Combustible Celluloid
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With: Nicholas Penny
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Frederick Wiseman
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 180
Date: 12/19/2014

National Gallery (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Picture This

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

National Gallery once again proves that Frederick Wiseman is a national treasure. This 84 year-old documentary filmmaker developed his unique, fly-on-the-wall approach many decades ago and has managed to turn out so many fascinating looks behind-the-scenes at various institutions (a high school, an asylum, a department store, a housing project, a strip club, etc.). He somehow manages to eavesdrop on entire conversations without any of his subjects showing that they are aware of the camera. Time has not slowed or dimmed Wiseman, and National Gallery joins his recent great films Boxing Gym (2010) and At Berkeley (2013).

The movie takes place at, of course, the National Gallery in London. Wiseman follows tour guides as they speak about various works, and we also sit in on business meetings, and meet with restorers. Without actually asking anything, the movie raises interesting questions about the nature of art itself. The guides help "interpret" the paintings for visitors, but how many different ways can they be interpreted, and is any one of them correct? How much does a knowledge of the history of the painting and painter help or impede an understanding? How far can a restorer go in touching up a painting, and when does the original intention of the painting clash with the intentions of the restorer? What, in fact, is an art object, and how does it get that way?

The movie even covers the idea of light sources, both within the paintings themselves as well as in the room. Many of these paintings were created at a time before brightly-lit museums existed and were not meant to be viewed in that way. We are treated to an x-ray of one painting, revealing a second picture underneath the primary one, which had been abandoned and painted over. Perhaps best of all, Wiseman's camera simply lingers over certain of the paintings, including masterpieces by Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Rubens, and Turner (I saw National Gallery the same week that I saw Mike Leigh's artist biopic Mr. Turner).

All of these disparate images add up to a much larger portrait of not only the battle between art and commerce, but the very concept of art, as well as the undeniable beauties of art. He has also added the concept of moving pictures to these ages-old painted pictures. And, in the bargain, Mr. Wiseman has likewise given us a new artwork of his own.

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