American High

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 11, New York: Like The War Room, another story about technology and access, and also another story brought to us in part by RJ Cutler. American High was a short-lived television show in 2000 that featured a dozen high schoolers from a Chicago suburb. They were followed by film crews, interviewed by producers, and their relatively familiar teenaged stories were told through pop music-infused reality techniques. It was a style that was already begin explored on MTV in True Life. But Cutler and his crew introduced a new element.

The students were all enrolled in a video production class and were taught by Cutler’s producers how to film TV-ready video diaries. Then they gave them all cameras. Without the mediation of the interview producer, these teens would unload their emotions into small DV cameras they took with them everywhere they went. Late at night, alone in their bedrooms, the safest possible place in the world to process out loud, they would just hit record and talk. It is that material that makes this series revolutionary. The evolution of technology to a point where broadcast-quality video can come out of a camera that can be held and operated by a high schooler allows for unprecedented, unfettered access to the most intimate of monologues. It’s brilliant.

This same technological window helped launch my early career. I came of age with DV tape, shot mountains of it on Sony PD150s— prosumer cameras that shot good-enough video, all of which could be edited on a home computer with Final Cut Pro. Mine was the first generation of digital producer-shooter-editors. And through it all I was completely in love with the video diaries used here in American High. I’ve borrowed this technique time and again in my career. I gave cameras to high schoolers to video diary about the 2004 election. I gave a camera to a Marine who was headed to Iraq. As my career progressed I found myself more and more focused on access over production training, building a program for documentary citizen journalism for Current TV. No matter how great my field reporting was, it would almost always be trumped by a subject turning the camera around and talking directly into it.

American High was a blip. The other techniques used in the series— montage, pop music, slickly produced interviews— that feels more like MTV today. And that’s the way the industry went. More 16 and Pregnant and less True Life. With that context, American High is harder to watch today. The music sears. The poor video quality just feels unpolished. The genius moments of intimacy shine less brightly. And now that intimacy is everywhere. Teenagers have been recording from their bedrooms and posting it to YouTube for about ten years now.

Some kind soul uploaded every episode of American High to Daily Motion.

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