Some Thoughts on the Study of Terminal Institutions in Frederick Wisemans At Berkeley

TIFF 2014: How can master filmmaker Frederick Wiseman scrutinise the body of the University and fail to notice it dying before his eyes?

Wiseman the master filmmaker will tell you that to make a film is to take a point of view. It follows that any commentator must do the same. So here goes! I reject the master’s point of view in At Berkeley. It’s the wrong perspective at the wrong time. This just happens to be a very important time, quite possibly a critical juncture for our whole way of life.

Renowned documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has a reputation for digging deep, to scratch beneath the surface and give his audiences the kind of insight lesser lights could never provide. After the full four hours of his latest work, At Berkeley, I’m surprised to discover that actually Wiseman really should have dug much deeper.

Imagine my surprise! Four hours is a long time, after all – a very long time! At one point I noticed that one of the students captured on screen was reading Atonement, by Ian McEwan. I felt a strange chill of foreboding. I whispered to my companion, ‘I feel sorry for that guy; I wish I could have all the hours back that I wasted on that book.’ Then it dawned on me: would I feel the same about At Berkeley when all was – finally – said and done?

I have two serious beefs about this film, at any rate, and you may be surprised to learn that neither is a complaint about inadequate clipping. One is the failure to go beyond the surface of an institution experiencing a profound – even existential – crisis. The other is the narrative direction and point of perspective emphasized in what we are shown.

I’m enough of a poststructuralist to expect – or even demand – that a film will express a certain point of view. I don’t believe in the God-on-a-stick positivist myth of objectivity any longer. All the same, I’m frankly surprised and disappointed by what kind of point of view is expressed here. Let’s deal with Beef Number Two first because Beef Number One opens up a whole can of worms. We’ll have to come back to that one.

Beef Number Two

It strikes me as lazy and ill-considered to allow the film and its narrative structure to be driven almost exclusively by Berkeley’s leadership. Is Wiseman too big a fan of this institution, the world’s leading public University, too overawed by its liberal, even radical credentials to interrogate it properly?

On one level the film paints a very rich picture, everything from classroom scenes to the gardeners and cleaners at work, as we seem, in typical Wiseman style, to be parachuted into the everyday life of the campus. At the same time there’s a certain focus here, a certain limiting narrative structure and, most certainly, a point of view. Some of the more informal aspects of campus life are omitted. We don’t see students – or Faculty – sitting in cafes or drinking in bars, for example. In fact we hardly hear anyone speak unless in a somewhat formalized setting, be it students making speeches at a protest, or the University leadership at an executive strategy session.

Such a focus probably reflects Wiseman’s longstanding interest in institutions themselves and the routines and structures that make them tick. This is his unique strength as well as his weakness as a filmmaker. The weakness lies in the potential neglect of the more spontaneous aspects of life. These percolate around the margins of institutions, actually particularly in their bars and cafes, and can tell us a lot about the human reality of such institutions, especially as experienced by those excluded from the corridors of power.

Imagine the added depth we might have gained by taking our Wisemanesque ‘fly on the wall’ right out of the seminars and labs, and following the students long enough to overhear their more casual and candid reflections about their in-class experiences. I know from personal experience as an academic, by the way, that one tragic paradox of the seminar format is that students will invariably express their thoughts and ideas more clearly beyond its confines, in a more informal setting, however hard one works to bolster the feeling of informality and freedom within that format. The format is the format and it will wreak its consequences.

What kind of story does Wiseman tell with this film? It is ultimately the story of Berkeley in difficult times, as told by its leadership, those ‘forced’ by ‘necessity’ to make the relevant compromises needed to preserve the University’s integrity as an institution. We return again and again to their narration, interspersed between the more mute observational sequences. It is this narration which provides the point of perspective of those sequences, our ‘way of seeing,’ as John Berger would put it. Indeed, this way of seeing is reflected in the narrative structure of the images themselves.

Take, for example, how, during the student protest and occupation of the library, the camera cuts repeatedly to shots of the non-protesting students. All of these are cast in the most serious light possible. We find them busy reading and generally hard at work on their studies, whose importance has been so eloquently eulogized by the University leadership. They form a sobering contrast to the anarchic, grandiloquent gestures of the protestors.

The evaluative reference-point implied visually is soon reinforced by the University President’s belittling of the unfocussed, ill-considered actions of these students compared to those protests in which he had participated himself, back in the heyday of Berkeley activism in the 1960s. This is a powerful rhetorical card to play: the invocation of a mythology of protest and progressivism designed to outflank contemporary dissent on its home ground.

There is another troubling aspect to Wiseman’s coverage of the protest. This is the submerged, and hence partly invisible, historical context. This was clearly present in everything that happened but only implicitly. Its full ramifications remained obscured. The protest was actually heavily influenced by events of the previous year. The protest of 2009 had attracted considerable media attention, mostly because the situation had got out of control, entailed arrests, and even turned violent.

