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Thursday, 13 November 2014


Frederick Wiseman
Photo/Richard Carreño
Philadelphia |WritersClearinghouse News Service
Here are the things you don't learn in National Gallery, a new documentary by the esteemed American director Frederick Wiseman: that the museum was established in 1824; it's opened 361 days a year; it houses Western art from the 13th to 19th centuries; admission is free; and that it's been located on Trafalgar Square since 1838.
     Here is what you do learn: that the museum's director, Nicholas Penny, is a scholarly, amiable chap, whose hunched over-bespectacled look suggests a character actor from Central Casting. Penny, who has been director since 2008, seems far less impervious and imperial than the Gallery's legendary war-time director, the late Lord Clark, the prolific art historian who became wildly famous for his BBC-PBS television series Civilisation.

Another thing we don't learn: Penny's name. The director, who presides over Britain's foremost fine arts museum as a kind of patient, kind-hearted nanny, is never actually identified by name and title in Wiseman's muddled, slow-moving three-hour, one-minute film. The viewer surmises he's the head guy (the ID comes, finally, when the credits roll) because of his honcho-like interaction with others. This includes spending far too much time dealing in bureaucratic mischief with his in-house staff (seemingly top heavy with a team of female whiners) and schmoozing with posh-looking swells. (The purpose of which is never explained. Fund-raising, one supposes).
     Wiseman's narrative style is heavy on cinema verite -- in its worst form. In other words, Wiseman, 84, leaves it up to the viewer to ID characters and scene settings. The director, who attended a screening of the documentary Tuesday (11/11) at the Roxy, prefers to call the process 'observational.' By whatever name, it's fine if the result is coherent, as was the case in his first picture Titicut Follies (1967), La Danse (2009), and in many others of more than forty documentaries he has produced and directed. The do-it-yourself methodology in National Gallery, however, is heavy-handed and seemingly capricious.
     What we do learn about behind-the-scenes activities, including the Gallery's brilliant conservation department, is fascinating and learned. But who are these guys doing this superlative work? They deserve on-screen recognition. Who are the Gallery's knowledgeable, witty docents who the viewer encounters time and time again without the honor of identification? (I suppose everyone is listed in the credits. But that's hardly the way to offer a proper due to these terrific folks).
     Wiseman's editing of National Gallery is way too inclusive, as in kitchen sink inclusive. The film is at least an hour too long. Eliminating all the shots (scores of them) of museum visitors contemplating the art before them could have easily remedied the time over-load.