I've been a fan of Frederick Wiseman's work for a long time, going all the way back to his debut feature Titicut Follies in the late 60s. I've written about one of his films here once: Welfare. I've looked forward to seeing At Berkeley ever since it was released almost ten years ago, but Wiseman, still with us in his 90s, keeps a close watch on his movies, and they are very hard to find. I finally found At Berkeley on Kanopy, and spent most of a day watching it (it's just over 4 hours long).
The shots of campus and the scenes in classrooms and meetings are almost frightening in their nostalgic pull, I didn't recognize any people except for a brief few seconds of The Hate Man. But after about an hour-and-a-half, we're in a class where Mitch Breitwieser is teaching Thoreau to some students. The sound of his voice took me back in a delightfully pleasant way. I had taken that class, or something close to it, 30+ years ago, and while I was never quite convinced of Thoreau's greatness, Mitch was one of the great professors.
I still remember my first class as an undergraduate ... we were assigned The Great Gatsby (it occurs to me now that I later taught that exact course in 2000), and in my transferred-from-junior-college mind, I assumed this would be easy, because what could be said about Gatsby that was new? After one lecture, if memory serves, Mitch had gotten through a close reading of the first couple of paragraphs, through "Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope". I knew then that there was a lot more to be said about Gatsby, and that Cal was another level from the Peralta Colleges.
Outside of a couple of brief sightings (and a segment of a Robert Reich lecture), that was it for people I recognized. I recognized lots of buildings, though. Seeing the faces of the young, idealistic students reminded me of how great it was to be involved with students at that point in their lives. I also started reliving some of my still-existing prejudices. I've always hated Chancellors. Didn't matter who they were, I hated them. Here, it was Robert Birgeneau, who is the closest thing to a central character in the film. He actually comes across as reasonable and pleasant, until late in the film, when protesting students take over the library for a couple of hours. Afterwards, Birgeneau reflects. "I'm gonna sound really old here. Protests I've participated in my life, serious protests, were about the Vietnam War. I got fired from my job for one day at Bell Labs for opposing the anti-ballistic missile system.... We took serious risks, actually, right? ... Now, protests have just become sort of fun out in Sproul Plaza." I traveled back to the times I experienced this kind of paternalistic faux-concern about students, and got pissed off all over again.
But is the movie any good? It's too long, sure, but Wiseman does cover a lot of what happens on the Berkeley campus, showing classes in several departments, faculty meetings, and the like. It's overwhelming, as most Wiseman movies are, because he never supplies context ... never tells us where we are, never puts up a subtitle telling us who is speaking. It's the fly-on-the-wall approach. I wished for more focus, but the truth is, I can't think of much I'd cut out ... maybe some of the faculty meetings. At one point, Reich tells his students, "I've spent half my life in the United States government, admin meetings, and the other half, a lot of them in faculty meetings, and I can tell you, faculty meetings go on twice as long. Why? Not because faculties are bad, but people in faculties like to speak. They like to talk. They are used to hearing themselves speak and they're used to watching other people nod in response. And so a faculty meeting is very, very long." If you spent part of your life at UC Berkeley (I was there for more than 15 years as undergrad, grad student, and teacher), you will get something out of the film. I noticed how beautiful the campus is. When I was there, I was always going from one place to another, and never took the time to appreciate that beauty. If you don't have that Berkeley connection, I'd suggest watching a different Wiseman movie. #602 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.