Some thoughts on two new, highly impressive films that have just played at the London Film Festival – the Coen Brothers' tale of a folk singer and Frederick Wiseman's fascinating documentary about the University of Berkeley.
"If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it's a folk song"
One of the first lines in the Coen Brothers' exceptional new film helps to set up this incredibly smartly structured story of a folk singer in 1960s Greenwich Village who is striving for success within his creative field. He doesn't want to just "exist".
Hopping from one couch to another of those friends that he hasn't yet burnt bridges with – and even, it seems, some that he has – Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) comes across as selfish, sad, desperate and even almost emotionally blank at times, but he is at the same time one of the most compelling and engaging characters that the Coens have every written. Which is certainly saying something, when one looks back at their rich filmography.
The fascinating character that the Coens have created here on the page is superbly embodied by Oscar Isaac, whose sad eyes convey a great deal in many of the film's quieter moments.
Despite the foot-tapping and excellent musical performances from the cast and the punctuations of laugh out loud comedy, the subtlety with which the Coen Brothers handle some of the film's deeper plot points is the real trick up their sleeve here.
Plot threads hang throughout and many are still left blowing in the wind as the credits roll but Llewyn's story continues, or maybe it just starts again. It was never new to begin with, after all.
Frederick Wiseman's four hour documentary on the University of Berkeley is an outstanding achievement in the peeling back of multiple layers. A masterpiece in telling a story through documentary filmmaking in a way in which the text becomes richer and more absorbing as we find ourselves more and more involved in the machinations and minutiae of this great university.
Wiseman is perhaps best know for his very specific approach to documentary filmmaking – generally characterised by his choice to always remain an unseen observer, to provide no narration or explanatory text and to let sections of his films play out for very long takes before cutting.
This last characteristic is not one that he sticks to rigorously – there are occasionally quicker cuts – and it also one that is often grossly misunderstood. Wiseman does cut frequently at times and always with very serious purpose. He also frames each scene with a very obvious attention to particular things that he is trying to communicate to the viewer. This is not simply the actions of a director who just places a camera in the room and 'documents'.
Wiseman chooses fascinating footage to show us – here culled from over two hundred and fifty hours shot over twelve weeks. In At Berkeley we see the struggle between commerce and eduction in the back room discussions about how to keep the university running in the face of government cuts and we see the same challenges in the class discussions and the campus protests.
This is all set amidst a number of sequences involving intelligent and nuanced classroom discussions that not only debate the issues facing the university but also illustrate why the university and higher education in general is so crucially important.
An impressive portrait of an institution and a subtly brilliant and cleanly executed discussion piece on the nature of education and learning, At Berkeley is an vital look at an essential subject.