A rare documentarian who has stated on many occasions that his main influences are literary, the best Frederick Wiseman movies are rarely the ones with the most spectacular subject matter, or if they are, as is the case with Hospital or Welfare, the spectacular moments in the films are not given greater emphasis in depiction over even the most banal everyday work of bureaucracy. His best films quite often feel divorced from almost every tradition of American documentary filmmaking, concerned as they are not with statistics or tabloid stories but with the specific details of the whole social apparatus he is seeking to represent.
More than anything else, the greatest Wisemans prove to be studies of faces, gestures, and places more than lessons about specific moments in history. Since it is unthinkable for Wiseman to provide even the slightest frame of reference for his subjects—say, the townspeople of Belfast, Maine, in the masterpiece of the same name, who appear one after the other, in every conceivable profession, without reference to their histories other than what they talk about to each other—we are forced to probe the expressions on the faces he provides us with and glean from them entire lifetimes of toil, happiness, or suffering. The absence of interviews, reference and explanation, or voice-over doesn’t make his subjects—divorced from their actual historical contexts—universal, doesn’t “make their story ours”, but actually gives them their specificity.
The major difficulty I have with National Gallery, and Wiseman’s other recent films, then is that this process, which in the past forced us by way of direct contact to consider in all their complexity the myriad social structures that prop up civilisation and, perhaps even more importantly, study the faces of the people who work to sustain these structures, has become somewhat superficial or misguided. In the case of his film At Berkeley, Wiseman was accused of bias in his depiction of student protest: the rallies—which once might have really piqued his interest—are here portrayed as disorganised, simple-minded, and retrograde. In contrast, the Chancellor and the board are depicted as sympathetic, thoughtful, and resourceful, but out-of-options. If you take a look at the history, the film becomes a pretty weird object and a blip really difficult to ignore when you are faced with a puzzling trajectory; once the creator of super-complex webs of throwaway moments from working life, now the deft producer of exquisitely-crafted advertisements. Of the two, National Gallery is certainly less hateful and quite well-made but—almost as boring as Crazy Horse—it nevertheless reduces almost to the point of non-existence the presence of the regular men and women who carry the museum on their shoulders.
For me, Wiseman’s movies represent a struggle to restrain and, when appropriate, release bit-by-bit the didactic side of his subject matter (that is, if it comes with the territory, as it does in the films concerned with public and/or social institutions). By the mid-70s, and then through the Blind/Deaf trilogy all the way to 2001’s Domestic Violence (and its underrated sequel), he was becoming more subtle than ever, relying on moment-to-moment associations between cuts rather than (solely) spectacular subjects to get us thinking about larger abstract ideas about anything, ranging from the distribution of medicine to disabled people who live alone to the domestic violence laws that have to be enforced in even the most seemingly benign of situations. (The poor and underprivileged in these movies are always the secret subjects of his attention.)What’s so troubling about National Gallery-or At Berkeley-is that the subtlety at best seems to exist purely for its own sake and at worst whitewashes the real hidden elements that once would have been the focus of his attention. The challenges of governance faced by a central bureaucratic committee—always the key scenes in Wiseman films—in National Gallery have, as a distressed friend pointed out after the screening, absolutely nothing to do with any idea of “National.” The only work we see going on in the museum is that of the restoration team behind-the-scenes (some admittedly fascinating stuff), the renovation of one of the Gallery’s wings, and the bloodless discussions that take place in the faculty meetings.
One brief, stand-out scene shows a tour guide (white) describe to a group of comprehensive school students (mostly black) the legacy of slavery on which the museum, and most others of its kind, is founded: Wiseman, of course, doesn’t linger, but for a moment our sedentary perspective is challenged and we begin to see the same paintings and the same tall, majestic rooms in which they’re housed in quite a different light. Apart from this, the film is tragically content to be just an in-depth tour—what inevitably feels like a total misappropriation of Wiseman’s otherworldly craftsmanship—albeit with some nice ruminations about the inevitability of death and decay, both material and human, and the nobility of restorative practices that attempt to revive a fading physical perspective of a historical object in the face of this impermanence (in this respect it’s a much better film than Scorsese’s Hugo).
National Gallery is released in cinemas on January 9th.