‘At Berkeley’ too long

I am a child of the University of California system. My sister and brother and I all graduated from UCs (UC Davis and UCSB) and my first master’s was from a UC (UCLA). I am familiar with the UC system, but, although I have visited the University of California at Berkeley, I have no direct connection with the campus. The four-hour documentary “At Berkeley” may work best for those who have attended or plan to attend. For the rest of us, this documentary is too long and too sprawling.

“At Berkeley” will air on PBS Independent Lens on Monday, 13 January 2014, beginning at 10/9 ET. (Check local listings).

This is not to say that I do not appreciate Frederick Wiseman’s work or that this documentary is no more than a promo disguised as a documentary.  I enjoyed Wiseman’s 2009 “La Danse” which was about the Ballet de L’Opéra National de Paris” and found the 2010 “Boxing Gym” interesting. I missed the 2011 “Crazy Horse.”

“La Danse” is 159 minutes or 2 hours and 39 minutes. That is long and is broken up by parts of ballet pieces such as Rudolf Nureyev’s version of “The Nutcracker” and Pina Bausch’s “Orpheus und Eurydike.” In this Wiseman documentary, “At Berkeley” there is some dance and a little bit of song, but also many, many talking heads.

Wiseman is now 84. His documentaries have not narration or voice-over to guide us. Sometimes that works, but other times it does not. Wiseman probably has not been a student at a college for decades. If you haven’t either, some of this might be nostalgic, or worse, frightening.

Since I’ve never really left school, it all seems too common place. The students in cramped seat, listening to a lecture. Staff meetings that seem endless as budget problems are discussed at length. These are academics who have theories and make studies; how could they do no less when they are troubled with budget cuts and change is forced upon them?

What’s lovely is the diversity, the intellectual life contrasted with the silliness of songs about, what else? Social networking.

UC Berkeley originally opened in Oakland, California in 1869. At the time, there were only 10 faculty members and about 40 students. The first female students were admitted the following year.

In 1873, the location was changed to Berkeley and the student body now numbers about 200. In 1914, the University of California expanded by opening up a Los Angeles campus. There are now 10 campuses in California.

The current number of students as of Fall 2012 is 35,899. Of that number, 25,774 are undergraduates. While women outnumber men narrowly for in the undergraduate population (52 percent female and 48 percent male),  men outnumber women at the graduate level (54 percent to 46 percent female).  There are 1,580 full-time faculty members.

Berkeley is on the east shore of San Francisco Bay in Northern California. To the south, is Oakland and Emeryville.  The city was named after Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753).  While I would consider the temperature cold, you might not. It’s an event when it snows in that area, and even then, this usually doesn’t mean any snow on the ground–just a brief swirling of snowflakes.

UC Berkeley is a liberal university, blessed by a relatively good climate and remembered for its counter-culture movement during the 1960s–none of which I recall seeing in Wiseman’s account.

This documentary will give you a taste of what a Berkeley is like, but not necessarily how it differs from any other California college or university. Just by location, what you see might seem exotic or different. It does record how some people were facing the budgetary crisis–one that must be hitting many educational institutions. I don’t know that this documentary is particularly useful for your average viewer.

“At Berkeley” is a daunting 244-minutes. “At Berkeley” will air on PBS Independent Lens on Monday, 13 January 2014, 10/9 ET. (Check local listings).  If it starts at 10 p.m., that means it ends at 2 a.m. ET.  For more information, visit the companion web page.

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