Active Ingredients: Opening montage; Nuanced insight about art
Side Effects: Abrupt transitions; Prevalence of long setpieces
[National Gallery plays at Boston’s MFA on December 14th and 28th.]
Frederick Wiseman’s career-long project as a verite documentarian—and one of the truly indispensable filmmakers—has been chronicling the inner-workings of various institutions. I wrote about the fantastic insights this search for the humanity within a complex organization yielded in Wiseman’s great 2013 film, At Berkeley. In that film, Wiseman’s combines scenes of classroom lectures with boardroom strategy planning, and gracefully highlights themes that echo across all facets of life at Berkeley University.
On its surface, Wiseman’s newest film does the same thing with London’s prestigious National Gallery art museum. With the filmmaker’s characteristically infallible precision, patience and eye for details, National Gallery makes time for drowsy museum visitors, nude models in art classes, janitors, framers and more. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, National Gallery seems just as fascinated by the subject of its titular institution—art—as it is by the interconnected agents that make it function.
By comparison, consider the many academic interests Wiseman lets unfold in At Berkeley. The topics range from global economics, to quantum physics, to the social structures of insects. These lectures from Berkeley’s faculty are indeed fascinating, but Wiseman’s sharp and canny editing reveals that their purpose in the film is to harmonize with its central theme: the relationship between the individual and the institution, the one and the many.
In National Gallery, Wiseman’s interest in the many academic goings-on of the museum is literal, not metaphorical. Or rather, since the topic happens to be metaphor itself—the allure of art, symbols and representations—thematic resonance comes naturally.
Above all, National Gallery is about the usefulness, purpose and veracity of metaphor, the weight and importance we attribute to visual representation. But it’s also a celebration of the volatility and mystery of these representations. From art historians, to educators, to restorers, the denizens of the National Gallery passionately investigate the many mysteries that continue to animate art centuries after its creation: how can an exhibition shift the meaning of a painting; which alterations were intended by an artist and which were the result of improper cleaning; how can a painted scene create an unsolvable ambiguity that echoes through the ages?
Wiseman and his subjects are intrigued by these questions, questions that remain all the more important for their lack of answers. Nor does the film itself wish to resolve these mysteries. Instead, Wiseman uses the gift of cinema to circle around them, allowing these questions to bounce around each other and grow in richness through new combinations. In fact, Wiseman’s gifts as an observer and an editor are themselves mysteries, somehow as simple and effortless as they are nuanced and illuminating. The trick Wiseman pulls off in National Gallery—communicating so much while insisting so little—is made especially profound in a year that saw Birdman grope towards similar themes through histrionics and formal preening.
Wiseman’s art disproves the common misconception that verite filmmaking is impartial; quite the opposite. Instead, it’s made clear that what’s so remarkable about the form is how a nuanced and minutely-considered perspective can emerge from a careful assembly of observations.