If These Walls Could Talk
by Max Nelson

National Gallery
Dir. Frederick Wiseman, U.S., Zipporah Films

Much of National Gallery, Frederick Wiseman’s admiring, revelatory study of Britain’s most famous public art museum, is occupied with the business of orienting, sequencing, and arranging images. There’s something fitting about this. Wiseman, who briefly taught law before turning to moviemaking, yet has always possessed a filmic style closer to poetry than to legal copy or reportage, is one of contemporary cinema’s most careful and sophisticated editors. Most of his films—all, save for two fiction outliers, documentaries centered around single institutions—are assembled from well over a hundred hours of rushes. Each tends to approach its subject piecemeal, accumulating isolated scenes, lengthy set-pieces, and brief, tossed-off observations until these elements gradually cohere into a kind of mosaic portrait.

In some cases, a clear narrative through-line eventually emerges; in others, including National Gallery, the house of images simply keeps expanding as the movie goes on, taking on new rooms, floors, and annexes. The actual process by which Wiseman assembles his movies, however, is less a matter of accumulation than of exclusion and paring away. I was reminded, watching National Gallery, of some advice an English professor at my university recently gave a seminar of grad students whom he was trying to guide through Ezra Pound’s massive, confounding epic poem The Cantos. “Don’t think of Pound as a poet who starts with a blank page and fills it up. If you do, you’ll be confused by what’s there. Think of him as a sculptor who starts with the history of human civilization and reduces it until the poem is all that’s left; that way, you’ll be confused by what isn’t.”

Wiseman’s films are sometimes massive (many match or exceed National Gallery’s three-hour runtime), but they never confound. The voice in which they speak is crisp, plainspoken, unembellished, and yet hugely flexible, capable of shifting tonal registers with undetectable ease. Like Richard Linklater, with whom he shares a fine-tuned eye for the way people negotiate space and a distinctly American knack for unshowy displays of wit and intelligence, Wiseman, who turned eighty-four last January, is constantly evaluating his subject-characters—celebrating their heroisms and zeroing in on their moments of weakness, arrogance, or cruelty—without ever subjecting them to a final verdict. (His lifelong cinematic project is, it should be said here, inextricably tied to American history and culture. It’s only recently, with a handful of films shot in France, that Wiseman has expanded his purview to Europe; National Gallery is his first British film.)

Teachers have been one of Wiseman’s most consistent subjects since High School (1968), his second feature, but his own perspective is, if anything, that of an eternal pupil. He has been quoted saying that “the shooting is [my] research”—by which I take him to mean that he makes films by learning, or in order to learn. It’s for this reason that Wiseman’s movies are so difficult to read in the way that we usually read films: as finished objects with fixed dimensions and inbuilt patterns of meaning and form. They strike me as closer to a series of performances, but performances of an unusual kind: fastidiously controlled restagings of the very processes of looking, learning, and evaluating that produced them.

The dynamic between teacher and student is central to National Gallery. Here, it’s the museum’s tour guides who most consistently embody Wiseman’s favorite professional qualities: expertise, patience, empathy, seriousness of purpose, respect for the job. Wiseman devotes wide stretches of the film to their mobile lectures, which he films from the perspective of a curious, attentive museumgoer. One guide attempts to teach a group of preteen students about the storytelling potential of paintings and prints. (“In a movie, you have two hours to tell a story. A novel might take six months to read. In a painting, you have to tell a story at the speed of light.”) Another, with remarkable candor, confesses to a racially integrated group of high schoolers that the Gallery was funded for many years on money from the slave trade. A third—by far the most virtuosic performer in the movie’s cast—gives her listeners a riveting account of the way in which plague-haunted medieval churchgoers would have encountered a thirteenth-century altarpiece: in the flickering light of a hundred candles.

Wiseman clearly delights in the apprehension of this sort of historical knowledge. (From another expert, we hear that one painting was made to be placed over a high mantelpiece to the right of a bright window, resulting in a lighting imbalance for which the artist had to make special corrections.) It is, I think, this impulse to account for the form of finished objects—to think through the circumstances under which they were made, the material limitations of their production, and the needs they were created to fill—that leads Wiseman to take the interest he does in the day-to-day business of institutional administration.

His fascination with backstage executive deliberations is distinctive in part for being directed at the content of such deliberations, rather than their mood, outline, or form. Watching National Gallery, we are asked to care about, say, the difficulties associated with marketing a particular exhibition, or the need on the part of a curator to balance riskier shows with those whose success is virtually guaranteed, or the conceptual questions involved in introducing a piece to the permanent collection—not as issues indicative of broader tensions within the institution (although they are sometimes that, too) but in the same way that the movie’s subjects care about them: as problems that, quite simply, need to be solved. In one revealing scene, two experts debate the choice of placement for da Vinci’s “Virgin on the Rocks”; in another, with takes up roughly eight gripping minutes of screen time, a tenacious curator directs a large crew in lighting a massive, tripartite altarpiece from which he’s unable to eliminate a lingering shadow.

The objects that National Gallery invites us to care about most consistently are the paintings themselves, which Wiseman shoots in fast-paced successions of close-ups that suggest—without ever fully trying to approximate—the flitting of an eye from detail to detail and frame to frame. (In some cases, the successive shots stay within a single painting; in others, they move abruptly from one work to another.) That description, however, isn’t quite right. Rarely does Wiseman guess at his subjects’ perceptual habits, let alone try to recreate them. There’s something intensely literal and direct about his visual style; it’s in the editing, as he has often suggested, that his movies transform from factual documents into something closer to poems. In Zoo, another film of his in which the act of looking takes center stage, Wiseman developed a canny, suggestive way of cross-cutting back and forth between the visitors of Miami’s Metrozoo and the animals under their scrutiny. He uses a similar tactic here, playfully tracing out patterns of resemblance between the Gallery’s vast collection of portraits and the faces of its guests: necking lovers; vaguely smug-looking literati; students alert and bleary-eyed; sharp-nosed, coiffed young art scholars; older couples on visits that may, in some cases, have ossified into habit; children oblivious to the fact that they’re surrounded by masterpieces.

Wiseman is the least self-justifying sort of filmmaker. He tends to take our curiosity for granted, and it’s one of National Gallery’s basic assumptions that great art is worth our attention and time. But there’s a more basic level of curiosity at work here than that of the art lover: the elemental impulse of a thinking subject to care about whatever is visible, close by, or at hand. A painting, a face, the illicit hanging of a Greenpeace banner, the fountain in Trafalgar Square: it’s as if Wiseman’s camera, by opening itself up to these objects and bodies, had the power to make them open themselves up to it in turn, confess some unspeakable truth. In National Gallery, it often seems, Wiseman’s poetic sensibility emerges out of the union of this basic impulse to get acquainted with the world and a savvier, more directed tendency to evaluate, organize, and associate. Then again, there are passages in the film for which this distinction doesn’t hold. In these moments—the stripping of thin lines away from the plaster wall of an exhibition room until its surface looks like a bare abstract canvas lined with stripes, or the ballet sequence that gloriously, unexpectedly brings the movie to a close—what we’re left with is, in a word, art.