Tuesday, December 10, 2013

At Berkeley (2013)

WHO: Frederick Wiseman directed this.

WHAT: It's the time of year when critics begin listing their best films of the year. I'm generally uncomfortable with applying the word "critic" to myself, as what I write on this blog and elsewhere only very rarely and fleetingly approaches the kind of critical writing I find valuable as a reader. But I expect I will at some point publish a list along these lines, as I have done in previous years. In the meantime I feel pretty comfortable calling At Berkeley the "Frisco Bay" film of the year. As in, the 2013 commercial release of a film shot locally that I think is most "essential viewing" for area cinephiles. It's main competition here is probably from Fruitvale Station and Blue Jasmine, and although I liked both of these films more than I expected to, in the latter case this is especially faint praise (I haven't really admired a new Woody Allen film in over fifteen years) and in the former it's just not enough to compete with a master filmmaker who may still be near the top of his game.

I recognize that not everyone thinks At Berkeley deserves to rank among Wiseman's best films. I must admit I haven't seen enough of them, and those I have perhaps not recently enough, to make a truly informed statement on the matter. But I have seen a good handful of his key works: Titicut Follies, High School, Primate, The Store, and several others including the 1963 film The Cool World which Shirley Clarke directed but that Wiseman, not yet having tried his hand behind the camera, initiated and produced. And although At Berkeley may not include any of the jaw-dropping "I can't believe he was able to film that" moments that make some of his films work almost as smoothly as exploitation (by which I mean exploiting a thrill-seeking audience, not his subjects) as they do as art and as intellectual fodder, I feel it stacks up with just about any of them in presenting an established institution both as true to its own traditions and as a microcosm of larger human concerns represented in its character. In an unmistakably Wiseman way.

Though there may be a tendency for a documentary about a school to resemble in some ways a streamed TED conference, Wiseman prevents his film from slipping into this territory. Every lecture or discussion fragment is bookended by shots of the campus environment that silently comment upon the preceding and subsequent scenes just as methodically as the "pillow shots" that reinforce the dramatic and comedic moments in a Yasujiro Ozu film. Frequently Wiseman's moments of this sort work to weave whole sections of a sprawling, four hour and four minute feature into a tight basket of narrative and argument. Michael Sicinski's review points to one of the more memorable instances of this, an image of a lawn mower maintaining the campus green.

Sicinski's review is excellently written and insightful about a good many of Wiseman's strategies. However, I feel the author may overstate Wiseman's desire to make us feel specific feelings about the (unidentified) participants in the institution he films. His is not the only article to do so; Katy Fox-Hodess has written a compelling account of the campus issues At Berkeley illustrates, from the perspective of someone who believes Wiseman has clearly picked the wrong side to "cheerlead" for; it's  fascinating reading for context, but leaps even further to its conclusions about filmmaker intention. Perhaps I'm missing something these writers are seeing because of my own biases, but I did not sense watching the film that Wiseman's own sympathies lay with then-chancellor Robert Birgeneau and his staff any more than it did with the protesting students. He presents both parties, illustrates their animosities towards each other, and allows both to make cases for their positions and to hang themselves with their own rope. My sense is that open-minded viewers are not guided by the filmmaker to make conclusions about these players, but encouraged to think hard about their perspectives, biases, and the strengths and limitations of their tactics. My own thoughts about Birgeneau while watching the film tended to mirror those of Genevieve Yue more than Wiseman's own public statements about him and his administration, which he could just as easily be making to stay on the good side of an institution that could still cause real trouble for his film's release into the market, as to reflect his own genuine feelings.

WHERE/WHEN: Twice daily at the Elmwood and once per night at the Roxie, through this Thursday, after which it drops to a single showtime per day at the Elmwood (and none at the Roxie). Also screens once at the Pacific Film Archive January 18th.

WHY: I haven't visited the Elmwood in a while, but it's surely the most Berkeley place to see At Berkeley unless perhaps you're willing to wait until January 18th when it returns to the Pacific Film Archive after last week's campus-community-only screening with the director in person, recounted here and expected to be represented on the PFA's list of in-person guest podcasts soon.

I saw At Berkeley at the Roxie however- the "Little Roxie" to be exact, and can certainly recommend that venue as a non-Berkeley option. If you go there, be sure to pick up the newest printed calendar, which details much of the Roxie's upcoming programming not yet available on its website, starting with the 35mm prints of Gone With the Pope, An American Hippie in Israel and Trash Humpers screening December 20th, continuing with the week-long booking of Jia Zhang-ke's controversial A Touch of Sin January 3-9, and well into February.

HOW: Digital production & presentation.

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