Tag Archives: documentary

California Revisited

TV Review: ‘Independent Lens’ – ‘At Berkeley’

Does At Berkeley capture the spirit of a great public university?

at-berkeley-fb

At Berkeley

At Berkeley, an Independent Lens production, will premiere on PBS on Monday, January 13. This four-hour documentary takes a look at the Fall 2010 semester of the University of California at Berkeley – a tough period, during which this public educational facility faced a big, intimidating reduction in state support ($308 million during 2010 compared with $497 million in 2001), and increased fees for undergraduate and graduate students. The school was also facing a potential loss of 460 faculty positions.

ATBERKELEY-articleLarge

It is difficult to capture the spirit of a large university in a matter of hours, especially a school with more than 35,000 students. Frederick Wiseman’s film feels like a personal visit to the school, but the problem with At Berkeley is that it’s difficult to get past the first 35 to 40 minutes of the film. The documentary opens with students trying their best to appear erudite during a sociology class. Well, it may be a sociology class, but without narration (if the broadcast film is like the preview version I watched), the film’s start is rather formless and aimless.

Another issue is the that the talking heads: students, faculty, teaching assistants or administrators, are never identified, with no indication as to what department, meeting or class subject matter the viewer is watching. In some instances, we are shown the outside of a campus building, and we can only assume that the class or meeting being filmed was held there. It is also a problem that academic jargon is never defined. For example, it’s up to the viewer to realize that “G.S.I.” stands for Graduate Student Instructor.

And, although it is interesting to see the former Chancellor of the university (Robert Birgeneau) meet with what is presumably his advisory cabinet and senior administrators, the body language of the participants signal that they were not always euphoric about being present. Interestingly, Asians and Hispanics (with a couple of exceptions) seem to be notably absent from these high-level discussions.

at_berkeley-06

Near the end of the overly long film – for me, the four hours felt like twenty, former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich tells his students that leaders are very often denied “useful feedback.” That may also hold true for this film, which might have benefited from being first screened by focus groups, and by some substantial editing. Most of the segments, which seem connected without apparent rhyme or reason, are rough, overly long, virtually uncut video clips. Tightly edited, At Berkeley, would likely have been more engaging and enthralling.

The film does feature some rewarding success stories that involve the application of practical knowledge at this world class educational institution. One segment focuses on a machine that permits a man with spinal cord injuries to walk. Another features a student doing coding for a robot. But you must wade through many context-less segments to get to these treats.

People are likely to see different things when they view this documentary. Some will see a place where student demonstrations appear to threaten the educational mission. Others will see that these demonstrations resulted in an increase in minority and low-income student admissions. Some will see professors and lecturers (and sometimes students) pretentiously debating matters that have little relevance to taxpayers and working stiffs. Others will see a progressive place of learning in which 50 percent of undergrads participate in some form of meaningful research. In this, the film may accurately display the tension between a classic liberal arts education (“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”) and practical knowledge developed through strenuous and demanding research.

The citizens and taxpayers who support public educational institutions like U.C., Berkeley will find some evidence of their importance in a film like At Berkeley. Others may view this documentary and come to a conclusion unintended by the film’s makers: an elite institution, public or private, can foster elitist views and behaviors.

At Berkeley may simply be a Rorschach’s test. No two individuals will watch it and receive the same impression. This may transform the lack of structure and message content (and context) into a good thing.

Recommended for some, not for all.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by PBS.

This article first appeared on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/tv-review-independent-lens-at-berkeley/

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

I’m Walking to New Orleans

Mr. Cao Goes to Washington: A Documentary (shown on PBS TV on January 3, 2013 and afterward)

Joseph Cao was a Congressman who voted for Obama Care before he voted against it.   This is one of the factors that led to his defeat when he ran for a second term as a U.S. Congressman from the historic Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana.   The producers of this documentary would have the viewer believe that Cao’s defeat had more to do with racial partisan politics but that may be an overstatement; an attempt to find more meaning than is supported by the facts.Mr. Cao profile

Mr. Cao, a once-politically Independent Vietnamese-American who became a Republican, was elected to go to Washington in 2008.   His election was such a surprise that, in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory with 78 percent of the vote in the Second Congressional District, the national media came to call Cao “The Accidental Congressman.”

Cao was a former seminarian whose pro-life Catholic views colored his approach to political issues, and may have put him out of touch with his poor, primarily African-American constituents.   A key issue, as stated by an African-American community spokesman in the film, is that when speaking to constituents, Cao would say that he would do whatever was necessary to secure government funds and services for his district (i.e., a big government approach); but when in the company of big donor Republicans, he would oppose taxes on the rich and take other highly conservative positions (i.e., a small government approach).   It was transparent enough for the voters to catch on quite easily.

Mr. Cao Goes to Washington seems to argue that Cao was roughed up the vicissitudes of politics, but then politics is not bean bag; it’s a sport for big boys and big girls, and the thin-skinned need not apply.   When the Democrats nominated Cedric Richmond, a younger version of President Obama, Cao chose to go negative against Richmond, something that one of his chief political advisors (as seen near the end of the documentary) viewed as a basic mistake.   Throwing mud on Richmond seemed to contradict Cao’s labeling of himself as a man of “high integrity.”   Cao clearly worked extremely hard for his constituents after the disasters of Hurricane Katrina and the BP Gulf Coast oil spill, and perhaps his campaign should have focused, first and foremost, on his successes in securing services and corporate and federal rebuilding funds for his heavily-impacted district.

