Frederick Wiseman’s latest sets its terms right at the beginning:

We see glimpses of faces in paintings in London’s National Gallery. We also get faces of people looking at the paintings. None held too long. None develops into a story. None becomes an object of contemplation. Not yet anyway.

Then we go inside. Those who know Wiseman know that he has one extraordinary lifelong theme, one that has nourished examinations of reality that enable the very biggest questions. The theme is institutions: how they walk, how they consume protein and digest it, how their organs work. And also, how they come into conflict with the human needs, and occasionally rights and ideals, of those who keep them alive.

It may sound awfully PC to see it, but it’s just reporting the facts. We see, laid in like a recurring melody, an office bout between a marketing woman–cheery, obliging, eager to show the other side she’s seeing the other side–who views the gallery as a populist place, an institution that should serve the public.

Then there is her bete noire. The boss. He speaks in a patrician voice that is like a slightly dialed-down James Fox. He doesn’t care a fig whether “the public” comes. He cares that the gallery pursues its mission and upholds its ideals. “I’d rahther have a big successful show and then one that gets no one than, you know, have the average.” The unspoken implication: I am not average. I am not after attaining what you, middle class person, seek to attain. I want triumph and disaster! I am an aristocrat of art! You, you bourgeois pencil pusher, want to hear the turnstile click.

But this is not an avant-garde battle cry. What we discover is that these classic paintings are property–expensive property. A great deal of time is spent on their physical preservation. We might as well be watching someone mow the lawn outside Trump Tower, in a sense; but as always in Wiseman, things change shape and we realize that the reconstructors are actually both diligent scientists, Sherlockian art historians, and sensitive art critics. They are not just manicuring the assets for the owners.

It only takes Wiseman one brief glimpse of a woman staring at her smartphone to underscore an essential question. What’s the value of staring at oil on canvas in a world drenched with superrich, superbright, everywhere-cascading, mostly moving images? Well, we hear why–in a supreme irony, this movie about rooms filled with silence and the staring eyes of painted figures is full of chatter. Most of it is docents–I assume they are volunteers–making whatever claim they want to make for the validity of painting. It tells us history. It wraps us around its little finger with hypnotic tales. It expresses pure form in a way that is musical and ecstatic. And not once over the course of three hours does a viewer talk back to his lecturer.

NATIONAL GALLERY is a major work. A Wiseman joint is always a crapshoot: at worst, it is a fascinating portrait of a corner of the world. At its best–and about 5/6ths of NATIONAL GALLERY is near his best–it uses a corner of the world to ask huge political and existential questions. To be sure, NATIONAL GALLERY interrogates the relationship of images and money as finely as any Godard movie, or all of them for that matter. It also has two dazzling set pieces, which his movies very rarely have. In one–a very Kubrick-like sequence–a pianist plays a dazzling concerto as Wiseman cuts quickly between glimpses of abominable violence in the gallery’s paintings. In another, nodding in homage to Wiseman’s recent body-performance movies, two dancers rehearse a sweaty, passionate, thrashing duet in a roomful of paintings. Wiseman’s fixation on dance is now clear: it’s the excess, the inexpressible, the illogical, the non-systemic. It’s the square peg that won’t fit into any of the Rube Goldberg machines he examines so deeply like a foreman checking his pocket watch and ticking boxes off the paper on his clipboard.


robert-altmanDEAR TECHNOLOGISTS: One of the most beautiful things in cinema, analogous to Paul McCartney’s feel for melody or Bob Dylan’s reach for the perfect word, is Robert Altman’s use of the zoom lens. No one has been able to do it the way he did, and to my knowledge, no one, not even his real-life student Paul Thomas Anderson, ever tried. (The one attempt I know of to coopt the Altman Zoom is in Joe Wright’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE–and the less said about that zoom into a pig trough, the better.) It seems to me–I have small experience in this area, but some, and others may testify with more courage–that we just ain’t got zoom lenses like that any more. The feel of an Altman zoom was like that little net-bottomed scraper you use to scrape the bottom of a fishbowl. He picked up faces or gestures or paintings or props in the pea soup of a usually less-than-crisp image. Half the beauty of the zoom was the way it wafted, seemed to drift through the space like a breeze. It had, in a strange way, as much feel of movement as a camera movement. Now, it seems, this is not possible. The adjustment on a zoom is too calibrated and too precise. The image itself is too crisp. The drifty/floaty/sleepy/silty quality of the Altman Zoom can be no more. The technology improved itself in a way that such a “misuse” of its parts is no longer tenable. Filmmakers, DPs, concerned parties–agree?