National Gallery Dir. Frederick Wiseman

[Zipporah; 2014]

Styles: institutional documentary
Others: La Danse, At Berkeley, Zoo

What would a supercut of maintenance workers in the collected work of Frederick Wiseman look like, and what would it have to tell us? The emblematic version of this shot — in this case, a medium-distance shot of a man buffing floors — exists in National Gallery. It demonstrates a few things: the irony of a blue-collar shift worker surrounded by one of the world’s most esteemed and expensive collections of art; the fact that one can become accustomed to and perhaps bored in this environment; the more uncomfortable idea that this worker might not otherwise visit the National Gallery. None of this is entirely dissimilar to similar shots in a film like At Berkeley, where we see lawns being manicured for the dignitaries and parents visiting (rather than the students attending) the school. We could consider the shot a trope, but only by ignoring, say, Public Housing, where plumbers and electricians are of a more secure economic status than most of the film’s other subjects. There, they’re part of the film’s dialogue, playing a role that’s as much social worker as it is handyman.

The beauty, and indeed the majesty, of Wiseman’s work lies in its ability to repeat themes, shots, and tricks of sound design that still make very specific comments on the institutions he documents. In National Gallery, we observe many and varying groups of spectators looking at paintings in states of boredom, thrall, oblivion, and studied detachment. The paintings look back too: close-ups of eyes gaze both at and away from the camera and the spectators. Like the spectators, they can convey warmth and disinterest, can or cannot be understood.

There are various paths into these masterworks. Wiseman presents occasional lectures by docents and curators, delivered to groups of artists, scholars, and schoolchildren. Most of them are didactic, but to surprisingly diverse ends. One speaker implores her audience to imagine a religious painting hung in a church with narrow windows and no electricity, lit merely by candlelight, and consider not only how the presentation of art impacts its creation, but how a venue like the National Gallery is implicit in violating that intention. (Another such sequence addresses how the Gallery’s collection is, unavoidably, built upon the institution of slavery.) During the film’s occasionally rapturous final hour, Wiseman takes a different tack, scoring a montage of the Gallery’s works to a recital of Beethoven being held in the museum’s halls, and dwelling at length on a dance performance there. After two hours spent largely among lectures, administrative discussions, and work with preservationists, the effect is revelatory. (I’d go on, but Richard Brody beat me to it on this subject.)

As for the film’s more bureaucratic longueurs, they strike me as somehow more thorny, interesting, and relevant than those in the recent At Berkeley. That film reckoned with the ongoing trouble of an august, hallowed institution that has to deal with the very real concerns of students, but also seems to view them as something of a nuisance. The discussions among financial and curatorial executives in National Gallery, by contrast, are surprisingly frank and earnest, exposing some fault lines in an organization that must remain both practically and ethically free and open to the public, and attempt to avoid the swift and casual condemnation of modern-day elitism. In one instance, a curator suggests that a blockbuster Leonardo exhibition offers him some leeway to present a more obscure and adventurous showcase, while an administrator concerned with public relations argues that the National Gallery might have an obligation to sustain its current momentum with the public. (Wiseman’s open to a few jokes, though: the funniest edit in the film cuts from a budget discussion to a lecture on a J. M. W. Turner painting about the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire.)

This broader debate, of aesthetic opinions reckoning with the public good, reveals itself all over National Gallery. Life drawing sessions find inexperienced adults learning how to consider the human form. A class with blind students forces us to imagine how we might describe and circumscribe a more abstract landscape. Considerable stretches spent among preservationists make great hay of our concern with artistic intention. Watching artist/scholars play both forensic detectives and the proxies of long-dead masters proves to be both tremendously interesting and surprisingly suspenseful; we’re assured that all of their work can be erased, but watching them peel off layers and retouch stains feels like a genuinely philosophical imposition. In that sense, it’s a lot like the work of Wiseman, which deconstructs the elements of vast organizations in order to show us our role and our stake in them.

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