BY STEVE ERICKSON | Since 1967, Frederick Wiseman has been America’s bard of our often failing institutions. He’s recently taken a detour through France, resulting in relatively lightweight but extremely enjoyable films like “Crazy Horse,” a portrait of the titular burlesque club. His gaze is relatively nonjudgmental. He refrains from editorializing about his subjects, at least overtly, although his subject matter has sometimes been inflammatory. Several friends of mine wrote off “Crazy Horse” as a “dirty old man’s movie.” Leaving aside the dubious benefits of fighting sexism with ageism, I thought it offered a subtle critique of the vanilla-hetero nature of the Crazy Horse’s fantasy world, particularly when it shows a transgender dancer being rejected simply because of her gender identity.
“At Berkeley” may spark similar debate, as it shows a major public university in decline as its budget goes into freefall. The film concentrates on extended scenes of classroom lectures and discussions, as well as administrative meetings, but it uses punctuating shots of students walking or hanging around outside as breathing room in between them. Occasionally, Wiseman throws in construction sites or music, theater, and sports performances. The scenes of campus exteriors are usually captured in long shot, while the discussions focus on people’s faces in close-up.
Frederick Wiseman examines how a world-class university responds when the public walks away
Wiseman is known for his films’ extended running times. At only a little over two hours, “Crazy Horse” was comparatively svelte. “At Berkeley” is four hours long, and the IFC Center and Lincoln Center are showing it without an intermission. A classroom lecture about the mind’s perception of time seems intended as a response to viewers who might question the length of Wiseman’s films. One wonders how he decided which classroom scenes to include and where to cut. A Howard Zinn-inflected lecture about African-American participation in World War II ends after a brief introduction, while a discussion of Thoreau and Emerson, with no direct political significance, goes on for quite a while.
If “At Berkeley” has one real set piece, it’s a 20-minute classroom discussion that comes in the film’s first half hour. The students talk about the nature of UC Berkeley itself and the changing status of a public university in an ongoing recession. One laments that she’s middle-class enough not to qualify for any grants but not wealthy enough to really afford to pay back her loans. The sole African-American student dominates the discussion, castigating her white classmates for jumping on poverty as if it were a new trend, when it’s always affected her community. The teacher introduces the subject of “policy over charity” as next week’s topic. The scene is fascinating because the students are talking about politics as something that really affects their lives, not an abstract cause. In defending the ideals of the public university, they’re standing up for their own ability to get an education.
Much of the second half of “At Berkeley” builds up to a large protest by students, leading to a sit-in at a school library conference room. The students have a large list of demands, including the notion that tuition should be free. They complain that the Republican minority in the California State Legislature won’t allow any tax hikes, yet is fine with firing janitors and teachers. Their demands, however, are so ambitious that they grow diffuse, and they seem stuck in nostalgia for ‘60s radicalism.
The same nostalgia is shown by the administrators. In a telling scene, they demonstrate an obnoxious smugness as they recall their youthful days spent protesting the Vietnam War and sticking it to the Man, certain of their superiority to the present-day protesters but unaware of the irony of their current positions of power. It’s hard to say whose side Wiseman is on.
I think it says a lot that after a long stretch dealing with the protest, the first unrelated scene begins with a teacher evoking Holocaust survivor and writer Primo Levi before a group of students who are recent military veterans and discuss their sometimes difficult and alienating experiences at UC Berkeley. This may be a way of implicitly criticizing the narrow focus and privilege of both students and faculty.
A different filmmaker would have made a movie about the student protests. In “At Berkeley,” they occupy 90 minutes or so out of a four-hour running time. The protests don’t seem to change anything, as the routine of lectures and meetings goes on afterwards. The problems raised by the students are real, even if winning free tuition is a bit utopian, and the answers of the administration, like prospecting for students in Asia and the Middle East, aren’t going to solve them. Wiseman isn’t a political filmmaker in any conventional sense, and some spectators may be maddened by the return to normalcy that takes place after the highly charged protest scenes. But as in “Crazy Horse,” he expresses a clear, sometimes critical, point of view about his subjects. Wiseman also goes to extremes to avoid telling the audience what to think.
AT BERKELEY | Directed by Frederick Wiseman | Zipporah Films | Opens Nov. 8 | IFC Center | 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com |Film Society of Lincoln Center, 65th St., btwn. Broadway & Amsterdam Ave. | filmlinc.com