Berkeley on the big screen: A watchlist for a remote semester

Pixar/Courtesy

Remote instruction has made reminiscing about campus and greater Berkeley a nearly universal experience. Returning students likely miss the daily rituals of walking to class and exploring the city, while incoming students are sure to feel as if their first semester is incomplete without a physical space to anchor it. 

But perhaps there’s still something that can be done to emulate the in-person Berkeley experience. There are a handful of films famously shot in Berkeley and the greater East Bay, the names and locales of which often brandished as trivia and worn as badges of honor. If you’ve been to Golden Bear Orientation, you can probably name a few. But here’s a more interesting challenge: Can the experience of an in-person semester be captured in a watchlist?

Probably not. In fact, it’s probably a pretty silly question. But that can’t stop us from trying. Below, you’ll find a curated list of films that are not only shot in the East Bay, but also may recapture some definitive pieces of a typical Berkeley semester. 

“The Graduate”

No discussion of Berkeley cinema can begin without a mention of “The Graduate.” It’s pretty much the only film that ever inspires these discussions, and The Daily Californian has already documented it rather extensively.

So let’s get it out of the way first: From Moe’s Books to the Theta Delta Chi house, “The Graduate” prominently highlights many of Southside’s most iconic spots. If Dustin Hoffman sprinting recklessly down Telegraph Avenue doesn’t evoke a palpable nostalgia for the city of Berkeley, nothing will. 

But beyond the obvious geographical Berkeley references, there’s something inherently relatable about Hoffman’s detachment. Fresh out of college and unsure as to what to do next, “The Graduate” perfectly captures a familiar sense of disillusionment. It’s a film more relevant than ever, with this feeling likely even more familiar amid remote instruction and the longing to return to campus. 

“Monsters University”

Naysayers will say that this film shouldn’t count for this list. Yes, it’s animated and no, it’s not very good. But until another mainstream, big-budget flick does a better job at highlighting the campus’s architecture, “Monsters University” shall remain on this list. The Campanile, Sather Gate and the Memorial Glade all make ghoulish cameos in this alternate reality version of UC Berkeley.

Besides, “Monsters University” is essentially about imposter syndrome. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Mike Wazowski, who is surrounded by others who seem to be naturally more talented than he could even hope to be.

At the risk of sounding facetious, few narratives in film capture this familiar Berkeley affliction as well as this one. You’re probably not too enthusiastic about this particular part of the Berkeley experience, and perhaps distanced learning has little effect on it. But maybe there’s some comfort in knowing even adorable monsters can succumb to it, too. 

“Sorry to Bother You” 

For one, this film is a great sightseeing tour of the greater East Bay — albeit a technicolor, absurdist near-future version of it. Featured landmarks include much of Oakland’s Franklin Street, the famous Richmond Pup Hut and the Spring Mansion on the Southside of Berkeley.

Though it features less of Berkeley proper than other films on this list, “Sorry to Bother You” serves a vital niche in cinematically emulating the UC Berkeley experience. No film can totally capture Berkeley’s unique progressive political climate, but between its revolutionary spirit, anti-capitalist themes and plentiful depictions of protest and avant-garde performance art, “Sorry to Bother You” is sure to be reminiscent of a very particular sphere of Berkeley culture. And as the directorial debut of East Bay musician and leftist activist Boots Riley, “Sorry to Bother You” encapsulates the intersection of zany art and political activism that Berkeley is so known for. 

Contact Olive Grimes at [email protected].