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Film Review

National Gallery

No one has had a greater influence on American documentaries than Frederick Wiseman. He has produced an astounding 43 feature length films beginning with his now famous Titicut Follies in 1967. This was a powerful expose of the horrible conditions at the Bridgewater (Massachusetts) State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It was controversial, and a state judge ordered all copies destroyed. On appeal, the state supreme court ordered that the film was only to be shown to health care professionals. Finally, 20 years later and after many patient deaths, a judge struck down the restrictions on the film. Since Titicut Follies, Wiseman has produce a film nearly every year, and PBS is committed to supporting and airing them. A few of his better known films include High School (1968), Hospital (1970), Ballet (1995), La Danse (2009), State Legislature (2006), Crazy Horse (2011), and At Berkeley (2013). He tends to focus on American institutions. His style is very distinctive: no narration, interviews, voice overs, or soundtrack. Instead his camera is like a fly on the wall, watching and listening. Nothing is staged, everything is unscripted and we see human interactions of every sort, from the most caring to its opposite. Scenes can initially seem mundane but in aggregate reveal deep truths. All of his films are powerful, some very sad, some with comedic touches, but all keenly observed. Some label this cinema verite, meaning that it attempts to reveal truth through unscripted actions. But Wiseman himself rejects that description of his films. He usually spends about 4-6 weeks filming, and months editing. A typical shoot would yield 100 hours of film, which he edits down to 2- 3 hours. In National Gallery, he shot 170 hours of film. Now 85, Wiseman has received a host of major awards (but never an Oscar) and was awarded the Lion D'or at Cannes this year for lifetime achievement. It is no exaggeration to say that Frederick Wiseman is one of the greatest documentary film makers in America today, and few leave one of his films without understanding why he is so regarded.

In contrast to Wiseman's normal focus on American institutions, he filmed at the National Gallery in London at the end of 2011. He had approached the Metropolitan Museum a number of years back but they wanted a substantial fee. Alas, their loss and the National Gallery's gain. National Gallery opens with footage of grand galleries without people, then a wonderful parade of famous paintings, and then a janitor buffing the hardwood floors, readying the galleries for the first visitors of the day. Characteristically, Wiseman looks at the visitors nearly as much as the paintings. Most are utterly engaged with the art, but a few just sleep. Often he will show a portrait, then focus on visitors looking at that painting, some of whom uncannily resemble the subject. We see and hear wonderful docent and curatorial talks on particular paintings. These are brief, but passionate, insightful and articulate, and in some cases, lyric. One docent (none of these are your usual docent) has fascinating remarks about the profoundly religious aspect of the Middle Ages, and how this particular altar painting's gilt surfaces would reflect the flickering light of candles, and perhaps cause almost a movement in the viewer's eye. Another curator has a riveting gallery talk about Reubens' Sampson and Delilah, and the issue of betrayal. Yet another has compelling remarks about a Vermeer. None of these are more than a minute or two; you want them all to continue and feel cheated when the scene ends.

A substantial segment of the film shows the installation of the Leonardo Da Vinci show in late 2011, which became the most successful exhibit ever at the National Gallery. Many of Leonardo's paintings, especially his Virgin of the Rocks, an icon of religious painting, are discussed at length by various staff. There are long looks at others, such as the ravishing portrait of a Lady with an Ermine. There are also some wonderful takes and discussions of Turner's paintings, so timely considering the film, Turner, will open here shortly. Wiseman's use of film rather than digital cameras gives extraordinary detail and color to the paintings.

We see the planning and installation of exhibits, the tweaking of lighting, the curatorial lectures to docents, most of whom are wonderful, engaging speakers that captivate their audiences. A great deal of the film is devoted to conservation, with particularly interesting scenes of carving a wood frame and gilding. The chief conservator, Larry Keith, is a compelling speaker as he talks about various paintings. The National Gallery's director, Nicholas Penny, also speaks eloquently about museum issues and individual paintings. There is a very poignant scene of blind visitors, seated, gliding their fingers over special prints with raised areas that allow them to feel the painting's features while the curator is describing the scene. Even the staff meetings about various issues, such as the budget, are interesting. The staff, from the janitor to the director, seem to be a huge family, every one giving their all and clearly loving what they do.

I loved this film! It is a masterpiece about masterpieces. We get to know the staff and their love for paintings that are not only beautiful, but profound, and reveal truths about the human condition. National Gallery has a complexity, resonance and richness that is rarely seen in any film. Even if you are not a museum junkie, it is captivating. In a year of great documentaries, this is the best. Screening time 3 hours, which might seem intimidating, but it goes by in a flash and seems to end too quickly. Seeing this film is a great experience, but it appears that it will only screen this week at Opera Plaza. Fortunately it is also screening at the Rafael, the Elmwood (Berkeley), and the Camera (San Jose). See this on the big screen. Here's to a sweet Hanukkah, a wonderful Christmas, and a very Happy New Year, filled with health, peace, happiness, and prosperity. In that order.

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