Thursday, November 7, 2013

Campus Visit: AT BERKELEY

One quietly remarkable moment in At Berkeley, a documentary full of quietly remarkable moments, comes when we get the chance to observe a student working on programming a robotic arm to fold a towel. We watch as the mechanical arms work tirelessly, pushing and pulling the fabric in its metal grasps, the student tapping away at a keyboard, staring at his project from over a computer screen. In this simple gesture – one repeated and underlined later when we see two students working on mechanical leg braces intended to help those in wheelchairs walk – is embedded a great many questions with which this powerful observational film, which contains not a single moment of contextualizing interviews, narration, or text, concerns itself. How is it possible to communicate and perpetuate human knowledge? How do we adjust old ways of working to new circumstances? How do we determine what services are necessities, and which are simply luxuries? How do we make a machine – be it a robot, or an institution – work for us? It’s the difference between a towel-folding robot and a pair of mechanical legs.

Directed by 83-year-old veteran filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, At Berkeley is an epic documentary, sprawling over four hours. It is another one of his precisely observed pictures of process that coalesces into a comprehensive exploration of an institution. Just look at some of the titles of his past films – High School (1968), Hospital (1970), Welfare (1975), Racetrack (1985), Zoo (1993), Public Housing (1997), Boxing Gym (2010) – and it’s easy to locate the source of his main interests as a filmmaker. He burrows into his selected institutions with laser focus and expansive inquisitiveness, letting the moments he captures speak for themselves as they add patiently and persuasively to a big picture. His editing is crisp and flowing, so that time passes by easily. He makes long films in the best sense, full of thought-provoking moments both individually and collectively. By showing us one institution so thoroughly, he shows us the world itself, one microcosm at a time.

What Wiseman creates is a space for thinking, constantly supplying additional evidence for further consideration. He holds ideas in opposition and shows their precarious positions of mutual need. Processes, juxtaposed and observed with equal care and clarity, illuminate tensions between mindsets, goals, approaches, and points of view. In the case of the University of California, Berkeley, Wiseman finds a perfect vantage point from which to consider many present concerns facing the United States. During the time his cameras roamed the campus with remarkable access in the fall of 2010, the public university was touting a record number of low-income admissions, championing increased access to higher education. At the same moment, the school was facing falling funding, fallout from the sickly economy, tepidly climbing out of the recession, and poisoned politics, with many Americans favoring defunding many programs once commonly held as basic public goods.

In the film we hear lots of discussion about access, both academic and socioeconomic. We sit in on meetings of students discussing financial situations, groups dedicated to aid, gatherings of students who are minorities or veterans. But what is it that a place like Berkeley really provides? This is a film about different kinds of work and knowledge and the values we place on them. Wiseman takes us into lectures, classroom discussions, department gatherings, administrative meetings, musical performances, play rehearsals, maintenance shifts, athletic events, labs, poetry readings, guest speakers’ presentations, and protests. We sit and watch, eavesdropping on fascinating discussions and work across a variety of fields of interest. We hear an English seminar’s analysis of Thoreau, a budget meeting’s comparison of new faculty benefits across various universities, a science professor’s rumination on how humans perceive time, the film skipping smoothly between subjects and locations. Some moments go on for minutes on end; others are sharp, quick, and over in a flash. It’s a film full of ideas on the surface. A university, after all, is a place of churning intellect and free-flowing conversations about a great many things.

This will look familiar to most who graduated from an institution of higher learning in recent memory. As a graduate of a comparable public university I found a great deal of nostalgic resonance to these images. To sit a fly on the wall in these classrooms is a treat, sampling a great many fascinating lectures, seeing a gorgeous campus, students and faculty roaming the walkways, lounging on the grass in the shade of leafy trees. But as the film accumulates the sights and sounds of a university’s daily functions, the surface fascination of what we see and what is being discussed adds up to those larger questions about competing interests that power the institution. It’s a film as much about the bureaucracy of academia as it is about the academic concerns itself. In its scenes of administrative roundtable discussions, it’s something of a financial drama, an institution struggling to stay true to its founding principles and core mission as it tightens its belt and raises its rates.

A telling moment comes when we drop in on Professor Robert Reich mid-lecture as he discusses the difficulties in setting up an organization to make sure good information gets back to the leaders. Much later, in a remarkably candid scene, a student protest is casually dismissed by the administration as unfocused “fun out in Sproul Plaza.” Wiseman’s editing judiciously chooses what we see and when we see it to hold higher education’s sometimes-competing interests as dialectical arguments. Tensions between students as recipients of a faculty’s knowledge and consumers of an institution’s product are held in a precarious balance buffeted by the storms of modern anxieties. The film is a sampler of ideology and practices, bold stances and half-measures, intriguing conversations that in some instances end with degrees, in others with decrees.

By the end, it’s a portrait of higher education as it is today, with all its complications, its benefits and flaws presented with great nuance and subtlety. In its reflection, you can see the tensions and anxieties of America itself. By the time the end credits hit, I found my heart suddenly as full as my head. My mind was spinning with thoughts racing in several directions at once. My eyes were misty. Here’s a film that asserts the value of academia and, in the struggle to do right by it, hope for our future. The credits roll over silhouetted drama students working on a production of Our Town juxtaposed against the sound of Willie Nelson singing “Good morning, America. How are you?”

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