Monday, October 21, 2013

At Berkeley

AT BERKELEY            A-  
USA  (244 mi)  2013  d:  Frederick Wiseman 

What I’m interested in is making movies about as many different subjects as I can, and as many different forms of human experience. 
— Frederick Wiseman

Wiseman has made a couple of shorter documentaries of late, including BOXING GYM (2010) and Crazy Horse (2011), which seemed all too brief, requiring shorter shots with more edits, and while still interesting, the director feels much more comfortable returning to his longer format of four-hours here, which allows greater exploration.  Without any identifying commentary, and no narration whatsoever, the chosen subject here, the University of California at Berkeley, is a sprawling campus situated on 172 acres across the bay from San Francisco, still managing several major American laboratories, two for the Department of Energy, and perhaps the most infamous, the Los Alamos National Laboratory (still the largest employer in the State of New Mexico), where Berkeley physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was the scientific director of the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bomb during World War II.  The Berkeley Lab has discovered 16 chemical elements, more than any other university in the world, while also producing 72 Nobel prizes.  Yet today, when people think of Berkeley, they are likely reminded of the radical activism of the 60’s, including anti-war demonstrations and the birth of the Free Speech Movement that spread across college campuses throughout the nation.  The same site remains an active location for protests and marches, where a Free Speech monument has been erected, also the Mario Savio Free Speech Movement Café.  Wiseman was granted free access to the university by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who also happens to be a physicist, by the way, where we’re witness to the fall 2010 semester, a time that coincides with the downward spiraling economy, where between the years 2008 and 2012, the state appropriations decreased by 27%, or nearly a billion dollars, to its current all-time low, causing salary reductions and furloughs for faculty and staff while roughly doubling the tuition costs.  Of course, the student response was a drumbeat of protests, where Birgeneau reveals “Protests are part of the culture at Berkeley.”      

The economic reality is state expenditures have undergone a radical shift from appropriations for higher education to massive expenditures for prisons and correction programs, where that trend isn’t likely to turn around any time soon.  Despite the budget storm, the university has maintained their top global position (currently ranked #9) and top national U.S. News and World public school rankings (listed as #1), the top public university for the 16th year in a row.  What’s clear from the outset is Berkeley is a public funded institution, yet it more than holds its own with the prestigious Ivy League private schools with histories dating back to the Puritans.  This is no small accomplishment, as they must carry the torch that public funded universities are more accessible and offer greater diversity, a theme heard throughout the film, but with higher tuition and fees, students are witnessing the benefits of the best and cheapest systems of higher education eroding away.  And while the film may surprisingly offer more air time to the administrators, it’s the classroom sections that truly elevate the film.  Wiseman provides a cross section view of the administration, faculty, and students, literally eavesdropping on a variety of subjects, where we immediately zero in on a classroom discussion about whether it is in the public interest, whether it is considered part of the greater good to provide financial incentives and aid to help the poor both here at home and abroad, where the lone black woman in the classroom indicates the country has been averse to helping poor black neighborhoods throughout her entire lifetime, so it’s something she’s grown to expect, suggesting people of color have had to learn early on that if they work hard enough, they may at least get *an opportunity* to receive a world class education and the accompanying career benefits that come with it, while middle class whites, who are suddenly suffering from the economic challenges themselves, have always *expected* that education should be given to them as a birthright.  So from her perspective, why should black tax dollars help support poor whites that generationally have never wanted their tax dollars to help support black students?  This searingly intense discussion contains some of the most interesting classroom discussion heard since the high school class in Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or prize winning film The Class (Entre Les Murs) (2008), and is easily one of the most riveting scenes of the year, yet it provocatively expresses what kinds of challenges are unique to public schools, where they are part of a larger ideological clash between idealism and practicality, and are expected to define their own vision for the future.

