Frederick Wiseman's Latest, National Gallery, By Way of France

So, Frederick Wiseman's newest documentary, National Gallery, is available now in the US through his film company Zipporah Films on DVD and blu. But given that they use DVD-Rs and BD-Rs, and the high prices they charge for them ($44.95 for their MOD blu!), I thought I might have better luck importing. Well, it's a DVD only title in the UK, but France had an interesting looking version from Blaq Out, so I went with that. A full, properly pressed blu and even with the cost of overseas shipping, it was cheaper to import.
If you're a fan, you certainly know what to expect, but it's fun to see online comments on places like from people not expecting a Wiseman film, and hoping apparently, for a video tour of London's National Gallery. "Awful film," says one 1-star review, "[t]oo much talking to the twittering classes and not enough paintings. Seemed to spend forever being a fly on the wall at committee meetings." I don't think we've had a Wiseman film without committee meetings since the 80s, and if anything, I felt this film was a little light on them. That's because this isn't a travelogue to show you the museum's paintings without having to leave your couch; as with most of his films, it's about us, and the way we choose to build our society. Specifically in this instance, it's about the systems we devise to curate and display our artwork.
I know the "Wiseman's films are about systems" is a long-bandied about theory that he's apparently never come out and confirmed - and certainly there's no "correct way to see art, even documentaries - but the more I see of these films, the more clear it seems to me that this is what he's really attempting to show us. And it's fascinating. I mean, if you want to see some important paintings, you do; and you get to hear some intelligent opinions about art as we eavesdrop on guided tours and television interviews filmed in the museum. But so much more interesting is the look at what we've made: how the museum is run and why, from the budgeting to the restoration. Who decides what art we get to see and what the line is between restoration and embellishment? Who visits the museum and who doesn't? We see the tearing down and building of walls as exhibitions are designed, events are held while other offers are argued against, people give a wide array of opinions on the meaning and value of art, and the proper way to maintain it. It even winds up operating on a probably unintended "meta" level, where the questions people ask about what art should and shouldn't be shown and why also apply to the footage Wiseman is shooting and will ultimately cut together or leave out.
On the other hand, the fact that this film has almost half as many 1-star reviews as 5-stars (and practically none in between) illustrate how this documentary isn't for everyone. His work seems to split into one of two categories: undeniable powerhouse documentaries that would move anyone, like Titicut Follies, Domestic Violence and Near Death, and drier studies that you probably need to me in the right frame of mind to appreciate, like Boxing Gym or Belfast, Maine. I was totally absorbed by Belfast, Maine, but I could see how other film-goers would want to go outside and bury themselves by the 4 hour mark, pining for the artificial narratives of placating documentaries like Murderball or Spellbound (MORE SHOTS FIRED!!). And speaking of running times, since Wiseman's films run the long gamut of 84 to 358 minutes long; it's worth pointing out that National Gallery comes in at a long but not unmanageable 3 hours and 1 minute.
So let's talk about this French blu. First of all, yes, it's a proper blu-ray disc. Dual-layer even. It's 1080p and looks great, as you can see in these screenshots. For what "virtual tour" elements there are in this movie, getting to see the paintings photographed in HD is a nice boon. You also get the option of DTS-HD 2.0 and DTS-HD 5.1 mixes. It doesn't have any extras, but it almost did. You'll find multiple online listings noting four interviews: with an art historian, a picture restorer, Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery, and one with documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzman Lozanes on Wiseman's approach. I contacted Blaq Out directly about this and they were good enough to write back, "Je vous confirmer qu'il n'y a aucun supplément sur le blu-ray et le DVD du film. A la demande de Frederick Wiseman qui n'aime pas ça," which google translates to, "I confirm that there is no supplement on the blu-ray and DVD movie. At the request of Frederick Wiseman who do not like it."

Argh! How frustrating when out of touch filmmakers make up these policies about their films on home video because they don't watch or "get" DVDs. It's like when David Lynch decreed that their should be no chapter stops on DVDs. Meanwhile, Wiseman has a whole book for sale talking about the making of his films, so apparently that's okay? Blah. Oh well. Those features would've been a nice bonus, but the important thing is still a top quality release of the film itself, and that's what we've got here. Plus, it comes in a cool black case with better cover art than the UK disc, and it's sheathed in a nice slip cover.
Except for one more possibly frustrating aspect about this particular release. It has somewhat forced French subtitles, probably to discourage exactly the kind of importing I've done and am recommending. Now, they're not burnt into the image, but they're set so hitting the subtitle button won't switch them off. I found I could get them off with some trickery on one player, but not at all on another, and turning the subtitle option off worked perfectly on my PC (and I'm talking direct playback from the disc, no ripping files or anything complicated like that). So "ymmv," as they say. But I actually just left them on the first time I viewed the film because they're small and very unobtrusive (though still distinct and legible, unlike White Ribbon's US blu), so they didn't bother me either way. But you should know, depending on your player, they may give you a little annoyance.
So I do recommend this.Even with the subtitle issue and the torpedoed special features, this seems to be the best release of the film available. And while I'm on board for any and all of Wiseman's films, I liked this one more than some of his other recent work like Crazy Horse. And you might also be interested to know that just this month, Blaq Out has put out a big boxed set of Wiseman's first 13 films on DVD. Again, they're pressed discs rather than DV-Rs, and a lot cheaper to import that than to collect all 13 discs here in the US. And they've already announced to release the rest in 2016. So France's Blaq Out are turning out to be the go-to guys for Wiseman's work, and I figure that's probably who I'll be copping In Jackson Heights from, too.

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