By John Duncan Talbird.
No person looks into the camera in a Frederick Wiseman documentary. Some critics use the term cinéma vérité to describe his type of filmmaking, but Wiseman rejects this label. He says it suggests a guy showing up and hanging around, filming whatever happens to be there. He hates the analogy “fly on the wall” too as that suggests an unintelligent being, and he spends too much time, usually over a half-year, editing and re-editing together the hundreds of hours of footage. As I watched his most recent film, National Gallery, I was struck by that image of a fly on a wall. We’re all aware of the fly in the room as it buzzes, as it irritates and reminds us of its uncleanliness. It’s more accurate, I thought, to see the frame of his film as a window that we look through much in the way that a painting is a window into another world.
This “window” – which we simultaneously see and see through – is almost directly engaged by one of the many art lecturers that Wiseman films in the course of this three-hour movie. Nicholas Penny, not a docent, but actually the director of the museum, gives a lecture on Velazquez’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. In this painting, an elderly woman scolds a younger one who is grinding something up with a mortar and pestle. Over their shoulders is a painting on the wall in which Christ meets with Mary and Martha. Or is this a painting? Maybe it’s a service window and we are actually viewing Christ with the two women in the next room. It’s ambiguous and Penny refuses to say which he thinks it is. This one moment in the film seems to capture what Wiseman is after – and, not coincidentally, it’s the closest that we come to a “character” speaking directly to the camera – that these paintings in this museum, all of the more than 2300 of them from the Middle Ages to the late 19th century, many of which appear in this film, are both artifacts and windows, things you look at and portals in which you see another culture and time, both transparent and opaque.
Like all Wiseman films, National Gallery (which is currently screening at New York’s Film Forum) takes us inside a very famous institution that we may or may not feel we already know on some level, in this case, London’s nearly two hundred-year-old National Gallery museum which employs somewhere on the order of six hundred people in various administrative, maintenance, curatorial, educational, and security roles. We see all of these jobs in action starting with the very first shots of the film, cross-cutting between paintings and an employee somnolently pushing a humming buffer back and forth across the stone floor reflecting muted images of masterworks. The juxtaposition of the lofty and the humdrum in this opening scene, the depiction of an ordinary person moving beneath these extraordinary works of art sets the tone of sublime and quotidian living in close proximity. The figures in these paintings in the opening stare off the walls into space. Staring at the floor or at nothing, the employee in his early morning tasks doesn’t even notice them.
In an interview with Arnaud Hée Paris earlier this year, Wiseman called this film his most abstract, likening it to a mosaic rather than a narrative. This was surprising to me to read as I find this film much less abstract, much more narratively driven than some of his other recent films. For instance, La Danse (2009), another analysis of an illustrious and culturally entrenched European art institution – in this case, the Paris Opera Ballet – strikes me as much more abstract, revealing the physical bodies of dancers as only fleetingly glancing off real-world narratives, the Paris Opera House’s hallways empty of all life as Wiseman’s motionless camera carves up the honeycombed guts of this cavernous building. In that film, even Wiseman’s standard behind-the-scenes admin eavesdropping cuts in on conversations midway through and usually leaves before they’re resolved. We only partly watch a live performance before Wiseman’s restless camera examines the glowing cables and sound boards backstage, before he films the dancers’ reflections on the uneven mirrored walls.
In contrast, National Gallery is about narrative if it’s about anything. Like with La Danse (or his other recent Paris film, the too-often cheesy Crazy Horse (2011)) there is song and dance here – a pianist performing for an audience at midpoint in the film, two dancers performing in the closing scenes (though the audience for this second performance is outside our view so that it appears the dancers are performing for the camera or the paintings or no one). But music – the most abstract of the arts – unlike with those other two films, is incidental to National Gallery. This film is about narratives, about the storytelling power of visual art, as we are reminded again and again by the docents who describe Bellini’s Assassination of St. Peter Martyr to children or an Italian 14th century religious triptych to tourists, who put us in the drama of that violent assassination or in the skins of the people who might have viewed this image of Christ in a church lit by candles. Although in the late 19th century, artists – reacting to that new time-based medium, film – were already challenging simple ideas of narrative and representation, Wiseman only films one Van Gogh and only briefly. We get a glimpse of a Manet. Williams Carlos Williams wrote “No ideas but in things” and this film embraces that idea, eschewing the abstractions of expressionists or the pop or “concepts” of late 20th century artists just as the National Gallery does. These paintings, this film, is about things, about people doing things. Even the 19th century Turner waterscape the camera lovingly caresses becomes part of a narrative acted out for Wiseman’s camera as it’s interrogated by a wooly-faced critic performing for some other film, speaking, stopping, writing, discussing, until he has the perfect metaphor for the way water moves in Turner’s painting.
Though, of course, it doesn’t move. It’s illusion, a masterful illusion with paint and shading and perspective, much in the way that Wiseman manages, through careful curation of 170 hours of raw footage, to make us think that he’s just shown up to hang around with his camera, that he’s just been lounging in the museum for so long that people have forgotten that he’s there, have grown so accustomed to his presence that they don’t even think to glance at his camera.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the forthcoming fiction collection with images by artist Leslie Kerby, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar, 2014). His fiction and essays are forthcoming or have recently appeared in Juked, Ploughshares, REAL, Ambit, The Literary Review and elsewhere. An English professor at Queensborough Community College, he lives with his wife in Brooklyn.