“Frederick Wiseman‘s broad canvas epic At Berkeley, a bipartite portrait of the complex, living organism that is a public university in California, is a characteristically wide-ranging yet pinpoint exploration of the dynamic between people and an organization,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman at the top of an interview in which the legendary documentarian discusses his working methods in illuminating detail. Danny: “‘Education’ in 2010, when the documentary was filmed, is what unites the system with its participants, a large and abstract calling awkwardly defined in the film’s first scene by a teacher trying to explain what makes the mission of the University of California Berkeley different from that of East Coast Ivy League school.”
With Berkeley, Wiseman has selected “an establishment that allows him to broaden his focus to encompass a consideration of the larger state of U.S. education, the country’s public sector, its fading middle class, and the legacy of the ’60s,” writes Andrew Schenker in Slant. “As an elite public school, Cal is uniquely positioned in its role of providing low-cost academic excellence while being constantly forced to scrounge for new streams of revenue; as a university once famous for its legendary protests, it forever rests in the shadow of its former legacy, while students attempt to recreate the fight-for-a-just-cause past and former protestors now fill institutional roles.”
“The history of Berkeley weighs on every scene,” writes Robert Greene, a documentary filmmaker himself, at Hammer to Nail. “At 83 years old, having created (in my mind) more masterpieces than any other filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman’s place as a legend is beyond secure. When you watch one of his earlier films, the tightness of control and engaging functionality of every single moment is bracing. At Berkeley is certainly looser, but it earns its running time by foregrounding ideas and giving the viewer the space to contemplate them. At this stage in his life’s work, I’m willing to give my hero every minute he asks for.”
At Vulture, Bilge Ebiri notes that At Berkeley is “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. It’s kind of like being back in college, without all the tests.”
Updates, 9/30: “As with his earliest documentaries,” writes Genevieve Yue at Reverse Shot, “Wiseman is focused only on the public dimension of a public institution, even though the film’s title suggests both the university and the town in which it’s located: both a place where people work and study, as well as one in which they live. The lack of names, titles, and other indicators of distinct personalities, moreover, tends to occlude the possibility that any individual might have a life beyond his or her function in the university. This anonymizing, perhaps even dehumanizing, tendency in Wiseman’s films has been brilliantly parodied in Jean-Paul Kelly’s Service of the Goods (2013), a film that consists of a series of reenacted scenes from Titicut Follies (1967), High School (1968), Law and Order (1969), Hospital (1970), Basic Training (1971), Juvenile Court (1973), and Welfare (1975). In each scenario, the actors are covered in white sheets, masked as ghosts. The costumes, and especially the gaping eyeholes cut out of them, suggest the degree to which people that exist within institutional settings are merely types, and that the individual underneath the sheet, or the uniform, hardly matters at all.”
“The great strengths, as well as certain weaknesses, of Wiseman’s method are on full display,” grants Christopher Bourne at Twitch. For example, “some scenes play a bit too long, reducing their effectiveness within the film’s construction, as for example during an astronomy lecture so laden with academic jargon that it becomes almost comically incomprehensible. However, in its best scenes and sequences, At Berkeley confirms Frederick Wiseman’s status as one of our most vital filmmakers, illuminating the working structures and functions of institutions like no one else can, presenting a uniquely fascinating panorama of humanity.”
Updates, 10/13: “If the film has a theme, it is middle-class angst,” argues the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. “In a number of scenes, the students debate the new bourgeois financial anxiety and white suburban poverty. It is their own problem. One student begins to cry as she describes her difficulty meeting fees. An economics professor condemns divisive new “differential” charges for courses likely to lead to high earning power (law, medicine). But then an African-American student is openly derisive of this new white angst, pointing out how tough it was for her to get into Berkeley and suggesting that maybe these Wasp high-fliers should start to feel some pain in their wallets.”
Update, 10/14: For Michael Smith, the “complete lack of scenes depicting teachers’ union meetings, teachers talking to other teachers, or teachers doing anything other than addressing their classes gives the impression that Wiseman, consciously or not, has colluded with the administration in glorifying this particular institution and avoiding the real crisis plaguing the contemporary American education system: the Wal-Martification of its employment practices (e.g., eliminating tenure-track positions, hiring part-time instructors in record numbers, avoiding offering benefits, etc.). That movie, alas, will have to be made by someone else.”
