Endlessly curious and preternaturally patient, Frederick Wiseman makes documentaries that can run from 90 minutes to six hours, devoting each film to an individual institution—a state legislature, a school for the blind, a boxing gym, the University of California at Berkeley—and coming back with an observational, arm’s-length portrait that feels definitive without ever straining for significance. Now 84, he’s his own institution, reliably producing distinctive films with his trademark restraint. (He never includes interviews with any of his subjects and doesn’t worry too much about shaping his material into some sort of conventional narrative.) Never nominated for an Oscar but a hero to countless nonfiction filmmakers, Wiseman boasts one of the great bodies of work in contemporary cinema—and he’s still going.
His latest, National Gallery, could be filed alongside his other documentaries about the arts, such as La Danse, Ballet or Crazy Horse. But this study of London’s titular fine-arts museum fits into Wiseman’s oeuvre more broadly by opening a door into a specialized world, examining its inner workings quietly but thoroughly. Filmed over 12 weeks in early 2012, National Gallery comprehensively chronicles the tour guides, visitors, custodians, scholars and museum directors who comprise the heart and soul of the National Gallery. But over the movie’s three-hour running time, Wiseman also reveals something deeper about what museums—and art itself—mean to the public.
Beyond all else, National Gallery is a tribute to competence, intelligence and enthusiasm. Rather than speaking to the people we see in his film, Wiseman lets us watch them work, whether it’s the men and women who meticulously design the frames that will hold the priceless paintings or the executives who have to map out next year’s budget and determine if more staff cuts will be necessary. Resisting any attempt to ennoble his subjects—as usual for him, National Gallery features no score—Wiseman presents his little ecosystem with a minimum of fuss, but the interactions he records are consistently stimulating.
If National Gallery is but the most recent of his movies to track the behind-the-scenes economic woes that threaten so many important institutions, the film is also a provocative treatise on how we talk about culture. Much of the documentary is devoted to art historians and tour guides lecturing to classes and visitors about the museum’s collection of paintings, which includes works by Rembrandt, da Vinci, Turner and Van Gogh. The collection is gorgeous, but these experts’ discernments offer new levels of insight and consideration into what we’re seeing. As a result, National Gallery enlivens an old cliché, making centuries-old paintings come alive. And yet, as one tour guide instructs, none of these interpretations is necessarily “correct”: It’s merely another way of processing art whose intricacies and mysteries have bewitched viewers for generations.
That atmosphere of ambiguity imbues the entire documentary. Because there are no central characters in National Gallery—and no overriding storyline—Wiseman is free to construct his film out of themes that interest him. It’s clear that he’s drawn to the nuts-and-bolts of organization, watching as an old exhibit is torn down while a new one is put up, museum executives fretting over which lighting will emphasize a painting’s brushstrokes most forcefully. National Gallery focuses on problem-solving and theory, which proves to be a fascinating juxtaposition. On one hand, a museum is a business that has to worry about economics and marketing—but on the other, its mission is grander, connecting us with our cultural history as well as our political history. (Considering that most of the National Gallery’s artwork predates the invention of photography, we’re witness to different eras’ most striking representations of their times, as reportage and commentary mix together.) But Wiseman never beats us over the head with these observations: We glean them from the footage he compiles, in which the daily business of running a museum is undertaken with crisp precision.
In this way, National Gallery is itself open to interpretation as much as the paintings on display are. Tour guides speculate about the meaning of a human skull tucked inside a seemingly straightforward portrait, while museum director Nicholas Penny ponders whether associating the National Gallery with the London Marathon compromises the gallery’s status or makes it more accessible to the public. There are far more questions and suggestions in National Gallery than there are firm answers—about the meaning of art or anything else. And in kind, Wiseman (as is his wont) doesn’t show any interest in judging what he sees. As he’s done with several of his recent films, the man lends a sympathetic, slightly detached perspective to National Gallery, portraying a sense of a place, its mission and its struggles.
But he leaves the rest to you. Perhaps you’ll start to take note of the different speaking styles of the various tour guides. Some are more confident, more natural, than others. And the repetition of these speakers seems to trace back to a discussion early in the film between Penny and a public-relations advisor, who talks to him about the importance of connecting with the average Londoner about what the museum offers. It’s but one thread in this mosaic of a film, but is Wiseman asking us to consider how best to communicate our cultural history? How there’s always a separation between the art and the viewer, a divide made larger by time and shifting values?
These are questions that National Gallery stirred in me. Others may occur to you. One suspects that’s part of Wiseman’s point: Just as we look at an aging masterpiece, wondering what inspired it and bringing our own experiences to the viewing, so too does this film expand in the mind, never sitting still or being about just one thing. Nourishing and enthralling, National Gallery is the work of a man still invested in the arts, in the world and in people. That makes Wiseman just as priceless.
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Release Date: Nov. 5, 2014
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.