As expected from a director fascinated with how institutions work, parts of Frederick Wiseman's three-hour documentary about Britain's National Gallery do go behind the scenes of this world-class art museum, noted for its collection of classical paintings. There's talk of money, hanging exhibits, managing crowds, cleaning floors.
And winding through some scenes is the trickier issue of how do you engage the public in such an amazing historical and cultural (and free) resource, without coming across as elitist (the word "ensanguined" is dropped casually while discussing a painting with visitors), or compromising the institution's value, as pondered in a meeting about a possible partnership with the London marathon.
Part of that outreach is simply talking about the art — in tours, classrooms, restoration studios — and here the film viewer gets a bonus. Perhaps half the film is having some engaging art historian guide you through a painting, be it its construction, provenance or interpretation. However, you should not cross "visiting the National Gallery" off your bucket list, because, as the film depicts, there's much to be gained from seeing the work in person, and seeing it in the presence of others.
It is all about looking, looking together, and processing the visual into the emotional — in painting, so as in film. And in this regard, Wiseman's film is a rather sly house of mirrors, in which we watch a film and, within that film, we watch others gaze at a painting, while also joining them in that act. Not to be outdone, many of the paintings — their subjects commissioned portraits, or figures of myth and Christianity — stare just as intently back at us. Across so many centuries and miles, and conveyed through the largely two-dimensional mediums of paint and film, there is a discernible connection running from portrait subject through gallery visitor to film viewer. One need only look.