The worst thing I can say about National Gallery is that it is three hours long. It’s the latest documentary by Frederick Wiseman, a US filmmaker with more than 40 docs under his belt. It is my loss that I haven’t seen any of his work before.
The movie doesn’t have any red thread to follow; it shows you paintings, it shows you people looking at the paintings – two portraits in one, you could say. Passionate tour guides will tell you about a detail in a painting. A restorer reveals the picture underneath another one. Budget meetings. PR meetings. Back to the paintings. Another film crew. Opening night. Greenpeace protesters. Morning, noon, evening and night over Trafalgar Square. Then back inside. The point is that Wiseman knows exactly where to place the camera. He has nothing to prove, nothing to press upon us. With his all-access pass, he is there to show us around, and to make our stay as interesting as he can.
National Gallery relies entirely on its visuals: there are no title cards, no questions from the off, no introductions, no looks at the camera, and yet you can intuit what’s going on very quickly. Wiseman leaves staff and audience be, and just lets the camera roll. It’s all in the edit.
You cannot make a movie like this one in the Louvre because the Louvre would be too overwhelming, and any movie would have to decide on which part it wants to concentrate. The National Gallery is big, but not too big. General entrance is free. You can see all it has to offer in one day, and then you can go back the next day and have a longer look at those paintings you liked best. Every time I’ve been there, I left drunk on inspiration and with a smile on my face. This movie reminded me of that, and it made me want to pay a visit again.