If you’ve never seen one of Frederick Wiseman‘s many documentaries (I think the total rests somewhere near 40 now), watching National Gallery, his latest opus, might throw you off. He has been called a filmmaker who works in observational cinema or cinema verité, although he detests the term, but it’s easy to see why some people may call it so. Unlike most documentaries these days, Wiseman never veers into Errol Morris territory, meaning that he doesn’t interview the subjects present in his films. He captures them as they are in real time doing what they do. There are no interviews, no “talking heads” and no clever witticisms spoken directly into the camera and this takes getting used to. But it works, this technique. It allows us as the viewer to participate, something that many documentaries can’t do as they are too busy addressing us with a certain (biased?) viewpoint. We get none of that here. We, like the patrons and staff of the National Gallery in London, are free to move around in the space and address what it is that we want while taking in what Wiseman has shot.
And what Wiseman gives us is almost a catch all of happenings withing the museum. We see the opening a Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit replete with incredibly pretentious commentary from one of the museum staff about Da Vinci‘s merits and intentions as an artist, several tour guides addressing groups of patrons and students talking about the merits of certain paintings and the narratives contained within, we see actual museum business being discussed – be it budgets, addressing issues with other organizations wanting to use the National Gallery as a marketing facade as well as how to deal with having a marathon ending outside of the Gallery and the effects it will have on attendance – as well as seeing the behind the scenes goings-on in areas like where the restorations are taking place and the classes that are held within the museum, all at the same time on any given day. Wiseman evokes the same feeling that he did in 2013’s At Berkeley – the anthropomorphizing of an actual institution, treating it and what goes on inside (and outside) as one living, breathing being.
At times it’s absolutely mesmerizing, other times it drags, but the one thing it never does is fail to hold your attention. Wiseman weaves in and out of different situations so that they are juxtaposed against one another in a way that if there is a slow or somewhat less interesting sliver, another that may pull the viewer back in follows. Wiseman is a seasoned veteran and it shows in each of his successive films. At nearly 85 years of age, it is clear that he is still at the top of his game. This is a film that has many layers and is worthy of your time, especially if art is your thing.
This film is in select theaters and opened in Los Angeles this past weekend.