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California Revisited

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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/

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He Was A Friend Of Mine

TV Review – ‘The American Experience’ – ‘JFK’

The American Experience examines the life and times of the 35th President of the United States.

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The WGBH/PBS two-part four-hour production, JFK, premieres on November 11 and 12. This is a unique and intriguing profile of the life of the 35th president of the United States. It begins with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Why? Because as a college student and best-selling author of Why England Slept Kennedy had argued that, “Democracies have to be ready to fight at all times.” But in late 1962, it was estimated that a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union – and involving China – would result in somewhere between 175 and 300 million deaths “in one hour” (to use Kennedy’s own terms). So John Kennedy stepped back, remained calm and avoided war in his finest hour as the leader of the Free World.

After this opening, JFK takes a traditional biographical, chronological look at the life of the man who, when he took the oath of office, was the youngest president in our country’s history. In this documentary, narrated by Oliver Platt, we hear from multiple historians, writers and former members of the Kennedy administration. Most importantly, we hear from Kennedy himself, on Dictaphone recordings that he made while in the White House.

The Kennedys were raised to be ambitious and to be agents of change. As Platt states, “The past was not the point in the Kennedy family.” It was all about the future – a future that was to rest, in large part, on the shoulders of Joe Kennedy, Jr. As is well detailed in JFK, John Kennedy battled significant health problems his entire life, beginning with a near-death experience at the age of three.

After the death of Joe Jr. in World War II, no one expected that Jack Kennedy would have the strength and stamina to pursue a political campaign. But he successfully did so, campaigning each day from sunrise to midnight in order to become a Congressman at the age of 29. He subsequently became a U.S. Senator at the age of 34, defeating Henry Cabot Lodge in 1952.

Kennedy stated that, “The presidency is the ultimate source of action.” Despite being saddled with constant physical pain he would settle for nothing less than becoming the person who would occupy the oval office.

JFK provides some fascinating photographs and video footage of Kennedy in his youth, some taken while he was in college at Princeton and Harvard. It’s a bit frightening to see how much of John Kennedy, Jr. could be seen in a young, thin John Kennedy.

One of the fascinating pieces of information we learn from JFK is that the prized golden tan he possessed was actually a discoloration of his skin caused by the medications taken to control his Addison’s disease.

This PBS program takes us from the initial difficult two years of the Kennedy administration, when relatively little was accomplished legislatively, to the activist final months of the Kennedy White House. John Kennedy, according to a niece, “loved being president.” Kennedy believed in the Great Man theory of governance, and he was growing in stature and confidence during the last months of his life.

This look at the Kennedy presidency provides a clear explanation of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In this it is exemplary. Where the documentary trips up a bit is in including a brief (fortunately brief) segment on Kennedy’s womanizing. The section feels like something that was added as an after-thought; it would have best been left on the cutting room floor.

The first two hours of JFK and even part of the third hour will be a bit dry for many viewers. But the fourth and final hour justifies the time spent in revisiting history. In that hour we observe the John Kennedy who was accepted by the Free World as its fearless leader – the Kennedy who was as much loved in France and Germany as in his ancestral home of Ireland. We also glimpse a man who enjoyed being a father, and who grew closer to his wife before the journey to Dallas. (This was the first and only time that Jackie Kennedy traveled with her husband on a domestic political trip.)

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JFK takes us to the final hours and minutes of Kennedy’s life. Out of respect for the man, no footage of the assassination is displayed. What we do see and share in is the enormous sense of grief and anguish that people around the world experienced after his untimely death. Even Nikita Khrushchev was visibly shaken as he signed a guest book in sorrow.

To this day, John F. Kennedy is a man missed by many – both by those who met him and by those who never did. JFK succeeds in examining and detailing his life, a life which ended in horrific tragedy.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This article originally appeared on the Blogcritics site:

TV Review: ‘American Experience’ – ‘JFK’

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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.

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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/ .

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