Tag Archives: U.C. Berkeley

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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An Innocent Man

500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars by Kurt Eichenwald (Touchstone, $30.00, 611 pages)

Amazing.   Bush believed that he could establish a new legal system, and then declared his order exempt from judicial review?   Had anyone in the White House even read the Constitution?”

This is a stunningly good, and often sad and depressing, account of the first 500 days of the Bush administration’s response to 9/11.   As detailed in this book, a number of innocent persons were labeled as dangerous terrorists and were either tortured or lost their lives.   However, author Eichenwald seems to be both sympathetic to, and critical of, the people who worked in the White House and in the U.S. intelligence system.

“My God, they’re arguing that the president can do whatever he wants.”

The Bush White House was guided, during these 500 days, by a Berkeley law professor who incredibly advised that, “…we do have the right to violate international law.”   John Woo, a Republican lawyer in the Office of Legal Counsel, asserted that the executive’s power was virtually unbounded; a latter-day acceptance of Richard Nixon’s version of an imperial presidency beyond the review of the courts and Congress.   Fortunately for this country, a number of other government lawyers were fully prepared to take on Woo.   And they did.   One noted of Woo’s position:  “Adopting these standards would invite enemies to torture American soldiers.”

“The call ended without a resolution of their conundrum and with both men befuddled by the difficulty of nailing down Arar’s terrorist leanings.   Neither considered the obvious explanation – the evidence didn’t exist because Arar was an innocent man.”

These were days when fear and hatred led to a trampling of individual human rights; a national tragedy was exploited by extremists.   Let’s hope this account prevents us from repeating such a misguided and unfortunate chapter in our nation’s history.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “A page turner…  Jaw-dropping…  It crackles.”   The Washington Post500 Days (3d)

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The Singer Not The Song?

On First Glance

Novelist Amy Hatvany (Outside the Lines, Best Kept Secret) introduced an interesting discussion on Facebook by asking, “Do you think most book reviews are about the book or the reviewer?”   Interestingly, most of the respondents – a majority of whom seemed to be writers – selected the latter option.   I would like to respectfully disagree with this perspective.

It’s sometimes asked about a great song, “Is it the singer (the artist) or the song (the product)?”   When it comes to a review of a new book, I think the reviews are mostly about the product, before touching upon the author and/or the reviewer.   Why do I say this?   Because I’ve had multiple instances in which I love a book (often a debut or second novel) by an author, only to be disappointed by a later work.   So I know that my judgment is not about the writer as a person – or as a writer in general – but about the latest book he or she has completed.

This does not mean, as I’ve said before, that mine – or another reviewer’s – is the correct view.   It’s simply the one arrived at by a particular reader-reviewer.   I have no problem with considering other views as likely to have merit because each of us comes from a different time in life with different experiences…   Let’s say we were considering two memoirs by women writers.   Would we expect the one written by the 55-year-old cancer survivor to be the same as the one written by the 25-year-old right out of college?   Of course not – yet each would be a valid view on life as she knows it.

It’s All Personal

Someone wrote that music mix tapes/CDs are as much about the person putting them together as the person they were intended for.   I certainly concur with this.   We each demonstrate something of ourselves in the things we love – whether it’s a book, painting or music selection.   Sometimes people can learn more about us, inadvertently or not, by studying our favorite things.   And this begins to explain why book reviews are, yes, also about the reviewer.   The fact that a reviewer likes or does not like a particular book tells us something about him/her, and we hope the connection is revealed in the review and not kept hidden.

One of the highest recommendations for a book is that a friend has read it and loved it.   I recently lost a good friend who sought to convince me, since last September, that I must read the novel Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.   Since the paperback’s over 600 pages, I declined the invitation.   But now I will likely do so.   Why?   Because I will not have the chance to communicate with my friend again; and I suspect that in reading Franzen’s novel I will find something of her in it that will help me to see why she loved it, and what it had to do with her time on earth.

Very Personal

Some innovative new research appears to indicate that our personal views about books and films are even more individual than we suspected.   There are automated programs based on mathematical algorithms that attempt to predict what we might buy.   At Amazon, for example, you might be informed that, “If you liked this book by author Joe Blow, you may also like the new novel by Sally Snow.”   But guess what?   These programs don’t seem to work in practice.

As noted in an article in the U. C. Berkeley alumni magazine, California (“Taste By Numbers”) – quoting Professor Ken Goldberg:  “When you’re rating or evaluating something like a book or a movie…  you’re doing something that’s a matter of taste.   I think it’s not easily pigeonholed into a series of boxes.   Matters of taste are almost physiological.   It’s literally taste – part of your digestive system.   Or we talk about a gut reaction…”

So the next time you read a review of a book that you don’t agree with, you may want to chalk it up to simple differences in life experiences – or the reviewer’s Irritable Bowel Syndrome!

