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We Watched That Four-Hour Berkeley Documentary So You Don't Have To

A short conversation about the very, very long At Berkeley.

In 2010, the venerated documentary filmmmaker Frederick Wiseman was granted unprecedented access to the UC Berkeley campus. It was a fascinating time for the university, and a fecund topic for narrative filmmmaking: Wiseman captured lectures, high-level administrator meetings, student protests, and much more, all of which have now been cobbled together into an epic four-hour documentary screening at theaters around the Bay Area now and on PBS starting January 13. Two of our editors watched it and discussed. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Ellen Cushing: So I guess before we cut to the chase each of us should explain our relationships to Berkeley?

Scott Lucas: Cards on the table.

EC: I'm a native Berkeleyan and my mom's an administrator in the Office of the President. Though—FULL DISCLOSURE—I myself didn't go there.

SL: I went to my first Cal football at three months old, I did my undergrad there, and both my parents work on campus. My dad's a scientist and my mother is a departmental administrator and both of them went to Cal too. So, you can't really get more Berkeley supremacist.

EC: We are basically the target audience for this movie, I guess. What did you think?

SL: It was sort of like watching home movies

EC: Ha!

SL: We started playing a drinking game—a shot whenever someone we knew came on screen. 

EC: How drunk were you by the end? Like, should I be concerned?

SL: All the drunk, we were all the drunk

EC: But can we talk about how this movie had ZERO SUBTITLES? Did that bug you as much as it did me? 

SL: I didn't need them—I took half the classes that they filmed. But I don't know what you would do if you aren't me.

EC: It was weird to watch meetings and not know the power relation between the people talking.

SL: I didn't know any of the kids, though. I graduated two or so years ahead of them.

EC: Yeah I guess we should say here that the film was mostly shot around 2010. 

SL: Lots of the trends came to a head then: the dis-investment by the state, the student unrest, and the administrative reorganization.

EC: Yeah, it felt like you were watching all this unfold at a real inflection point for the movie. The stakes were high.

SL: Which is a part that I thought the film could have handled better, but I don't know how. Many of the problems at Berkeley are really the fault of our dysfunctional state legislature, not the campus.

EC: I feel like the film did a pretty good job of making the state budget the clear villian, but it was strange to me how little they talked about the rest of the campuses.

SL: Well, that's Berkeley. We don't really care that there are 10 or whatever other campuses. I think the film did a good job showing why there are so few places in the world at which you can have people building robot legs, reconstructing dinosaur skeletons, explaining how the human brain processes time, searching for dark energy. I think what the film does is show you the case for saving/bolstering it in a way that just garden-variety boosterism can't.

EC: Very true. Wiseman's affection for his subject matter really came through. I think anyone—even people who aren't crazy Cal partisans—would come away from the movie feeling like this is undoubtedly a very special place.

SL: Would that be overpowering for someone who doesn't live in the bubble though? My wife, who is very much not in the Berkeley bubble, barely made it through the first hour.

EC: But the movie's being reviewed well, and presumably not just by critics who went to Berkeley.

SL: It takes a long time for the stakes of the film to unfold. If you don't go in knowing them, I think it would be hard to stay with the endless meetings and discussion sections.

EC: So yeah, what did you think of the movie as ENTERTAINMENT, rather than information? Like, was this an enjoyable movie experience for you?

SL: Yes, but I suspect only for people like me. It's more of anthropological field work than it is filmic entertainment. You?

EC: Yeah agreed completely. Wiseman's whole thing is institutions, right? But institutions are REALLY COMPLICATED. I mean, we haven't mentioned it yet, but this movie is four hours long ...

SL: How many sittings did it take you to get through?

EC: I think four total. I definitely played some Candy Crush—especially the scenes in class. Like, WOW are college kids irritating.

SL: Four chunks for me too.

EC: Ha! But I don't know that I necessarily would've had a different reaction if he'd made a movie about my college or something else I REALLY REALLY care about. He's a very slow filmmaker, and in some ways a difficult one—I mentioned that there are no subtitles, and there's also no narration, and minimal editing within scenes. You're really plunged in.

SL: I actually found that after a while I came to enjoy the pacing that he built. So the protests: What did you think?

EC: I thought they were handled brilliantly, and it was only really after I finished that I realized how cleverly they wre shot and edited. It felt very neutral, but in a way that allowed the viewer to sort of see her own opinions—whatever they are—reflected. It was less of a like, "well, both sides have a point" faux-objective thing than just a very HONEST portrayal, if that makes sense. Maybe that's a place where the lack of narration really works. The students end up looking irrational and the administration looks condescending, but neither is the bad guy.

SL: Did student protestors when you were at school do the same thing that us Berkeley kids do, where every protest has about a million random demands? Because I always thought that was counterproductive.

EC: Absolutely. But that was one of the most interesting things about the movie: We got to see what it's like to receive these kinds of demands. There was this great scene of a bunch of administrators talking while this protest is raging outside, and they're having this very calm, very pragmatic conversation about how to respond, and one of the main things is like, "we don't have time to answer all these by 5 p.m." What do you think Wiseman thinks of the protestors? It is amazingly hard to tell.

SL: He plays his cards with a lot of care, but I think his sympathies are closer to two groups we haven't talked about: the faculty on the one hand and the groundskeepers and janitors and construction workers, who form this kind of silent counterpoint to all the agony with the admins and students. The students aren't going to accomplish much with the protest; we know this. The real work of the university is the teaching and the research, and the real support is the folks who cut the grass and lay the cement. Students and admininstrators matter so much less than they think they do that's my idea, at least. What do you think?

EC: I totally agree! I wasn't really thinking that while I watched the movie, but a surprsing number of the big set-piece scenes are lectures, and there are a lot of establishing shots of janitors and such.

SL: I found those to be the most moving parts. Because it was people just doing their jobs, without worrying about the macro stuff. It was dignified.

EC: So what's your ultimate takeaway? Would you reccommend this movie to people?

SL: I would—and I think you shouldn't cheat by not watching the whole thing because the cumulative impact of the four hours is more than you'd think it would be. You?

EC: I wouldn't give this a blanket recommendation, but if you're interested in higher ed, or Berkeley, the city or the school, it's definitely worth it. It was much more affecting than such an academic subject could be.

SL: Final thoughts?

EC: GO BEARS.

 

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Email Ellen Cushing at ecushing@modernluxury.com
Email Scott Lucas at slucas@modernluxury.com
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Follow Ellen Cushing on Twitter @elcush

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