Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Art and Life: National Gallery and 20,000 Days on Earth

A scene from Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery (2014)

When it comes to documentary filmmaking, there is no one quite like Frederick Wiseman. For nearly fifty years, since Titicut Follies (1967), his controversial exposé of the terrible conditions at a Massachusetts correctional institution, he has been making an average of one doc a year on any number of varied subjects, documentaries like no others currently being made. Wiseman eschews all narration, never puts himself into the film (unlike a certain self-aggrandizing documentarian I could mention), and simply chooses extensive footage that doesn’t editorialize so much as depict – whether the subject is high school life (High School, 1968). Law enforcement (Law and Order, 1969) or various artistic institutions (La danse, 2009). (He is not the first documentary filmmaker to work like that but I’d argue he’s the most consistent, purest one ever to do so.) Wiseman's most recent film, National Gallery (2014), is par for the course – a fascinating and riveting inside look at Britain’s prestigious National Gallery in London, a movie which will make you look at your favourite art gallery in a whole new light.

Frederick Wiseman at the National Gallery
Filmed during 2012/13, when the gallery’s biggest and most publicized draw was a comprehensive Leonardo da Vinci exhibit, the movie begins and ends with the paintings on view at the gallery. In between, National Gallery looks at everything else, including the proverbial kitchen sink, as it delves behind the scenes of budget meetings, acts of restoration, explanations by the guides of what’s on tap at the gallery... but always returning to the visages of the gallery’s numerous visitors, from elementary school groups to young couples and the elderly. We rarely hear them say anything out loud – mostly they speak in mumbled whispers – and just gaze at them as they laugh, look contemplative or try to come to terms with the art on the walls. In short, you put yourself in their shoes when you watch them in National Gallery. But there is so much more to the movie than the public’s reactions. Wiseman, as always, is intent on capturing the full canvas of his subject and, essentially, is portraying a 21st century art gallery in all its scope, grandeur, banality and businesslike mien.

So we get a sense of the financial difficulties constantly facing the gallery, when staff discussions revolve around the annual budget and the commensurate government funding cuts, which has lead to job losses. We also glean that it’s a steep learning curve in terms of garnering media exposure, which leads to more visitors, for all the gallery’s many exhibits and not just the deemed ‘sexy’ ones like the da Vinci exhibition. And we also discover that the National Gallery functions as a good publicity tool for activist organizations like Greenpeace, which commandeers its front by draping a banner decrying Shell Oil’s environmentally destructive activities. This all takes place among the day-to-day backdrop of keeping the gallery operational, including preserving all manner of paintings which have been damaged by vandals – a fairly regular occurrence, sadly – or have declined over the years – the pigments used by artists from centuries ago have either not aged well or been adversely affected by electric lighting or modern day pollution. I didn’t realize that, depending on how a painting is hung, a shadow can be cast over the work of art – not an optimal way of displaying it but, in one key case, not a solvable one, either. And only Wiseman could render a scene of a restorer making a new frame for a painting so compellingly.

Wiseman is careful to cast his net wide over the artists featured or talked about in the National Gallery so we are educated, in a good way, on everyone from Rembrandt to Pissarro to Turner), going all the way back to the artistic endeavours of ancient Greece. (Da Vinci, of course, is referenced, too.) I was struck by how erudite and funny the various guides leading the groups the gallery were and also by how the National Gallery, generally unlike the museums and galleries I am familiar with in Toronto, regularly links up with other art forms and performers, be it a pianist entertaining visitors in one of the rooms or a ballet taking place on stage in another. (That ballet scene is one of the few moments in National Gallery where Wiseman lets sound bleed into another unrelated scene. Generally the editing, which he does, too, is so seamless as to be invisible. He also produces his films and self-distributes them through his company Zipporah Films.) Ultimately, the National Gallery, which is a gorgeous edifice inside and out, comes to life as an institution that lives and breathes art 24/7, whether it be through the actions of its devoted (and mostly anonymous in the film) staff, its loyal visitors or the attention paid to it by its international counterparts. (Gallery representatives from Italy, Germany and France drop in during the documentary.) It’s so much more than just the paintings hanging on its walls. It’s a gathering place paying proper tribute to its country, its culture and the whole idea of art in all its manifest glory.

The movie, at three hours, is a bit long – a couple of repetitive scenes showcasing the guides could have been cut without damaging the film any – but, mostly, it’s perfection. It’s another Wiseman success that can also be cast as an acute time capsule of how we live now. No wonder he was the first documentary filmmaker to be given a Lifetime Achievement award from the Venice Film Festival (in 2014). At 85, he has achieved much and in a supremely unique manner. National Gallery is just the latest, finest example of his great art.

