“At Berkeley”: The History of the University, in Real Time

Now here's another of documentary maven Frederick Wiseman's thick slices of institutional life, and it's a doozy. The subject is America's most renowned public university, variously beleaguered by state budget cuts and a seemingly uneasy reflection on its legacy of progressivism. An unprecedentedly exhaustive cross-section, and a must-see for anyone who cares at all about UC Berkeley, this is not necessarily a general-audience affair. Sometimes Wiseman's fly-on-the-wall approach feels refreshing or classic, and cuts through the noisy nonsense of recent documentary trends. Sometimes it's a little boring. Can we admit as much, even when he examines so important a fixture of our own metropolitan culture? What's more, Wiseman's sometimes stubbornly artless film stretches on for more than four hours, which is a lot to ask even without so many scenes of people sitting inside and having meetings. (Somewhat helpfully, Robert Reich is on hand giving a lecture in which he says that faculty meetings are awful, and they go on twice as long as government meetings. “They are used to hearing themselves speak!”) Presumably for reasons of maintaining democratic equilibrium, Wiseman withholds all expository annotation. That absent information — about who certain key players are, and how exactly they relate — might have been illuminating after all, or at least helped viewers get their bearings. But there is a technique and a structure of sorts in Wiseman's pluralistic, long-game immersion, and there is a positive result: We see what makes this institution tick, and why.

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