I wonder if there isn’t an inherent problem with Wiseman’s customary approach, that is, to present a kind of cinematic snapshot, to go into the environment for a certain period and examine it in some detail. Is it not the hallmark of the conservative viewpoint to see things in a way divorced from their historical context, as though current conditions and power relations simply reflect an eternal, natural order? We would know more about what is happening to Berkeley and why it is threatened if we delved more into its history as an institution. The only reference we get to this is an ironic account – in the opening classroom sequence – of the founding myth of two men in a bar casually conceiving the big idea of founding a great public university.

While the student voices expressed in the protest and sit-in were put firmly in their place, Faculty voices were virtually silent. It was almost surreal to watch their concerns skimmed over by a ‘reformer’ lamenting individuals’ regrettable though understandable reactions to the ‘necessary’ destruction of their ‘valued relationships.’ He noted in passing that one Faculty member had resigned over the introduction of performance evaluations. This obviously traumatic episode is skimmed over, even dismissed as a kind of collateral damage in Berkeley’s noble struggle for the survival of its ideals – as defined, of course, by the governing elite.

Subterranean issues here of alternative, more collegial or democratic models of governance are like the elephant in the room for any University insider. Almost all of us have been touched in some way by the near-global wave – or tsunami – of reform which has swept through Universities in recent decades. Has Wiseman’s usually unwavering eye contrived to miss this elephant entirely? Well, this at any rate brings me to Beef Number One.

Beef Number One

The account of Berkeley’s crisis is painted in remarkably superficial, even parochial terms. We are thus told only a very small part of the story. It’s certainly true, as far as it goes, that Berkeley is directly affected by the conservative turn of Californian politics. This has led to constitutional changes entrenching budget surpluses, and tightly constraining taxation. So the problem boils down to this: there is less public funding for Berkeley; therefore Berkeley must draw on all its human resources and ingenuity to preserve its character and stature as the world’s premier public university.

Wiseman has given us an extraordinarily narrow view of the problem. He captures only one front on which Berkeley is under attack, and misses entirely the way Berkeley’s plight reflects that of universities the world over. This is not just a partisan swipe at Berkeley, the liberal institution many Republicans certainly despise. This is part of a global assault upon the University as an institution, to some extent, perhaps, upon the very foundations of our civilization.

We live in times of what Karl Polanyi called ‘market utopianism.’ Polanyi was describing the period preceding the upheavals and cataclysms of the early 20th Century, but it is equally applicable to the post-welfare era we are currently entering. The financial assault on Berkeley (as well as other institutions of higher education) is bad enough, but the way the culture of market discipline infuses Berkeley from the inside is actually a much more serious problem than the strictures imposed from without.

Let me give one example of this. The efforts of the leadership to impose clear and effective guidelines for tenure review appear in this film as an heroic struggle to preserve academic excellence in difficult times. It is astonishing what this simple myth-making leaves out: the countless harrowing stories of scholars struggling for years in a ‘publish or perish,’ dog-eat-dog professional environment, only to be cast by the wayside at tenure review, their careers in ruins.

Let’s take a closer look, like good documentary filmmakers, at this publish-or-perish environment. What does it mean? What are the consequences? Scholarship is evaluated in terms of productivity. Universities compete in a scholarly market. There is plenty of evidence of the consequences of this for the ‘knowledge industry,’ if we might borrow a phrase from the market utopians themselves.

Overall, science is becoming more shoddy and unreliable, as paper and quantitative measures take over as the gold standard of success. Quantity is valued over quality, and individual (or institutional) achievement is valued over any collaborative project of mutual enlightenment. So on the whole scientific studies are less reliable than they used to be and, worse, their unreliability is less readily exposed because scientists are less inclined to take the trouble to duplicate the efforts of others and test the validity of their results.

Wiseman is a master filmmaker and for all its limitations, At Berkeley is a remarkable document of the texture of campus life. This may prove particularly important and poignant if the days of the University as an institution are numbered. Master filmmaker or not, however, Wiseman knows as well as I do that to make a film is to take a point of view. This accordingly requires me as a commentator to take issue, as I see fit, with that point of view. So I hope he would forgive me for drawing a line in the sand and saying that I wholeheartedly reject the point of view he has taken in At Berkeley. It provides the wrong perspective at the wrong time. This just happens to be a very important time, quite possibly a critical juncture for the University as an institution and for the underestimated role it plays in our society.

The University has been an indispensible guardian of the principles of freedom of expression and enquiry, which for centuries have lain at the core of the development and flourishing of Western civilization. The attacks on that institution seem to have come under Wiseman’s radar and thus escaped the purview of his camera. Yet it is these attacks that it is so important to bring to the light of day and subject to the documentary filmmaker’s scrutiny. What do you say, Frederick? Would you consider a sequel?


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