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Back to school for Frederick Wiseman

In the epic At Berkeley, the director turns his lens on higher education in the age of George W. Bush.

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Frederick Wiseman, who turned 84 this week, is one of the great heroes of independent filmmaking. Since 1967, and without once relinquishing his right to final cut, Wiseman has directed 38 documentary features and two filmed theatrical pieces. His films cost next to nothing by Hollywood standards, and few have required crews of more than a dozen people, production and postproduction combined.

These methods wouldn't be so remarkable, however, if they weren't so closely tied to the nature of Wiseman's art. He captures situations more intimately than they're usually shown onscreen: interactions between social workers and their charges (as in Domestic Violence and Belfast, Maine); artists and athletes in training (Ballet, Boxing Gym); the daily struggles of the impoverished (Welfare, Public Housing); the inner workings of the military (Manoeuvre, Missile); and administrative meetings in government (State Legislature), business (The Store), and health care (Hospital, Near Death). His movies are famous for their intimacy and lack of filigree; he never employs narration, interviews, nondiegetic music, or even titles identifying the people onscreen. Without these cues to guide our interpretation, his films challenge us to grant full attention to each person or location, to take stock of what makes it unique and how it relates to the larger subject. No sight or sound can be taken for granted.

On the one hand, Wiseman is an ascetic imagist like Robert Bresson; on the other, he's an epic storyteller like David Lean. Eight of his movies run over three hours; another seven are over two and a half. His career has been a Balzacian project to document the full range of American experience, from rich to poor, urban to rural, and east to west. When Wiseman's movies are long, they're long for a reason; the director has often said that he lets a film's subject matter determine its length, which is another way of saying he uses the structure to communicate his thoughts about the content. Whereas his shorter films (High School, Law & Order) tend to be his most caustic, his longest (including Near Death; Belfast, Maine; and now At Berkeley) tend to be his most philosophical, presenting their subjects in such intricacy that they seem like microcosms of the larger society.

At four hours, At Berkeley—which screens all this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center and then every Wednesday night for the rest of the month—feels literally monumental. The film shows us a bit of everything that happens at the University of California, Berkeley, long the nation's most respected public university. From classes to sporting events to protests, events are presented from a perspective that might be deemed eternal. 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.

Also significant are the film's references to the distant future. The final scene records a lecture in one of the science halls, where a professor speculates about what technology will be like in another millennium, "if we make it that far." In another sequence, coming shortly before the climax, Wiseman peeks in on rehearsals for a campus production of Our Town. The scene being rehearsed shows Thornton Wilder's stage manager discussing the creation of a town time capsule. He might as well be describing Wiseman's mission when he says, "Babylon once had two million people in it, but all we know about them are the names of the kings, some copies of wheat contracts, and the sales of slaves. Yet every night, all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and smoke went up the chimney . . . So, people a thousand years from now, this is the way we were in our marrying, our work, our living, and our dying."

Wiseman's intentions aren't always so lofty. Another reason why At Berkeley is so long is because academic discourse tends to be so long-winded. "People on [college] faculties are used to hearing themselves speak," says former secretary of labor Robert Reich to a class at the Goldman School of Public Policy, effectively summarizing the film's central running gag. Throughout the film, Wiseman shows professors and administrators preparing to pose questions to a group by entertaining all sorts of digressive ideas, often ending in a different place than they began. Some viewers will find this maddening, yet it's a telling portrait of academic discourse—and one that most movies about education are too short to achieve.

At Mubi.com, Daniel Kasman refers to the film's "bipartite structure," which grants roughly equal time to student life and administrative meetings, most of the latter about budgetary concerns. Early on we learn that in 2010 (the year the movie was shot), state contributions to the university's operating budget were at an all-time low. In previous generations almost 40 percent of the annual budget came from the state; now state resources account for less than 20 percent. Wiseman returns to such sobering statistics every few scenes; over the course of the epic running time, they influence how we see everything else. How can we even think about the distant future, he seems to ask, when the immediate future of this institution is at risk?

The movie suggests that such worries are a central part of American life circa 2010. On one level, At Berkeley is Wiseman's meditation on the George W. Bush years, a period marked by cultural disunity, sweeping disinvestment in social programs, and the worst income inequality our nation has seen since the 1920s. One can feel the impact of these developments throughout the film. In one scene, a middle-class student cries to a financial aid officer that she doesn't know how she'll meet tuition costs; in several others, administrators debate which services to trim in order to lower their operating budget. Exactly halfway through the movie, Wiseman shows an old man addressing an audience at the Free Speech Cafe, named after the social movement that began at Berkeley in the mid-60s; he speaks in dire terms about what may happen if support for public education continues to erode. "When history is scarcely taught in public schools, we pay a very high price . . . We're becoming a cynical, passive, and uninformed people."

Little else in At Berkeley reaches this level of despair, since its subjects are neither passive nor uninformed. Yet Wiseman finds plenty of cynicism on campus, and it's easy to see why. With fewer resources to go around, people are less likely to have faith in institutions and more inclined to look out for themselves. This would explain the rapid disintegration of a campus-wide protest against budget cuts that provides the movie's climax. As both students and faculty observe, the protesters are too disorganized to gain traction as a movement and issue way too many demands to the administration, several of which contradict others. (Numerous critics have noted that this passage anticipates the decline of the Occupy movement, which began a year after the movie was shot.) The protesters also fail to recognize that the administrators feel stymied in many of the same ways as the students—but this is an understandable failing, since the movie makes education and administration seem like two separate worlds.

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. This is especially true of an early scene that, running 22 minutes, is one of the longest in Wiseman's entire filmography. Set in another public policy class, it finds a roomful of students debating the antitax philosophy that's grown so prominent in the Republican Party. Predictably, several students use the time to sound off on hard-line conservatives, until one female student turns the tables. She speaks of growing up black and working-class, building up to the assertion, "Nobody wanted to pay taxes to send me to school. Why should I care if nobody wants to pay taxes to send you to school?"

That's a fatuous claim, yet Wiseman regards the young woman with the same respect he accords to all his subjects, presenting her in a lengthy medium shot that gives us time to contemplate her comportment and manner of speech. One senses a certain admiration for her feistiness—perhaps she has the wherewithal to get ahead in our turbulent economy. It's irrelevant whether she's right or wrong in her argument; what matters is that she possesses certain qualities that may help preserve our culture.

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