Thursday, November 21, 2013

repleteness, or four minutes of Frederick Wiseman


         Initially, it seems we're supposed to be aghast that she's not teaching them Wordsworth or Tennyson. That might well have been Wiseman's intention, but the scene exceeds it. Sure, it's a hokey attempt to make poetry hip, and the prospect of her having them break the song down into "setting" and "thematic words" to determine what Simon and Garfunkel "want to say about our lives" is eye-roll material, and probably all too familiar to anybody who's taken English classes in an American public high school in the last 5 decades.*
         And yet the lyrics considered as poetry aren't all that bad, not outstandingly original by any means, but certainly possessing enough grist for a productive classroom discussion. Wiseman takes up the lyrics for his own purposes, to comment obliquely on the problems High School (1968) diagnoses. The many scenes where the faculty is too incompetent or mindlessly authoritarian to forge meaningful connections with the students are given an analogue in the the ennui and disconnection of the song's couple. Is the sum total of these students' experience in the public education system going to resemble that of an unfulfilling relationship, in which communication has degenerated to the level of such bourgeois banalities as "Is the theater really dead?" So we're still to some extent in the realm of critique. But when she starts up the tape recorder, the scene becomes, as do so many scenes in cinema that prominently feature a piece of pop music, about time. The most obvious cue is a closeup of a watch on a young man's arm, followed one cut later by the lyric "in syncopated time."**

         But time is also brought to mind by the succession of closeups, each an indelible snapshot of human beings existing at a particular moment. Of course that could be said of many scenes in High School, but the combination of elements here--the tender, slightly cornball tone of the song, the biting melancholy of its lyrics, how the closeups thrum with present-tense aliveness (the handheld camerawork slightly unsteady, most of the students in repose but never quite entirely still)--casts us--casts me, anyway--into the sort of reverie a certain Marcel would wholly endorse.

         And then, the song still going, we cut to a girl standing out in the empty hall: boredom, loneliness, dejection, abandonment. Or, alternately: that air of expectation that used to hang in spring gardens inhabited by nymphs and faeries, but is more often found today commingling with B.O. in the corridors of American high schools.

* While I'm absolutely in favor of nursing the critical and interpretive faculties of people from the earliest age possible, the way literature is usually taught in public schools is a bit like trying to do thoracic surgery with a buzzsaw. 
** Another resonance Wiseman plays with: the preceding lyrics "Like a poem poorly written / We are verses out of rhythm / Couplets out of rhyme" are not at all an inaccurate description of what it feels like to be your average sexually-hypertrophic adolescent spazoid.

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