Frederick Wiseman has been pigeonholed as a social activist filmmaker ever since his debut, "Titicut Follies" (1967), revealed enough about the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane that Massachusetts made it the first film banned in America for reasons other than obscenity. But what Wiseman really does is make movies about institutions, which explains a filmography that includes "High School" (1968), "Welfare" (1975) and "Public Housing" (1997), as well as "La Danse" (about the Paris Opera Ballet, 2009) and "Crazy Horse" (about the legendary erotic dance club, 2011). Now, there's "National Gallery," about the London museum that houses one of the great collections of paintings in the world, a compendium of portraiture from the 13th to 19th centuries and, like all similar artistic institutions worldwide, on an endangered species list.
Wiseman delves into the National Gallery's problems -- how to market itself, brand itself, deal with dwindling government support and attain "relevance" to generations who think viewing a Rembrandt on a cellphone somehow compares to the real thing. But, as always, his chief impulse is curiosity -- about the paintings themselves, and the way they're cared for and restored; what lies beneath their surfaces (sometimes other paintings); and who the people are who work around them -- from curators to framers to floor polishers.
As in "The Garden" (2005), his mostly unseen (because of rights issues) film on Madison Square Garden, he captures the confabs over direction and budgets; like "La Danse" and "Crazy Horse" Wiseman is fascinated with movement -- including preparations for a dance to be performed before the gallery's Titian's canvasses. But the action that grabs him is not just that of dancers, but the way people move through the rooms of the National's galleries, absorbing and contemplating in a manner that reflects Wiseman's own approach to his subjects, and the effect of his films.