Friday, October 23, 2015
At the Movies: National Gallery
Frederick Wiseman, 2014.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97% Fresh
Watched on Netflix DVD after persistent advocacy by Susan. It was to get access to this film, actually, that I finally joined Netflix.
National Gallery is the very model of a modern documentary, with no narration, no credentialed authorities speaking from afront their well-stocked bookcases, and not a wisp of an introduction that might orient us to what's supposed to be going on. So what's going on? Frederick Wiseman and his film crews were simply, as far as I can make out, cut loose to wander the British nation’s treasure-trove of art and to film whatever struck their fancy. The three hours of resulting screen time consist of short episodes of life at the museum, both onstage and offstage: a docent’s interpretation of a painting, for instance, or an agenda item in a management meeting, or a craftsman carving a replacement section for an antique frame. Intercut with these scenes are short glimpses of paintings, short glimpses of people looking at paintings, and, in one strangely memorable moment, a distant shot of a woman walking down a long hallway. National Gallery is not for everyone. I found it enchanting.
There’s a lot going on at the museum. In addition to the familiar routine of people showing up to look at the pictures, we get to eavesdrop on a lot of people who are conducting the work behind the scenes. We encounter conservators who are all supremely knowledgeable about their craft, but who do not necessarily agree with each other on fundamental issues. We watch blank gallery space being transformed into exhibit space by designers and teams of technicians. We sit in as a Pissaro painting is analyzed for the blind, watch as painting and drawing students work from a nude model, see fresh young art historians being shown the ropes, and watch for a while as a janitor polishes the floors. Oddly, but perhaps inevitably, we eventually watch the filming of another, more conventional, documentary about art history.
Part of what makes National Gallery so compelling is that most of the people we encounter are so intelligent and articulate that it makes your head spin. Clearly, this is not a museum that has a hard time attracting talented staff. The effect is such that, when we encounter the occasional person who is only as articulate as you or I, they seem kind of lovably oafish.
The feeling you get in watching this film is as if you had been granted an all-access pass, or the power of invisibility, and were able to wander anywhere you wanted in the National Gallery without being seen. The sense that we are seeing real life take place is powerful; it is, however, also a carefully crafted illusion. It is obvious, once you think about it, that the footage must have been very carefully selected and edited to make it seem as if everyone was indifferent to the camera’s presence. But they weren’t. No one is ever indifferent to a camera’s presence.
Like most good movies, then, National Gallery creates a beautiful fiction. In this case, it is the fiction that we have a special insider’s insight as to what goes on in a great museum. We don’t, especially. But we do get to see a lot of beautiful images, and to hear them discussed by engaging, knowledgeable people. Which is terrific! A beautiful fiction is, after all, beautiful.
Prognosis: Do you like museums and art? If not, this film is really not for you. I like museums and art, and I loved all three hours of National Gallery.
Michael5000's imdb rating: 10.