Although his name is virtually synonymous with cinéma vérité, Frederick Wiseman disavows the notion that he adopts the perspective of the impartial “fly on the wall”:
All aspects of documentary filmmaking involve choice and are therefore manipulative. But the ethical … aspect of it is that you have to … try to make [a film that] is true to the spirit of your sense of what was going on. … My view is that these films are biased, prejudiced, condensed, compressed but fair. I think what I do is make movies that are not accurate in any objective sense, but accurate in the sense that I think they’re a fair account of the experience I’ve had in making the movie. (from Wikipedia)
I saw “Titicut Follies” in 1967, the first documentary Wiseman ever made at the age of 37. Now 83, the director came to filmmaking relatively late in life, having started out as a lawyer. The film was an indictment of the treatment of inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital for “the criminally insane” that allowed the doctors to be hoisted on their own petard through their callous treatment of their wards. Viewed as the ultimate dregs of society, the patients were the Guantanamo prisoners of their day, putting up with forced feedings and the like. You can watch the full film on Youtube:
There was little doubt about Wiseman’s intentions, which dovetailed with the goal of Michel Foucault’s “Madness and Civilization”, namely to view the asylum as an repressive institution no matter the lofty ideals associated with those who administer them.
“At Berkeley”, his 41st film now playing at the IFC and at Lincoln Center in New York, took me my surprise. With lingering memories of the anti-authoritarianism of “Titicut Follies”, “High School”, “Basic Training”, and “Welfare”, I came to it with expectations that it would expose the iron fist of authoritarianism that was concealed in the velvet glove of this elite university’s PR machinery. I was shocked to discover that the film was practically indistinguishable from that very machinery, focused on justifying administration resistance to student protests against a fee hike.
Before addressing the film’s editorial slant, it would be useful to identify some of the formal techniques that serve as the film’s substructure. They have been used consistently throughout Wiseman’s career and have become as stylized as Kabuki.
1. Long takes captured on a static camera:
I had forgotten how defiant Wiseman is of conventional expectations when the initial scene in “At Berkeley” timed in at what seemed like an eternity—a meeting of administration officers discussing how to balance the needs of a prestigious university against fiscal realities. I suppose it might have seemed like an eternity to me since the principals took 100 words when 10 would have been sufficient, not to speak of the self-congratulatory tone of officers who look at the university in the same way that Mark Zuckerberg might look at Facebook—a corporate fiefdom.
2. Intermezzi that connect one long take to another:
In between each scene, you spot campus workers mowing lawns, sweeping a stairwell, or pouring cement; students walking to class, etc. All this is calculated to remind you that not everything takes place in a faculty lounge. It is telling that Wiseman never includes a single scene of buildings and grounds people eating lunch with each other, discussing the impacts of one staff cutback after another.
3. A stubborn refusal to identify speakers:
Except for Robert Reich lecturing on organizational behavior (a quite lively episode), you will not recognize a single figure who plays a leading role in the film as well as Berkeley’s ongoing fiscal crisis. It becomes quite maddening when you want to know who it is that badmouths the students for not being as serious about their goals as he was when he protested the Vietnam War. I was determined to find the jerk’s email address and send him some feedback but did not know where to start.
At 244 minutes, “At Berkeley” is often slow-going, especially in the moments when deans, provosts, et al are discussing how to conduct a balancing act between running a university and keeping the finances from bleeding red ink. There are classroom scenes that will remind you why Berkeley has such a prestigious brand name. One professor does a close reading of Thoreau’s “Walden” that might inspire you, as it did me, to reread the classic. Another lectures about how time is perceived in terms both philosophical and scientific, leaving some doubt whether it is a philosophy or a physics class, thus adding to its allure. But all in all this is mostly about human beings not doing much of anything except talking.
The drama arrives after two hours when the university begins developing contingency plans to deal with a threatened student strike, all from the perspective of the “realistic” and “mature” administration officials. You see students marching, chanting, sitting in, and giving speeches (but only briefly) but never discussing their goals from within their ranks. When they finally occupy the campus library, Wiseman introduces intermezzi of students sunbathing or throwing Frisbees as if to say that the “radicals” were isolated. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve made 40 films and been lionized as a genius in the film industry. It goes to your head. It is called the Charlie Rose guest syndrome.
Some people, including me, would have seen this immediately, even the New York Times although unconsciously:
Mr. Wiseman has made his share of grim documentaries in which people are processed and oppressed by bureaucracy. “At Berkeley” is not one. Its cautiously upbeat attitude is expressed in a director’s note: “I think it is just as important for a filmmaker to show people of intelligence, character, tolerance and good will, hard at work, as it is to make movies about the failures, insensitivities and cruelties of others.” Amen.
For those who still believe that the term “processed and oppressed by bureaucracy” still apply to Berkeley, I strongly recommend a look at Frederick Wiseman’s “At Berkeley,” or, Seeing Like an Administration at the Reclaim UC blog.
