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Film 50: History of Cinema

Wednesday, April 15, 2009
3:00 p.m. High School
Frederick Wiseman (U.S., 1969)

Lecture by Marilyn Fabe


Special admission prices apply: General admission, $11.50; BAM/PFA members, $7.50; UC Berkeley students, $5.50; Seniors, disabled persons, UC Berkeley faculty and staff, non–UC Berkeley students, and youth 17 and under, $8.50.

“Establish that you can be a man and take orders,” the dean of discipline at Philadelphia's Northeast High admonishes a student hauled into the office for a minor infraction. At this middle-class, mostly white school, obedience to authority is lesson number one. Taken on its release in 1969 as an anti-Establishment cry against institutional conformity, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary has acquired added resonance with age; more than thirty years later, educational methods may have changed, but the expressions of dreary futility on the students’ faces are still uncomfortably familiar. Meanwhile, Wiseman shows a chilling historical reality encroaching on the school’s closed system. A collage on a classroom wall is labeled “Our Troubled World”; a teacher reads aloud a letter from a former student who has learned to be a man and take orders in Vietnam: “I am only a body doing a job,” he writes. The teacher glows, “To me this means we are very successful.”

—Juliet Clark

• Photographed by Richard Leiterman. (75 mins, B&W, 16mm, From Zipporah Films)