Frederick Wiseman's At Berkley... On DVD


I don't know why, considering he's one of the world's most important documentary filmmakers of all time, but nobody but nobody reviews Frederick Wiseman's DVDs. Sure, you'll see film reviews pop up in the New York Times or Variety when they get released theatrically. But when it comes to the DVDs, no one touches them. I mean, it probably has something to do with the fact that they're only available directly from Wiseman's company Zipporah films on excessively priced, feature-less DV-Rs. But still, you'd think at least one site dedicated to DVD reviews would tackle 'em. Well, guess what ladies and gentlemen, that trend stops here at DVDExotica! Now, am I trying to imply that I'm some kind of hero for reviewing one of Wiseman's discs? No, I'm stating it directly - I've got the Rocky theme song playing as I type!
Okay, At Berkley is Wiseman's latest to hit the home video market. His very latest film, National Gallery, is in theaters as we speak. Now, early Wiseman films are riveting, gripping films that anyone should find compelling. Later Wiseman films tend to be a lot longer, slower, and less dramatic. I haven't seen a Wiseman film yet - and I've seen them all - without great moments that absolutely make the experience worthwhile. But some of his films, like Near Death, High School or Domestic Violence, I'd recommend to just about any adult. If you have any stake in the human condition, those movies should touch you. Something like Boxing Gym or Crazy Horse I'd recommend to lovers of documentary films, people who are specifically Wiseman fans, and, umm... people with a particular interest in physical training and high-priced burlesque theaters. What I'm saying: is they can feel a bit bit dry and academic, especially to someone who doesn't know what they're getting into.
At Berkley is a long look the University of California at Berkeley. This year (of the film), they're receiving less state funding, and we see how the school faces that challenge. Wiseman again manages to get his camera into a lot of places you'd think documentations would be barred from, allowing us to look at everything, from the classrooms to behind the scenes budget meetings. The school closes certain programs due to the financial shortages, which causes student protesting, which becomes a big set piece of the film. It would be wrong to say that's what the film's about, though... akin to saying 2001 is about a spaceship computer named HAL that decides to kill its astronauts. It's more just the biggest and most attention grabbing section of a bigger picture. The connections and divisions between students, employees and their local neighbors; and moreso how a capitalist society as a whole deals with college education.
If you haven't seen a Wiseman film before, here's what to expect. No narration, no music or CGI graphics. And there's never any individual person focused on for us to root for or demonize like a sports program, just long sequences of unedited life. I mean, certainly the films as a whole are edited and deliberately, artistically crafted. You couldn't honestly call them totally objective. But they're certainly free of a lot of the tasteless and cloying distractions that lesser documentaries and reality shows tend to get bogged down in.
While At Berkley certainly feels more at home amidst his later films than his earlier ones, those who do tend to find his recent work dull will probably find this one more appealing than most. The intercutting between the protestors and the faculty trying to reign them in is fairly dynamic, and questions it raises about how education should be handled in society affects us all. It's like the next level above High School II. ...I mean, besides just how college follows you know... yeah, okay.
Did I mention that Wiseman's films tend to be long? This one is four hours and four minutes. Usually his longer films are broken up, then, into two or three discs; so I was surprised to open this up and see just one DVD. The good news is that it's because Zipporah Films has finally upgraded to dual-layer discs! (To be fair... At Berkley wasn't the first time. Crazy Horse was dual-layered, too.)  And hey, I don't think anyone's ever asked a studio to take us back to the days of getting up to flip our laserdiscs over, so having the full movie on one disc is a nice change. Still, 4+ hours is a lot even for a double-sided disc. But I'm not noticing a lot of pixelation or compression dramas - these screenshots look pretty nice; and it looks just as fine in motion. I guess that's the silver-lining to Wiseman's films being coming completely sans special features: 100% of the disc can be filled with the movie. So now we finally have the power to decide when the bathroom break comes during our epic documentary marathon - cue that Rocky theme again!

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