Joseph Arellano

This article is dedicated to the memory of Barbara Weiss of Sacramento, California.

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The Grand Illusion

I very much love reading fiction, but there’s just one thing that bothers me when I do.   My mind starts spinning around fictional scenes and I begin wondering how much of what I see is not fictional but true; that is, based on actual events in the author’s life?   So, dear Reader, I think I may have developed a solution to this question of real versus fake via the development of a new ratings system.

Publishers, effective immediately, each novel is to carry a cover sticker that states, “This book is based __% on actual events.”   Yes, every fiction book is to carry an informational sticker that gives the prospective reader a number that represents the average amount of content derived from true happenings.   Or should it be the median?

The beginning of each chapter must also contain a similar statement, “Chapter 4 is based 62% on actual events in the author’s life.”   In addition, at the rear of the novel, a summary must detail which ” fictional” scenes were based on which real events in the life of the writer – let’s call her Suzie Smith.   As an example, “When the protagonist Liz Bordon crashes her Mini Cooper into the Goodwill drop-off box on her way home from a college party in 2011, this scene was based on the time that Ms. Smith crashed her Toyota Tercel into a U.S. postal service box on her way home from a fraternity-sorority mixer in Berkeley in 1987.”   See, in this way, we will be able to determine exactly how original and creative each author is, and we’ll also see how often they’re just writing down things that happened to them decades earlier.

This relates to the matter of why most successful novelists are past their twenties and early thirties…  Because one needs to live at least 35 or so years before one has enough big and interesting experiences in life to turn them into alleged fictional events.   If you think about this, it’s totally logical.   How would one be expected to make up things about situations one knows nothing about?   It would be like asking a middle school drop-out to write about life in graduate school at Harvard.   You’re not very likely to get a novel out of that.   But ask a Yale graduate school drop-out to write about graduate school life at Harvard and you might well have something.   (Note: A new federal law prohibits individuals from making up scenes about life at a rival’s campus.   If you went to Stanford, you cannot legally write fiction about being a Cal student.   Writers, this is a matter to talk to your legal counsel about.   Better safe than sorry.)

This is not something that I’ve studied scientifically, but my guess is that the range of fictional content in a novel is likely to be in the range of no more than 20 to 35 percent.   If this is true, then there’s bound to be a demand for additional consumer protection.   Federal regulations will surely come into play requiring a minimum of 51 percent fictional content in order for a story to be classified as fiction.   Anything less, and the book must be labeled as a pseudo-fictional work (Caution: This book is substantively based on things that happened in the writer’s life when he/she wore a younger person’s clothes.   You’re not getting much fiction for your money if you buy this one.)

See how helpful this will be?   And, yes, I can see what it’s going to mean in the long run…  Many of today’s novelists will be converted into new-born memoir writers, telling us about their past lives without covering them in the guise of fictional events.   The truth shall set them free!

If you think I have some good ideas here, then write your congressperson or U.S. senator today and urge them to adopt these essential reader protections.   Or better yet join my public interest group, the Association to Properly Brand So-Called Fictional Works.   Once my crusade has proven to be successful, I may write a novel about it.   Oh, make that a memoir.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured: The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister which was not based on actual events (read the synopsis and you’ll understand why).   BTW, this is not intended to be a serious essay – it’s a joke, folks.  Thank you.

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Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs: West of the West

Decades ago, the late singer Marty Robbins recorded an album entitled “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.”   This would be an appropriate sub-title for this book of essays by Fresno-based writer Mark Arax.   In Arax’s world, California is still the wild, wild, west inhabited by gunslingers, drifters, grafters, and others up to little good.   On the positive side, a few of the essays read like articles from old issues of New West magazine.   On the negative, there’s just a bit too much paranoia in this world, which is why most of the material reads like excerpts from the long-departed Ramparts magazine.

“When I strolled into People’s Park and onto the Berkeley campus and found the steps of Sproul Hall there wasn’t one man raging to thousands about throwing his body into the gears of the machine but thousands, en masse, heedless, staring into the iridescence of their cell phones.”   Are we not about 45 years removed from Mario Savio?

For a book that purports to examine the exciting present times and culture of California, this collection was, sadly, too past-directed for this reader’s tastes.

Joseph Arellano

Public Affairs, $26.95, 347 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.Arax West

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