Editor’s note: this review was originally published during NYFF on September 29, 2013. It is being reposted for its theatrical release.
When I asked Frederick Wiseman about his next film during an interview in 2011, I thought he had told me it was on American University, the D.C.-based school. What he must have really said is “an American university,” as if he was aiming to document just any place of higher education in the U.S. as a stand-in for them all. But the film is about the University of California, Berkeley, and it is very specifically about that institution and quite narrowly representational of the time in which it was shot, which is the fall semester of 2010.
At Berkeley is a much bigger movie than Wiseman’s last few, and not only because at around four hours it’s longer than the combined running times of 2011’s Crazy Horse and 2009’s Boxing Gym. The location is more expansive, as is the system operating within the grounds of the campus. It’s a film about a complex relationship between administrators, faculty, students and non-academic employees, plus the unseen government bodies in Berkeley and especially Sacramento.
It’s Wiseman so it’s primarily observational, yet with a lot of attention put on economic issues for those running and those attending the school, there’s a certain interest on display. Wiseman is always subjective, but his thematic focus is often more subtle than this.
Well, critics of his last few films will be happy to see the more “important” side of the filmmaker returning here — not that Wiseman would ever agree that the workings of a boxing gym or Paris cabaret are any less important than that of a hospital for the criminally insane or a welfare office or, now, a public university. To many of us in the audience, however, if we find budget talks regarding whether or not staff are let go or if students are to pay more at an American university to be more significant than the boardroom meetings of a tacky nude revue in France, that’s understandable. With all of his films we see what Wiseman took from his experience of a place, but we also always see something he doesn’t: our own thoughts about what’s on screen.
At Berkeley begins by literally taking us through the gates of the school and into a classroom discussion offering some expositional set up on UC Berkeley and the difference between its historical origins and the folkloric myth often heard in the place of the “truth.” It’s the first of a few self-reflexive moments in the documentary, others being a lecture on the perception of time — funny to include in the first quarter of a very long film — and the monologue from a student production of Wilder’s Our Town, an already meta piece of writing speaking to the purpose of the film as well as, originally intended, the play itself.
I also find it intriguing the way, especially in a lengthy classroom sequence taking up much of the film’s first half hour, we see class discussions of a topic (there again, the cost of education) where we get a mix of authority (professor) and non-authority (student) commentary. Perhaps unintentionally poking fun at the oft-uncertain trustworthiness of the talking head component of traditional documentaries?
Many other scenes present classroom discussions and lectures, so the film is indeed curiously kind of informative by way of what we may hear in these settings. There’s part of a talk on Thoreau, peeks at bionics research, bird dissections, bits of discourse on cancer, dark energy, John Donne’s love poem “To His Mistress Going to Bed” and the improbability of interstellar travel, as well as an anecdote on leadership from former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (who is also the subject of the new documentary Inequality for All). Given Wiseman’s professed interest in all sorts of subjects (just look at his filmography), you can tell he was having a great time sitting in on all these courses and labs (funny he doesn’t show us the law school or documentary film program at the school of journalism).
And while this isn’t anything close to being an issue film, you can tell the director is concerned with the people for whom higher education costs are an issue. Of course, a lot of this is just a matter of what was going on at the time financially with California and the U.S. and for the administration of former Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau (he stepped down in May of this year), who we see very often as if he’s the main character, his persistent Joker-like smile making him a very perplexing lead given much of the unhappy things he addresses.
There is also eventual (climactic?) coverage of a massive protest held in October of 2010 on matters of public education. Sure, it’s Berkeley, so showing activism is rather mandatory, but due to the specific cause and how Wiseman also shows us an internal side — Birgeneau’s office discussing how to respond to the demands — is particularly prescient given the controversy a year later with the Chancellor’s response to Occupy Cal protests.
None of that context is in the film, of course. There is little context at all, in fact. Only a couple buildings shown for establishing purposes even reveal to us the name of the department inside (I noticed Zoology and the Goldman School of Public Policy), but it doesn’t matter because you can tell by what you’re looking at what school it may be. There are no titles offering whether we’re observing an undergrad or graduate class nor telling us who anyone is, not even Birgeneau. In four hours, though, you fill in at least some logical context — or it doesn’t matter to.
There is no private life shown, no dorm scenes nor professor housing. When we do see people doing their own thing they’re attached to phones or computers or they’re seen exercising rather mechanically. The people on screen are only part of a system of Berkeley not their own individual worlds, and Wiseman features subtle thematic links to this notion through a discussion of privatized versus government subsidized engineering and childcare and other study or discussion about the organization and relationships of people and insects and things.
It all plays out in a rhythmic flow that’s often repetitive and therefore sometimes tedious. I’ve always paid too much conscious attention to Wiseman’s cutaways during long talks, the kind that cut to a close-up of a person in an audience or crowd clearly to give us something else to look at while cameraman John Davey pans or repositions his lens. Each lecture or meeting scene in At Berkeley does this, and so after a while the scenes reveal a pattern and also open themselves to the white lie of what they show us. Even with the understanding of how these cuts should play, I can’t help but always see a person responding to something else, something we don’t see or hear, even if it’s a relevant point or during the same lecture. It’s my one subjective problem while watching Wiseman’s films, and it felt a heavier burden on my enjoyment than usual with At Berkeley.
Except for one noticeably synched laugh during Reich’s lecture, most of the time those cutaways are to blank stares, which may be typical and “true” for the most part, for most of the student body. It also may be relevant to the way a lot of students don’t normally see the Berkeley we see in this film. And I get the feeling a lot of the administrators aren’t paying attention to the small student life details, little of which we see here anyway, either.
At one point a student claims professors do “the bare minimum” they need to for their jobs, which is surely not caring too much about specific individuals, while there are also a few references to how superiors, be they bosses or teachers, frustratingly tend to receive too much passive acceptance from their employees or students. Again, we’re viewing a cold system of pieces working just enough to (usually) power a machine.
Wiseman has never seemed to me to like criticisms of his work, but because of Reich’s story of the one staffer brave enough to constructively advise him, I can’t not give a note of judgement towards At Berkeley. As a film with a thesis and cohesive themes and purpose and ideas, it’s one of the most brilliant documentaries on a subject ever made. Yet I still think Wiseman has tried to tackle something too big here for even he to handle completely.
The place itself, the physical, concrete institution, is therefore a little hazier than the film’s concentrated statements. Unlike the majority of his great works, there’s a lack here in the atmosphere department. I never felt like I was experiencing Berkeley, through the filmmaker’s eyes or not. I never felt like I was there. But then, I guess it’s not called “Of Berkeley.” I suspect he could make a few more completely different movies revealing other things “at Berkeley” with the 246 hours of footage left on the cutting room floor.
At Berkeley is now playing in New York City