'High School II' won't tell why you should watch

September 07, 1994|By Marc Gunther | Marc Gunther,Knight-Ridder News Service

Frederick Wiseman's "High School II," a documentary about a successful inner-city high school, has some wonderful moments. Now and again, it lights up with the excitement of learning, the connections that spark between teachers and students or the passion of committed parents. Here's a story that should inspire educators and parents.

Unfortunately, "High School II" does not tell that story very well. Instead, the camera records scenes which are pieced together, without narration, explanatory titles or even names to identify the characters. It's a very demanding film to watch.

That's a shame, because "High School II" has some valuable lessons. It's set at Central Park East Secondary School, an alternative high school in Manhattan that serves mostly minority and low-income students and sends 90 percent of its graduates to four-year colleges. "High School II" airs tonight on PBS (10 p.m. on channels 22 and 67).

Why make a three-hour film without narration, or even an introduction, to provide context? You can't blame Mr. Wiseman, who has employed the cinema verite method throughout a long, successful career. He's won critical acclaim and countless awards, not to mention a MacArthur "genius" grant. Mr. Wiseman and other filmmakers argue that the no-narration approach respects the intelligence of viewers and invites them to make their own judgments. In fact, this is a sequel of sorts to a much-praised 1968 film that exposed the stultifying atmosphere of a suburban Philadelphia school.

The problem, though, is that the lack of a narrative voice will needlessly put off many viewers. The first 10 to 15 minutes of Mr. Wiseman's film offer no enticement for viewers to stay tuned: They aren't told why they should care about this school or these students. There's no scene-setting, no hook, no drama, just a string of disconnected vignettes.

Someone -- an editor or a grant-giver or (dare we say it) a PBS executive -- should have suggested to Mr. Wiseman that, at the least, the film be given an introduction, to give audiences a reason to watch.

Gradually, though, the picture does take shape. We hear a school administrator explain the philosophy of the place, watch teachers prod their kids to focus, hear the principal counsel a 15-year-old girl who's just had a baby, eavesdrop on writing classes and parent conferences and hallway confrontations. By the midway point, viewers will marvel at the creativity of the staff and the resilience of the students.

But viewers should not be required to wait that long. Like the best teachers, this film needed to do more to reach out to its audience.

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