It’s Nice That: Fred Wiseman discusses his documentary masterpiece, National Gallery

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“Each film is a roll of the dice. You don’t know what you’re going to get,” says Fred Wiseman, director of the brilliant new film National Gallery rather philosophically, chatting to The Telegraph’s Mark Hudson at the film’s screening in its titular home last week.

What he did get, when first putting together the film, was a whopping 170 hours of footage, edited down over 13 months to a not-insiginficant three hour final cut. And the results, as many a brasher site than ours might put it, are incredible.

Like 85-year-old Fred’s other documentaries, National Gallery takes the unusual stance of doing without any sort of narrator or direct interviews – just as he did exploring themes as diverse as prisons, zoos, high-schools and perhaps most famously the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts, as documented in 1967’s Titicut Follies.

Instead of being guided by these direct voices or narrations, in National Gallery Fred presents scenes from the institution and its stunning works without credit or reference, other than the captions already on the artworks that are filmed.

Fred says that he takes this approach primarily “because I like it.” The results mean that the viewer isn’t force-fed a certain perspective, and to a larger degree than in most documentaries, isn’t being told what to think.

“The viewer feels as though he’s present – there’s enough information to let you make your own judgment,” says Fred. “I prefer that to the omniscient narrator – it’s up to me to provide enough information.”

“We act in ways we think are appropriate to the situation we’re in. All of us think what we do is appropriate for other people, even if those watching us may not agree.”

Fred Wiseman

In the case of National Gallery, the beauty of said information is that it draws on the stunning works of the gallery’s collections, as well as hours of footage of the gallery and its staff at work, whether taking sessions on reading the paintings with blind people, leading school trips or discussing the gallery’s position as regards being affiliated with Sports Relief. It’s a fascinating insight and always feels so human and “real,” more so than in most documentaries that purport to be wholly unstaged, but by the very nature of the presence of a camera will never be so. But how does Fred make his subjects feel so relaxed?

“I try not to be pretentious, and show them how things [camera, sound equipment etc] work,” he says. “We act in ways we think are appropriate to the situation we’re in. All of us think what we do is appropriate for other people, even if those watching us may not agree.”

Where the film also succeeds in flawlessly making its viewers feel fully immersed in its story is the way the works themselves are shot. Each painting fills the entire frame, as though each viewer’s own pair of eyes is gazing directly on it, rather than through the conduit of a camera lens. As such, the content of the paintings and their stories inform the narrative and the story of the film as much as the dialogue and the presentation of the gallery’s inner workings do.

“From that point of view the painting becomes much more alive from seeing it that way. When presented in series they tell a story like a movie,” Fred explains. “National Gallery shows the relationship between different forms – painting, poetry, film – they all have the same concerns. Most paintings in the National Gallery tell a story. Movies also tell a story.”

National Gallery shows the relationship between different forms – painting, poetry, film – they all have the same concerns. Most paintings in the National Gallery tell a story. Movies also tell a story.”

Fred Wiseman

This particular story is – for all its bum-numbing length – an endlessly fascinating, charmingly British one fraught with the mighty, philosophical and difficult questions that artworks look to challenge, the little school trip questions about what the trees in the painting might mean, and the modern day, very real questions about budget cuts and grants. But all in the film seem to feel equal: Fred’s lens doesn’t judge, it merely presents the National Gallery to us with all its strange foibles and intricacies. But it never feels cold: his approach somehow elicits more affection than if we were driven towards a certain feeling by a melancholy soundtrack or a weeping protagonist.

“I try to represent the complexity of a place, not just do simple minded exposés. It’s as important to show kind sensitive things as evil, manipulative ones,” says Fred. “Every film is a manic-depressive process. Sometimes you think it’s the best thing you’ve ever seen, sometimes you think it’s the worst. Neither is ever true.”

Originally published on It’s Nice That

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