by Matt Levine
For those who think prolonged, intense observation is the surest way to learn a new subject, the films of Frederick Wiseman offer a crash course in…well, the world. Now 84 years old and with 39 feature documentaries under his belt, Wiseman uses a seemingly simple approach—long, ruminative shots of people, events, and things with no interviews or narration to provide subtext—to convey the drama of an environment. And “drama” is absolutely the right word: in his careful approach to editing, Wiseman structures his films to build motifs and create juxtapositions that emphasize how many compelling mini-narratives are taking place at any moment. Whether it’s an intensely dramatic scene of an old man being evicted in Public Housing (1997) or a placid moment in which a janitor cleans the university floors in At Berkeley (2013), Wiseman’s films get to the heart of the documentary directive: to reveal the quiet frenzy of real life and its infinite storylines.
Walker Art Center
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Producers: Pierre-Olivier Bardet, Frederick Wiseman
Cinematographer: John Davey
Editor: Frederick Wiseman
Premiere: May 17, 2014 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: November 5, 2014
US Distributor: Zipporah Films
In National Gallery, Wiseman trains his attention (along with his cinematographer, John Davey) on the eponymous art museum in London’s Trafalgar Square. No facet of the museum’s operations, from budget meetings to guided tours to meticulous restoration to the euphoric act of reception and contemplation, is off limits. We watch men and women arrange plants, buff the floors, remove tape and wallpaper from exhibit walls. Their typically unseen but vital work is likened, however indirectly, to the contentious board meetings that we witness, sometimes uncomfortably. These meetings are populated with elitist protectors of the old guard striving to retain the museum’s prestige (one man is outraged that the London Marathon would end in Trafalgar Square, thus blocking the museum) alongside pragmatists who grapple with the museum’s ongoing budget cuts and the task of promoting an approachable image in a social-media saturated age. (Such conflicts won’t be a surprise to anyone who’s worked at a modern-art institution.) Production of National Gallery conveniently took place around the time of an expensive Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit, allowing us to glean some of the backstage financial battles that accompany such priceless works of art.
For many viewers, however, the subject of interest lies in the artworks themselves, and National Gallery doesn’t disappoint. Again, Wiseman shows us the grueling, invisible work that helps to posit these paintings as unchanging masterpieces: the frame-makers who laboriously press gold leaves into hand-carved wood, or the restorers who discuss how various varnishes can discolor the paint. But the film really comes alive when it provides static recreations of the paintings, or observes museum guests enraptured as they stare at the art, or accompany fascinating tours about the history and philosophy of the paintings. One docent points out, in Bellini’s The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr, how a group of woodcutters go about their work in the bulk of the painting, oblivious to the saint’s murder happening in the foreground. Another guide points out an anamorphous skull placed front-and-center in a Hans Holbein portrait—who decided to include it? The painter? His subjects? The bewildering compositions and jam-packed narratives of Velasquez, Vermeer, Titian, et al., are rapturously explored by the onscreen audiences and Wiseman’s camera. If this sounds like a straightforward college art-history class, it’s definitely not; Wiseman clearly relishes the docents’ outsized personalities as much as the aesthetic discussions they provide, turning National Gallery into a celebration of not only art itself, but the dramas and characters provided by the real people who circulate around it.
Much of National Gallery seems quietly celebratory—it’s no surprise the Walker is screening it, as the film does regard art museums as repositories for the brilliance of which artists are capable. Despite the backroom bickering and tedious installation process that we observe, these moments serve to idolize rather than demystify the paintings on display. This entire procession of preparation and logistics is designed to immortalize some of the proudest artifacts of our existence; though these works are indeed morphing and aging all the time, museums ask us to believe (at least subconsciously) that they’re enshrined, untouchable. Without ever lapsing into speeches about the value of art, National Gallery—in its unwavering images of astounded viewers and painted subjects staring back at us defiantly—proclaims without a doubt the vitality of artistic creation. Wiseman’s film might have allowed a few more traces of ambiguity—a protest over Shell Oil’s sponsorship of the National Gallery, for example, is quickly shrugged off without explanation—but it’s hard to criticize the movie’s subtle yet fervent celebration of art.
I have to confess to a lot of pessimism about human nature over the last several weeks, what with the Ferguson Grand Jury decision and articles predicting the end of human life on earth. It’s hard not to become existential and introspective at such dark times, wondering what kind of legacy we’re going to leave behind after we’re gone. I’ve always believed that creating and responding to art is one of the highest achievements to which humanity can aspire—it’s why I love movies (and writing about movies) so much—and it’s somewhat comforting to see such beliefs reaffirmed by National Gallery. Wiseman carefully structures his films, of course, but he avoids onscreen explication, encouraging the audience to draw their own conclusions and search for their own themes. In the case of National Gallery (as in many of his films), those conclusions often broaden into a wider speculation on human nature and the nebulous workings of modern society. It’s hard to ascribe emotional intention to Wiseman’s work, but National Gallery—in its adoring images of Rubens and Titian, or its shots of viewers contemplating masterpieces in apparent ecstasy—certainly seems hopeful. One art restorer claims, “it’ll all last longer than us. That’s an interesting thing.” If a future race, millennia from now, stumbles onto these awe-inspiring paintings (or onto a documentary like National Gallery), what a miraculous thing humanity would appear to be.