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Filmic Texts and the Rise of the Fifth Estate

Virginia Kuhn, Author

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Cinema Verite: High School

In Film Art: An Introduction, a staple in undergraduate film studies classes, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson discuss the early impact of advances in recording equipment on the field of documentary filmmaking. Magnetic tape allowed sound to be recorded on location, and high quality lightweight 16 mm cameras allowed the type of portability to capture events in the field. Documentary film became far less staged, and "cinema verite" arose, its proponents claiming to be capturing a reality that is unmediated by the camera or the filmmaker. The long continuous shots, paired with the synchronous sound recording seemed to render a neutral record of events. By way of example, Bordwell and Thompson discuss an early example of the genre: High School was filmed in 1968 by Frederick Wiseman and consists of scenes of "typical" high school life in the wake of social upheavals of the Viet Nam war.  Bordwell and Thompson analyze the formal elements of the film and discuss its reception which, they note, was polarized.

The film is not a straightforward narrative in that the events shown are not chronological. In the opening scene, the camera films from the inside of cars and buses approaching the school, though it is uncertain whose point of view we are witnessing. The next scene is clearly a homeroom class meeting so it seems safe to say the day is beginning. From there on, however, there is no clear sense of time but only mini scenes of high school life such as band practice, Spanish class, parents interacting with school administrators, staff meetings, and, finally, the last scene features a teacher reading a letter to an assembly of what appear to be teachers and administrators. There is no voiceover, nor are there subtitles to signify times, dates or any specifics of the activities captured. These formal qualities produce the appearance of an unmediated depiction of reality. Bordwell and Thompson use High School as an example of cinema vérité since the film is made up of seemingly innocuous moments in high school--a day in the life--however, there is no way that all the events that occur could have happened in a single day. As such, the film consists of a composite of events that Wiseman wants to show and the choices are quite deliberate. Bordwell and Thompson explain that when the Philadelphia Board of Education viewed High School, many officials praised it as a testament to the efficacy of public education, while critics saw the film as an indictment of this school in particular, and secondary education in general (414). Bordwell and Thompson speculate that these mixed reactions are due to the film's ambiguity and the fact that there are several meanings within. Their analysis, the authors argue, can be used as support for the critics' negative response.

Bordwell and Thompson remark upon the fact that High School's segments never include students talking with other students, nor do its scenes show students at home or with their parents. There are parents present, but only in the context of concerns with the school, and these concerns are consistently shown being neutralized at the hands of authoritarian administrators. Nearly every scene concentrates on the regimented nature of the situation, whether in a physical education or a literature class. Drill style education is pictured. For example, one scene shows a teacher reading a poem but the student discussion that ostensibly follows, is cut. Teachers are shown diffusing confrontation by flattering or cajoling students in a benevolent yet dictatorial way; rules are rules after all.

Bordwell and Thompson use reproductions of shot breakdowns to show how the formal elements serve their analysis. For instance, these stills become evidence that teachers, when not shown in full body-length shots, are shown as heads, faces or hands. These close shots featuring heads or hands makes clear that they are the ones who think, speak, and act in the world of the film and, by extension, in the world of the school. Their authority is secure. If teachers are shown as"heady," students are shown as legs and torsos--compliant bodies. Bordwell and Thompson add these stills which, they contend, typifies representations of students, who are anonymous and disconnected body parts. One student stands for any and all students (410-413).

It is not so much the analysis that concerns me here, as the way the analysis is actualized. As Bordwell and Thompson note, members of the Board of Education changed their view from seeing the film as flattering the school district, to damning it, and this change was sparked by their exposure to critics' analyses. We can assume then, that laypeople were not adept at such analysis, at least in the 1960s; the ability to critically engage this film was confined to experts. Nor could a layperson easily even makes this argument. The stills included in Film Art, though grainy, are not easily integrated into a book. There are technical, economic and legal considerations.  As such, this type of analysis has been confined to a limited number of authoritative publications.

Digital affordances, however, disrupt authoritative readings as they increasingly allow individuals to launch an argument using the segments of the film itself as evidence. So, for instance, one can use this image of a teacher shown as a disconnected body part to counter Bordwell and Thompson's point that depictions of teachers are heady while students are shown as mere fragmented bodies. Shots like this one show students as heady too, complicating their analysis further. Moreover one can add this clip from the film which has been ripped and 'cited' in this space, using screen capture applications, the Internet Archive or Critical Commons to host the video, and the affordances of this platform, Scalar, in which this argument is created. In this way, the possibilities for sustained and nuanced scholarship are expanding greatly. 

These possibilities also mean that in the digital world, it is not enough to read filmic texts in order to be fluent or literate in the language of images, any more than understanding a second language renders one fluent. One must be able to both read and write with the registers of text, image and sound that combine to form the language of filmic texts. And this fluency is an increasingly urgent concern as footage is remixed and recontextualized, rendering an increasingly complex visual and aural syntax, one that is quite difficult to grasp without sustained inquiry and engagement.
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