Even though I’d attended two other films yesterday at the Chicago International Film Festival—the revival presentation of Nanni Moretti’s The Mass Is Over (1985) and the local premiere of Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain—I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to revisit Frederick Wiseman’s four-hours-long At Berkeley on a big screen. Every Wiseman film contains visual motifs that aren’t so easily noticeable on a television, and last night I was pleased to recognize several. In one of the early scenes of Berkeley, for instance, you can spot a student wearing a red armband, a detail that foreshadows the failed protest that comprises the movie’s climax. (In hindsight, his idealistic comments suggest the wishful beginnings of any social movement.) I also realized that the Dixieland band seen in one of the transitional sequences was playing in front of a sign that read “Old jazz for a new depression”—reminding us once again of the movie’s overarching theme of economic crisis.
At Berkeley, like all of Wiseman’s long-form works (e.g., High School II; Belfast, Maine; Domestic Violence), gains something from audience participation. As spectators inevitably grow bored and trickle out of the theater (it started last night around the 100-minute mark and continued steadily thereafter), they illustrate just how much this artist challenges us as viewers. No Wiseman film spells out its motifs for us. From moment to moment, we’re immersed in the morass of living in the world (and how thrilling that can be!)—there are few obvious clues to help us separate the revelations from the banalities. And so, each viewer latches on to different patterns of speech and behavior, as if constructing his own movie.
This freedom (as is typically the case in cinema) is illusory. Wiseman has found all the patterns in his footage before we have—but, great pedagogue that he is, he insists that we discover them ourselves. Granted, he can be a stern teacher. “Per Mr. Wiseman’s request, there will be no intermission,” CIFF programmer Alex Kopecky informed us before last night’s show. “So if you have to use the bathroom, you may want to do that now.”
I took a couple of bathroom breaks during the movie (sorry, Mr. Wiseman), though I made sure not to leave during the final third, when At Berkeley formulates its most challenging questions. After the protest and the umpteenth budgetary meeting, Wiseman returns to scenes of education (by this point, it’s easy to forget there are actual classes at Berkeley!). The film has spent a good deal of time meditating on education as a civic investment, as a guarantor of social mobility, and as a financial strain on more and more middle-class families. But what about education as an end in itself? Does anyone still enter into higher learning to better appreciate life (as one student puts it in the first red armband scene)? Moreover, is such spiritual development even possible when everybody’s constantly thinking about raising money?
Because of the film’s extreme length, these questions don’t feel rhetorical. Wiseman encourages us to see the university as unique—with its own politics and internal conflicts—in spite of the broader issues it represents. That’s the reward of the filmmaker’s endurance tests: as you lose yourself in the film’s patterns, your prejudices about its subjects gradually dissolve and new thoughts start to take root.