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'National Gallery' Offers A Lingering Look At Art


Frederick Wiseman has been making documentary films since the 1960s. He explores institutions, a police department, a high school, a monastery, a zoo, a state legislature, a town in Maine. And that's just a random sampling of his subjects. His most recent film is called "National Gallery," the one in London's Trafalgar Square.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This is a story of Samson and Delilah.

SIEGEL: If you are attuned to quick shots, short scenes and rapid action, Frederick Wiseman is not your man. Watching his films, you walk through the institution, you don't run. "National Gallery" runs three hours. And when a tour guide or curator tells a group of museum-goers about a painting, it's not a soundbite about Poussin or Titian. It's a few very educational minutes.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The Philistines are emerging through the open door there, flames shining, reflecting on their armor.

SIEGEL: To capture that kind of detail, Wiseman spent hours and hours observing and filming the National Gallery - tour guides describing paintings, executives in meetings, restorers restoring.

FREDERICK WISEMAN: I was there for three months - every day for 12 weeks. I think I missed two days in 12 weeks. And I was there probably 12, 14 hours a day.

SIEGEL: How much film did you shoot?

WISEMAN: A-hundred-and-seventy hours. So, the ratio between film shot and film music is about 60 to 1.

SIEGEL: Frederick Wiseman took on this project for the same reason he'd focused on other places. He simply was curious to go deep into a subject that he knew little about.

WISEMAN: I had never really thought about all the various activities that were involved in putting up a show and maintaining a paintings and running a museum. And doing the film, I had access to the Curatorial Department, the Restoration Department. And you see the work of the people of the Education Department and the various tours and those tour guides who are extremely knowledgeable and knew how to direct their talks about the paintings to the audience they had in front of them.

SIEGEL: You mentioned restoration. There's a scene which I just found amazing. It never occurred to me that this - I think it's Larry, the restorer.

WISEMAN: Yeah. Larry Keith. He's the chief restorer.

SIEGEL: And he can spend hours, days, weeks restoring a particular painting, and then his colleague explains...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Everything that Larry is now doing, in terms of retouching, is on top of a layer of varnish that once it's cleaned, it's varnished, and then Larry works on top of the varnish so that all the work that he does - the tens, if not hundreds of hours that goes into restoring a picture - the next time it's cleaned, it comes right off.

WISEMAN: Right. By restoring the painting over the varnish, it doesn't damage the original work.

SIEGEL: Which says something about the attitude toward the original work.

WISEMAN: Right, a reverence and a respect.

SIEGEL: Yeah. That to do something permanent to that would just - would be defiling something of immense value.

WISEMAN: Right. And there's a whole theory of what the work of the restorer is. And it's based on respect for the original painting, not try to demonstrate on the part of the person doing the restoration that he's a good a painter as Titian.

SIEGEL: There's a scene in this film, and it's a meeting at which the various heads of department are discussing how can they raise money? How can they keep this institution afloat? And does it check out to be publicized as, I guess, it's the endpoint of the London Marathon? Or is that an association they don't want? Would it block access to the gallery? And it's a scene of people who work for a nonprofit institution grappling with what's our relationship to the marketplace out there?

WISEMAN: Right, and how it's connected to who they think their public is. They expose themselves to the possibility that they're being elitist, which they're not. But they -particularly the director of the gallery Nicholas Penny - express the view that he wants to maintain a certain respectful attitude toward the paintings and an acknowledgment that they're great works of art.

SIEGEL: Nicholas Penny said something in that meeting that I love. He says - I'm not quoting him directly, but he says, look, I'd rather have a fabulously successful exhibit and then try for another one that's a terrible failure and then have a fabulously successful one rather than always have an average success.

WISEMAN: Right. I mean, in a way it's a Hollywood studio discussion, except in a Hollywood studio they can deliberately change the work in order to reach the lowest common denominator. Fortunately, you can't change great paintings. And Nicholas Penny always wants to maintain an attitude of admiration and respect toward the painting and not cheapen them in order to allegedly attract more people, because you see what in fact they do at the National Gallery in order to educate the public and to bring the public in.

SIEGEL: The film "National Gallery" is going to be seen in a few theaters and then ultimately on public television?

WISEMAN: Well, it's going to be shown pretty wide. It's going to be shown in most major cities of the country.

SIEGEL: At three-hours' length, you haven't designed it for easiest access to the Cineplex, I note.

WISEMAN: No because I feel I have an obligation to - in this case to the National Gallery but always to the people who's giving me permission - to make a film that fairly represents what's going on. And the film always comes out at the length that it comes out at. I don't tailor the length to meet any commercial needs. And I assume if people are interested, they'll watch it whether it's 75 minutes or three hours. I don't want to get involved in the usual Hollywood trap of cutting a film to meet my fantasy of the lowest common denominator. I think that's insulting and condescending.

SIEGEL: Can you imagine whatever the opposite of a Platonic ideal is? The negative image of the 60-minute version of "National Gallery." In your head can you imagine what that would be if you'd been trying to make that film?

WISEMAN: It doesn't exist in my head because I would never even consider.


SIEGEL: At the end of the film, the gallery leads us into music. It leads us into a ballet duet that's played out in front of two paintings. It's a beautiful scene, really. How did that come about exactly?

WISEMAN: Well, the Royal Ballet had been commissioned to do three ballets based on the Titian paintings that were about to be on exhibition at the National Gallery. And a choreographer of one of them was somebody I'd met. And I'd discovered the first day that I was at the gallery that he was planning to rehearse some of his dances in front of the Titian paintings. So I called up and asked if I could shoot the rehearsal. And said yes, and so I was quite lucky, and I got that sequence.

SIEGEL: You decided that should be the finale?

WISEMAN: I didn't decide at the time it was shot, but in the course of the editing I decided that, because from my point of view, one of the themes of the film is the different ways you tell a story. And in the film you see how story - different painters use the form of painting to tell a story. I'm using the form of movies to tell a story.

SIEGEL: Storytelling is - I mean, this is a...

WISEMAN: And storytelling is what I think I do in the movies.

SIEGEL: It's what you do. A much younger colleague asked me, gee, I wonder what Fred Wiseman thinks about the pace of movies today. And I had to explain to him his pace was different 30, 40 years ago. You've always been a contrarian about how long we should experience a scene.

WISEMAN: You know, the scenes in my movies are based on scenes that are probably 15-times longer, certainly some of the meetings. The staff meetings at the National Gallery went on for an hour and a half or two hours. You see seven or eight minutes, and it's not a consecutive seven or eight minutes. It's an edited seven of eight minutes. You know, it's a question of who the audience is. And the only safe assumption I make about an audience is that the people who are going to see the film are as smart or as dumb as I am. I think anything else is condescending.

SIEGEL: Well, Frederick Wiseman, thank you very much for talking with us about your most recent documentary, "National Gallery."

WISEMAN: Thank you for talking with me.


This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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