Nick Cave with Kylie Minogue in 20,000 Days on Earth (2014).

Unlike National Gallery, 20,000 Days on Earth (2014), a (pseudo) documentary on Australian rock/punk singer Nick Cave isn’t going for pure cinéma vérité. Its directors, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, don’t claim to be doing that nor do they pretend that their documentary is scrupulously truthful or natural. It’s meant to be somewhat contrived, as Forsyth, Pollard and Cave – who co-wrote the movie with them and has worked with the fillmmakers before – play around with the notions of celebrity appearance versus reality, even as they allow Cave to expound on his philosophy, music, writings, work ethic and views on what fame actually means or doesn’t mean to him. The problem is that 20,000 Days on Earth doesn’t really add up to a satisfyingly coherent whole. Unlike Wiseman, who always demonstrates compete, controlled assurance on film, Cave and company, too often, lose the thread of their ‘narrative’ and often fail to regain it.

Beginning with Cave, wife sleeping next to him, getting up to his alarm clock in the morning and going through his ‘average’ day, 20,000 Days on Earth (which refers to the musician's lifespan – Nick Cave is now 57 years old) attempts to encapsulate a day in the life of this singular artist. But unlike Richard Lester’s exuberant Beatles doc A Hard’s Day Night (1965), which always made you feel you were getting a real handle on what made The Fab Four tick and how they genuinely felt about their newly famous lives, 20,000 Days on Earth makes you question what is authentic and what is fake about Cave and his ruminations on his art and existence. Even if that's the main (uninteresting) point of the film, its execution leaves a lot to be desired.

The movie’s skein, for the most part, lacks imagination and its pedestrian cinematic underpinnings render it rather flat, despite Cave’s unquestioned charisma and smarts. There are too many scenes of Cave driving around in a car as he chats, desultorily, with the likes of actor Ray Winstone, who stars in the video for Cave's song "Jubilee Street", and fellow Aussie singer Kylie Minogue, with whom he’s performed. A visit with longtime Australian band mate/collaborator Warren Ellis (a member of Cave’s bands The Bad Seeds and Grinderman) at the latter’s farmhouse in France is self-conscious and bland. And the quick shot of Cave and his fourteen-year-old twin sons sharing pizza while watching Brian de Palma’s exceedingly violent 1983 remake of Scarface seems both staged and inconclusive. (I'm not being censorious here but how often does he share adult movies with his young sons? Cave’s thinking here would have been very illuminating in understanding him as a parent.)

Nick Cave in concert.
On the other hand, I would have liked more of Cave’s ‘therapy’ session (which may be entirely a set up for the film; in interviews Cave has said that he doesn’t currently have a therapist) wherein he discourses, believably, about his happy childhood in small town Australia, his discovery at age fifteen of girls and sex and his fascinating relationship with his supportive father, who died suddenly when Nick was just a young adult. That is a motif which ought to have run throughout the film. I also was touched by his moving tribute to his wife Susie, whom he married in 1999, and whom he labels the ultimate woman for him, surpassing his lifelong fantasies of the ‘ideal’ female as personified by actresses he had crushes on in his youth, such as Angie Dickinson (in TV’s Police Woman) or Diana Rigg (as Emma Peel in The Avengers TV show). That scene, as he speaks and the images of those crushes skip quickly by, is one of the few inventive and effective sequences in the movie. Cave is also wryly amusing as he visits his ‘archives’ and matter of factly recounts one of the more disreputable, even depraved performances, captured on film, of his drug fuelled days in 1980s Berlin. Unsparingly, he describes himself as a junkie at that time.

It’s indicative of the dullness of so much of 20,000 Days on Earth that the scintillating footage of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds rehearing "Push the Sky Away" in his studio or performing "Jubilee Street" (both tracks from his superb 2013 album Push the Sky Away) and "Stagger Lee" at the Sydney Opera House in his native Australia end much too soon. The non-musical parts of the doc ought to be as compelling as the onstage ones – but they’re not. Nor do Cave’s observations on his musical processes, while cogent, come across as uniquely gripping as the actual lyrics to his songs. Finally, we don’t really get an indelible sense of who Nick Cave is or why we should care about what he does. (For that, you’ll need to see him live or listen to his oeuvre, one of the more reliable ones in rock music.)

It may not be fair to compare 20,000 Days on Earth with National Gallery or impugn directors Forsyth and Pollard for not going the Frederick Wiseman route with their movie. But considering the scattershot outcome of their disappointing experimental documentary, I really wish they had done things differently.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course My Favourite Movies – And Why. From January 13 to February 3, he will be giving four lectures on The Image of the Jew in Film and Television at the Bernard Betel Centre in Toronto.

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