National Gallery (2014)

The veteran American documentarian Frederick Wiseman likes to point his camera at institutions and try to document the way that they work (or don’t work, as the case may be). His previous film, At Berkeley was set at the University of California, Berkeley, and dwelt a lot on the bickering of its board members about various minutiae of academic life — moreso, it sometimes felt, than the actual teaching of students.

In this new film about London’s National Gallery, the focus is very much on the pedagogy over the administration. Sure, there are some scenes featuring the then-director Nicholas Penny and his team, but the tenor of these is largely set up by an early scene of (I’m guessing) a marketing manager rather tediously (and vaguely) confronting Penny about the gallery’s public engagement strategies, as it’s this theme that’s picked up again later during a board debate about a charity event. Instead, when the camera isn’t on the paintings (generally briefly) or on people looking at paintings in the galleries, it’s mostly observing the staff engaging various audiences about the meanings in the paintings and their value as artistic works. These audiences range from public visits and school groups standing in front of the paintings themselves, students looking behind the scenes at restoration work (a vital yet sensitive part of the gallery’s function), educational events (for example, one in which blind people are given tactile versions of the paintings), and rather more stentorian groups of members and donors. These all combine to give a sense of how the gallery and its director must navigate these various interest groups, protecting the gallery’s function as a public space as well as its increasing need to keep revenue ticking over.

But it’s also a film about the limitations of capturing paintings on film. One educator talks to students about the difference between paintings and films in terms of time (what we might call their synchronic versus diachronic aspects, to exhume a bit of film studies lingo), that one is a moment in time whereas another can evolve over a duration. Wiseman gives as much prominence to the pictures as to those people in the gallery who are looking at or standing around these pictures. The documentary tries to convey a sense of what it is to confront art in a gallery setting, and about its value to society, but the nature of film makes it difficult to really do more than show people talking about the art, though the montage valiantly tries to break some of the works down during discussions in the way you might focus on different areas of the painting while thinking about its effects and the themes the artist is trying to convey. If the film then is reminiscent of the famous quote “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, so Wiseman’s ending seems like a witty rephrasing of this with relation to filming art. Luckily, despite the film’s length, sitting through it to get to this scene is far from a chore, and the fact that I didn’t feel the need to visit the Gallery afterwards (despite it being just around the corner from the cinema) is — I hope — a testament to the breadth of its approach.

National Gallery film posterCREDITS
Director Frederick Wiseman; Cinematographer John Davey; Length 181 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 11 January 2015.

At Berkeley (2013)

This is the second film I’ve seen this year set at a university, but I feel it presents a rather more nuanced view than the comedy Admission. As it happens, we do hear from an admissions officer here (in relation to the recruitment of international students, specifically), but also from a wide variety of faculty (academics), administrative staff and students. In such a huge institution covering so many subjects, it can’t be comprehensive, but at four hours it’s certainly multi-faceted and fascinating, touching on many of the big educational discussions of the modern era (‘touching’ being the key word here), while harking back to those of a generation or two before — a tradition on which some of the University of California, Berkeley’s reputation is founded.

The structure is deceptively straightforward in Wiseman’s time-honoured way (he has after all been making films for over 40 years) presented within a crisply clean frame unencumbered by titles, which can be a problem for some in the audience, but as Wiseman says when addressing questions after our screening, the importance of the people seen (if not their names and job titles) can be deduced from the context, and it allows the viewer to focus on the words they’re speaking. Scenes play out at length — not least because academics love to talk — showing lectures as well as management meetings, seminars, support groups and, memorably, a student protest. These are intercut with quiet scenes around the campus showing students studying, lying in the grass or performing, as well as the service and maintenance staff going about their vital quotidian work.

Yet it’s artfully done. The opening scenes are of a senior-level management meeting in which swingeing cuts to state funding and their effect are discussed, alongside a class debating attitudes to poverty and how this ties into changes to the global political and educational environment. Students lucidly (if at times naïvely), present their views on these issues, intermingling thoughts on class and race. Further scenes of management meetings cover crisis management, the retention of top academics in the face of competition from private institutions (the federal University of California system is public) and how to ensure their institution remains world-class. That this is the case seems clear from the classroom scenes we see — whether former high-ranking government officials talking about management, or an astronomy class which I concede was in English but not a single word of which made sense to me. Students at times may look bored, but compared to my own university experiences, they do seem far more engaged.

That said, we don’t see very much in the way of genuine debate, and none at all in the pedagogical setting (as an audience member noted after my screening). Classes are presentations to students, and even the seminars just show students giving their opinions and respectfully listening to one another rather than the clashes of opinion one might expect on such divisive subjects as poverty and class. At the administrative level, while we see senior managers (including the permanently grinning face of the Chancellor), there’s no sense of how the policies they are debating are felt within the academic community or by the rest of the administration.

There is of course a student voice but if anything, it’s the relatively brief sequence of the student protest that affirms Wiseman’s place on the side of the management. Then again, the nature of modern discontent seems particularly nebulous, as the issues with which students are struggling are matters of wide-ranging policy changes over time combined with cost of living increases, rather than any single totemic issue as was the case in the (much-harked-back-to) 1960s. The students here, holed up in the campus library, present a laundry list of grievances that management are hard-pressed to address coherently aside from a vague statement lauding the students’ goals, leading the protest leaders to sneer at their response. Implying the protestors have nothing more specific to demand, Wiseman cuts straight from this to a now empty library followed by a student meeting with a state legislator where students indicate an erosion of support for the recent protests. It is thus clear that Wiseman is on the side of the bureaucracy, against both students and academics.

These issues aside, ultimately it’s a clear-headed but sympathetic look at running a top modern public educational institution. The difficulties are certainly there, but Wiseman seems hopeful that with so many intelligent people around — students and staff — the great service Berkeley provides will be able to continue.

At Berkeley film posterCREDITS
Director Frederick Wiseman; Cinematographer John Davey; Length 205 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Monday 14 October 2013.