After more than a quarter century of filmmaking and more than two dozen films , documentarian Frederick Wiseman is entitled to make his films any way he wants , especially when he’s making them for his own company, Zipporah Films. Still, while his no-narration, no-interviews,
cinema verite style is effective, “High School II” suggests that some stronger editorial control might have been helpful. Nearly four-hour docu could be reduced to under two hours and attract notice on fest and arthouse circuits. As is, commercial and even PBS prospects are dim.
The title is something of an in-joke. Back in 1969, Wiseman did a documentary called “High School” about a lower-middle-class urban school. It ran all of 75 minutes. While the new film is also about a high school, there’s really no connection between the two films beyond the title.
“High School II” focuses on the students, teachers, staff and parents involved with the Central Park East Secondary School in New York City. Its inner-city public school students are given the opportunity to learn outside of traditional classroom settings, and the evidence Wiseman presents suggests that much of what they’re accomplishing is worth examining.
In one scene, a teacher leads a few students in a discussion of “King Lear.” Oneseems to be dozing and makes a careless remark about the play being “funny.” But Wiseman lets the camera roll, and we see the teacher encourage the student to elaborate on his remark. It turns out that he’s not out of it, but instead someone offering an insightful comment comparing the characters in “Lear” to a modern-day crime family and contrasting “Lear” with “Macbeth.”
There’s humor, too, from a raucous debate by students on immigration law, to teachers’ deadpan discussion of how to teach the proper use of condoms, complete with lifelike props. But there’s also repetition and dead spaces. Pic includes several student-teacher-parent conferences when one or two might have sufficed, and there are stories of disciplinary problems without any background or postscript, so we get only the middle of the story.
No doubt this is all intentional. It’s part and parcel of Wiseman’s patented style to show us everything a visitor to the school would see without further elaboration. But since even he must shape his work by choosing what to film and how to edit it together, providing a tighter film would make this more user-friendly without interfering with the style or content. In its present form , it feels more like a collection of everything Wiseman shot, with only the very beginning and very ending indicating any editorial control.
Hitchcock once observed that drama is life with the dull bits cut out. Wiseman’s film may be true to life by leaving all the dull bits in, but at 223 minutes, it’s asking a lot of an audience to stick it out.
Film bowed March 11 at the Cinema du Reel fest in Paris and will have its American debut at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on March 19.