When the camera moves outside, there’s plenty of activity with music groups performing before a largely disinterested throng, or various student protests marching through the center of the campus, yelling their slogans while other students are seen lying on the grass.  Meanwhile the campus security is holding a meeting devising a plan on how to maintain adequate security in anticipation of a large student protest expected later in October.  Working in cooperation with the city of Berkeley mayor, police, and fire departments, three tiers of security are agreed upon, one where the campus police provide all the necessary containment, or a second level that may need available units from local police to assist, while the most serious is an official request for back up, a state of emergency that wasn’t used for over ten years, perhaps out of respect for the school’s history, but was called upon twice in the past year. Chancellor Birgeneau is a fascinating and sympathetic figure, always upbeat, looking for new ideas and comments, where as a former protester himself, he supports student protests, as the university is a major player in the existing free speech movement.  He’s also addressing the subject of tenure with his faculty team, suggesting there’s a difference between making a case supported by evidence, and cheerleading, liking someone and thinking they deserve tenure, something easily seen through in a matter of minutes.  Like any university, it’s only as good as the teachers in the classroom, where despite laudatory research projects and other commendable work, he still insists upon excellence in the classroom.  For most of the other administrators, they appear to be doing their job, where we see them at work, while Chancellor Birgeneau operates at a different level, seen more as a visionary, as he oversees every aspect of the university, always seeking ways to improve at every level, to leave it in better standing than when he took over.  Currently the ethnic enrollment of new students in the Fall of 2012 is 24% White, 21% Chinese, 12% International, 9% Mexican, 8% South Asian, 5% Korean, and only 3% Black. 

When the demonstration finally materializes, it’s a big event, with speeches touting the effectiveness of protests held a year ago when the legislature caved and rescinded some of their planned cuts, where they recall the significance of 60’s activism, where a movement is larger than any few individuals and has the power to change history.  As they march to the student library, they take over the building, issuing a set of demands that the Chancellor must meet by 5 pm of that same day, where a lot of loud rhetoric with students holding microphones makes a lot of noise.  What’s perhaps most interesting is not the various speeches, but watching those from China or Muslim women with their faces covered in headdress staring silently at what must seem like life on another planet, as all of this activity is forbidden in their countries, yet this has to have a profound effect upon them, extending to their network of family and friends.  No one is arrested, as they are allowed to voice their concerns, and when the Chancellor’s office drafts a carefully worded response that doesn’t really commit to anything, they all soon dissipate and return to their classes.  While this momentarily creates an empty void where there was an energetic build-up for a major confrontation, but its all part of the college experience, building ideals and expectations, followed by disappointments that lead to a new set of expectations.  One of the classroom discussions is on Thoreau’s Walden Pond, where behind the placidity and stillness of the peaceful lake, an image that renews itself even after seasonal storms or icy winters and lives on in perpetuity, is a carnage of animal and plant attacks, where in order to sustain life, one set eats the other to survive, something that caused great concern to Thoreau, who despite all attempts to live a spartan existence, himself relied upon food and local resources for sustenance, concluding that man would always be separate from nature.  One of the unique perspectives offered is that of a veteran’s group, many of whom were initially sinking from the difficulties incurred in the transition from military to student life, but with the help of a campus veteran’s group, a resource not always available at universities, they were able to reassess what their goals and missions were.            

As always, some segments are more intriguing than others, but Wiseman’s film absorbs the many arguments and perspectives offered and remains accessible throughout, feeling perhaps more political than his earlier work, but due to the all-encompassing depth of the examination, it’s an invigorating and continually thought-provoking piece, where the viewer receives a variety of relevant insight not likely encountered any other way other than experiencing it yourself.  Some of the more interesting shots might be called transition shots, used much like Ozu, where Wiseman films a janitor sweeping a lengthy staircase, or a landscaper’s leafblower clearing a walkway, or various construction projects taking place, where we see a team pouring cement, eventually leveling it off, or a steamroller flatten out a layer of road asphalt, as these are projects showing the public’s tax dollars at work.  Former Cabinet Secretary of Labor Robert Reich is seen instilling his views that all major goals of any project need to be challenged in order to be successful, where part of a good working team is providing that self criticism.  Working in the Clinton Administration, it nearly killed him that in government he was surrounded by so many “yes men,” people whose idea of keeping their jobs was simply telling the boss what they think he wants to hear, revealing a story about being in a crowded elevator full of his handlers after a particularly ineffective TV talk show, asking what did he do wrong?  While the consensus told him he remained on point and made effective arguments, a lone voice from the back from a nearly inaudible woman suggested that he used his hands too much, immediately generating daggers in the looks from superiors.  But she reiterated, when asked again, that for TV you’re more effective without all the hand gestures.  Reich said he remembered that woman and kept her on his staff, and gave her multiple promotions, always remembering that she was someone who would provide an honest answer when he needed it.  There’s another classroom discussion dissecting the metaphors in John Donne’s love poems, a humorous skit on the social pressures of Facebook, while there’s also a staged performance of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, where one of the hallmarks of the play, besides depicting ordinary life in America, is deciding what time capsules to choose that a hundred or a thousand years from now will tell the future something about these times we’re living in.  In a beautifully abstract dance piece, mixing fantasy and a folksy American reality, what’s clear from this film is art survives as a timeless expression. 

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