A few years ago, as I was getting to know a new colleague at work, she spoke to me of her love of documentary films, and she rattled off the names of a few she had recently seen and enjoyed. I had never been deeply interested in the genre, but her description of one of them, Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol, intrigued me. It tells the story of Mark Hogencamp, who, brain-damaged after an attack outside a bar and unable to work, begins to build in his back yard an elaborate scale model of a Belgian town during World War II, complete with dolls portraying soldiers and citizens. He begins to photograph the miniature dramas he’s constructed in a way that makes them appear to seem to be documentary images. The tale gets stranger and much more deeply affecting from there. I was hooked, and have been searching out documentaries at the rate of about one a week ever since.
A little over a year ago I stumbled on one of the great directors of the genre for the first time, Frederick Wiseman, after reading reviews of his four-hour examination of higher education, At Berkeley (2013). Since I hold an administrative job at a large public research university, and spend a portion of each day browsing the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website, I was immediately attracted to the subject matter. Knowing nothing about Wiseman, or even much about the film (including its length), I blithely ordered it up from Netflix and settled in to watch.
Wiseman’s “signature style,” as the reviews call it, consists of two fundamentals: he doesn’t identify anyone who appears in the film, and he provides no titles, subtitles, music, or other cues to provide context or commentary on what the camera captures. He is also sparing of the kind of atmospheric shots the establish mood in a film; his selections seems, if not quite random, not quite revelatory either. At Berkeley features scenes of students playing frisbee on the lawns, the gates of the University at Sproul Plaza, construction sites, a groundsman on a riding mower. If you live or work on a college campus, these are the staples of ordinary life..
The heart of the film’s story lies in other such staples, and involves talking above all else. The first big scene that I remember from the film is a lengthy meeting of senior administrators, including the University’s chancellor. It is a protracted discussion of budgets, and given its setting in the fall of 2012, of how the University is to cope with repeated cuts from the state of California to its funding. There is also some talk about growing unrest among the students in response to these budget cuts, and the possibility of a mass protest in the tradition of the 60’s Free Speech Movement.
And then suddenly we’re in a classroom, where a group of perhaps twenty students, their desk arranged in a circle, are being led by an earnest professor in a discussion of power in society. The students are truly a diverse lot ethnically: a beefy white guy who might have been a high school jock, a woman in a hijab, a black woman who articulates her sense of injustice, a kid in track shorts and flip-flops, an earnest young man who hangs on every word but doesn’t speak. These two scenes, of faculty and administrators and faculty and students, occupy much of the film’s first hour.
In another wrenching episode much later on, two engineering students are engaged with their advisor in a review of their work in building intelligent prosthetics for veterans of America’s wars in the 21st century. The longer the scene went on the more I was impressed by the skill and intelligence that went into the work, the originality of the ideas that the students brought to bear on the problems. But I was also more and more impressed by the fact that the young man did all the talking; the young woman sat silently, operating the device but adding nothing to the great flow of words that carry Wiseman’s film along. And I began to realize how much silent editorializing the director was capable of.
This week I took up another of Wiseman’s challenges, 2014’s National Gallery. It opens its storytelling with a series of quick cuts from one masterpiece to another, but from there the film follows the same narrative strategy as At Berkeley and others of Wisman’s films. At a large administrative meeting a woman presents a fervent if somewhat inarticulate plea for the Gallery to think hard, not just about education, conservation, presentation, and exhibition, but about all the people those activities are meant to serve. Finally, she stumbles onto the word “audience.” She seems to be suggesting that the highly skilled and dedicated staff of the Gallery think too often about their own concerns and are preoccupied with the Gallery’s collections and standing while not thinking as creatively (or as often) about the public. You can tell quite easily that Gallery director Nicholas Penny is having none of this. And that attitude is reinforced at a later meeting in which he blasts the notion of using the Gallery’s facade as a projection screen to highlight the charities who will benefit from an upcoming marathon that will end with the runners crossing the tape in Trafalgar Square. To those who argue that the presence of such enormous crowds could be a drawing card for the Gallery itself, Penny counters that no-one asked the Gallery is they wanted to have a marathon finish on their doorstep, grand though it may be.
The film proceeds to give us wonderful insights into the ways in which the Gallery does serve the public and the art it contains. In a powerful early scene, an eloquent docent, using a 3D representation of Pissaro’s The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, provides a lesson in composition and affect to a group of adults, all of whom are blind or severely visually impaired. Out in the galleries another docent in what appears to be an 18th-century frock coat, urges her audience to imagine themselves seeing a masterful medieval altarpiece in dim, flickering candlelight, high above their heads, as it was originally installed for the spiritual edification of the faithful. In the back rooms of the museum, a conservator provides a mesmerizing account of the discovery of a partially completed full length portrait hidden beneath the finished equestrian portrait by Rembrandt that is being cleaned and restored; he speculates on how portions of the original may have been incorporated by Rembrandt into the final design, or whether those details are merely the results of an inept, earlier attempt at restoration.
But much of the lecturing that goes on in the film is flat and vacuous. An expert on Leonardo fails miserably to explain what has been learned in the course of mounting “Leonardo: The Studio Tour,” an exhibition which focused on the creation of the master’s Virgin of the Rocks. Penny himself takes the floor to discourse on a pair of paintings depicting the Roman goddess Diana; a poet reads her interpretation of one of them. Neither adds much in the way of enlightenment. And since Penny had presided over the purchase of one of these paintings, Diana and Acteon, in 2009, for the price of £50 million, I wondered whose agenda was really being served here.
For from that initial debate, if you can call it that, about the Gallery’s obligation to its audience, a dichotomy is set up between the Gallery and its public, between the curators and chemists and conservators on the one hand, and the people who come to see these paintings. Although two blockbuster exhibitions are compassed in the course of the film (dedicated to Leonardo and Titian), the crowds who come to see them, and most of the individuals captured in the galleries studying the paintings, are remarkably homogenous in character and appearance. If the staff of the National Gallery can come off as hermetic and elite, the audience we see in the film are equally and strangely similar. They are all well groomed, even the punk seen briefly standing in line for admission to the Leonardo exhibition: his umbrella barely clears his extraordinary, perfect, bi-color mohawk.
Both of these movies show us the inner workings, the complicated lives, of a large public institution. At Berkeley suggests the importance of such organizations; indeed Chancellor Robert Birgenau argues that it is exactly the public funding of the university that distinguishes it and makes it necessary. Wiseman’s portrait of the University of California at Berkeley is one of a community of individuals—diversity is a theme that is played almost as strongly as coherence at the school—working together for a common good: the education of the citizenry.
National Gallery is also about education: even the portions devoted to the conservation of the collections are heavily (and wonderfully) didactic. But the community of scholars here keeps its distance: it is education as lecture rather than a seminar or laboratory. As if the focus on the highest of high art, almost exclusively in the oil painting tradition, were not enough, the film ends with two equally earnest episodes of high culture: a performance of a Beethoven piano sonata in a packed gallery, the music echoing off the paintings on the walls; and a spooky ballet, a pas de deux performed in another gallery, deserted except for the paintings.
Is Wiseman commenting not only on the different organizational cultures but also on the societies that have bred them? Are we looking at a fundamentally diverse and democratic institution in the United States and a highly rarefied entertainment for the upper classes in GreatBritain? Or are those just projections of my own prejudices and perceptions? And for me, that is the greatest of Wiseman’s gifts, for he teaches me many lessons about subjects I understand only imperfectly, and then he forces me to question the judgments that I have formed in response. I’m just going to have to go back and watch both of these films again.