Fairly early in Frederick Wiseman's documentary At Berkeley - "fairly" early in that the usual rules about duration in the context of a 4 hour and 4 minute movie need to be seriously re-evaluated - a UC-Berkeley undergraduate offers up the suggestion that in the past, college students were more motivated by having opportunities to acquire knowledge, and in the present, they are more motivated by the ability to access high-paying jobs that are functionally closed to anyone without a bachelor's degree. On the particulars of this question, Wiseman is silent (in fact, editorial silence is the very heart and soul of what he's up to here), but there's no disguising the way that At Berkeley has been built according to the principles of knowledge acquisition. It is, structurally, nothing but one scene after another of Wiseman's camera stopping in a room where people are talking or going about their work, separated by brief interstitials of the school's campus, frequently with students and faculty wandering by, sometimes not. The longer one lives with the movie, and one does get an awfully long time to live with it before it's over, the more that motifs begin to repeat and messages start to derive from those motifs; but at first blush, the experience of dropping on on these professors, administrators, and students (not a single one of whom is ever identified by name), it to simply sponge it all up, and listen with fascinated attention to what's being discussed, whether it's how humans perceive the flow of time, the differences between government and private research funding, what Thoreau meant in Walden, or how to retain faculty during a budget crunch. The film may be uncommonly long, but it dances by playfully, skipping between different spaces and intellectual modes so quickly that it feels almost like a series of short films, all of them wonderful little exercises in eavesdropping.

Thus it is that we immediately start to get an idea of how university works, on two levels: one is what the university does, exposing young people to ideas and resources that can, with luck, deepen their ability to think and function; the other is how the university does this, as the film spends ample time in the meetings of various bureaucratic subdivisions of the school, hashing out problems and solutions. Insofar as there's a hook, it's that the time Wiseman and his crew were at Berkeley overlapped with a fairly disruptive protest held on 7 October, 2010. Before it happens, we listen in on conversations with university leaders trying to pre-plan how to deal with the event; about twenty minutes of the film are spent with the protesters in the library, or with the members of the chancellor's office trying to draft a response. Since this is the only "plot" in the movie, it's tempting to read into this all of the arguments that Wiseman is or isn't making: the way that activists in the 21st Century are a bit more incompetent and unfocused than the activists of the 1960s, Berkeley's political heyday (and it takes no subjective editing to make the "whatta you got?" feeling of the protest seem a little aimless, however passionate); the evolution of individuals from vital, youthful participants in life to inflexible adults who can only uphold the status quo. But the protest is something that happens in the direction of At Berkeley, rather than something that it takes as a focus, or even more of a point of interest than the part of the prospective student tour that goes by Berkeley's very own T-rex skeleton.

My sense, having not seen any of Wiseman's work prior to this (I know!), is that this is all kind of par for the course for that director: put your uninflected, observational cameras in a place that they can watch the function of an organisation. So maybe At Berkeley hardly even makes a blip in the context of all his other films. Taken in a vacuum, as a thing unto itself, it's astounding, mind-expanding stuff, looking at the way a university operates in every detail, from the classes it teaches and the research done in its labs to the process by which faculty members air their grievances to the physical laborers who build and maintain the whole place (there is a single shot of a riding mower, deep into the movie, that serves as a terrific punch line in context). At four hours, it provides a tremendously deep and panoramic perspective of all these things, somehow managing to never quite repeat itself over all that time in any given pair of scenes. Some of it is intellectually captivating, some of it is esoteric as hell, some of it is tediously bureaucratic, but all of it is completely fascinating.

The tissue that connects all of this is not forced by Wiseman onto the material, but comes up out of it naturally: in places from biomedical engineer labs to social issues classes to lectures by visiting experts, people continue to mention, almost by accident, the daunting problems of having, getting, and keeping money in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse. At Berkeley is pointedly not a movie "about" the financial crisis, but any wide-ranging consideration of how life is lived in 2010 by necessity needs to touch on that, and the way that the day-to-day life of a hermetic institution like a major university keeps bleeding into the economic climate of the world as a whole is what turns this from a heady intellectual experience to a recognisable, living one. At Berkeley, simply in depicting this place it depicts, is a wonderfully interesting movie; its unexpected resonence with everyday life outside of Berkeley is what makes it as great a documentary as this decade has thus far produced.