Tuesday, January 27, 2015

London's National Gallery, unspooled

Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, shown last week at the Detroit Film Theatre, is a three hour documentary about London’s National Gallery, perhaps the most famous museum in the world. Wiseman is a legendary U.S. documentarist and has made more than 40 films. His first was Titicut Follies (1967), about patient-inmates at a state hospital for the criminally insane and the only one of his previous films, surprisingly, I have seen, at least in part. His movies' topics are eclectic to say the least, from depicting a great university, At Berkeley (2013), showing this Saturday at the DFT, to Welfare  (1975) (a profile of New York City’s welfare department circa mid-1970s) coming to the DFT Feb. 14, to Hospital (1969), chronicling the daily activities in a large U.S. hospital, at the DFT Feb. 28. National Gallery both pleased and disappointed. If you’re into art the film’s a winner. There are umpteen close up shots of the National Gallery’s glittering treasures. And if you can’t fly to London to walk the museum’s corridors this film might be second best way of (vicariously) being there. Wiseman’s camera meanders the maze-like galleries, with close-ups of patrons’ faces as they studiously admire the art, and of docents giving talks about certain pictures. Wiseman is there during the museum’s executive committee where an official reports on the museum’s tight budget for the coming year. It’s also there at various special exhibition openings like ones for Leonardo and Titian. And finally there are numerous “back of the museum” shots of conservators explaining their work and working their magic to restore paintings. New solvents, we learn, are designed so that future conservators can reinterpret a painting afresh and literally wipe away this generation’s painstaking conservation efforts “in 15 minutes.” But this is not the kind of documentary one might come to expect based on some of the more brilliant ones of recent years. I’m thinking of films like John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s Finding Vivian Maier (2013), Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013) or Teller’s Tim’s Vermeer (2013), another film about art. These were marvels in terms of cinematography, image, juxtaposition, special effects, soundtrack and editing. There is nothing like that here. Wiseman simply places his camera and records what’s in front of him. There is not even any voice over. I suppose that is the Wiseman effect. He lets the subjects speak for themselves as he alluded in a post film talk. But one leaves the three hour film somewhat tired of the lack of point of view and narrative. I’m hardly a filmmaker and wouldn’t ever compare myself to Wiseman. But I can also place a camera, turn it on, and record. Wiseman shot 170 hours. He cut the film down to three. But it really doesn’t matter how long it is. It could have been one hour, two hours, five hours, 10 hours. It simply would have been more of the same. And whether you’d like that is entirely up to your perspective, I suppose.

Unfortunately I went to see Mordecai, David Koepp’s farce about a shady art dealer (Johnny Depp) and his travels and travails among a host of nefarious characters. This movie has the look and feel of a British farce circa 1968. And Depp is obviously channelling Peter Sellers, who probably would have made the real difference in transforming this film from bore to fun.

I came out of Mordecai about 6.30 pm last Saturday at Devonshire’s Cineplex, only to find a long lineup of people waiting to get into another movie. I’d never seen a lineup inside a multiplex in Windsor before. I asked someone the name of the movie they were waiting to see and it was, not surprisingly, Eastwood’s American Sniper. This film has really struck a chord with a huge swath of the public.

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