During a class shown in Frederick Wiseman’s documentary about the University of California, Berkeley, a professor describes the organizational process Henry David Thoreau employs in writing “Walden.” The prophet of civil disobedience, he explains, offers “a jumble of observations” under which “there are patterns.”
The same might be said about Wiseman. In his films — seemingly random observations with no context immediately discernible — there’s no commentary other than what’s provided by the images. The observations coalesce into a cogent whole, providing insights that are never overtly stated. Such was the case in 1967’s “Titicut Follies” and such is the case in Wiseman’s latest, “At Berkeley,” a four-hour study of what turns out to be a critical juncture in the school’s existence, and in US higher education in general.
Though at first the film’s segments don’t disclose any organizational intent, canny editing and shrewd structuring — all the more effective because they are almost imperceptible — weave together a pointed, multifaceted portrait of the institution. Wiseman alternates classes (at times you might feel like an undergraduate yourself, waiting for a long-winded lecture to terminate) with interludes showing students crossing the campus en route to their next destination, and he intercuts these scenes with ongoing administrative meetings confronting the school’s critical financial situation in the face of state budget cuts.
The issues raised there are familiar ones. How can they maintain their high academic standards and egalitarian admission policies in the face of diminishing means? What must be sacrificed and what will be lost in terms of credibility, quality, and the good will of students, faculty, and staff? These aren’t idle concerns, because as becomes evident around the film’s 2½-hour point, a student protest — reminiscent of the ’60s when the Berkeley Free Speech Movement spearheaded a decade of political ferment — is in the making. Then the administration’s talk of fee hikes and involuntary furloughs for professors takes a chilling turn toward preparing security measures in the event of disorder.
Meanwhile, Wiseman’s sly eye for detail and subtle juxtapositions suggest his own ironic commentary. In a seminar someone points out the danger of abandoning Berkeley’s traditional value of individualism for corporate regimentation, resulting in a system where individuals are just parts in a machine. In subsequent scenes the Cambridge-based Wiseman illustrates that concern with shots of various machines in operation, then ludicrous instances of regimented human behavior such as a marching band and a squad of uniformed ROTC students furiously conducting maneuvers on a quiet Berkeley street. But then he shows a student experimenting with a prosthetic device that allows a paraplegic man to walk. Perhaps, Wiseman is suggesting, mechanization isn’t always dehumanizing.
A more pressing observation occurs when Berkeley professor (and former secretary of labor) Robert Reich emphasizes to his students the need to target specific issues if they hope to accomplish anything as political activists. Not long afterward a student makes the same point to demonstrators occupying a library; they ignore his advice, and instead go ahead and present a laundry list of demands, unrealistic and contradictory, to the administration.
Receiving these, the (now former) chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau notes how, back in the ’60s, they knew enough to rein in such digressions and focus their agenda. But these activists don’t seem to have learned much from the past. As one apparent veteran of the Free Speech movement points out, people these days have become historically illiterate. One way for them to get up to speed would be to take a look at Wiseman’s half century of films chronicling his times.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.