Upstairs Downstairs: Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery
Now showing at Film Forum
In Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, we are absorbed for three hours and a minute by two cherished institutions: Wiseman himself and the eponymous museum. Tension in the interplay between the two makes for compelling and demanding cinema, raising significant questions about the experience of art and its interpretation.
Considering how many countries around the world have one it attests to the singular nature of London’s old master collection that no topographical qualifier is required for “the” National Gallery. Made up almost entirely of free-standing paintings from the late Middle Ages to the end of the nineteenth century — there is no sculpture or applied arts, nor even prints and drawings from the same hands as the paintings — the National Gallery is legendary for its compactness and consistent quality. While boasting a fraction of the holdings of, say, the Louvre or the Hermitage, and not necessarily claiming to have more masterpieces in aggregate, it is the extraordinarily high proportion of works of great quality that is striking. Excepting obvious turn around for conservation or loan, everything is always hung, and viewable seven days a week for free.
Frederick Wiseman’s omission of the definite article accommodates National Gallery within his oeuvre. This, his 39th documentary (there have also been one or two feature films), turns attention for the first time to a museum by a director whose foci of institutional critique have included anything from the military to a monastery, a police department to a mental institution. Often, minimalism lent titles social science aloofness: Hospital, High School, Juvenile Court, Public Housing. Thus National Gallery adroitly exploits a gray area between generic type and genius locus. Wiseman was a law professor of leftist leanings who turned to documentary filmmaking to understand the workings of institutional ideology. His films immerse viewers in the bathos of quotidian oppressions, those telling moments where individuals get pushed around by the system. Now 84, his recent projects have steered a path through more rarified groves than the cradle-to-grave institutions that occupied his earlier work. Indeed, National Gallery belongs to a sequence that includes At Berkeley and portraits of the Comédie Française and the ballet of the Paris Opera. But the forensic fly-on-the-wall structuralism that he established as his austere and rule-bound modus operandi from the get go still adheres. First, he secures access to an institution on his own terms. In the resulting film he doesn’t interview people, set questions, call upon talking heads, insert commentary, or even caption objects or speakers. His pace is not so much leisurely as exhaustive: interlocutors are allowed to play themselves out, on the give-them-enough-rope principle that interactions or speeches presented in the round more fully expose their underlying ideology. Over a 12-week period in the winter of 2012 he shot 170 hours of footage for National Gallery before piecing together like a collage the eventual production. The film actually flows quite effortlessly, despite the intellectual work and slowed down attention demanded of the viewer. If you stick out the first hour the second and third will speed by.
At its outset, after tastefully restrained silent long shots of individual, framed works on variously damask or painted gallery walls, you will get the sense that you are in for a long haul of dispiriting institutional critique. A laconic, patrician gentleman some of us know as the director, Nicolas Penny, confers with an almost stereotypical PR woman. The institution has never completely done the job of defining itself, she is saying. “We are a number of things: conservation, research, preservation, heritage, education… We are also a ‘visitor attraction.’ I know the word is horrid but we are also that.” Penny winces and in a rare moment of tolerated grandstanding says that he really doesn’t mind if a blockbuster like “Leonardo” is followed by an “interesting failure.”
There will be plenty more management meetings in the hours ahead, as a committee absorbs news of a massive government cut or debates exploiting or standing back from a sporting event that is advertised at ending at the National Gallery. A lot of time is given up to the conservation labs. In a stirring moment of humility a lecturer explains that the hours of fastidious restoration — some sense of the labor of which is captured, stroke by stroke, by Wiseman — can be cleaned away by a future generation of conservators in minutes. The intervention, in other words, isn’t permanent. A less passive journalist than Wiseman — the old fashioned kind who finds experts with differing views and interviews them — might have discovered that this piety only refers to what’s painted in. The National Gallery is notorious for over-cleaning. Stripping glazes, and with them potentially intentional half tones, is not reversable.
But the film is predominantly and increasingly shot upstairs rather than downstairs, in public hours rather than downtime. And most of the talk in this highly voluble documentary is about individual works of art. We hear the gallery’s almost theatrically effusive docents at work; we eavesdrop visiting curators examining a Watteau; we watch a TV presenter (Matthew Collings) rehearse his spiel on a Turner; we are given that rousing and emotional lecture with a conservation class; we catch a snippet of an academic conference. Craftily breaking his own rules by sticking to them Day For Night-style, we watch TV crews asking the questions Wiseman might have wanted to ask himself. Invariably the talk is about intentions: what is the right context in which to imagine this religious painting now quietly contemplated in a gallery? What did this artist mean? Thoughts about form are less likely articulated these days than ones about context and content. We glimpse sketchers from time to time, and private visitors stealing a half hour (advantage of free museum) to commune with a treasured work, but whatever they are thinking evades the attention of the fly on the wall.
Wiseman, the sometime lawyer is, tellingly, soundman on his set rather than behind a lens. This is not to say that the picture isn’t sumptuous and visceral, with frames being carved or flowers arranged or a nude drawn in a life class, besides the pictures within the picture and the occasional detail. But this is primarily a movie for the ear. The sound bites are, in radio terms, bleeding chunks.
And yet, this viewer found, just when he was desperate for a joke or some nice music, that Wiseman popped in both: a piano recital, and then an old codger chatting up a bemused young woman in front of Poussin’s Adoration of the Golden Calf. “The good news is that I got Him down to ten,” he says, referring to Moses and the tablets of the law. “The bad news is that Adultery is still in.”
National Gallery: (Dir. Frederick Wiseman, 2014) 181 minutes. Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, between Sixth Avenue and Varick Street, with screenings daily at 12:30, 4:15 and 7:50PM, through November 18.