It has taken Frederick Wiseman 45 years to get from high school to college. The master filmmaker’s latest portrait of an institution, “At Berkeley,” centers on the University of California in Berkeley and joins an extraordinary résumé that stretches back to “High School” in 1968 and his controversial debut, “Titicut Follies,” in 1967. In between, Mr. Wiseman has established himself as one of America’s greatest chroniclers in any medium.
“What I’m interested in is making movies about as many different subjects as I can, and as many different forms of human experience,” Mr. Wiseman, indefatigable at 83, said in a phone conversation during his summer break in Maine.
His output seems to have matched his ambition. “At Berkeley,” his 40th feature, will have its world premiere on Sept. 2 at the Venice Film Festival. It joins a cinematic panorama of subjects whose understated titles belie their depth: “Basic Training,”“Welfare,”“Meat” (meatpacking plants), “The Store,”“Boxing Gym,”“Ballet,”“Deaf” (special-needs school), “Belfast, Maine.” The richly observed films are sprawling and intimate, dense with the raw material of human endeavor and discourse, and free from the ready-made storylines and messaging of mainstream documentary, much less voiceover.
In “At Berkeley,” we witness the autumn 2010 semester at a university in crisis, yet thriving. Mr. Wiseman uses the institution’s settings — the meetings, classes and protests — as stages to play out its multifaceted drama of people and ideas. A student’s tears at a financial aid session turn the moment into a portrait of middle-class America on the ropes. Budget meetings show the struggle to maintain the values of public education, and create a profile of a leader in then-Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.
Mr. Wiseman said that wasn’t why he made the documentary, but Berkeley ends up serving as a bellwether for the broader predicament of public institutions under economic pressures and anti-government politicking. While Mr. Birgeneau has been criticized for his handling of the budget, “At Berkeley” depicts a delicate balancing act with an eye toward preserving scholarships and teaching standards.
Mr. Wiseman — wry, sharp, and unfailingly precise about what his films do and do not do — is typically reluctant to generalize. But he spoke freely on the threat faced by public universities, and especially the humanities.
“There’s a political agenda behind that, which is to dumb people down. Because if you don’t study the humanities and you don’t have technical education, you’re not going to know about all the questions connected with the Enlightenment or free speech or representative government,” Mr. Wiseman said, adding, as if to temper his comments: “Blah blah blah.”
In his scenes and sequences in “At Berkeley” and other films, Mr. Wiseman seeks to do justice to both “the literal and the abstract,” resulting in a lengthy, analytical editing process. Take, for example, the odd, even comical recurring sight of battle-ready camouflaged Reserve Officers’ Training Corps students doing drills and lobbing fake grenades on campus. It’s at once a reminder of the existence of these programs, of their financial value to campus coffers, of the reach of war even into the groves of the academe.
The classes on display, with their ceaseless talk of complex ideas, bring out one of the film’s underlying themes.
“There’s a question of how do you conceptualize with words, and how do you conceptualize with images,” Mr. Wiseman said. The filmmaker said he struggled over whether to include one lecture about dark energy, which he could not make heads or tails of. (The lecturer: Nobel Prize winner Saul Perlmutter.) Ultimately, he saw a value in the experience of disorientation, recalling how he, in “Deaf,” did not subtitle sign language.
Mr. Wiseman’s next film is about the National Gallery in London, which he interrupted the production of “At Berkeley” to shoot, and it’s still in the editing stage.“At Berkeley” is tentatively to be released on Nov. 8 in the United States.
Before Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols or even the Ramones, there was a band called Death. Punk before punk existed, three teenage brothers in the early ’70s formed a band in their spare bedroom, began playing a few local gigs and even pressed a single in the hopes of getting signed. But this was the era of Motown and emerging disco. Record companies found Death’s music— and band name—too intimidating, and the group were never given a fair shot, disbanding before they even completed one album. Equal parts electrifying rockumentary and epic family love story, A Band Called Death chronicles the incredible fairy-tale journey of what happened almost three decades later, when a dusty 1974 demo tape made its way out of the attic and found an audience several generations younger.
Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California, is the home to the 4315th Training Squadron of Strategic Air Command (SAC). The 4315th performs a critical duty for the United States’ military—the training of the men and women charged with the upkeep and deployment of America’s nuclear arsenal. In 1987, Frederick Wiseman followed one class through the base’s intense fourteen-week training. Wiseman’s goal was not to document the procedural aspects of the training or the technical aspects of the job itself, however. His focus was instead on the vast implications of such an institution and the microcosmic world of those who exist in it.
Taken at face value, Missile lacks the narrative feel of Wiseman’s other works. No individual or event unifies the film’s scenes and it lacks conflict or resolution of any kind. This is a wildly superficial reading of the film, however. Missile externalizes its narrative; it exists only in the mind of the audience. Removed from the context of the viewer’s mind, the film documents a rather boring training class. Wiseman never fully addresses the immense gravity of the situation directly in the film, choosing instead to work with subtlety and implication. Missile documents men and women being trained to wield the most destructive force on the planet. This idea is unspoken but omnipresent, pervading each scene regardless of how mundane the matching onscreen action is.
Wiseman’s depiction of the training as a battery of efficient classroom instruction and simulations forces the viewer to face that chilling realization on their own. He very deliberately avoids any cinematic affectations that would color the scenes in any way: no dramatic close-ups, no quick pans, no forced perspectives. The only liberties Wiseman allows himself are brief cuts to the area surrounding the base: cars passing by, planes flying overhead. As the film progresses these become increasingly longer and more frequent. The journeys to the outside world begin to punctuate the instructions with a staccato rhythm, Wiseman’s subtle yet jarring reminder that the individuals inside the base’s walls could someday decide the fate of the world.
Wiseman’s cuts to the outside world are the only time that he breaks the film’s steady, calm tone, which mirrors the methodical detachment of those he documents. The trainers and students go about their tasks with an impressive attention to detail and a desire for absolute perfection. Wiseman depicts an admirable group of people, yet their blasé attitude toward their job is incredibly frustrating. The calm with which the instructor goes over the procedure for “turning keys” (slang for initiating a missile launch) is nothing short of disconcerting. Wiseman’s camera does not judge these individuals but still conveys the central ideological conflict of the film: we are dismayed by how unaffected they are by all of this. […]
Missile is a profound testament to Wiseman’s abilities. The film simultaneously embodies the ideals of objective documentary cinema and proves that true objectivity is impossible, a concept that Wiseman himself asserts. Missile at no point guides the viewer toward a conclusion on the proceedings or persons depicted, nor are Wiseman’s personal beliefs ever evident. It is, however, a construct; a work of film art created by an individual who has made a decision about what is and is not seen and the context in which ideas and events are placed. Wiseman’s editing does not add or take away any meaning from the events shown, however. He is inviting you to make a conclusion rather than providing you with one. (via)