Observing the observers observing: there is a brave and remarkable poise to Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, a three-hour documentary presently showing at New York’s Film Forum—before a wider release on November 21—which takes the viewer on an ambling, extremely nosey tour of London’s National Gallery, focusing on both visitors and the staff who run it.
The most wonderful thing about it, the moments Wiseman keeps studding the documentary with, are images of people looking at pictures on walls. This, unexpectedly, is fascinating: you watch as they/we crinkle our faces up, really looking at brushwork; or walk in front of a canvas, and then walk back; or quickly move on, and then return; or sit, rapt in contemplation; or look confused or elated, tired or utterly immersed.
Given the amount of explosions and dumb sex comedies on our cinema screens, how can you not applaud a three-hour film that explores our reception and appreciation of art, and how that art is curated, lit, and displayed for us?
National Gallery is Wiseman’s latest, burrowing journey into an institution in a film-making career that has spanned almost sixty years, including movies like High School (1968), Missile (1987), Central Park (1989), and La Danse (2009), about the Paris Opera Ballet. Wiseman goes to places or into the reality of a lived experience—a hospital, army basic training, or a police precinct—and quietly, without his presence overtly felt, interrogates and observes it.
There is something imperiously subversive about National Gallery. Unlike the loud, pantomimishly structured documentaries of today, the parade of freaks and freakish, combusting and self-combusting, and warzones in gruesome close-up, there is no dramatic arc, no salivating over conflicts, no set-ups. There are no captions explaining who anybody is, no explanations of what they are doing. There is no spoon-feeding of anything.
It’s rather as if you yourself were going in and out of the gallery’s warrenous rooms, public and private. One moment you are watching a school field trip listen to a gallery guide discuss how a painting tells a story, the next you are in a meeting where the gallery’s old guard, who believe the National Gallery should keep its self-conscious stateliness intact, meets the new, who think it would be a good idea to feature it in a sports event watched by millions of people.
But even then the clash is extremely polite, and couched in the cringing terms of “targets” and “outcomes” that invades all office culture. Without any explanation we watch art restorers at work, and the painstaking, technical deconstruction of a Rembrandt.
Wiseman, 84, says he hadn’t thought about making a film about the National Gallery until a friend suggested it. The Gallery itself was keen and nothing was off-limits; the cameras were only set aside when staffing issues were raised in meetings. Wiseman spent 12 weeks filming, and amassed 170 hours of tape.
“I didn’t identify the people because, where do you stop? All the names would clutter up the screen. When I made La Danse, I had the same thought about identifying the dancers, and I thought, ‘Who do I decide to name and not name?’”
Wiseman’s aim is to show “enough on screen that you know someone is in a position of authority or whatever they do. The way I film is based on the assumption that the audience is as smart and dumb as I am. I really don’t explain anything directly, but I hope I explain a lot indirectly. When the technique works the viewer is placed in the middle of what they are seeing.”
The film’s standout stars are similarly too various to mention, from Nicholas Penny, the (soon-to-be-former) Director of the National Gallery, to the enthusiastic gallery guides, and the TV presenter snapping at his director to leave him alone to write his script in peace.
Most surprising are the art restorers, “who show an enormous amount of care and skill” as they go about their work, such as X-raying a Rembrandt canvas to show the original image the artist sketched, before painting the image the world would then see on top of it.
The desire, and pressure, to make the National Gallery more “accessible”—a word art purists shudder at when they hear it—is akin, for Wiseman, to the mechanics of the modern-day movie business.
“Hollywood studios are always trying to attract the largest audience to make money,” Wiseman says. “It’s not the perfect analogy, because unlike a film, you can’t physically alter a painting to suit an audience’s expectations, but the pressure to make a painting or gallery ‘accessible’ is also a simplifying approach. Paintings are complex objects with subtle techniques and complicated ideas.”
As a filmmaker, it fascinated Wiseman to be observing people looking at paintings, and for his audience to then watch those people looking at paintings. “There are five million people visiting the National Gallery every year—every age, gender, ethnicity. And it’s impossible to generalize how they all see the art: everyone looks at the paintings differently.”
As his distinctively constructed National Gallery shows, Wiseman says he is interested in storytelling whether that is a movie, painting, novel, ballet, or play. Indeed, his next project is to mount, in 2016, a piece of classical choreography based on Titicut Follies, his 1967 documentary about the patient-inmates at an institution for the criminally insane.
When I ask how he feels about aging, Wiseman laughs that at 84, of course it’s an issue, but he keeps in shape, “and even at 30, you have to be in shape if you’re directing films.”
Like so many other teenagers, he says, he wanted to be a film director, “but I was of an age before the proliferation of film schools. You either apprenticed yourself or went off and just did it.” Books were more important inspirations to him than other directors or mentors: as an author does, a filmmaker must wrestle, he says, with characterization, abstraction, the passage of time, and metaphor.
But on the page, the author has more freedom, he says. On film, you have to show these things very literally; and the challenge for Wiseman has been to build as much abstraction as he can into such a literal medium.
“Hollywood dilutes material to a level I have no interest in, or intention following,” Wiseman says firmly. There are many other institutions he’d love to burrow into, he says. He always jokes the one he’d really like access to is the White House. Endowing the feverish, PR-patrolled world of presidential politics with thoughtfulness and poise—now that would be radical.