Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Frederick Wiseman picks a piece of the world and films the hell out of it. He picks it because it's interesting to him, not because it's "relevant." "Relevant" being whatever corporate media thinks the public should find more important than other things at a given moment. "Relevant" acknowledges why a movie about Berkeley might be important right now, but doesn't see why such a movie has to be so long or include lengthy discussions of poetry, time, and astrophysics. ("Relevant" will have no truck with reflection or metaphor. "Relevant" is a Brueghel canvas seen through a keyhole.) "Relevant" is likely why At Berkeley (2013) aired on my local PBS station two months ago in a timeslot (11pm-3am) prohibitive to everybody but diehard cinephiles and insomniacs, slightly less of an insult in the age of DVR (which I don't have), but only slightly. "Relevant" is also why Wiseman has never been nominated for an Oscar, and why Netflix won't answer his letters. All of this is not to suggest that he's an embattled or marginalized figure (he has, as is frequently noted, become something of an institution himself) but his work represents a mode of thinking about the world that's highly unfashionable in the age of Upworthy and its like.
Sure, At Berkeley has a more obvious bearing on the zeitgeist than his last movie, Crazy Horse (2011), a study of the Parisian burlesque club of the same name, but its "relevance" feels unforced and organic, discovered rather than imposed or assumed. The problem with some social issues-type documentaries is the filmmakers seem to know already more or less what they're going to say, and making the movie is just a matter of collecting facts and scintillating footage to support what the initial thesis is. Not that there isn't a place for that kind of documentary, but it tends to make for flat, primarily informational experiences, exhausted of their riches after a single viewing. At Berkeley makes a definite argument about the state of higher education in America, but that argument isn't immediately apparent. Instead, it's emergent, largely assembled from long blocks of time in lecture halls and meeting rooms, in which conversations between subjects are allowed to ebb and flow, as conversations do. These scenes are often fascinating in themselves, both for the heady intelligence of the discussions and the immanent quality of Wiseman's images (he seems incapable of filming a person without making one aware of the complex interweaving of historical and biological forces that have molded them into what they are). But when the scenes are juxtaposed with each other, further levels of meaning (echos and linkages, running themes and subthemes) gradually accumulate, forming a complex and cohesive statement. Perhaps due to Wiseman's spurning of the usual viewer guideposts (narration, interviews, identificatory chyrons), or the slowness with which At Berkeley builds, one feels Wiseman is unearthing his argument at the same time you are.
I don't agree with all aspects of that argument. While the student protests that take up about an hour of the movie's second half may have been as inchoate and abortive as Wiseman suggests they were, and the administrators might be the entirely decent, principled and well-meaning people he depicts, I nonetheless found myself wishing Wiseman would sacrifice his umpteenth study in faculty meeting inertia for a scene among students discussing their hopes, worries, and longings without the mediation of an authority figure. But that one reservation aside, when At Berkeley ended I felt newly awakened to the polyphonic complexity of this grand, wacky circus we call civilization. At three in the morning, no less.*
*Which is actually when most such epiphanies occur, so maybe there was some higher logic to PBS's scheduling than I was willing to concede.