In case you missed it on PBS last fall, High School II -- documentarian Frederick Wiseman's look at a secondary school in Spanish Harlem -- will be shown at Rice Media Center Thursday. Actually, everybody who depended on Houston's public TV outlet missed the latest offering from this pioneer of cinema verite, since, unlike the rest of the nation's PBS stations, KUHT/Channel 8 declined to broadcast it -- and still declines.
"I'm puzzled by this," Wiseman says from his office in Massachusetts. "I think the issues the film deals with -- the inner city, teachers, black and Hispanic students and families -- would be of interest to Houston. Rather than let people who watch public television make up their own minds, it's arbitrarily cut off."
Ken Lawrence, KUHT's director of programming, begs to differ. "I would not include it in prime time because of the language and mature subject matter," he says, explaining that the word "goddamn" doesn't trouble him so much, but "shit" gives him pause and "fuck" is problematic. These words are heard once or twice in the film. When told about this rationale, Wiseman laughs uproariously. "I would think," he says, "one or two people in Houston speak them on occasion."
But even if Lawrence could see his way around the language problem, High School II might still not make it to Houston's airwaves. The fact that the film is three hours and 40 minutes long also bothers him. KUHT, he says, is committed to local half-hour programming and the nightly half-hour business report; thus, two prime-time hours remain for other shows. And since Lawrence considers Wiseman "high-profile play," he feels the filmmaker should get only prime-time play -- though he does admit this puts High School II in a Catch-22: it's too troublesome for prime time but too important for other hours. Lawrence says KUHT has a three-year option on Wiseman's film and might show it yet, though one has to wonder how.
As the title suggests, High School II is Wiseman's return visit to secondary education. In 1968, he examined a suburban Philadelphia high school with an excellent reputation and found authoritarianism and volatile undercurrents. More than two decades later, Wiseman wanted to examine an inverse experience: at-risk urban education that ran counter to stereotype. So he took his camera to Central Park East Secondary School, an alternative, invitation-only public school in East Harlem. Some 90 percent of the students go onto four-year college. Its co-founder, Deborah Meier, whom the students call Debbie -- they call all faculty by their first names -- is so highly regarded that she's received a MacArthur Fellowship, one of the so-called "genius grants."
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But Wiseman doesn't tell us this. His films have no narration, no titles, no anything. He just watches, allowing his point of view to be expressed indirectly, through structure and editing. "I don't like to read a novel where I learn all about the characters in the first few paragraphs," Wiseman says. "I don't like to read non-fiction where the issues are laid out immediately. I place viewers in the middle of things." He spent six weeks at Central Park East, winding up with 110 hours of film. It took him ten months to condense his material.
What he ended up with is both engrossing and cause for optimism. A 15-year-old girl who's just had a baby meets with teachers, her family and the teenage father to ensure her successful return to school. Upperclassmen mediate conflicts between the youngsters who idolize them. There's an incisive class debate on immigration policy and a spirited critique of the American dream as depicted in A Raisin in the Sun. Teachers encourage acquiring "habits of mind," assess pedagogy, learn how to teach the proper use of a condom. Though the film's internal rhythm lags occasionally, and though Rice Media Center missed an opportunity by not showing the first High School for contrast's sake, High School II is still one of the cinematic events of the season.
High School II.
Directed by Frederick Wiseman. Plays at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 30 at Rice Media Center.