Berkeley is writer/director Bobby Roth's nostalgic look back at his own
college days. This is not the first time that Roth has created a film from an
autobiographical story about his youth. Way back in 1978, he wrote and
directed a movie called The Boss's Son, which is about the time he spent
working in his father's carpet store. His father reappears in this new film as
a loving, hard-working immigrant (played by The Fonz!) who succeeded in a
capitalist society (in the carpet business, natch) and just doesn't understand
why his children don't appreciate the American system as much as he does. His
son, you see, the alter ego of the author, is becoming a hippie radical at
Berkeley in the late sixties.
Roth is just another baby boomer looking back on his youth, but he happens
to have had a pretty good vantage point on the formation of my generation,
since he happened to be right in the middle of the action. He was going to
school at Berkeley in 1968. Unfortunately, his close-up view of that era is
presented in the form of a story which has no real structure to speak of. It
just drifts off at the end, and the final scenes could just as easily be the
start of a different movie. Of course that came as no surprise since it had
been drifting in the beginning and middle as well.
Even with the rambling and uninvolving structure, the film could have been
a success if it had some interesting insights, and you would expect that a man
in the center of campus radicalism in the late 60s would reflect back with
some wisdom about the way his generation thought it would change the world by
the new millennium, as opposed to what actually happened when a member of that
generation held the reins of power in the first eight years of the new
century. I'm not sure how Bobby sees today's world, but it looks about the
same to me as it did in 1965, before the student revolts, except for some
cosmetic and technological changes. As our generation has matured, some
progress has been made in pursuit of racial and gender equality, as evidenced
by the current candidates for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination,
and the attitude of American society toward sex has liberalized radically, but
except for a few tweaks here and there, the great student revolts of the 60s
created little more than great t-shirts, posters and soft drink ads. The
students of 2008 are facing more or less the same world, with the same
problems we faced in 1968.
As I see it, there has been one major change which has kept today's
campuses from being as radicalized as those of forty years ago -
self-interest. The Vietnam War was fought with conscripted soldiers, which
means any one of us could have been in the jungles after an F in Organic
Chemistry. Today's wars are fought with professionals who have volunteered for
service, so the privileged university kids feel no threat to their own
personal existence. As I look back on those years, I wonder how much different
our campuses would have been if America had instituted a volunteer army after
World War Two. Self-interest is the ultimate motivation.
Although Berkeley is narrated from the present day by a voice-over, it
offers no reflection on the merits or efficacy of student revolt. It just
tells the personal stories of several people who were caught up in it. They
hook up or break up based on commitment to and passion for The Movement. They
take some serious drugs and play some acid rock. Accurate enough. Nostalgic
enough. But empty.
The film does have one thing going for it. What it lacks in critical
self-assessment it makes up in personalization. It consists of a man (writer
Bobby Roth) telling his own story, using his own biological son (actor Nick
Roth) to play himself at about the same age. Any time a film gets that close
to reality, it has to offer a few genuine moments which touch the audience,
and this one does occasionally get close enough to the bone to spark my own
memories of similar incidents from that memorable epoch.
If only those moments added up to something.