Economics is crucial in At Berkeley

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Directed by Frederick Wiseman. Featuring Robert Reich. Unrated.

Frederick Wiseman, the grand old man of cinema verité (with prosaic titles like Titicut Follies and Juvenile Court), returns with a four-hour dive into one of America’s oldest and most prestigious places of higher learning, the University of California, Berkeley.

As usual, the 83-year-old skips identifying titles, voice-overs, and other contextual tools, allowing scenes to play out fully, in locations as varied as tiny classrooms, a football stadium, and a hall graced by a massive T-Rex skeleton. Among lecturers heard are former secretary of labor Robert Reich, now an economics professor (with his own movie, Inequality for All, at another theatre this week).

Economics is crucial in At Berkeley. “Public education is the number one tool for social mobility,” insists one activist, responding to draconian budget cuts and increasing income disparity. Determined to gut public spending in the guise of saving taxes, state Republicans are leaving the institution with about half the funding it used to receive.

This should help keep the populace “cynical, passive, and uninformed”, as described by someone at the Free Speech Movement Café. In a public talk, this old-timer gives props to Mario Savio, leader of that mid-’60s bellwether moment—something reflected here in surprisingly dramatic student protests. Tuition was free, you see, until four decades ago, and now costs go up every year.

Wiseman breaks up the chatter with peaceful shots of the impossibly beautiful campus, through Sather Gate and into the busy quad—guys with skateboards and yo-yos, glee-club singing, and occasional swing dancers—all watched by the aspiration symbol of its towering campanile. In performance spaces, we see the Kronos Quartet in action and glimpse a student production of the nostalgia-inducing Our Town.

This subtly inspiring film ends with two short codas: a snippet of erotic poetry from John Donne, parsed for modern ears, and an astronomy teacher’s dry conjecture about space travel. Thus we return to heart and head, with soul-grabbing reminders of where we’ve been and might be going—if places like UC Berkeley don’t die first.

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