Tuesday, December 23, 2014

National Gallery: The Joke Is On Me

Scene from National Gallery, a documentary by Frederick Wiseman
Internet grab
From an English teacher's point of view, the documentary movie 'National Gallery' is a disaster. It needs to be reduced from three hours to one; it needs to be reorganized; it needs a catchier opening; it needs a certain amount of narration to bring home the main points; it desperately needs identifying labels on the many beautiful paintings.

From an art lover's point of view, 'National Gallery' is a huge disappointment. The National Gallery in London is one of the greatest museums of art in the western world. Silly me, I assumed a documentary about the museum would be mainly about its art. Not at all. The movie is about the role of the museum in British society, and in particular how it relates to the economy. Instead of art, we have lots of photos of people looking at art, or waiting in line to look at art, or sleeping on a padded bench instead of looking at art. Instead of art, we have photos of Trafalgar Square, the site of the museum, at every time of day and various public events; instead of art, we have a Greenpeace demonstration; instead of art, we have several board meetings that reminded me of what I hated about my job; we have images of blind people feeling specially tactile versions of famous paintings; we have a guy waxing the floor at the museum; we have a craftsman chiseling a new frame. Every aspect of museum life is covered. Discussions of actual paintings, their meaning and their techniques, occupied a total of 30 minutes out of three hours. Uff, what a blow to an art lover.

The fact that my criticism was so comprehensive clued me that I might be missing something, I might be measuring by the wrong standards. So I belatedly consulted the review in the New York TimesNational Gallery, New York Times review.

Sure enough. According to the Times review, Frederick Wiseman, who directed and edited the movie, has invented his own style of documentaries. "As is customary for a Wiseman documentary, “National Gallery” lacks voice-over, talking-head interviews or explanatory text, including identifiers. Mr. Wiseman tends to make you work more than documentarians who spell everything out, which is a problem only if you demand that images reveal themselves completely in the moment you first see them. " It turns out that instead of explaining straight out what he means, Wiseman "builds meaning, scene by scene, creating complexity and building density associatively, so that sound and image become motifs." This is an immersive style of storytelling that requires the viewer to make his own interpretation of the filmmaker's intention.

So the joke in on me. In the first place, I must remember to read the review before I see the movie. If I'd known that the movie was not about art, I wouldn't have been so disappointed. In the second place, here is a whole new style of documentary that I was unaware of.

I got value out of the movie. I learned stuff. I was sufficiently entertained to sit there for three hours, though I did have to phase out now and then, as I used to at department meetings. I really liked hearing all those English intellectuals with their strange voices, though I was surprised by how much time and effort they put into stating fairly obvious things. When the movie was over, my husband and I discussed Wiseman's main points, drawing out his unstated conclusions, just as we were meant to do.

But, personally, I could have a lot of fun editing this incoherent mess into a snappy, A+ documentary.