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High school transcendental

image: Departments headerHe was making documentaries when Ken Burns was in high school. Speaking of High School...  

Looking like Yoda at a Manhattan literary soirée, award-winning documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman appeared all eyes (deep--set and deeply hooded) and ears (elfin and acute). Seated before the fireplace in the Ida Noyes Library, the three-time Emmy winner was awaiting questions from a U of C audience, fresh from a Doc Films screening of his 1968 film, High School. The November 8 event coincided with his visit to campus as the 44th recipient of Chicago's Rosenberger Medal, awarded by the faculty. First given in 1944, the medal recognizes "achievement through research, in authorship, in invention, for discovery, for unusual public service, or for anything deemed to be of great benefit to humanity."

The Rosenberger criteria say nothing about humor, but High School evoked its share of laughs all evening. Many came in rueful recognition of long-ago styles (ironed hair, love beads, and a baggy one-piece gym uniform that I had almost managed to forget). The first question was from a young man who wondered if the film had evoked similar guffaws back in 1968, or if its humor was due to the passage of 31 years?

The answer began as a non-sequitur: "Several times during the shooting, I had to be taken to the local hospital to have sutures put in--after I bit through my tongue." The filmmaker held his deadpan expression until the first burst of laughter.

With that, the Q & A was off and running. How long does it take for Wiseman's subjects to get used to the filmmaker's presence? "It doesn't take any time at all," he said. "I always use material in each of the films that was shot the first day."

After Wiseman had shot "around 75 to 80 hours" of film at Philadelphia's Northeastern High, how did he begin editing the film down to its 75 minutes of running time? "The initial editing is done on the pleasure principle--what amuses or interest me," Wiseman replied, adding that "the basic technique of editing is to sit in the chair," immersed in the film and all its details, "till the movie's done."

And, said the man who has edited all of his own films--from 1967's Titicut Follies, about the treatment of mental patients at a Massachusetts facility, to a study of a small town, Belfast, Maine, due on PBS in February--he can't understand filmmakers who don't do the same: "What's helped me the most is editing the films myself. When I start a new movie, I can remember a type of shot I had trouble with in the last movie and take steps to avoid it."

Has he kept in touch with any one from High School? "I deliberately don't do that," he said. "I don't make a movie to make new friends. When it's done, I go off to make another movie."

How did his High School subjects feel about the way the film portrayed them? "The reason you can make these kind of films," Wiseman said, "is that most of us feel what we're doing is right." With High School, he admitted, "the teachers liked it when they first saw it. Then they read the reviews and decided they didn't like it anymore."

What's the medium's appeal? "I think I switched to film because I wasn't going to be a very good novelist," he said, then got serious. While critics call him a chronicler of institutions--high schools, prisons, ballet corps--he disagreed: "My subject is ordinary experience. Institutions just give me a way to look at ordinary experience in a confined time and space."

It's past 10 o'clock and time for the last question: Would Frederick Wiseman allow someone to make a documentary about his own life? "Absolutely not," the master responded with Yoda calm. "I know too much to allow anybody to make a movie about me." --M.R.Y.

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