Fifty years ago, Frederick Wiseman was a Boston University law professor ready to try his hand at documentary filmmaking. His first feature in 1967 introduced the immersive style that's defined his work ever since. Free of guiding narration, Wiseman's films cast viewers into the inner workings of intricate social systems, leaving us to mingle among the humans that make such systems go. In 1967's Titicut Follies, this meant daily operations at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts; the title is the name of the hospital talent show. Films that followed included Basic Training (1971), Juvenile Court (1973), Ballet (1995), Public Housing (1997), State Legislature (2007), and three dozen more, all of which add up to an oeuvre that has won Wiseman a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and singular esteem among filmmakers.
Now 83, Wiseman has released a huge new documentary, At Berkeley, a four-hour, cellular-level tour of the University of California at Berkeley. Reportedly given full access on campus, Wiseman and his camera take us into student-orientation meetings, teacher-training sessions, poetry lectures, faculty meetings, crisis-management discussions, laboratory research sessions, student-led consciousness-building conversations, and, yes, one extravagantly Berkeleyesque student protest. Scene after scene offer blasts of scholastic humanity in its natural habitat, up close and at length. (Along with narration, Wiseman rejects quick cuts. Even the most procedural scenes become somewhat hypnotic as they regularly cross the 10-minute mark.)