Up close and personal with the National Gallery

National Gallery, shot in London's iconic treasure house in Trafalgar Square over three months in the winter of 2012. Picture: Getty

National Gallery, shot in London's iconic treasure house in Trafalgar Square over three months in the winter of 2012. Picture: Getty

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Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman adds the National Gallery to the many esteemed institutions whose inner workings he has revealed, writes Alistair Harkness

In a documentary career spanning nearly half a century, Frederick Wiseman has learned one thing about people: they don’t really change. “I’ll make a pompous generalisation that I don’t think human behaviour has changed much in the last 10,000 years,” says the 84-year-old American filmmaker. “But its variety and complexity is certainly fascinating – and even though I’ve made a lot of movies, you never get it all.”

Wiseman hasn’t done too badly on this last point. Having specialised in making films about institutions since his controversial debut, Titicut Follies (1967), peeled the curtain back on a hospital for the criminally insane, he’s created a body of work – some 40 films – in which all of human life is there to be examined.

Always employing the same deceptively simple fly-on-the-wall shooting style (if he has a mantra it’s this: use a small crew; shoot as much footage as possible; figure out the film in the editing room), he’s turned his gaze on everything from military boot camps (Basic Training) and shelters for battered women (Domestic Violence) to ballet companies (La Danse), the meat-packing industry (Meat), gentlemen’s clubs (Crazy Horse) and universities (At Berkeley). He views these myriad institutions as a way to look at a wide variety of human behaviour within a given context.

“It’s like tennis,” he says. “The institutions provide the lines and the net and anything that happens within it is fit for inclusion. Although I’m also interested in the way they’re run and the difference between the rhetoric and the practice.”

For his latest film, he’s turned his attention to a British institution. National Gallery is a remarkable, hypnotic, three-hour exploration of the titular institution, which sits in the heart of London, houses some of the most important works of art ever created, and is among the most visited galleries in the world.

“There were a variety of reasons for doing it,” nods Wiseman, ensconced in a hotel restaurant a few tube stops away from the gallery’s Trafalgar Square home. “One: they gave me permission; and two: it’s one of the great collections of the world. And from a film point of view it was relatively easy to do because of the smaller size of the collection compared to, say, the Louvre. I could figure out and visit every department. The fact that it had a mere 2,400 pictures…” – he lets out a laugh – “… made it easier.”

Shot over three months in the winter of 2012, the film takes us into the public galleries, the basements and the boardrooms of the museum and makes us privy not just to behind-the-scenes curatorial meetings and funding debates, but to the way art is appreciated and processed by both the visiting public and the staff members and experts whose job it is to preserve and illuminate it for our delectation. The cumulative effect is a quiet celebration of the enriching power of art and education, one that demonstrates the great work being done by the museum to make the great work hanging on its walls accessible to all. Not that Wiseman set out to do this.

“I don’t feel as if I’m exploring any themes or have any point-of-view I’m trying to sell. If I did, there’d be no point making the movie. I like to approach it with an open and clear – if not empty – mind and let the final film be in one sense a report on what I’ve learned as a consequence of being there.”

If National Gallery is a largely positive portrait of the museum, then, that’s because this is what he found when he was there. The permission he receives is never dependent on providing good PR (he’s had final cut on all his films since he began his career). Nor does he see any value in twisting negative aspects. A Greenpeace protest against some of the museum’s corporate sponsors, for instance, is presented as matter-of-factly as everything else in the film.

“With a collection like that you’d just make a fool of yourself if you made anything that didn’t show what a great gallery it is.”

As it happens, getting permission has never been an issue for Wiseman, which seems surprising, given that Titicut Follies was banned for 25 years after it exposed the harsh practices of the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Bridgewater where it was filmed. “With the exception of Titicut Follies, which took 18 months to get permission, it’s always been easy and I don’t understand why. I was thrilled I got permission to do National Gallery, but I’m amazed I’ve had permission for some of the things I made, particularly some of the movies I did about the military. My great secret,” he marvels, “is that I ask.”

It’s a simple as that?

“It’s as simple as that.”

I ask if his preparation varies depending on the institution he’s tackling. “No, the preparation is always the same. On Domestic Violence I did spend a day there before I started shooting, meeting the women in the shelter and asking if they agreed to be filmed. And I was amazed that these victims of violence would agree to it.”

Does he think that’s because they didn’t have any other way of getting their stories out there?

“Exactly. I asked them at the end: ‘How come you agreed?’ And they said: ‘We thought it would be helpful to other women to have our stories known about.’ Which was extraordinarily generous of them.”

Has this generosity of spirit been a recurring trait among the people he’s observed over the years?

“You can’t neglect the importance of vanity as well,” he chuckles, “but it’s not just vanity; some people just like the fact that you’re interested in them.”

At a time when the authenticity we apparently crave in our entertainment often comes in the form of scripted “reality” shows or serious investigative documentaries cut together with the action beats and music cues of Hollywood thrillers, Wiseman’s films are increasingly rare and welcome antidotes. Real people don’t perform for the camera in his films and they’re much more interesting as a result.

That’s also perhaps why fiction filmmakers have often been drawn to his work. “I know that filmmakers have used my films because in the first half of Full Metal Jacket there are a lot of shots from Basic Training,” says Wiseman. “And One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I know Titicut Follies was shown a lot to the cast of that.” His 1968 film High School (shot in a Philadelphia class room) has proved similarly influential. “There’s a Gus Van Sant film about high school [Elephant] that used it, and there’s a Wes Anderson film as well, I forget which one…”

Rushmore?

“Yes! Rushmore. So it’s fun to see.”

I circle back to the revelation that Stanley Kubrick pilfered shots from him for Full Metal Jacket.

“It took me a year to get the print of Basic Training back from him,” he says.

Did he speak to Kubrick about it?

“He never acknowledged it whatsoever. I got a call one day: ‘Mr Kubrick would like to see Basic Training…’”

That must have been quite an ego boost.

“I must say I was amused to see he’d watched it so carefully.

• National Gallery is on selected release from 9 January

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