DocTalk: Geniuses, collectors, and tell-all films

A still image from Frederick Wiseman’s “High School II.”
Zipporah Films
A still image from Frederick Wiseman’s “High School II.”

To complement Frederick Wiseman’s presentation of the Norton Lectures in Cinema (Jan. 29 and Feb. 5), the Harvard Film Archive will be highlighting the great documentarian’s films in a partial retrospective that runs Friday through Feb. 18. 

Kicking things off is a screening of “High School” (Friday at 7 p.m.), Wiseman’s follow-up to his notorious “Titicut Follies” (1967), which was about abuses at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater. This 1968 film takes up a subject that is less sensationalistic, but in some ways equally grim. North East High School in Philadelphia was ranked one of the nation’s best at the time, but Wiseman’s insistent camera reveals a system of regimentation that has reduced the students to ineffective resentment or bored apathy. It’s a still timely insight into some of the origins of 1960s repression and rebellion.

More than 25 years later, in 1994, Wiseman returns to the same subject with a more optimistic outlook in “High School II” (Saturday at 7 p.m.). New York City’s Central Park East Secondary School offers an alternative to the rote, soul-killing regimen seen in the previous film. Here independent thought and opinions are encouraged, students’ individual needs are given personalized attention, and a multiracial, multicultural student body coexists in peace and mutual support even in the wake of the incendiary Rodney King outrage.


Wiseman visits a care-giving institution in 1969’s “Hospital” (Friday at 9 p.m.) that is in many ways the antithesis of the horror-show exposed in “Titicut Follies.” Metropolitan Hospital in New York City faces the challenges of many such urban facilities — insufficient resources to deal with the trauma, addictions, neglect, and ill health of its mostly poor patients — with determination, skill, and compassion. But Wiseman does not fail to underscore that these heroic professionals persevere despite a society that has discarded its most vulnerable, oppressed, and wounded members.

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Meanwhile, the 88-year-old Wiseman in an act of artistic largesse has made his entire catalog available for free to anyone with a library card via the online free streaming site Kanopy (

“I am very pleased that my films are going to be more widely available to universities and public libraries as a result of the recent Zipporah Films-Kanopy partnership to distribute my 40 documentaries,” said Wiseman. “Kanopy is a valuable educational resource that will bring my films to the attention of a new and expanded audience.”

For more information go to

Collection’ notice 

They might not be as significant as the lost films found in Bill Morrison’s “Dawson City: Frozen Time,” but the treasures that DJ Ginsberg and Marilyn Wagner discovered in an antique store in Omaha, Neb. — 40,000 printer blocks and 20,000 printer plates used to create newspaper ads for almost every film released from the silent period to 1984 — offer their own glimpse into cinema history.

Local filmmaker Adam Roffman tells their story in the oddly haunting short documentary “The Collection.” He also shows many of these artifacts in a montage: it’s a whirlwind tour of film releases ranging from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) to “Blade Runner” (1982). It takes a moment to identify the movies, whose titles and text and with classic advertising graphics are reversed in mirror images, and that enhances the magic. But the lingering response is nostalgia, as Roffman captures the concreteness and delicacy of these objects that are just another victim of the digital age.


And in case you have a museum where you might be interested in displaying them, the estimated price is around $10 million.

“The Collection” can be streamed online at

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The fire this time

Many authors are regarded as geniuses, but few attain the status of prophet. In Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated “I Am Not Your Negro” (2016), the late James Baldwin can be seen to possess that quality. Peck brings to life the words of the author of such landmark books about America’s racial divide as “The Fire Next Time” through archival footage of talk-show interviews and public appearances and readings from his works by Samuel L. Jackson. Based in part on Baldwin’s unfinished book about Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. — civil rights icons (and personal friends) who were all assassinated in the 1960s — the film draws its power from the intensity and suffering expressed in Baldwin’s voice and on his face as he eloquently elucidates all too timely indictments of this toxic injustice.

“I Am Not Your Negro” can be seen on PBS Independent Lens on Monday at 10 p.m. and will be available for online viewing on Tuesday.

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On your radar

Wall Street tycoons have gotten a bad rap for being greedy and selfish, but, as can be seen in Rob Rapley’s documentary “The Secret of Tuxedo Park,” it is not always deserved. Certainly not in the case of Alfred Lee Loomis, who, when he wasn’t making killings in the market, was secretly helping to win World War II. A brilliant scientist as well as a shrewd businessman, Loomis — under orders from no less than Winston Churchill — used his wealth, expertise, and influential connections to put together an expert team that would develop innovative radar technology in the upstate New York laboratory of the title. Based on Jennet Conant’s book “Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of WWII,” the film also touches on Loomis’s contributions to ultrasound technology, precise time measurement, and the science of sleep. He sounds almost as accomplished as Hedy Lamarr!


“The Secret of Tuxedo Park” can be seen on Tuesday at 9 p.m. on PBS American Experience. It will also be available Wednesday on DVD for $24.99.

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Kiss and tell

Paul Oremland combines the personal with the historical in his first-person documentary “100 Men.” In it, he traces the changes in gay culture, gay rights, and society’s attitudes by re-examining the relationships he has had with 100 men over the course of four decades. It’s a project that takes a lot of courage and candor — not to mention a good memory.

 “100 Men” is available on DVD ($24.98) and on VOD platforms on Monday.

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Peter Keough can be reached at