So, I watched this documentary about Berkeley University due to the extreme critical acclaim it was getting. Wiseman is a figure of gargantuan proportions in the world of documentary filmmaking and this was to be my first foray into his body of work. I like the basic ideas here. He takes a strictly observational style, his camera watching classroom sessions and business meetings and protests without any sort of narration or interviews. And he lets some of the scenes spool out at great length. These are good ideas, but he carries the “scene spooling out” thing to lengths that can only be called violently extreme. What do I mean by that? This movie is OVER FOUR HOURS LONG!
Well, I was still hoping; I mean, there are movies that just fly by despite extreme length. And the first hour is really engrossing and fascinating. But this isn’t Blue is the Warmest Colour, where I honestly couldn’t believe that three hours had passed when the film was over. This film starts going downhill after that first hour. The second hour is one of consistently waning interest. The third hour is brutal; I switched chairs three or four times and I couldn’t stop fidgeting. The fourth hour actually catches a wind of renewed energy as it documents a large student/faculty protest and the administrative response to it. But then at about the 3 & a half hour mark, it turn exhausts that story and as it goes back to business as usual, the movie is absolute torture. As it crossed the four hour mark, at last my apathy dissipated. Unfortunately, it dissipated because it was being replaced with a deep rage.
Because I love higher education and Berkeley is fascinating ground for a documentary. But Wiseman seemed determined to repel as many people as possible with the extreme length and idiotic decisions like choosing not to make the protest the climax of the film but rather return to business meetings, etc. for well over half an hour after the protest. And the film has no real unified theme or message; at the end of the day, it isn’t saying anything, which as a side effect of the observational style isn’t a huge problem or wouldn’t be if the film wasn’t so pretentious as to think it merits more than four hours of my time. There’s a really great, tight hour and a half to two hour movie inside this monster, but it’s not even struggling to get out anymore – it’s been completely suffocated and crushed to powder under the weight of the movie as it is. I mean, does Berkeley University really require as much time as it took to tell the entire story of The Return of the King? I think not. Wiseman made a couple of similar films about the high school experience back when he was starting out and so people were drawing a lot of parallels. But the original High School movie was 75 minutes! It seems Wiseman, who edits his own films, of course, has simply lost all perspective on his own work. And it’s a shame because many of the scenes, viewed on their own, are fine and even engaging and interesting. But the length is punishing and ultimately rage-inducing. Given that, despite my enjoyment of certain scattered moments here and there, I really have to give this an incredibly low rating.
You might ask why I didn’t break it up into several days viewing, rather than watching it all in one day. Well, it’s true that might have impacted my experience and led to the film getting a much better rating from me. But I did take several breaks during the day I watched it. And I don’t like to break films up, unless it’s just obvious that the director didn’t intend them to be seen in one sitting, like a twelve hour or twenty-four hour movie (yes, there are “movies” that are more than twenty-four hours long). But this was put on the DVD as a single chunk, despite it being broken up when it aired on PBS. That makes me think that Wiseman wants the movie seen as a single work; Wiseman wanted me to experience it as one thing without it being broken up, so that’s what I did. I try to play fair with the directors. And so while it might seem unfair for me to diss a movie mainly because of something I could have changed about it if I’d wanted to, it isn’t. This is the director’s idea, not mine. And now he gets to take what he gets. I played fair. The movie, as the director wanted me to see it, sucks balls. Own it, you *****-******. See what I mean about rage?
Consider yourself warned. This is a bad movie. 1 star.