Directed by Frederick Wiseman
My first experience, that’s right, my first experience with Frederick Wiseman was an eye-opening one in many different ways, both good and perhaps some bad. Wiseman has been a renowned documentarian for many years, but often his films have felt a bit unattainable to me, focusing on very specific subjects and coming with intimidating run times. National Gallery is no different as Wiseman focuses on the museum of the same name in London, England. The National Gallery is a place I would love to go and explore, as I love losing my way in a museum, and especially one with a collection like the National Gallery.
At a lengthy 181 minutes, Wiseman’s exploration of one of London’s greatest treasures has plenty of time to focus on its topics, and plenty of time to lurk among the lurkers. Given unprecedented access to the museum and its inner workings, Wiseman gives us moments with the docents in front of paintings as well as the board members arguing over advert space and the National Gallery in pop culture. The most fascinating scenes, however, are the ones in the back rooms, showing the hard at work museum crew restoring paintings, creating new frames for the artwork, or even trying to get the lighting of the gallery just right. There is nothing out of bounds when it comes to what can, and ultimately will, make the final cut.
Thankfully, though not having seen his work before, I knew going in that Wiseman tended towards the observational. With this bit of essential information I was able to prep myself for a long experience, and it did feel long. Unlike others before it that may feel like a quick 3 hours, never letting on to their runtime (Interstellar and Boyhood from this year come to mind), National Gallery tended to test my constitution for sitting on a theater seat and being a voyeur. Each of his fascinating scenes of discussion or lecture is intercut by the ambling audience of the great halls of the place. With no true transitions, Wiseman uses these segues to buffer the new story about to be tackled from the old. Many times this works beautifully, but when conditioned to expect it by hour two, the third hour plays as tired.
The style certainly wore on as the film progressed, and I’m sure Wiseman edited the film in a precise, informed manner, but to me it jumped from topic to topic. Each of these topics may prove engaging, like that of the museum docent going through an exercise with blind people such that they might “see” the artwork and appreciate it, or the discussion about original placement of artwork and how it affects the artists use of lighting, but as far as a film goes, National Gallery never amounts to a unified delivery. Instead, we get a collection of brilliant short stories. This “instead” is not meant in a negative manner, but the viewer should not expect anything in the way or narrative. Instead, just simply immerse yourself in the Gallery itself and the stories it has to tell.
So while the parts are brilliant, I think I was never completely won over, like others have been. Ironically, given the discussions held by the board members, it really worked more for me as an advertisement for the institution than a documentary film. It wasn’t satisfying enough to see the very limited selection of art included in the film, and I do mean limited. For what the National Gallery houses, it seemed as though Wiseman focused on the same three rooms, from the same era of art, never willing to branch out further. There is a shot near the end that teases of the other greatness that lies within the Gallery’s walls. This tantalization spurs me to desire a visit, and not another visit with the film, as good as it was.