I didn't know quite what to expect when I went to see “National Gallery,” a documentary about the British National Gallery, the other night. I knew that its runtime was three hours and wondered what kind of approach would be able to carry a film about an art museum for that long. Talking heads wouldn’t do. And a conventional BBC-like treatment I thought would come off feeling like an extended art history class.
"National Gallery" does succeed, in spite of its length, and one thing that makes it so successful is allowing the people of the National Gallery - the docents, the experts in art restoration, and museum officials - to tell us about the museum in their own words, while speaking to their usual audiences: grade school classes, museum patrons, and fellow museum bureaucrats assembled around a backroom conference table. When the filmmakers do resort to talking heads, they use the clever device of filming other filmmakers doing interviews with museum staff.
As I watched “National Gallery," I began to see a structure in the way the elements of the documentary were being assembled. The backroom meetings are the dull underpainting for the picture that the director, Frederick Wiseman, paints for his film. Restorers, woodworkers and cabinetmakers, as well as docents and instructors, form other layers of the composition. And a layer of human faces is built up over the course of the film, each face applied like a brushstroke by the camera as it flits back and forth between the pallet of faces in the pictures hanging on the walls and the pallet of the faces in the crowd examining them. All without commentary or narration.
What a fitting approach to a documentary about an art museum, not as a classroom lecture, but as a painting in its own right. “National Gallery” allows us to contemplate the museum, much as we would a work of art.