The trick of the documentary is, very often, to confuse the viewer's expectations. What may look "minor" or "major" is, in fact, neither - just part of an ongoing body of work where it all hange together more seamlessly than it may appear at first. This is very true in the case of veteran master of the vérité form Frederick Wiseman, and of his patient way of looking at and measuring complex organisations and how they work. For him, the Crazy Horse cabaret and the Paris Opera Ballet are two sides of one same coin, though from the outside one would look "minor" and the other "major".
National Gallery has all the hallmarks of a "major" work, with Mr. Wiseman again "embedding" with a major art institution to paint a mosaic of instants and fragments over a period of time at London's National Gallery. The themes underlying it are major as well: the back and forth between art and commerce, technique and inspiration, business and passion, underlining yet again the effort, the hard work, the commitment that goes into creating an effortless viewing experience for the spectator. While the film moves between the backstage and the front of house as is Mr. Wiseman's wont, National Gallery is also a film that belies its apparent "major" approach by systematically dialing it down to the minimal detail - ie the actual art on display and its power to captivate an audience.
What's at stake here is the simple act of leading people to appreciate and understand art, without making a big fuss about it; it's about how best to facilitate that connection and, for the director, it's all in the seeing. That is why so much of what is going on in National Gallery is truly about seeing and having the leisure to see in depth. At slightly under three hours, the film may demand an availability that some viewers may not have, but they'd be wrong to dismiss it. The most wonderful thing about Mr. Wiseman's film is how it develops a sort of throughline about art as storytelling, a painting as filmmaking without moving the camera. There's a sense that in no way is Mr. Wiseman attempting to impose anything, rather that he is allowing the camera to simply be a lens, an eye, another leisurely spectator taking in the sights and sounds of the National Gallery. A major work in a minor mode, f you will.
USA, France, 2014
Director and editor Frederick Wiseman; cinematographer John Davey; producers Mr. Wiseman and Pierre-Olivier Bardet; production companies Gallery Film and Idéale Audience
screened May 14th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)
NATIONAL GALLERY trailer from Zipporah Films on Vimeo.