bussed in from different parts of the region. The school is vast and non-personal. The cogent moments for me are in closed-off rooms with no windows where educators try to talk kids through their boredom and delinquency. Distinct from Wiseman's film, we see the kids outside of school too - the camera follows them from their hallway to nearby railroad trestles, where kids climb and do other dangerous activities. There is a long shot of a boy waiting for his bus to come that brings into focus Caissy's project. It is a banal scene - waiting for the bus. But the kid in question is palpably filled with anxiety and boredom. He cannot sit still and the downtime the bus wait affords him is too much.

Time stretches differently for adolescents. Without money to make, or mouths to feed, time seems to stretch on forever and often life appears to not make sense. The boredom can be intense and Caissy is careful to depict what this boredom looks like by elongating time - the boy waiting for the bus is increasingly bored, and starts to pick up rocks and throw them into the street.

The two films, if seen back to back, seem to show two problems. First, Wiseman presents a school system full of authority, but devoid of substance. Second, Caissy presents a school system full of kids with unbounded energy, but devoid of purpose and meaning. The reason teachers are viewed as inept today is that they have been stripped twofold - both of their power and their capacity to shape and mold, and secondly their ability to fill the hearts of the young with something meaningful. 

Nonfiction Movies Document What They See

If you look to both of these movies to provide answers, then you'll be disappointed. Neither Caissy nor Wiseman are prescriptive filmmakers. They do not try to fix problems, but by staking out a subject and staying put (and with some miracle work in the editing room), they document what they see. And for that, both films are worth watching.





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