Saturday, 20 December 2014

Focused and critical

Some years ago, I took a course on documentary film.  I have never forgotten it.  It was taught by a National Film Board of Canada film-maker, and among the many things he pointed out to us was the fact that a documentary film can never ever be totally objective, no matter what you've read about cinéma vérité.  We are looking through the film-maker's eyes; s/he has chosen what to shoot and where to zoom or pan out.  We saw many classics, among them Titicut Follies by Frederick Wiseman, about the Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts.  I chiefly remember a chilling scene where a prisoner declared insane by the state articulately argues that he is sane, and how the staff, after his departure from the meeting, explain among themselves how everything he has said proves his mental illness.

Today, I remembered that National Gallery, Wiseman's latest film, was showing at the Bytowne Cinema.  There was a huge line-up to see it, but I managed to secure a seat on the far aisle.  The movie begins with galleries filling with art-lovers and their faces which all have similar expressions:  the head pulled back, the eyes focused and critical.  The faces are all male, for some reason.  When the voices begin, they are female - the voices of the docents, addressing crowds of patrons, or lectures for art teachers,  or workshops for blind and nearly blind art-lovers who are feeling specially upraised outlines of paintings while they listen.

Three pieces that figure heavily in my own life are featured, albeit briefly: "Doge Leonardo Loredan" by Bellini; "The Fighting Temeraire" by Turner (both favourites of my mother's), and the Burlington House cartoon which I encountered on my first trip to London. I had never heard of it before and loved it so much that I would hurry back into the National Gallery at every opportunity to drink it in, even if there were only fifteen minutes available.  I got posters and postcards of it, of course, but it didn't match the magic of being able to gaze on the original.

The film takes us into boardrooms where the accents are (mostly) Oxbridge, females address males whose arms are crossed.  We return to more docents where the accents are more varied: Scottish, Australian, and (mostly) Estuary.  The faces of the gallery staff are all white, while the gallery visitors are every colour, and, in the case of school groups, possibly there under duress.  All manner of people bundle up against the weather (I think this was mostly filmed around Christmas of 2012) and wait overnight to secure tickets to a Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit. Greenpeace guerrillas post a protest banner across the facade as passersby gape and the police wait to move in.  Paintings being cleaned and restored, and scholars argue for and against such restorations. We see a television arts series being filmed, and press conferences, and opening galas attended by very wealthy people.  We see a life class featuring models with, miracle of miracles, unwaxed pubic hair.  We see piano recitals, ballet, and a poetry reading by Jo Shapcott.
This isn't footage from the documentary, but a film by the National Gallery done about the same time.  Jo Shapcott says roughly the same things in Wiseman's documentary, but ruins it a little by explaining that Callisto was experiencing rape a second time when exposed by Diana, because she had experienced "rape of a sort" by Jupiter.  I have double-checked the versions of the myth.  I think it's pretty safe to say that she was raped by Jupiter, period.

By the third hour, I was fighting to keep myself awake -- not because it was boring, but because the movie is probably about 45 minutes too long.  But I was happy I stayed to the end which features faces from many of the paintings that have been featured.  They stare at us, the eyes focussed and critical.

No comments: