Sunday, October 20, 2013

Frederick Wiseman’s “At Berkeley,” or, Seeing Like an Administration

Frederick Wiseman’s films often document the insipid, noxious operations of bureaucracies. This is certainly the case with High School, released in the auspicious year 1968. If At Berkeley can be read as a sequel to that earlier film, what becomes clear is that it is not only the character of educational institutions that has changed over the past fifty years—like the Fordist factory in the era of globalization, the factory-like public school has faded as well (although many schools have at the same time become increasingly prison-like)—but also the character of the director, who has become, notes one reviewer, “something of an institution himself.”

Another way of putting this comes from Wiseman’s reflections on the documentary form itself. The following comes from a Q&A panel after a screening at the New York Film Festival (above), but it’s an argument Wiseman repeats in nearly every discussion of the film:

People don’t want to believe that other people can act the way they sometimes do. Both good and bad—not necessarily just because it shows people doing difficult, uncomfortable or occasionally sadistic or cruel, but it’s equally true that some people don’t want to admit that other people can do nice, kind, helpful things. And in part that’s related to the idea that documentary film should always be an expose, should reveal something bad about government or people’s behavior. . . . I think it’s equally important when people are doing a good job and care and are kind and sensitive to other people, that’s an equally good subject for a documentary.

Ambiguity is certainly important, but in his critique of the exposé Wiseman may have moved too far in the opposite direction. He explicitly glosses At Berkeley as a kind of reverse-exposé, a study of “people [who are] doing a good job and care and are kind and sensitive to other people.” And it’s not just any “people” he's talking about. In an early interview with Daniel Kasman, Wiseman fleshes out the same argument by identifying the person he’s talking about:

From what I saw, he [then-chancellor Robert Birgeneau] commanded the situation. What impressed me most about him, aside from his obvious intelligence, is he cared, and that’s really nice. He cared about low-income students, and middle class students, and he was in a position to do something about it and he did. There are a lot of people who think the only true subject of documentary films are unpleasant things and nasty people, but it’s just as important to show people who are intelligent, sensitive, and responsible.

Wiseman’s documentary technique is well known—long takes, no voice over narration, no interviews, no identifying information for any of the figures who appear, and so on. To some, these techniques give the impression of objectivity, that the scenes were filmed essentially at random, that no story or argument is being presented. Of course, this is a mistaken impression. Wiseman explains how he constructs a story through the editing process during the Q&A:

I’ve got this great glob of material, 250 hours, which has no form except insofar as I impose a form on it as a consequence of editing. So it’s a question of watching the material a lot and trying to think my way through the experience, so that in one sense the final film is a report on what I’ve learned as a consequence of studying the material, and the experience of being at the place.

The question, then, is what kind of story is crafted, what kind of narrative woven, what kind of form imposed. Wiseman explains to Kasman that he is “concerned about avoiding didacticism.” When Kasman asks whether this meant that the documentary was something like an open text, Wiseman responds: “Not open in the sense that it doesn’t have a point-of-view or well defined points-of-view. Whenever you deal with reality as a subject, it should be complicated and ambiguous.” The form of the film, then, is one of apprehending, making sense of, and in the final instance managing the complexity and ambiguity that define and traverse the institution.

One way of approaching that question is to see how other reviewers have seen and talked about it. What you find is strikingly consistent. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise—although the film appears to do away with many formal elements of narration, Wiseman is, as he acknowledges, imposing a form. The fact that so many reviewers read the film in similar ways reveals his skill at doing so.

What most reviewers see is this: a public university in crisis, balancing budget cuts with a public mission, costs with affordability—and a caring, capable chancellor working to hold it all together. The brutish principal of High School has matured into the sensitive, capable chancellor of At Berkeley. And he is everywhere, the only figure in the film who escapes anonymity: “Birgeneau, who is easily picked out by his bright white hair, distinctive Canadian accent, and near-constant presence.” He is not only in organizational terms the one responsible for holding all the disparate parts of the university together, but also in formal terms the common element tying together the otherwise fragmented scenes that make up the film. “[The film’s] star is the university's chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, a Canadian-born physicist with white-blond hair and a flashing smile, whose placid, diplomatic manner makes him the perfect academic administrator.” He is the administrator’s administrator. “The then-chancellor of the school seems to be everywhere . . . like he’s this omniscient presence. He seems so calm and in control, he’s a very strong character.”

Contrast this with Wiseman’s view of the student protesters (which differs significantly from his view of both the rest of the student body and of workers on campus). We will look a little more at the context below, but for now what’s important is that there’s a protest toward the end of the film. Wiseman discusses it with Kasman:

KASMAN: It was very moving when he [Birgeneau] was genuinely incensed that students who were protesting fees didn’t even know the statistics, which had changed positively. What was your impression of the protest?

WISEMAN: My impression is what you see in the movie, what did you see?

KASMAN: It seemed like it was going OK until the students started talking!

WISEMAN: [laughs] That’s the problem!

KASMAN: It reminded me so much of Occupy Wall Street, which happened just about a year later. The confusion that the students feel as a unified body is not something you sense in the classrooms, it’s in their group protest. When they’re in the classrooms they’re different people with different opinions but the moment they’re together and given a microphone…

WISEMAN: They’re intelligent, but…

Respect for authority, insults for protesters. Here Wiseman goes out of his way to elicit a reading from his interviewer, and the response seems to resonate with the director's own feelings. It is also more or less consistent across the reviews. Serena Golden’s piece at Inside Higher Ed is representative:

But the film’s climax, insofar as there is one, is anticlimactic. When the day comes, students march chanting through campus and take over a library reading room, sending Birgeneau a list of their demands. But the protest is fragmented, disorganized, the demands many and divergent. A variety of speakers agree that the protesters must formulate a goal, but each offers a very different vision of what that goal might be.

“It’s actually helpful that the list [of demands] is so crazy,” we hear Birgeneau tell another administrator via speakerphone. “If they had a list of three things that we could conceivably be able to address, that would be much more effective.”

His administration responds with a deliberately vague statement in support of accessible public education, which the protesters boo – but the rally dies down quickly, with no evident impact. A shot of the same reading room later that evening shows it to be neat, empty, silent. A worker begins taking down the protest banner tacked above the library door.

In an administrative meeting afterward, Birgeneau dismisses the protest as “classic oppositional politics; there was no underlying philosophy.”

What stands out most in this analysis is not so much that Golden seems to have been asleep during the Occupy movement but rather that she has projected the film’s formal characteristics onto the character of the protest itself. The film has no clear plotlines to develop or narrator to explain the gaps to the viewer; its “disparate elements” are juxtaposed and spliced together and as a result “[t]he effect is at times disorienting.” Similarly, she describes the protest as “fragmented” and “disorganized,” with demands that are “many and divergent.” Like Birgeneau (and many a political pundit in the era of Occupy), Golden would prefer for the protesters to make their demands more focused, more reasonable. The implication is not so much that the film is doing the PR work of the administration—though this may be the case as well—but that it ends up reproducing the administration’s way of seeing the world. What Golden has read in the film is the form that Wiseman has imposed, and that form resembles in important ways the lens of the UC Berkeley administration.

In spite (or more accurately because) of the fact that he had dismissed the protesters in the film, Birgeneau, who along with his second-in-command George Breslauer participated in the Q&A in New York, attempts to moderate his scorn:

Actually one thing I wanted to say in defense of our students, since I was quite harsh on them in terms of the incoherence of the protest, there were many very coherent protests which were quite effective, actually. But they focused on undocumented students, black students, the Black Student Union organized really terrific protests in terms of the challenges that African-Americans face on our campus and every other campus, the Multicultural Center. So you know protests are part of the Berkeley culture, but somehow during the time period that Fred [Wiseman] was there it happened to have deteriorated. [interviewer chuckles]

There’s a lot we could say about those comments—it’s interesting, for example, that the neoliberal language of diversity seems to be the one that the administration best understands—but the point we want to insist on here is simply that the logic of the film, as articulated by Wiseman himself, parroted by reviewers, and stated by the film’s main protagonist, mirrors the logic of the administration. Whatever its intention, At Berkeley creates the conditions, at the level of both form and content, for the viewer to see like the administration.

One last consequence of Wiseman’s documentary technique, at least for our purposes here, has to do with what we could call a structural asymmetry of context. Nearly every reviewer remarks on a scene in a meeting among top-level university executives in which Chancellor Birgeneau details ongoing budget cuts, to the point that the state, which once provided 40-50 percent of the UC budget, now provides just 16 percent. These data act as a sort of mini-history of the institution, usefully framing the film as a study of the public university in crisis and locating it at the end of a long trajectory of what Birgeneau calls a “progressive disinvestment in higher education in the state of California.” It is a true, though partial story, one that students and workers have spent a lot of time and energy trying to correct. But what we want to highlight here is the differential between the administration on one hand and the protesters on the other. Because Wiseman spends so much time with administrators and especially with the chancellor, he affords them the chance to frame their own story. In this way, their actions are not only contextualized but through that context rendered reasonable.

In contrast, the protest—dismissed by administrators, ridiculed by director and reviewers alike—has no context. It appears out of nowhere, disconnected from everything that preceded it, further compounding the reviewers’ view of its “fragmented” and “disorganized” character. Although Wiseman appears to treat administrators and protesters on more or less the same formal plane, here the asymmetry is revealed. The chancellor constructs the administration’s present through a narration of its past. The protesters, on the other hand, lack the same position from which to narrate their own history. In part this is due to the difference between the univocal and stabile character of the administration, an institution defined by (and for that matter funded on the basis of) its continuity, and the polyphonic character of a protest movement, defined by multiplicity and change over time. But it also has to do with the film’s attachment to the chancellor and by extension to the administration. It leaves no place from which to tell the recent history of struggle at UC.

Whether or not Wiseman himself knew about the occupation movement that swept across the UC campuses in the fall of 2009, this history is entirely absent in reviews. The administration situates itself within a concrete historical trajectory, while the protest has no history. This temporal isolation is in part why so many reviewers specifically indict its efficacy—Golden, for example, asserts that “the rally dies down quickly, with no evident impact.” In this context, the only history of protest that can be traced is one that has been fully mythologized and commodified by the UC Berkeley administration itself. That is, of course, the “free speech movement” of the 1960s. So we find critics dismissing the protesters’ “ill-considered list of demands” next to Bob Dylan references. The only critic who at all perceives a connection to a contemporary political movement is Kasman, who declares that the “misguided student protest . . . shockingly predates by a year the inspiring but confused muddle of the Occupy Wall Street movement.” The genealogical connection to the Occupy movement is perceptive and important, but it is incomplete and one-directional. It is in the sequence of student occupations in 2009-2010 (which actually began in New York in late 2008) that this history is rooted. Locked into the structure of At Berkeley, however, this counter-history cannot be told.

The “Day of Action” that took place on October 7, 2010, in which a central reading room of the main library on the UC Berkeley campus was briefly occupied by 600-800 protesters, was part not only of a longer historical trajectory but also of a geographically dispersed movement of struggle against austerity and the privatization of higher education, one that resonates at both a national and a global level. It was a system-wide day of action across both UCs and CSUs. There were rallies, sit-ins, and banner drops at every UC campus. There was a virtual sit-in that temporarily shut down the website of the UC Office of the President. Around the country, from Louisiana to Wisconsin, October 7 saw 76 coordinated actions take place. The point, then, is not that the protest at UC Berkeley was in reality highly effective or even particularly well executed. In fact it was highly criticized from within the student movement at the time. Rather, what’s missing from the film is any sense that the protest was part of something bigger, a wedge of antagonism both distributed across and situated in time and space. The lack of context thus intensifies the illegibility of the action.

“I didn’t want the protest to be the subject of the film, because I thought that would be completely unfair to the university,” says Wiseman at the end of the panel discussion. As a result, what we have is a film that is eminently fair to the “university”—whose representation is inevitably channeled through and controlled by the administration—and completely unfair to everyone else. Whether intentionally or not, At Berkeley not only toes the administration’s line but faithfully brings to life the administration’s way of seeing. Students and workers are rendered (if, that is, they appear at all) as anonymous data points, the personification of tasks (e.g. mowing the lawns) and economic flows (e.g. scientific research), and occasionally inconvenient, illegible, and irrational obstructions. It will take both a different director and a different technique to tell these stories.


  1. Funny this doc doesn't go into Birgeneau's resignation two years ago after the police beatings of faculty and students at Occupy Cal.

    And yeah, those 2009-2010 protests were hella ineffective at directly restoring $199 million + $51.3 million that was originally cut from the 2009-10 UC budget. From the NYT, Jan 6, 2010: "“Those protests on the U.C. campuses were the tipping point,” the governor’s chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, said in an interview after the speech. “Our university system is going to get the support it deserves.”

    Reaction from both potential beneficiaries and adversaries of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s proposal was swift and unambiguous.

    “This is a bold and visionary plan that represents a fundamental restoration of the values and priorities that have made California great,” the president of the University of California, Mark G. Yudof, said in a statement.

    But a spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, Lance Corcoran, called the proposed privatization and “definitely a threat to public safety in California.”

    “If this is the direction the administration chooses to go in, there will certainly be consequences,” Mr. Corcoran said."