One last consequence of Wiseman’s documentary technique, at least for our purposes here, has to do with what we could call a structural asymmetry of context. Nearly every reviewer remarks on a scene in a meeting among top-level university executives in which Chancellor Birgeneau details ongoing budget cuts, to the point that the state, which once provided 40-50 percent of the UC budget, now provides just 16 percent. These data act as a sort of mini-history of the institution, usefully framing the film as a study of the public university in crisis and locating it at the end of a long trajectory of what Birgeneau calls a “progressive disinvestment in higher education in the state of California.” It is a true, though partial story, one that students and workers have spent a lot of time and energy trying to correct. But what we want to highlight here is the differential between the administration on one hand and the protesters on the other. Because Wiseman spends so much time with administrators and especially with the chancellor, he affords them the chance to frame their own story. In this way, their actions are not only contextualized but through that context rendered reasonable.
In contrast, the protest—dismissed by administrators, ridiculed by director and reviewers alike—has no context. It appears out of nowhere, disconnected from everything that preceded it, further compounding the reviewers’ view of its “fragmented” and “disorganized” character. Although Wiseman appears to treat administrators and protesters on more or less the same formal plane, here the asymmetry is revealed. The chancellor constructs the administration’s present through a narration of its past. The protesters, on the other hand, lack the same position from which to narrate their own history. In part this is due to the difference between the univocal and stabile character of the administration, an institution defined by (and for that matter funded on the basis of) its continuity, and the polyphonic character of a protest movement, defined by multiplicity and change over time. But it also has to do with the film’s attachment to the chancellor and by extension to the administration. It leaves no place from which to tell the recent history of struggle at UC.
All this leaves me an a quandary over whether to rate this documentary as “fresh” or “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes. In the final hour or so, I became so fed up with the university’s officialdom that I wanted to scream at my television. It is “rotten” in the sense that it is based on a lie; it is “fresh” in that it is compelling cinema even if too “talky”. At the age of 83, Wiseman may be in the twilight of a long and distinguished career. So on that footing alone, his latest is to be recommended. Fortunately we have many young filmmakers who are stepping forward to keep his original vision going, the sort of people I try to bring your attention to on a regular basis. People like Rob Kuhns, the director of “Birth of the Living Dead” also playing at the IFC in New York.
Rob Kuhns, who has directed a couple of episodes on Bill Moyers’s hard-hitting PBS show, has made a full-length documentary encapsulating a point of view that many veterans of the 1960s, including me, have long held—namely that George Romero’s 1968 “Night of the Living Dead” was as much a product of its time as “Titicut Follies” or “Easy Rider”.
Leaving aside the politics for a minute, the film also has to be recognized as having invented a genre that is universal today, from “28 Days” to television’s “Walking Dead”. Before Romero’s film, the zombie was featured in movies set in Haiti or some other Caribbean Island far removed from reality. It was Romero’s breakthrough to make the film unrelentingly realistic, including scenes of zombies eating entrails or lurching toward their prey in that characteristic gait.
Now 73, Romero got his start making commercials in the Pittsburgh area. Even then he was willing to push the envelope, making the first beer commercial actually showing people guzzling down a drink. When he worked on a film that showed Mr. Rogers, the benign host of a PBS children’s show, getting ready for a tonsillectomy, he was inspired to do a zombie movie since Mr. Rogers’s procedure struck him as gruesome rather than reassuring. Before going down that road, Romero considered doing an American version of Ingmar Bergman’s “Virgin Spring”. Fortunately, he saw that as unmarketable and moved onto a more feasible project that would make his mark as a director.
Romero is the star of the film, a likeably self-effacing and witty figure. He talks about how the film was cast, drawing from local personalities including many of the clients of his advertising agency who worked for free and had a blast doing so.
Besides Romero, we hear from a number of knowledgeable film critics and scholars including Elvis Mitchell, an African-American who explains the importance of casting an African-American actor—Duane Jones—in the lead role. Jones is an authority figure just as much as the sheriff in “Walking Dead” but nobody ever says a word about not taking orders from a “Negro”. In its way, “Night of the Living Dead” was as much of a breakthrough for Black identity in films as the more obvious bids from directors working in the Blaxploitation genre.
Also, unlike the traditional zombie movie set in Haiti, Romero made a movie about a society in advanced disintegration fully aware that it reflected what was happening in the streets of Newark or Detroit.
Using zombie attacks as a metaphor throughout his career, Romero’s most powerful film in my view was the 2005 “Land of the Dead”, about which I wrote:
As a blend of horror movie escapism and social commentary, George Romero’s “Land of the Dead” succeeds wildly. Romero, who has three previous zombie movies to his credit, uses the conflict between the living and the ‘undead’ as a metaphor for the contradictions of late capitalist America.
The living dwell in a gated and heavily fortified city that is patrolled by centurions who have not earned the right to permanent residence there themselves. The centurions occasionally organize themselves into death squads and make forays into zombie territory where they kill at random and retrieve canned goods and booze for the consumption needs of the urban population. The shops in zombie territory are still staffed by the “stenches” who once worked there but who have only dim memories of their old occupations. An undead gas station attendant might hold up a nozzle but is clueless as to which end of the car it goes into; an undead gardener aimlessly pushes a lawnmower in circles in the middle of the street at midnight, and so on. These are lost souls who no longer fit into the commodity-producing scheme of things. What is worse, they subsist on eating the flesh of the living.
“Land of the Dead” can be seen on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it already, grab it.