January 30, 2014

At Berkeley: Bureaucracy, Boredom and the Big Questions

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At Berkeley is four hours of lectures, labs, debates, administrative meetings and construction workers laying concrete. It is, by definition, tedious and a test of endurance. It is also distressing, alarming and above all, urgent.

Beneath the mundaneness of what veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman elects to show us, strife simmers at a medium boil. In true U.C. Berkeley fashion, this discord breaks out into a rousing protest near the film’s end, yet it leads to nowhere. Wiseman understands that our country is in a state of paralyzing crisis, and with that thesis in mind, At Berkeley looks and sounds less like a cut-up collage of video TakeNotes and more like a love letter to a system of higher education with an uncertain, frightening future.

During a lecture on Walden, an English professor stresses that Thoreau may write “a jumble of observations,” but that there is nonetheless a “pattern” to be discerned. Wiseman must have included this line, about midway through the film, as a wink to his audience trying to draw conclusions from this seeming mess of raw footage. He includes no lower-third captions (everyone we meet, including that professor, goes unnamed), no didactic voiceover, no convenient graphics or cutesy animations. Yet, of course, there is much to learn from the film — to say nothing of the lectures themselves. It helps to break At Berkeley into three rough acts: Education, Bureaucracy and Change (Or Lack Thereof).

For the first “act” (which runs over 90 minutes), Wiseman immerses us in the college classroom. A current Cornell student may wonder why she or he would watch hours of lectures when we have enough of that already, and that concern is not unfounded: There are a few really, really boring slogs here. While this just might be a symptom of my liberal arts education, I justify these trying sections for a dialectic they explore between STEM and humanities majors. Wiseman shows us students railing against their money-obsessed peers in finance and whatnot, but he has a more fundamental opposition in mind than that oft-mentioned, though no less worrisome, cliché.

Early on, a professor leads a discussion with her students. She says, “We need to talk about not individual behavior but structures of power and systems of decision-making that shift that behavior.” Wiseman must disagree with that quote, to an extent, for he props up the individual behavior of students and administrators as a macrocosm for higher education today. Yet he surely finds fascinating the back-and-forth that follows the professor’s prompt, where students raise their voices about debt, philanthropy and Tea Party rhetoric. They do not arrive at a solvable conclusion, nor does the metaphysics professor who wonders aloud whether, in the realm of spacetime, we approach time or time approaches us. These are questions wedded to the humanities, inherently unsolvable yet beautiful for the way they test and expand the boundaries of the human mind.

That is one side of the coin, and then Wiseman cuts to a pair of robot arms folding a towel with the grace of a wushu master. This long, random and near-silent scene plays like slapstick comedy. Wiseman does not belittle scientific pursuits, mind you, but, with this scene, he quarantines them from the insurmountable concerns currently engulfing the university and the world. The focus on STEM education these days should, at least we hope, amount to a safer, healthier and more efficient world. Yet the most torpid passages in At Berkeley isolate highly educated students to talk about their highly specialized scientific endeavors. What starts as an inspiring look at medical technology restoring a paraplegic’s ability to walk before long eschews the young man benefiting from this technology and instead lets the student talk in exhaustive detail about his Ph.D. I do not think this is me just speaking as a humanities student and “not getting” what he has to say. Rather, I see Wiseman allotting praise for the advances made in STEM fields yet advising those in them to flirt with the questions — whether they be in partisan politics or abstract philosophy — looming over the rest of the world.

This humanities-STEM tension permeates the first third of the film, while the rest hones in on the bureaucracy of the U.C. Berkeley establishment, and how it works hard, with good intentions, to fix problems beyond its control. The smiling Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau leads most of the closed-doors meetings which Wiseman faithfully depicts as dull, occasionally delirious affairs. In one shot, an administrator in the background talks business while a woman in the foreground drinks a Starbucks coffee, swirls it around for a good five seconds and drains it with gusto. “Faculty meetings, in general, are just awful,” former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich says during a standout lecture in the film. Wiseman agrees, so he leaves in moments like that to remind us that, above science, politics and literature, we love the taste of something good.

The film culminates with a student takeover of Wheeler Hall (Berkeley’s equivalent to Goldwin Smith). Crosscutting between the hall and the offices where administrators scramble to quell the type of uprising so core to Berkeley’s culture, Wiseman escalates tension while acknowledging the intractable mess of the situation. Some of the student demands conflict with one another and many more target the California government rather than anything within Chancellor Birgeneau’s purview. But, you know, these students are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore! Wiseman remains stubbornly neutral throughout, to the extent that a “moderate” political group on campus complaining about the protest after the fact comes across as left of center, or right, or I cannot really tell.

At Berkeley entertains in its tedium. It takes the issues — a vanishing middle-class, rising tuition, budget cuts to humanities in the midst of non-stop, overwhelming on-campus construction (*COUGH*) — seriously, while snickering at how intractable our problems appear to be. Perhaps Wiseman, 84 years young, with a career of perceptive documentaries on American institutions behind him, senses the same issues of the past have only intensified over the years. As one of his last projects, At Berkeley encapsulates the frustrations embedded within institutions, even one as exceptional as U.C. Berkeley. But the higher education experience cannot be matched, whether you are studying spectroscopy, reading e.e. cummings or mowing the lawn all day because the school cannot afford another landscaper.