“Some of the documentaries I see, they’re too simpleminded. They treat the audience like idiots. And as a result they’re very condescending. Or they’re trying to sell a political point of view or a particular ideology, which isn’t very interesting because it ignores the actual complexity of the subject matter.” – Frederick Wiseman
The greatness of Frederick Wiseman—our greatest living documentary filmmaker, rivaled only perhaps by Errol Morris or Werner Herzog—has to do with his willingness to problematize his subjects. His films, which typically question institutions and systems of power, tend to appeal to leftists and academics, but they’re not left-wing propaganda pictures. You won’t find Wiseman using his films to beat any drums or wave any flags. At their best moments, they reveal the complexity of factors (economic, logistical, emotional, ideological) that make commonplace places and things run. The films, many of which are over three hours (1989’s Near Death is six), work by accretion, as Wiseman slowly piles one moment on top of another. He makes films the way that birds or wasps make nests. We need him now more than ever in the age of Netflix, the “Documentary” category of which consists of mostly screeds and puff pieces running an average of seventy-five minutes.
In his latest, Wiseman goes behind the scenes at London’s National Gallery. He shows us docents lecturing to tour groups about Vermeer, Caravaggio, and Turner; meetings in which board members decide whether or not to allow the image of the museum to be used by outside advertisers; nude models posing for drawing classes; restorers and framers working meticulously to preserve and mount the art works themselves. The art works get their fair share of screen time, too. Confronted by the steady gaze of Wiseman’s camera, the figures in the paintings stare right back, their eyes mysterious, knowing, and implacable. What do these figures mean? What is the hold that these images have on the patrons who line up every day to come and look at them? Does the greatness of these masterpieces have to do with their subtle use of color and light, or does it have to do with the feelings and ideas that they awaken in us as viewers? These are, of course, the eternal questions that art poses. Wiseman doesn’t offer up an answer of his own. Instead, he presents us with a range of responses and critical positions, most of them articulated by the docents and art historians who interpret the paintings for visitors and tourists.