Searching for Berkeley on screen

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When I told people that I would be writing an article about the cinematic legacy of Berkeley, they all nodded their heads in understanding. “Hmm, ‘The Graduate,’ ” they said knowingly.

The first time I drove up to the UC Berkeley campus with my friend Cade, he told me as soon as we turned onto Telegraph Avenue that this is where “The Graduate” was shot. He had gone on the official campus tour, unlike me, and he was armed with the vital Berkeley trivia that I was not yet privy to. I nodded with a kind of vague understanding. In truth, the Berkeley name echoes throughout the movie, and Berkeley takes such pride in its association with the 1967 coming-of-age classic. My friend was able to associate the two without even attending UC Berkeley — or ever having seen the movie.

So I knew just where to look to find the cinematic legacy of Berkeley, and with that in mind, I settled in for what I expected to be a visual tour of Berkeley directed by Mike Nichols. It was at this point that I was forced to face a cold hard truth: “The Graduate” largely does not take place in Berkeley. It mostly takes place in Pasadena, and it isn’t even very coy about it.

Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, is living in Pasadena when he begins his affair with Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft. Though the latter’s surname is one of the most palpable connections to the city of Berkeley, scene after scene was a slap in the face as the film became more and more saturated with the Los Angeles atmosphere.

There is Bancroft standing in her cheetah-print slip in Pasadena. There is Hoffman leaping into a pool decked out in scuba gear in Pasadena. “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me! Aren’t you?” says Hoffman, while in Pasadena. Even in the 20 or so minutes that claim to take place in Berkeley, Hoffman and Katharine Ross wander around the mammoth Italian red-brick buildings of USC.

Despite this, I felt committed to finding my city in the static, so one rainy afternoon, I walked to Moe’s Books. My hope was to sit in Caffe Mediterraneum as Hoffman once had and peer out the window to the unsuspecting people outside, in search of some sort of purpose or inspiration. I was disappointed to find nothing but a boarded up shop under the still-intact Caffe Mediterraneum mural.

Beyond the pervading theme of existential dread and the palpable anxiety Hoffman emits everytime he is on screen, what I saw in “The Graduate” felt utterly unfamiliar. And even that emotional connection to Hoffman felt somewhat fraught, given the recent sexual misconduct and assault accusations against him, some of which even took place while on set. I recalibrated.

After pushing myself all the way to the third or even fourth page of Google results, I reached the conclusion that the purest preservation of Berkeley in cinema is actually the 2000 teen romantic comedy “Boys and Girls,” starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and Claire Forlani. The movie follows a young couple through two years at Berkeley, where their relationship evolves from one of contempt to one of friendship and, eventually, romance.

This movie, in contrast to the likes of “The Graduate,” really gets it. Throughout the course of the film, you see Alyson Hannigan kissing Prinze goodbye right in front of Sather Gate; Jason Biggs and Prinze chat about girls while walking past the Valley Life Science Building; and Forlani and Prinze converse awkwardly in front of Doe Library. “Boys and Girls” gives a better depiction of Berkeley than any other fictional movie, even if it fundamentally misunderstands Bay Area geography, positioning Bowles Hall right next to the Golden Gate Bridge.

So I must ask, why didn’t the Berkeley Historical Society have a “Boys and Girls” walking tour last year? An answer, and perhaps the ugliest thing someone can say about a place, is what Roger Ebert said to close out his review of “Boys and Girls” — “It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s that I don’t care.”

A legacy can be a daunting thing. How we are seen, and whether or not we are cared about or remembered drove Benjamin Braddock to the brink of a nervous breakdown; it has pushed Berkeley into a decades-long identity crisis as well. It’s one riddled with half-truths and misconceptions, but one that has been remembered. When looking at the cinematic history of Berkeley, there isn’t much to look at, which makes the choices on what we choose to preserve, align ourselves with and remember all the more important — and ultimately limiting. In the end, however, these choices hinge entirely on how much we care about the thing we are trying to remember.

I’m not going to tell you what legacy to believe in, but I found mine in the millenium pop and JNCO jeans of “Boys and Girls.” So I’ll forgive the wide-eyed future freshmen fresh from a campus tour, imagining their lives in Berkeley as a palm-treed, red-bricked, Pasadena bildungsroman and instead just be glad they care enough to dream cinematically at all.

Contact Kate Tinney at [email protected].