If you’re like me, you record a bunch of stuff then periodically engage in DVR maintenance to manage the backlog. A snow day like today is perfect for that, and sometimes the effort yields a wonderful viewing experience.

I admit it: the 4.5 hour runtime of Fredrick Wiseman’s latest film, At Berkeley, makes watching it a commitment of time, but the payoff is worth the investment. Thank you PBS and Independent Lens for bringing this film to my house.

Wiseman, who resists the terms observational cinema and cinéma vérité because he appreciates the fact that all films are mediated, does what he can to minimize the distortion by shooting sequences with a minimum of intervention and finishing his films without interposing elements like narration, interviews, and superimposed titles identifying characters.

The effect, in all of his films, is a democratic approach I appreciate.

Wiseman makes films that examine various institutions, and this time around higher education comes before his lens. His view of The University of California at Berkeley explores the tensions over the value and meaning of higher education and discussions about how to move the university forward when state revenues are shrinking.

There’s plenty of drama in meetings of administration and faculty, classes with dynamic teachers, labs, student protest events, extracurricular activities, and even quiet moments such as when a custodian sweeps the dusty stairs.

After all, Wiseman is trying to give us a sense of place, and I do feel now as if I have visited Berkeley. What a gift this film is…

At Berkeley

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