Eye of the beholder
Objectivity is a lie. Loud people on the internet can cry for 'objectivity' in reviews all they want, but said cries illustrate a fundamental misunderstanding of how criticism and the creation of art works. All writers have their biases: some can disguise them better than others, but it's almost impossible to abandon them completely.
Documentary filmmaking has always had some of the most fascinating conflicts between impartiality and authorship. And, of all contemporary documentary filmmakers, Frederick Wiseman navigates his way through that conflict in perhaps the most accomplished and rewarding way.
National Gallery, like his last film At Berekeley and indeed several decades of acclaimed documenting of institutions and society, is on a first impression an extreme example of 'fly-on-the-wall' storytelling. Scenes are presented in long takes. There are no captions. There is no explanatory text outlining who is who and what they do. There are no talking heads... actually, that's not entirely true, as there are several incidences of talking heads, but amusingly they're talking heads from another documentary being filmed in the grounds of London's National Gallery. I'd like to think Wiseman included these moments to cheekily highlight the valley between his style and the more artificial style being employed by the other crew.
But the inclusion of these scenes works in other respects too. It's a good opportunity for some of the gallery's most knowledgeable staff to articulate their ideas without shattering through Wiseman's signature verité style in the process. And it also shows the documentary crew are part of the fabric of the gallery when they're present, as much as the staff or indeed the paintings themselves.
Indeed, when Wiseman and his crew are present, they might not be on screen, but their presence is certainly felt. For the most part, National Gallery captures tour guides guiding tours, administrative meetings, the restoring team painstakingly working on the gallery's priceless collection, the public studying the works, and - of course - much screentime and space is dedicated to the paintings themselves. But by merely being there, Wiseman and team become part of the environment.
As the director himself is on record as stating, this is an inescapable truth of documentary filmmaking. But Wiseman negotiates his way through this all with enviable skill. His unobtrusive style still feels like it's capturing these moments in a way that is truthful and enlightening. Whether it's one of the heads of the conservation team telling a crowd how they have discovered a "hidden" painting beneath Rembrandt's Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback, or the unashamedly elitist gallery director engaging the administration team in a lively debate over the potential perils of hosting a charity event on the gallery grounds, National Gallery is full of moments gifting the audience delightful insights into the sheer diversity of daily life inside this major institution.
While the film definitely feels like it gives us as honest and 'real' portrait of the gallery as is reasonably possible, where Wiseman expresses more explicit authorship is in the editing. It's the moments he chooses to show us that allow National Gallery's themes to emerge and breathe. The film interrogates a number of issues related to both the creation and consumption of art. We hear at least two significantly different interpretations of a single work. Each guide we meet has their own opinions, readings and perspectives. They offer their thoughts on how artists' communicate their stories visually and technically - from their framing choices to what they choose not to include.
National Gallery is ostensibly about paintings first and foremost, but it also feels like Wiseman is curious in how it all relates to filmmaking too. After all, what makes him such an extraordinary director is how he expertly navigates through hundreds or thousands of hours of footage and carefully edits them together to create films that are much more than just a random sequence of 'moments'. Definitely Wiseman manages to create films that feel more raw, trustworthy and candid than any of his contemporaries, but also feel like the work of an artist with so much to say himself. National Gallery proves that, well into his 80s, Wiseman still has plenty of pondering to do alongside the documenting.
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