Updates, 11/10: “How long will it take us to understand that the entire neoliberal project—the puritanical mania for cutting taxes, cutting social services and cutting budget deficits that has dominated the Western world’s economy for more than 30 years—has been a disaster?” asks Andrew O’Hehir in Salon. So begins what might at first seem to be a fiery diversion; it actually turns out to be a sober and well-argued warning. While many reviewers tuck their politics into cryptic subordinate clauses, O’Hehir has spelled his out right at the top here, and more power to him. As for At Berkeley, which he clearly admires, it’s “a portrait of America’s most prestigious public university as it wrestles with piecemeal privatization and the near-total abandonment of its historic mission.”
O’Hehir’s father taught at Berkeley for more than 30 years; Slate‘s Dana Stevens, “like my mother before me, as a matter of fact!—[is] an alumna.” She notes that the university “has been forced to raise student fees and cut employee benefits to a degree that threatens both the institution’s excellence and its egalitarianism…. I wouldn’t lose a minute of At Berkeley. If anything, it made me wish Wiseman had a weekly TV show that monitored the daily life of my alma mater.”
“An artist who constructs his pieces from chunks of reality and lets reality speak for itself, Wiseman develops a point of view without a narrative,” writes J. Hoberman at Artinfo. “At the same time, he’s something like our Honoré de Balzac who, for more than four decades, has chronicled American institutions from high school to juvenile court to intensive care. Wiseman’s ongoing Human Comedy includes documentaries on fashion models and military installations, small towns and theatrical events, but his great subject is social control. At Berkeley shows that socialization in its most benign form. Indeed, in its implicit defense of educational democracy, At Berkeley is doubly didactic and one of Wiseman’s most passionate films.”
More from Mike D’Angelo (Dissolve, 3/5), Steve Erickson (Gay City News), Stephen Holden (New York Times), Anthony Kaufman (Sundance Now), Ben Kenigsberg (AV Club, A), and Nick Schager (Voice). Interviews with Wiseman: Brian Brooks (FilmLinc Daily), Anthony Kaufman (Voice), and here in Keyframe, Kiva Reardon.
Update, 11/11: “I can’t think of another film portrait of higher education that matches this one for comprehensiveness, intellectual depth, and hope,” writes the New Yorker‘s David Denby.
Updates, 11/16: “As I watched the movie, I wondered—where are the rebels?” The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody:
Where’s the anger? Where’s the innate sense of rebellion, of resistance to authority, not on any principled opposition to specific policies but to the mere fact of authority itself? Wiseman didn’t go into the dormitories in search of hedonism, riot, or argument, didn’t look for partiers or revelers or malcontents or the ornery, contentious, solitary, disaffected students. He reveals the university as a great institution for the focussing of intellectual energy, the generation of virtually infinite possibilities of mind and invention, the transmission of a progress-oriented sense of values—but one that, ultimately, depends on a sort of energy that the university itself can’t transmit and that, for its very survival, needs to find a way to suppress, divert, or co-opt. In At Berkeley, Wiseman, looking admiringly at the historic seat of student radicalism, comes up against the impossibility of a radical university—because real radicalism isn’t something that responsible administrators unwilling to renounce the proper administration of the university itself, and maybe even to put its very existence at risk, can foster.
Wiseman is “not just giving you a sense of the issues facing Berkeley and the people who go to Berkeley and work at Berkeley,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. “He’s giving you a sense of what it means to be at Berkeley, and to be of Berkeley—what it’s like to be Berkeley righteous, Berkeley caring, Berkeley clueless, Berkeley irritating…. At Berkeley is an event that’s worth finding the time, or creating the time, to experience.”
Clark Collis interviews Wiseman for Entertainment Weekly.
Updates, 12/6: “Wiseman’s message, implicit in the film and explicit its promotion, is that it is the campus administration that has mounted the defense of public higher education in California,” writes Katy Fox-Hodess for Jakobin. “A look at the recent history of austerity at Berkeley shows that students and workers are the ones who have made tremendous sacrifices to defend the public university, despite the violence and repression sanctioned by the very administrators At Berkeley appears to celebrate.”
The Stranger‘s David Schmader “went in expecting small human moments and was confronted by the highly theatrical performances people give in real life: teachers giving lectures, campus guides giving tours, chancellors addressing board meetings, students being called upon in class, the whole theater-of-the-self of progressive young students…. Go, watch, wander out when you need to, but come back, because it’s great.”
Update, 1/7: “On the one hand, Wiseman is an ascetic imagist like Robert Bresson; on the other, he’s an epic storyteller like David Lean.” Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader. “Characteristic of Wiseman’s long films, At Berkeley never feels judgmental of the people it documents. Because the director excels at finding continuity between institutions and individuals, every person here (no matter how briefly he or she appears onscreen) seems as complicated as the entire system.”