Cao’s strategy was proven to be quite wrong on Election Day 2010, as African-American voters in the District turned out at almost twice the usual rate – despite a heavy rain – to vote for the challenger Richmond.   The election was held just days after Cao had lost his father, and he appears to be devastated and disoriented at the end of the hour-long film.

Mr Cao Ep Main

This is an excellently produced documentary, and it’s fully engaging.   However, I suspect that it offers fewer lessons than intended for the average viewer since Cao is somewhat less of a sympathetic figure than the filmmakers intended.   Joseph Cao seems to have been bitten by the hubris that infects most politicians, and he appears to have adopted a world and political view that was strangely narrow, based more on his religious training and personal background than on the needs of the generally impoverished voters that he was elected to serve.

In the film, we’re expected to believe that Cao honestly viewed President Obama as a close friend, despite the fact that they were of different political parties.   (Sixty-eight percent of Cao’s votes over two years were supportive of the Administration.)   The friendship would not survive Cao’s position change on Obama’s landmark Affordable Health Care Act, which led to distrust on both sides.   Joseph Cao, like too many once-idealistic human beings, attempted to play both sides against the middle.

The lesson of Cao may be that a politician is free to change his or her views on major issues, but doing so without sufficiently explaining those changes to one’s constituents can be, and often is, fatal.

Mr. Cao is a tough reflection of a tough town.   It succeeds when brightly reflecting the political wars that rage in our capital.   It’s less successful when viewed as a tribute to a flawed, transitory political figure.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review DVD was provided by PBS.   Mr. Cao Goes to Washington premieres on PBS TV on January 3, 2013. 

My thanks to Daniel D. Holt of Master Po Editing Services HP for his assistance on this review.

This article first appeared on the Blogcritics Video (TV/Film) site:  http://blogcritics.org/video/tv-review-mr-cao-goes-to/ .

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Shelter From the Storm

Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz (Doubleday; 400 pages; $28.95)

Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America is a top-notch, first-class synopsis of Bob Dylan’s career, contributions to popular music, status as a cultural icon, and – to a lesser extent – his place in the history of American commentators.

A person who is taking their first foray into the legend that is Bob Dylan would do well to start here, but the die-hard Dylan-junkies will have encountered much of this material in other familiar works.   In fact, Wilentz himself references as sources books, essays, and compilations that many Dylan fanatics will have already read such as Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s documentary of the same name, Ratsko Sloman’s On the Road with Bob Dylan, much of Marcus Greil’s work, David Gray’s Song and Dance Man III, John Bauldie’s Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan, and, of course, a truly great book, Dylan’s own Chronicles.

In light of this, the natural question becomes, “What actually separates this book from the many other books about Dylan?”   First, it is extremely well written.   But beyond that, Wilentz only partially succeeds in trying to put Dylan’s work and persona in a historical perspective because he spends a great deal of energy recounting familiar territory, rather than, what a person familiar with Dylan’s work might be  led to expect by the title would be the primary focus of the book – the integration of Dylan’s musical genius into the collective consciousness of our shared American experience.

He succeeds to a vastly greater degree in placing Dylan’s music in the context of how it relates to our American musical heritage and traditions.   Somehow, in the process, he also manages to successfully accomplish an almost impossible task: evoking an understanding of how Dylan expands that very landscape and either consciously or subconsciously defines many of these American musical traditions as well as various poetic and literary movements though his steadfast commitment to performing his music live.   Wilentz’s continued reference to Dylan as the minstrel couldn’t be more appropriate.

Additionally, Wilentz manges to refer to Dylan’s music intellectually in context, without over-analyzing it – a trap that many other biographers fall into.   Another highlight is the unique treatment he gives to Dylan’s respects for his predecessors.

Dylan’s forays into art (painting) is discussed as well as his interest in movies and attempts at acting and producing films.   Dylan typically does not come across well in other mediums, but Wilentz rightfully points out that he is more articulate these days, and his movie Masked and Anonymous is a much stronger effort than many assumed it would be.

The more recent parts of Dylan’s career make up some of the most interesting parts of the book, perhaps because there has been less written of them, but the album Love and Theft is a masterpiece, his recent tours have been exceptionally strong as compared to his down period, and Dylan’s book, Chronicles, was extremely absorbing.

Wilentz addressed all of these in an interesting and enlightened manner.   He also emphasizes what many others have as well: the perplexing mystery of the songs that were left off of the 1983 album Infidels (e.g., “Blind Willie McTell” and “Foot of Pride”).

Wilentz also discusses Dylan’s ability to incorporate past, present, and future into one as he creates his stories and musical impressions.   Wilentz’s storytelling mimics this to a degree to accentuate the point rather effectively, but he often comes across as having some type of inner knowledge on a topic; only to leave the point unsubstantiated, which is at times both troubling and confusing.

The best advice is to read the primary source, Chronicles, or better yet, go see Dylan perform live.   Then, for a very interesting read for Dylan fans, music lovers, and pop devotees alike, turn to Wilentz.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of Life and Life Only, a novel about baseball and Bob Dylan.   We interpret this review to be the equivalent of a Well Recommended rating.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized