Film Review: National Gallery

Master documentarian Frederick Wiseman paints another invaluable cinematic portrait of a major public institution.

Frederick Wiseman doesn’t make ordinary documentary features: He creates deep-dive immersions into specific places—from mental institutions and high schools to boxing gyms and public universities—capturing their inner workings with remarkable clarity and insight. That largely stems from the process he’s developed and honed over his four-decade career, embedding himself at the location in question for a set window of time and shooting mountains of footage that he steadily carves down to a more digestible size. In the case of his latest film, National Gallery, for example, Wiseman spent three months inside the halls of the titular London art gallery, emerging with some 170 hours’ worth of material depicting the daily goings-on at that institution. His camera captured virtually everything that occurred in the Gallery during that 12-week span, including exhibition openings, docent discussions, boardroom meetings, and wave after wave of museumgoers walking through its many rooms, their eyes scanning the portraits hanging on the walls.

But any filmmaker can shoot endless hours of footage. Wiseman’s particular genius is finding the connections that allow him to thread at least one, and often many more, needles through his reams of material. Because he eschews many of the standard conventions of documentary storytelling—among them onscreen identifiers, voiceover narration and talking-head interviews—his films can seem amorphous, particularly when they enter their third or fourth hour. (National Gallery’s 181-minute runtime is mid-range Wiseman, who has crafted films as long as 217 minutes and as brief as 91 minutes.)

In fact, they always possess definite, deliberate structures in which the narrative is tightly wrapped up in the montage; where some directors cut on action or story, Wiseman cuts on theme, connecting scenes through ideas and observations rather than a master plot. It’s no accident, for example, that a boardroom conversation early in the film in which museum executives speak about the need to expand the National Gallery’s profile to new audiences is later followed up by scenes from an “Art Through Words” class for the visually impaired and various kid-targeted activities. Wiseman understands that one way—perhaps the only way—to understand a large institution like the National Gallery is to look for repeated patterns in its behavior. Once you spot those patterns, both the place and the movie opens up in rich, vibrant ways.

Some of the patterns that run through National Gallery are the same ones that Wiseman has been tracking since his earliest films in the late ’60s. The director has always been fascinated by class, particularly as it relates to public institutions like housing projects (Public Housing), universities (At Berkeley) and state government (State Legislature). And while that specific theme is muted here compared to its prominent placement in some of his past work, it still bubbles up in the sequences that address the Gallery’s tenuous financial situation and how that might impact its programming quality and staffing levels. (National Gallery was filmed in 2012, when the unsteady global economy and reductions in government arts funding were taking a toll on free-for-the-public museums worldwide.)

Another favorite topic for the former teacher is education, and not just of the book-learning variety, as movies like Boxing Gym and Belfast, Maine are nothing if not examples of the “learn by doing” school of labor. In National Gallery, Wiseman awards extended screentime in the first half of the film to the museum’s passionate docents, who break down specific paintings for rapt visitors with a potent mixture of technical knowledge, historical detail and good old-fashioned storytelling. Then, in a wonderfully subtle touch, those voices fade into the background during the second half of the movie and he allows the audience to regard other portraits without commentary, trusting that they’ve learned some of the signifiers to look for on each canvas.

Given the setting, it’s perhaps no surprise that the theme that comes to dominate National Gallery is the role a museum like this one plays in preserving important works of art and safeguarding their future. Because the National Gallery can’t and shouldn’t become a dusty warehouse for paintings from an increasingly distant past, not when they still possess the power to stir our thoughts and emotions. Still, accompanying the institution’s need to maintain cultural relevancy are legitimate questions about how these artworks should be presented to the public, as well as honoring the legacy of the long-dead artists who created them. In this respect, National Gallery makes for a natural epilogue to Mike Leigh’s magnificent new biopic, Mr. Turner, and not just because so many of J.M.W Turner’s portraits are housed at the Gallery. Leigh’s process-minded approach in depicting Turner’s intensive 19th-century working methods is echoed in the painstaking ways the Gallery’s present-day conservation department seeks to restore paintings from Turner’s era and earlier without fundamentally altering the original artist’s intent. Like Mr. Turner, Wiseman’s achievement with National Gallery is making a film that acknowledges the timelessness of great art while also outlining the hard work and harder choices required to make that timelessness possible.

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