Nota Bene

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Oct 2, 2014

Frederick Wiseman's "National Gallery" Screens at New York Film Festival

In Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery, a restorer cleans a painting at the National Gallery in London. (Courtesy of Zipporah Films and the New York Film Festival.)
This is the third in a series of posts about The 52nd New York Film Festival. 

When introducing Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery at the New York Film Festival press screening yesterday, John Wildman (senior publicist) quipped that at three hours, it qualified as a “Wiseman short.” Several of the filmmaker’s documentaries run four hours, and Domestic Violence I and II, set in the Tampa police department and criminal court, run nearly six, yet like much of his work, these films are riveting portraits of private and public institutions. During his long career, Wiseman has also taken his two-person crew abroad for such films as La Comédie-Française (1996, 223 minutes) and La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2009, 158 minutes). All of his documentaries are classic, fly-on-the-wall perspectives of the sort that are a rarity today.

My interview with Frederick Wiseman for La Danse, which appeared in Cineaste, is under "Archives" to the left of this post.


National Gallery is about the London museum (and not our Washington, D.C. National Gallery), and while it is signature Wiseman, there is more talking in this documentary than in most of his other work. Curators, restorers, art historians and the institution’s director, Nicholas Penney, as well as docents, all lecture visitors and other curators, art historians and benefactors. The film’s lingering, silent observations of skilled artisans who, for instance, apply gold leaf or restore old wood frames, are a welcome relief from this pedagogy. Art lovers who join tour groups wherever they go may welcome the views of these experts, and of course, the documentary itself is eye candy for all of us who plan vacations around, for instance, seeing the Vermeers at Mauritshuis.

Wiseman, who is 84 years old, has made 40 films, and his methods have remained essentially unchanged: He requests, and usually receives, complete access to the institutions he profiles, as well as releases from everyone who appears in his documentaries. Early in his career, he was thought of as a filmmaker who did exposés. Titicut Follies (1967), for instance, is a graphic depiction of the mistreatment of patients at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in  Bridgewater, Massachusetts. That black and white documentary premiered at the New York Film Festival despite the hospital seeking an injunction against the screening; it was not until 1991 that Titicut Follies was cleared by the courts for theatrical distribution. High School (1968), among the shortest of Wiseman’s films (and one of my favorites), with a run time of 75 minutes, is also an exposé, in this instance of the ways in which faculty and staff at a Philadelphia high school appear to undermine every goal of education in their quest to maintain order.

Wiseman’s late work has provoked somewhat less controversy, yet his films remain astute portrayals of the intersection of individuals and institutions, and so of democracy itself. He is a lawyer by training and presents his case, as he does in National Gallery, with an attention to detail, but also with a narrative integrity that always emerges from his investigations, in this case one that lasted twelve weeks. Some, although not many, of Wiseman’s subjects find the camera irresistible as Penny does at one point when speaking of the provenance of a painting, part of a famous art collection acquired by the museum. It once belonged to Philippe II, Duke of Orleans (1674-1723). The director declares, playing to the camera, that he “loves” the duke for his assiduous attention to his collection, despite what he did after hours. According to some historians, Philippe II, who was a notorious adulterer, also had sexual relations with his daughter.