Film: Double Bill, Jim McKay, Director of `Girls Town', on his Ideal Cinematic Pairing

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The Independent Culture


FREDERICK WISEMAN is a documentary film-maker who has completed about 30 films, making one a year. High School is his second film, a portrait of a Pennsylvania school. High School 2 is a different school in New York. Back to back you can see how society has changed over the last 20 years. They make sense together. Wiseman's goal is to make portraits of modern institutions; the police, public housing, the opera. It's totally free of narration or interviews and never has a story yet is constructed with a definite dramatic arc.

At the Sixties high school you see very authoritative staff. It was during the Vietnam war and we see the efforts of the staff to teach conformity. For instance, a woman teacher is demonstrating proper posture to the girls and how to be good wives and their response is deadpan. There is another great scene with a "hip" teacher playing Simon and Garfunkel, emotionally using the songs to illustrate poetry, symbolism and metaphor. She is making this real effort to connect with the kids who are as bored as they were when being taught poise. It's the Eighties in High School 2 and everything is turned around. The teachers are anti-authoritarian. In the earlier documentary a child would be reprimanded, but in this film a guidance counsellor tries to understand the child.

Wiseman goes in to the institution, doesn't study or scout it out, shoots for a month and then puts the film together. He has become brilliant at sussing out the right moment. Feature film-makers can learn a great amount from his work. We are immune to controversy of any substance these days. When television and magazines take care of the debates and diversionary topics of the week, it is pretty difficult to create something of substance that is smart, deep and will cause a stir. The good thing about Wiseman's films is they play on public television and millions of people see them. Wiseman is non-judgmental; his films don't jump out with a statement, although if you watch closely you can figure out where he stands. Viewers always want him to come out and say, "The guidance counsellor was wrong". Instead it's a challenging presentation to the viewer. His objectivity has developed over a lifetime of working. His work is an invaluable historical document. For me he is the principal documentarian of our country.