National Gallery Documentary Review Essays

It simply won’t do to call filmmaker Frederick Wiseman a documentarian. Even film critics and film lovers who normally aren’t all that actively/avidly enthusiastic about the documentary feature as a form—and I have to admit, I’m one of them—have to give it up for Wiseman. Like the Maysles brothers, like Shirley Clarke, like D.A. Pennebaker at his heights, Wiseman has created a body of work that proves him a great filmmaker, period. His latest picture, “National Gallery,” is a typically lucid, graceful and unobtrusively multi-tiered work.


The movie opens with a considered series of shots of paintings that hang in the London art museum that gives the film its title. While not a small museum, the National Gallery isn’t on a scale like that of New York’s Metropolitan or Paris’s Louvre and hence its focus is a bit narrower; the place displays paintings dating from the 14th Century to the end of the 19th. So immediately, as we perhaps recognize a Holbein or Rembrandt in the opening shots of the film, the movie draws us into an older world. But a familiar sound begins to break the silence that would create the ideal mood for contemplating these works? What is it? It gets louder, and soon Wiseman cuts to a wider shot of one of the gallery’s hanging rooms, and there’s a fellow operating a floor polisher.

This opening is a near-perfect encapsulation of Wiseman’s method. His camerawork is as objective, or as “objective,” as it gets; he’s really the only filmmaker of his gender who could set a documentary entirely in a strip club (his 2012 “Crazy Horse”) without running the risk of indulging a “male gaze.” Where he editorializes, or makes a point of declining to editorialize, is in his cutting. The opening invites the viewer into the realm of the sublime, then drops the viewer into the realm of the quotidian. This juxtaposition, Wiseman suggests, is a part of what makes the Gallery a noble institution.

Over the course of the movie, Wiseman takes us inside all of the activities that define this glorious space. There are shots of docents giving very lively and informed talks about art history and the different way art, particularly religious art, functioned in centuries past: “The painting would be acting as a sacramental channel,” explains one scholar. There is a meeting in which the head of the gallery, the lanky art historian Nicholas Penny, balks at the suggestion of using the façade of the gallery as a space for video projection of the London marathon. A colleague says that as the marathon will end in Trafalgar Square, there’s an inevitability to the Gallery’s presence in the coverage of the event. Penny, though thoughtful and understated, has clearly had it up to his neck with commercial considerations of a certain kind: “It’s gonna happen anyway so we should just use it then,” is not, he states forcefully, an argument that cuts much ice with him.


Also depicted: Life drawing classes, repairing damaged art, budget meetings, concern over frame shadows in the display of a triptych, and more. About midway through the picture, we see some Greenpeace activists rappelling down from the roof of the gallery, hanging a large protest banner. More narratively-inclined documentary directors—I’m thinking of the Maysles—would have spent some time focusing on the aftermath of the event. Wiseman shows it and moves on. It’s just something that happened, something that happens, and speed bumps and such don’t really figure that much in the day to day operation of such a place. The staff goes on, the lectures go on—Penny himself gives an interesting talk of Caravaggio’s “Boy Bitten By A Lizard”—and the incredibly absorbing three-hour film ends on a grace note that doesn’t so much affirm the permanence of art as it celebrates the nobility of perpetuating and preserving art.

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Now, 50 years later, the film can be seen for what it was: a work of political art and moral outrage. (Manohla Dargis)

Rank and File

Mr. Wiseman’s documentaries are about institutions — the bricks, mortar, endless meetings and all the moving parts — including all the moving, walking and talking people who go into making them. A consummate dialectician, he likes to toggle between the general and the specific, creating a kind of accordion effect as images of buildings give way to images of people inside those buildings and longer views oscillate with close-ups of faces and body parts. In “Blind” (1986), fingers trace Braille dots; in “Boxing Gym” (2010), the focus turns to fists and fast-moving feet.

In his 1971 film “Basic Training,” Mr. Wiseman followed a company of drafted and enlisted men at Fort Knox, Ky., as it is put through its paces. He shot the movie in the summer of 1970, after the first Vietnam draft lottery was instituted, and it is populated with achingly young men as they become a marching, shooting, “Yes, sir”-ing unit. It’s a stark, dehumanizing process filled with bracingly human moments, as when a black soldier accused of not following orders tells a white soldier: “Let’s be frank with each other, now you know this is not my country.”

One of the film’s most haunting moments takes place during a combat exercise. By then, the soldiers are marching in sync — chanting “Mr. Nixon dropped the bomb/Cuz I don’t want to go to ’Nam” — and seemingly ready for war. With their faces smeared in camouflage paint and leaves stuck on their helmets, they practice their moves, silently raising and lowering arms and legs to the sounds of buzzing insects. As one man lifts his arm, the camera follows the upward motion and then pauses on his delicate hand poised against the sky. It’s a near-holy image: With fingers as thin as a Gothic Jesus, this hand was made to kill and belongs to a man who might die. (M.D.)


Political activists in the ’60s used to joke that “freedom is an endless meeting.” Mr. Wiseman, who began his career as a filmmaker in that decade, has a preoccupation with process that may be a generational characteristic. Or it may just be that he’s a sensitive chronicler of modern life, an enormous proportion of which consists of committee work.

