"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Movies, Documentaries, At Berkeley, berkeley, University of California, Frederick Wiseman, Our Picks, Our Picks: Movies, Editor's Picks, Politics, Education, Public Education, Higher education, Entertainment News, News
How long will it take us to understand that the entire neoliberal project – the puritanical mania for cutting taxes, cutting social services and cutting budget deficits that has dominated the Western world’s economy for more than 30 years – has been a disaster? And guess what, liberals: You don’t get to point the finger at Ronald Reagan, Maggie Thatcher and Milton Friedman and claim it was all their fault. The reformist center-left, whether it took the form of Bill Clinton and the “New Democrats,” Tony Blair and “New Labor” or the watered-down social-democratic parties of Europe, has enthusiastically rebranded itself as a servant of global capital. If you were genuinely surprised that the Obama administration loaded itself up with Wall Street insiders, or that it failed to punish anyone for the massive criminal scheme that resulted in the 2008 financial collapse, you haven’t been paying attention.
I make that point because it’s almost impossible to have a serious discussion about this country’s economic problems without getting trapped into partisan political bickering, which is almost irrelevant in this context. The activist Tea Party right (at least in its populist, non-elite form) and the activist Occupy left are essentially reacting to the same phenomenon – worsening inequality, and the long-term economic and psychic decay of the United States – but interpreting it in different ways. Working-class whites who feel an immense loss of relative privilege and social status are not wrong, for example – but it doesn’t have much to do with the Kenyan socialist Muslim in the White House, or his namby-pamby and admittedly screwed-up healthcare law. As Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz recently noted, census data reveals that men with high-school diplomas but without college degrees earn about 40 percent less today (in real terms) than they did in the 1970s. Obama didn’t do that; capitalism did.
Stiglitz concluded his essay on inequality – which argued that it was a political choice, rather than the inevitable result of macroeconomic forces – by writing that he saw us “entering a world divided not just between the haves and have-nots, but also between those countries that do nothing about it, and those that do. Some countries will be successful in creating shared prosperity — the only kind of prosperity that I believe is truly sustainable. Others will let inequality run amok.” Which kind of country do we live in? That was the question that ran through my mind this week while I was watching Frederick Wiseman’s magisterial documentary “At Berkeley,” a portrait of America’s most prestigious public university as it wrestles with piecemeal privatization and the near-total abandonment of its historic mission.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, Stiglitz’s tag-team partner on the economic left, chimed in this week with a related argument. When the ideologues of austerity piously refuse to invest in jobs, infrastructure or education while wrapping themselves in the mantle of fiscal responsibility, he wrote, they’re actually inflicting irreparable long-term damage on the economy. Krugman’s focus in that column was primarily on job creation, but his lesson clearly applies to Wiseman’s depiction of a legendary state university that has long been considered on the same level as Harvard and Oxford and MIT and Stanford but that also, within living memory, charged no tuition at all to California high school graduates who qualified for admission.
Appropriately enough, it was Ronald Reagan who did away with all that. The onetime B-movie icon ran for governor of California in 1966 promising to “clean up the mess at Berkeley,” and I can’t help wondering whether Wiseman’s title is a sly reference to that famous slogan. Reagan of course meant the Free Speech Movement and organized student opposition to the Vietnam War, which was still widely popular among the public. Once he took office in Sacramento (after defeating Democratic incumbent Pat Brown, a godfather of the University of California system and the father of current Gov. Jerry Brown), Reagan demanded that the UC regents start charging student fees for the first time. (The word “tuition” was initially avoided.) He also proposed cutting the university budget by 10 percent across the board – a sequester, as we might say today – and suggested that the regents could make up the shortfall by selling off the rare books collection in Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.
No Gutenberg Bibles or first-edition Shakespeare folios were auctioned off to pay the bills at Berkeley, but that sounds an awful lot like Tea Party anti-government rhetoric circa 2013, doesn’t it? Of course Gov. Reagan presented his idea as hard-headed realism, but it’s difficult to miss the vindictiveness, or the clear ideological content: Why the hell do those eggheads need a bunch of dusty old books in languages no normal person can read, anyway? If we flash-forward to the present, the Republican-appointed bankruptcy manager of Detroit seems determined to sell off the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection, which also feels punitive and political, rather than practical. Have people unfortunate enough to live in a bankrupt and mismanaged city forfeited the right to see Diego Rivera’s Marxist frescoes, or 15th-century Flemish religious paintings?
