At Berkeley Screen 19 articles

At Berkeley

2013

At Berkeley Poster
  • Because [Wiseman] does strive for balance, the first couple of hours, which are heavy on lectures, make At Berkeley veer perilously close to becomingTED Talks: The Movie. But nobody is better than Wiseman at depicting the machinery of large organizations in motion, and it’s in behind-the-scenes discussions of tuition hikes, global recruiting strategies, and preparation for inevitable demonstrations that the film continually fascinates.

  • When compared to the other more visually stimulating films Wiseman’s made this decade, such as 2011’s Crazy Horse or 2014’s National Gallery, At Berkeley can’t help but appear the more modest endeavour, despite its scope and topicality. That being said, this is a highly articulate and engaging film, and one that benefits greatly from its creator’s wisdom and democratic approach.

  • Angered over tuition hikes... a group of students stage a sit-in at the school library. As Wiseman films the protestors entering the building and making speeches, he also cuts back to the administration plotting their response as well as indifferent students lolling on the grass outside. This astonishing sequence brings together virtually all the thematic threads of the rest of the film and shifts them from the passive conversational to the active dramatic.

  • So what can we take from At Berkeley? Like I said, I don’t mean to suggest that Wiseman is or ever was in the pocket of Birgeneau or the UCB regents. Rather, I think his point of view simply aligns with theirs. Wiseman is a classical Weberian liberal. He believes in the bureaucratic preservation of the public sphere, through argumentation and debate, and eventually through legislation and what today’s technocrats call “best practices.”

  • Every scene in this sprawling film is revealing, complicated and generous. But the repetitive structure... does not standup entirely at 244 minutes. Too often it feels like Wiseman is “dipping in” and, in order to counteract that, he stays too long. Unlike the best Wiseman, a few of the scenes feel like work, which is not helped by the occasionally overly-loose camera work from Wiseman’s almost always excellent cameraman John Davey. This is a small quibble, though.

  • Oddly, it’s one of the few films he’s made about an institution that most of his audience will have had direct experience with. Perhaps that runs counter to the director’s usually incisive, exacting approach — we know the topic too well, and feel freer to question his choices of what to leave out and include. But so what? At Berkeley has a warm, familiar glow about it.

  • Though [Wiseman's] political orientation, expressed in his choice of shots, would seem to emphasize the student protesters, Birgeneau’s pervasive presence suggests otherwise. This split focus, between an institutional study and a more psychologically inflected one in the case of Birgeneau, indicates what might, for some, be a weakness in Wiseman’s approach. While he is obviously a political filmmaker, he is not an argumentative one.

  • There’s a fair amount of redundancy here. Not that this director would ever go for a streamlined result. His slow-mounting style—accommodating all perspectives—fits the proudly messy nature of the title institution, a magnet for radical thought in the 1960s... [But] At Berkeley works beautifully as a picture of compromised activism; viewers who summon the patience to commit to its indulgences won’t feel shortchanged, even if next year’s freshmen are.

  • The footage Wiseman captures of in-depth discussions are uniformly riveting, from fly-on-the-wall observations of high-level administrative decision-making to sequences of students from various backgrounds honestly debating issues of class, race and wealth.

  • In a brilliant conceit, each of the classroom scenes is simultaneously made of the literal subject under discussion—say, the motifs of Walden or the possibilities of humans traveling to distant stars—and works on an analogical level where each subject indirectly engages with core ideas of how to educate, how to use education, and what meaning it has for the students now as youths and for their futures in the outside world.

  • Culled from several weeks of refined, riveting, fixed-camera footage, Wiseman audits a class, embeds with a large-scale student protest, sits in on meetings full of exasperated, resource-challenged faculty members, witnesses a Ph.D. student retooling bionic limbs for a disabled soldier, and winds up speaking volumes about quintessentially American struggles through the institutional microcosm.

  • When dealing with most contemporary documentaries, I would claim that the stance of the filmmaker toward her interview subjects and material is often not too difficult to divine. Even directors far more subtle than Michael Moore will quite openly provide clues to their attitude toward the stories they tell – via voiceover, choice of interview subjects, or formal means such as shot composition or music. But this proves unexpectedly difficult with At Berkeley.

  • Like a good dramatist, Wiseman saves the demonstrations for the final hour—then ambiguously postscripts these with a cheerfully relieved administrative postmortem... Indeed, in its implicit defense of educational democracy, “At Berkeley” is doubly didactic and one of Wiseman’s most passionate films.

  • If Berkeley is a utopia, it’s an unsustainable one, forever trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. In that respect, it’s quite different from At Berkeley: Every moment in Wiseman’s tapestry has a place, and there’s little in it that’s not absorbing, knotty, and provocative.

  • I should say here that “At Berkeley” had considerable personal resonance for me, because I spent much of my childhood on or near that campus and my father taught there for more than 30 years, and also that Wiseman’s films can be challenging for newcomers until you get used to them... It may not feel this way at first, but every scene in “At Berkeley” is in there for a reason, and I’m pretty sure that watching and rewatching the film in segments will reveal more thematic connections.

  • Wiseman gives you a sense of what Berkeley looks and feels like: the gorgeous campus with its mix of old and new buildings, some elegant, others characterless, and the way light bathes them when the sun slips behind a cloud, and the way shadow-fingers caress the the quad and glide across fountains and bike racks and ivy-covered walls... He's America's finest living portrait artist of institutions and their mindsets: a great pure reporter.

  • ...These sequences have the surprising retrospective effect of making apparently disparate scenes from the rest of the film fall into place—and the protests themselves along with them. Whether in scenes of a women’s a-cappella group singing “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” or the marching band taking the field during halftime of a football game and going through their amazingly precise routines... the unifying theme of the movie is mastery.

  • Wiseman's images of the Berkeley campus—with its classical architecture and green, sprawling lawns—evoke Renaissance paintings of ancient Athens, emphasizing the timeless values that universities aspire to uphold. These shots reflect Wiseman's considerable gifts as a visual artist, which tend to get overlooked in favor of his social observations.

  • At Berkeley is another Great American 21st century epic. This is one generation plumbing all of history for tools to foster thinking skills in another, stretching backward in time, shrinking down to microscopic size, zooming through deep space, the overlapping systems simultaneously abstract and concrete.

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