A meeting — formal or informal, routine or hastily gathered, tedious or contentious — amounts to a Wiseman signature, like a shootout in a Tarantino movie or a dirty joke in a Judd Apatow comedy. When a group of people gather in a room, the business of the world is being done (or postponed or discussed or avoided, which amounts to the same thing). More crucial, it is being witnessed, by the camera and the audience, so that essential information can be imparted about the workings of law and order, art and politics, knowledge and power.

If you listen closely, you can glean useful insights into such matters. But you also gain a kind of ecstatic anthropological insight into rituals that are both banal and outlandish, and an initiation into the mysteries of human psychology. You notice posture and gesture, who talks too much and who stays silent, who is passive and who is aggressive. Meetings are the most quotidian moments in a Wiseman documentary, but also, often, the most intriguing. They are nuggets of real life and eruptions of pure theater. (A.O. Scott)

Discipline and Resistance

Action leads to reaction, and sometimes a push earns a well-deserved shove. That’s true throughout Mr. Wiseman’s work, which is filled with people — teachers, guards, bureaucrats, choreographers — telling other people what to do and how to do it, as well as where, when and why. Some of this can seem benign, as when executives in “National Gallery” (2014) meet to discuss the London museum of the title. When that talk turns to branding, though, and voices start to sharpen, a meeting about prestige, publicity and populism evolves into a larger debate about survival — as well as one very civilized power struggle.

In other Wiseman films, power is brutal and blunt. That’s particularly true in the earlier films, in which the black-and-white images are sometimes matched by a startling Manicheanism. The harrowing “Law and Order” (1969) follows a mostly white police force in Kansas City, Mo., as its members go on patrol, answer calls and, in one case, bring a lost, weeping toddler back to the station. It’s a moment of serve-and-protect gentleness amid more difficult, at times violent encounters between cops and civilians, as in a horrifying scene in which a white plainclothes detective puts a chokehold on a black prostitute, an action so harsh her tongue juts out of her mouth.

It’s a dreadful, terrifying moment and, for this filmmaker, unusual in its viciousness. Generally, violence in Mr. Wiseman’s work remains implied and attenuated, and more a matter of ordinary domination. Few images will seem as familiar to viewers as the scene in “High School” (1968) when an official — the camera tagging behind — patrols one of the school’s concrete-block halls, demanding passes and ordering students to class. As he shoots out questions — “What are you doin’ here?,” “Where you goin’?,” “Pass?” — this disciplinarian isn’t just corralling kids, he is, of course, also preparing them for lives of 9 to 5 submission. Woe to the resisters! (M.D.)

Sound and Meaning

One of modern cinema’s great observers, Mr. Wiseman is also a prodigious listener, a visual artist who thinks like a musical composer. He harvests sounds along with images — in many of his films he operates the recording equipment as well as the camera — and shapes the material with an eye and ear for patterns and counterpoint, themes and variations.

In most documentaries, human speech is explanatory and expository: Much information is conveyed by means of voice-over narration and talking-head interviews. Mr. Wiseman avoids these techniques entirely. When people talk in his movies, they aren’t explaining themselves to us; they’re expressing themselves to one another. We eavesdrop not only to figure out what’s happening, but also to attend to idioms and rhythms, to the musical qualities of speech. We tune in to the ways language is used by deaf and blind children as well as by judges, politicians and teachers, and also to the different ways it sounds.

But words aren’t all we hear. We hear the cadence of boxers’, dancers’ and soldiers’ feet; the lapping of waves on the side of a boat; the whooshing of skis on an Aspen slope; the sighing of the wind in the trees of Central Park. (A.O.S.)

‘In Jackson Heights’

The boundaries of New York neighborhoods are determined more by local custom and real-estate industry hype than by law or charter. This makes “In Jackson Heights” — about a polyglot, lower-middle-class section of Queens — an anomaly in the Wiseman canon. Its setting is not a town or an institution, but something with a less definite shape and a more informal reason for being. Jackson Heights in an accident of demography, geography and zoning. Or maybe it’s a community, a place given coherence by the rough serendipity of strangers adjusting to one another’s presence.

Who are they? How do they live together? How do they make it work? (“It” being that elusive thing we like to call democracy.) One answer, hardly surprising in a Wiseman film, is through meetings. We observe gatherings of senior citizens, gay and lesbian residents and recent immigrants. Their conversations are by turns personal, practical and philosophical, and they revolve around the fundamental issues of civic order, which are shown to be at once mundane and grand. How do we keep our streets safe? How do we balance rights and obligations? How do we pursue prosperity without trampling our cherished traditions and common spaces?

The wonder of “In Jackson Heights” — Mr. Wiseman’s most Whitmanesque film — is that it grounds a vision of America in the particulars of daily life. It discovers a hero in the person of Daniel Dromm, a New York City councilman who tackles the job of representing his neighborhood with shambling, inexhaustible good cheer. Some of the most moving scenes take place in Mr. Dromm’s office, where members of his staff answer phone calls from constituents who need to talk to someone in government. They don’t always have the right branch — their concerns include constitutional law and United States military policy — but the courtesy and patience with which they are treated provide a timely and permanent lesson in democratic values. (A.O.S.)

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