In retrospect, I wonder whether Reagan’s assault on Berkeley wasn’t the zero moment of the conservative revolution, a magical melding of anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism and anxiety about government spending. Reagan and his supporters couldn’t understand why the Golden State’s taxpayers should fund a world-class research university, especially since it seemed to be producing radicals and dissidents in large numbers. Higher education was seen as an instrumental value, because we need to supply society with enough doctors and engineers and so forth, but never as a valuable public benefit in itself. More than four decades later, we see Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau (who retired this year) tell a group of administrators and faculty leaders that state funding has fallen to 16 percent of the school’s annual budget, an all-time low. While he insists that Berkeley can find ways to maintain its “public character,” that’s almost a term of art at this point.
So Reagan has won. While you won’t encounter any of that history directly in “At Berkeley,” Wiseman has been observing American society and politics since the 1960s, and definitely understands the background to what he finds on the campus today. Like all of Wiseman’s films, detailed social portraits, “At Berkeley” strictly adheres to the rules of the documentary style known as cinéma vérité. That means there is no narration, no on-screen names or charts or crawls of text, no talking-head interviews or other explanatory material. It certainly does not mean that the film pretends to be neutral or objective, or that no story is being told. Whether he’s shooting a field hockey game, a seminar on Thoreau, a lecture on the shifting understanding of cancer genetics or a group of workmen pouring cement in Berkeley’s football stadium, Wiseman captures the vibrant and diverse life of an institution in permanent crisis.
I should say here that “At Berkeley” had considerable personal resonance for me, because I spent much of my childhood on or near that campus and my father taught there for more than 30 years, and also that Wiseman’s films can be challenging for newcomers until you get used to them. In theaters all four hours of “At Berkeley” will be shown straight through, and while that’s rewarding it’s not the only way to watch it. Wiseman typically shoots more than 100 hours of video (he recently switched to digital from film) and then painstakingly edits down to the narrative he wants. It may not feel this way at first, but every scene in “At Berkeley” is in there for a reason, and I’m pretty sure that watching and rewatching the film in segments will reveal more thematic connections.
Sometimes the themes of “At Berkeley” are right on the surface, as when we hear a student from a Caribbean nation discuss how stressful and difficult life in the United States has turned out to be, and how her friends back home get subsidized educations and can afford to have reasonable adult lives unburdened with immense debt. Later in the film, a middle-class white student breaks down in tears at the fact that her family is too wealthy to qualify for financial aid, but too poor to afford a so-called public university without taking out risky and onerous loans. An administrator tells Birgeneau that the 1,232-acre campus now has exactly one employee to mow all its lawns. Sometimes they are more metaphorical, as in classroom discussions about the nature of time, or Thoreau’s observations about man’s “profane” relationship to nature, or the discovery that cancer viruses require a specific “microenvironment” to flourish into tumors.
I think my favorite scene, and the one that puzzled me the most at first, was a long and fascinating conversation with a graduate student who is designing a robotic assistive device for a paraplegic man that enables him to walk upright. In discussing the risks that the man will lean too far backward and fall, the student observes that walking involves that risk for all of us, and that learning to walk is about flirting with the possibility of falling, going right to the edge of instability and sometimes over it. Berkeley, that famous hotbed of intellectual ferment and discord, is still walking, in Wiseman’s judgment, but only just. It remains an elite institution of higher learning, but one that like most others in Western society is largely dependent on billionaire donors, corporate sponsorships and government research contracts.
“At Berkeley” is both a work of social observation and a work of philosophy (Wiseman has always been acutely sensitive to hierarchies of power), and it definitely isn’t just a story about Berkeley or about higher education. One of the greatest acts of neoliberal hypnosis over the past 40 years has been convincing almost everyone in mainstream politics, conservatives and liberals alike, that it was both fiscally prudent and morally necessary to subject the entire public sphere to “market forces.” It was neither prudent nor necessary; it was a vicious and misguided political decision, rooted in a quasi-religious dogma that sought to imprint the values of the market on every aspect of society and has largely succeeded. It was led by those who despised the communitarian values represented by the public sphere and longed to banish them, and abetted by those who went along because they didn’t want to look like wimps. It has poisoned our future.
“At Berkeley” is now playing at the IFC Center and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York, and opens Nov. 15 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Los Angeles, with a national rollout to follow. It will be available on home video in January.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)