Titicut Follies surveyed the human body in panic; the body, in Frederick Wiseman's follow-up, is the edifice, for a further literalization of Robin Wood's term for Franju ("terrible buildings"). "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" guides traveling shots to Northeast High, Philadelphia, for another societal deconstruction through an institution -- education as the molding (or draining, rather) of personality for the outside world, both teachers and students locked in the assembly-line process, one assuring the other that "there are places to be individualist." The camera sticks tightly to the clash between pimply teen and beefy dean, who wants "to establish you can be a man and that you can take orders"; elsewhere, a Spanish lecture on "existentialista" Sartre, and the advisor telling parents of the dangers of "imposing preconceived values and dreams on an individual." Is it any wonder that thick, horn-rimmed glasses are an insistent component of the grainy compositions? Myopia may be rampant, though the goal of school is crystal-clear: the grooming of individuals for the established societal norms, social and sexual. Diagonal focus shifts from one busy typewriter to another as the timer ticks away, lessons on feminine poise amount to a blunt geisha class, gym warm-up scored to "Simon Says," the auditorium pep-talk for the girls on birth-control pills rhymed later with the ad-libbing gynecologist ("Virginity is a state of mind," to the boys' applause). Vietnam hovers in the wings, so, when "Casey at the Bat" can be leeched off its vigor, the system becomes bent on turning a student into no more than a "body doing a job," a letter from a stationed soldier read by the principal, her beau-travail beaming providing the last stinger. Charlie Brown pinned to a gym board and doting over Simon & Garfunkel ("The poet is Simon") signal that it is 1968, but Wiseman's view extends to the John Hughes oeuvre and the haunted halls of Van Sant's Elephant, monitors and bullies and nerds and rallies recorded while the zoom, still free from the documentary's professed neutrality, locates fidgeting fingers, and minds. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce