Jennifer Kent, The Babadook, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 93 minutes.

A SPOOKY, POWERFUL exploration of murderous maternal rage, writer-director Jennifer Kent’s domestic-horror movie The Babadook satisfyingly pierces the obscene sanctification of “mommyhood”—a pathological mandate that seems to have become an irreversible cultural imperative.

For the The Babadook, the Australian Kent’s debut feature, the onetime actress has expanded the scenario she first explored in her 2005 short, Monster. The film opens with a nightmare—a man and woman are struggling in a car underwater—unfolding in slow motion, though whose REM sleep we’ve been given access to isn’t immediately clear. Is this the recurring bad dream of Amelia (Essie Davis), a harried single mother who works as a health aide at a home for the aged, or of her extremely overwrought six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman)? The man with the starring role in these night terrors, it turns out, is Amelia’s husband, Oskar (Ben Winspear), who died in an accident while driving his wife to the hospital to give birth—a gruesome bit of family lore that Samuel is eager to share with strangers.

The macabre circumstances surrounding Samuel’s entry into the world may explain why the tyke is so highly strung, ever vigilant against monsters; one day, the constantly shrieking child works himself up into such a state that he collapses from a febrile convulsion. (Wee Wiseman, terrifyingly committed to the part, appears to have locked himself in a windowless room for several months and/or sprinkled trace amounts of arsenic on his Vegemite toast to give himself the peaked pallor of the frequently agitated.) His latest fixation is on the sinister children’s-book character that gives Kent’s film its title, an obsession that soon blossoms into a folie à deux—before assuming a tangible, physical, frightening form.

While the bumping and thumping that grows increasingly louder in this claustrophobic, dimly lit sanctum is clearly a manifestation of outsize, still unarticulated grief for a dead husband/father, the violent noises in the house are also an amplification of grief’s unseemly corollary: fury. Amelia, in a sleep-crime stupor—her tenuous grip on reality weakened further by her half-conscious viewing of late-night TV programming that seems to consist of nothing but Mario Bava movies, Georges Méliès shorts (a notable inspiration for the fantastical elements in The Babadook), and old episodes of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo—immediately snaps into lucidity whenever she expresses her wrath toward the bizarre first grader she’s burdened with rearing alone.

The force of that rage, both verbal and physical, can be jarring; ultimately, it will be tamed and managed. That’s not to say, though, that The Babadook contradicts its own logic or abandons its daring ideas. Parenthood—or more specifically, motherhood—the film boldly suggests, may be its own form of psychosis, a loss of contact with reality brought on by years of self-abnegation.

Melissa Anderson

The Babadook opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 28.

Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas, 1984, 35 mm, color, sound, 147 minutes. Jane Henderson (Nastassja Kinski).

AROUND THE TIME that Francis Ford Coppola cast Nastassja Kinski as a circus performer in his swoony, romantic reverie One from the Heart (1982), he proclaimed her “the most beautiful woman in films today.” Many noted the actress’s uncanny resemblance to the young Ingrid Bergman; Paul Schrader, who directed the German-born Kinski in Cat People (1982), was certain that she would replicate the Swedish Bergman’s immense crossover success in the US. She did, sort of, but for an epoch-defining image, not for a movie as canonical as, say, Casablanca: Richard Avedon’s notorious 1981 photograph of Kinski, lying on the floor in a Zen-like trance, with a Burmese python, its forked tongue tickling her ear, coiled around her naked body. The shot distills the qualities that define Kinski’s best performances from 1979 to 1984, the apex of her career: deep wells of serenity and stillness behind a feral sexuality.

Kinski was born in 1961 in Berlin, the only child of Brigitte Ruth Tocki and Klaus Kinski, the volcanic actor best known for his collaborations with Werner Herzog. Of her father, Kinski said in a 1999 profile in The Guardian: “He was a very exaggerated person, very dramatic, and he hurt my mum a lot. I was glad when he was gone and it was just the two of us.” Assuming financial responsibility for both her mother and herself, Kinski made her screen debut in The Wrong Move (1975) by Wim Wenders, her first of three movies with the New German Cinema notable. The following year, at the age of fifteen, she met Roman Polanski at a party in Germany; he cast her in the title role of Tess (1979), his deeply sympathetic adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), a project that the director had originally hoped to make with his wife, Sharon Tate, who had introduced him to the novel shortly before her gruesome murder in 1969.

Tess would become Kinski’s breakthrough film, her performance as the proud, innocent peasant girl destroyed by Victorian double standards intensely moving despite at least one significant incongruity. Although she completed, at Polanski’s insistence, several months of dialect study in London before filming began, Kinski never quite sounds credible as a Wessex milkmaid; her untamable Mitteleuropean vowels, in fact, dominate all of her English-speaking roles. Yet for extended periods during the three-hour-long Tess, the heroine remains silent, Kinski conveying through her endlessly expressive eyes her character’s ever-diminishing, though never wholly extinguished, fortitude during increasingly abject events.

Kinski plays another innocent in the highly ludicrous Cat People: a virgin named Irena newly arrived to New Orleans, unaware that she is part of an “incestuous race” that originated with an ancestral mother who engaged in sexual congress with a black panther. As she transforms to her feline shadow self, Irena’s appetites—for human flesh, for sex—become unslakable, a metamorphosis made even more potent by Kinski’s sinuous ferocity. Introduced wearing a bear suit, the actress would have another animal alter ego in Tony Richardson’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire (1984)—in which incest is also a dominant theme: Kinski’s Susie enjoys separate romps with the hot-for-each-other siblings played by Jodie Foster and Rob Lowe.

In Paris, Texas (1984), Kinski’s second pairing with Wenders, we wait nearly two hours for her pivotal scenes, her character’s absence the source of the deep melancholy in this tale of a couple rent asunder. As Jane, a worker at a strip club, Kinski reencounters, through a one-way mirror, her much-older husband (Harry Dean Stanton) after no contact for four years. She patiently listens to him narrate the history of their love’s unraveling, of his being undone by his ardor for her before she fully realizes who’s doing the talking. Kinski’s subtle reactions in this segment suggest those of a woman well acquainted with the destabilizing effects of her extraordinary allure.

Melissa Anderson

Nastassja Kinski: One from the Heart” runs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center November 27 – December 3.

Ana Lily Amirpour, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 99 minutes. The Girl (Sheila Vand).

AS SEDUCTIVE AND FOREBODING AS ITS TITLE—a simple, declarative sentence that encompasses many mysteries—Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature reanimates and restores the sexiness of the vampire movie, held for too long as the undead hostage of the purity-ring-preaching Twilight franchise. Performed entirely in Farsi, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is set in Bad City, a fictional Iranian ghost town (played by Taft, California, situated in the San Joaquin Valley) where oil rigs pump continuously and corpses are dumped in ditches. Plot is subordinate to mood and atmosphere (as in Claire Denis’s 2001 gore-and-pheromone-filled Trouble Every Day, which Amirpour’s movie, equally audacious, occasionally calls to mind), aspects enhanced by the film’s high-def black-and-white imagery. Yet punctuating the film’s pleasingly languid rhythm are jolts of fear and desire.

The girl of the title (Sheila Vand), never identified by name, slinks through Bad City long after sunset cloaked in a chador. She coolly observes the evil that men do before baring her fangs and exsanguinating them, the fate that befalls her first victim, a heavily neck-tattooed pimp and drug lord (Dominic Rains). Those not guilty of any crime—besides possessing the XY chromosome—are still not above suspicion; in a demonic growl, our undead heroine warns a wide-eyed seven-year-old tyke wearing a tatty sport coat, “Till the end of your life, I’ll watch you.” This vigilante upholds a gender-inverted Sharia law.

When not on patrol, the vampiress blisses out in her basement apartment, disco ball spinning and Iranian alt-rock blaring. Dancing with herself, the Girl sports a Breton striped shirt and a bob with fringe; with her mod attire, she could have been an extra in Masculin Féminin. Amirpour’s film abounds with such retro touches, but unlike Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, another stylish vampire movie released earlier this year, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not embalmed in nostalgia. Though Arash (Arash Marandi), the bequiffed young man who eventually woos the Girl, is an obvious analogue for broody screen idols from the 1950s (the character is identified in the press notes as “the Persian James Dean”), his role isn’t limited to serving merely as an iconic throwback. Burdened with taking care of a junkie father (Marshall Manesh), Arash, in his own way, ultimately rebels against the patriarchy.

During their initial meeting, Arash, still in his Count Dracula outfit from that evening’s costume party and tweaked out on Ecstasy, which he sells, surprises the Girl with a simple gesture—a hug. Their attraction will culminate in some bloodshed, though not of the expected kind: He pierces her ears during an especially charged scene. Arash will soon learn what his new crush means when she admits, “I’ve done bad things.” The line has been uttered in a million movies before by all kinds of women of the night, but in a film of such specific pulpy-political pleasures as this one, it lands with particular force.

Melissa Anderson

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 21.

Love on Top


Gina Prince-Bythewood, Beyond the Lights, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 116 minutes. Noni and Kaz (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker).

NO, GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD’S Beyond the Lights is not as great as her debut feature Love & Basketball (2000), which is at the top of my list of exhilarating, contemporary American coming-of-age romances. I know that Time magazine believes our problems would be solved if we banned the word feminism, or something like that—I couldn’t wrap my brain around the dust-up—but part of what made Love & Basketball so extraordinary was Prince-Bythewood’s creation of a heroine who believes that when a woman and a man are fiercely ambitious and want to excel in the same arena, the competition should make their love stronger and more fun. And if, instead, it causes problems, they should try really hard to work them out. Even Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940) didn’t hang so tough.

Love & Basketball brought us Monica (Sanaa Lathan), a young black woman, raised in an African-American middle-class family circa mid-1980s to end of the ’90s, who wants to be the first female to play in the NBA. Beyond the Lights, on the other hand, gives us Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the biracial daughter of a single white woman living in English council flats, who, shaped by her mother’s ambition, becomes an R&B hip-hop artist with all the sex-object trappings the role requires. As an eleven-year-old with Magic Johnson’s number on her sneakers, Monica has us in her court from the start. It takes a while to warm up to Noni. Prince-Bythewood, who both wrote and directed Beyond the Lights, allows us to glimpse in the opening sequence the Monica-like potential in the preadolescent Noni (India Jean-Jacques), when she sings in a talent competition, pouring heart, soul, and an enchantingly pure-pitched voice into Nina Simone’s “Blackbird.” But when Noni places second, her mom (Minnie Driver) realizes that jazz will not lift them out of poverty.

Cut to Noni at twenty, an R&B Billboard award-winner in spandex and gold chains that play peek-a-boo with her cleavage. She has wealth and fame, but she’s not happy. Indeed she is so alienated from her hip-hop diva persona that one lonely night she attempts to jump from her hotel room balcony. She is pulled to safety at the last possible second by Kaz (Nate Parker), an LAPD cop assigned to her security detail. Noni and Kaz lock eyes as she dangles from the precipice; “I see you,” he murmurs. This is not exactly meeting cute, but the on-screen chemistry between the actors is palpable—and rare. Indeed, the subtle but wonderfully alive give-and-take between Noni and Kaz is the best thing in Beyond the Lights. Not to mention that to have an honest, caring LAPD cop in a movie looking for love from a hip-hop audience twists all expectations. This is a music film, and fans of Rihanna and Beyonce won’t be disappointed by the songs that The-Dream has written and arranged for Noni, or the moves Laurieann Gibson has choreographed for her onstage and off. And Mbatha-Raw who does a lot (maybe all) of her character’s on-camera singing could have an R&B career if she wanted it, which I doubt that she does. I must confess that if I didn’t fall in love with Beyond the Lights the way I did with Love & Basketball, it’s because I don’t like the sound.

There are many obstacles to overcome before Noni and Kaz’s romance can bloom. Kaz’s father (Danny Glover) wants his son to have a political career. (“She’s not first-lady material,” he growls.) Noni’s mother (expect to see Driver in the next revival of Gypsy), her handlers, and the money behind them view Kaz as a distraction that’s bad for her image. But eventually, Noni and Kaz flee LA for a Mexican seaside village where Noni dons sweats and buttoned-up cottons, and Kaz strips off his shirt to reveal the most perfectly lithe and cut torso since Brad Pitt’s in Fight Club (1999). Parker’s bod won’t get in the way of his career, but he’s a solid actor as well. And maybe it took a female director and a female DP (Tami Reiker) to give us as much male as female eye candy. In a tiny club, Noni sings a grown-up version of Blackbird, and there’s not a dry eye in the house (on-screen, and probably offscreen too). Prince-Bythewood believes in couples who give each other a hand up, but more than that, in women who find and save themselves.

Amy Taubin

Beyond the Lights is now playing in select theaters.

Wang Bing, Father and Sons, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 81 minutes.

I ALWAYS LOOK FORWARD to the month of October because it brings the multitudinous possibilities of Doclisboa, one of the finest film festivals of its sort in Europe. The programming ethos of Doclisboa is as unrelenting in its commitments to politics as it is to poetry. It asserts the documentary medium as an art form with ambiguous categorical boundaries, favors formalist rigor over fluff, and offers the film festival as a site of knowledge production rather than a mere showcase or trade fair.

This year, festival favorite Wang Bing won the best international feature award for his Father and Sons—a ballsy move by the jury, considering that virtually nothing happens throughout the course of the eighty-one-minute-long film. In Southwest China, a factory worker lives with his two adolescent sons in a hut with a dirt floor and a single bed. Shot with a static camera framing the dwelling’s entire interior, most of the film consists of the eldest son sprawled on the bed, his attention divided between his smartphone and the television set. Toward the conclusion, his younger brother joins him. Finally, the father comes home from work, and, after a few minutes, announces that it’s time for bed and turns the lights out. That’s all. “Nothing happening” is very much the point: The ponderous simplicity of the premise returns the viewer to the travails of thought, through which you might momentarily enter the frame, and renders abjection into beauty. Wang never preaches or overtly politicizes his subjects or their existential situation, yet his empathy is unwavering; it magically becomes our own. The family’s two anesthetizing screens, likely their most valuable possessions, are also their most valued.

Indicative of the filmmaking renaissance happening there, China was strongly represented throughout this year’s festival, with perhaps the most popular entry being Ai Weiwei’s Appeal ¥15,220,910.50, a straightforward account of the artist and activist’s well-documented detainment and legal battles with the Chinese authorities. China does have more than one important living artist, of course, and Pedro Cardeira’s eponymous biographical portrait of Mio Pang Fei—the Macau-based master whose “Neo-Orientalism,” as Mio terms it, stages a painterly encounter with the ancient calligraphic tradition and Western Abstract Expressionism—was truly engrossing.

The best Chinese film at the festival, however—and the best film about China in the twenty-first century that I’ve seen to date—was made by an American, J. P. Sniadecki, known for his work with Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Following People’s Park (2012) and Yumen (2013), both documentaries on contemporary China that Sniadecki codirected, The Iron Ministry compiles three years of footage shot during rides on China’s extensive railway system. A cow stomach is sliced into edible bits; a man puffs on a bamboo cigar-holder between compartments; the filthy floor is lined with cigarette butts and sleeping human bodies; a precocious little boy sarcastically encourages the crowd to piss and shit in the aisles. The result is a microcosm of China today: a country undergoing an industrial revolution, where the population is constantly on the move and where free and open debate takes place in public spaces among people of all educational, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, in spite of the absence of an overarching systemic democracy.

J. P. Sniadecki, The Iron Ministry, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 83 minutes.

A markedly different portrait of a society moving jaggedly along the brink of chaos emerges from Belluscone: Una Storia Siciliana. It may sound odd to describe a documentary about Silvio Berlusconi’s relations with the Sicilian Mafia as hilarious, but Franco Maresco’s effort is a brilliantly stylized theater of the absurd, exposing the not-too-hidden network connecting the ousted Italian leader’s Forza Italia party, the crasser sides of show biz, and the mob in an all-too-human comedy of corruption. The film uses brisk pacing, cheesy theatrical sets, and the ironic narration of film critic Tatti Sanguineti to accentuate the story’s near-unbelievability—which, of course, makes it all the realer.

Another successful experiment in hybridization was Snakeskin, which had its world premiere at Doclisboa, following director Daniel Hui’s winning of the Revelation Prize for Eclipses at last year’s festival. Documentary is crossed with science fiction as the sole survivor of an apocalyptic cult in the year 2066 meditates, via voice-over, on interviews and footage filmed in 2014 in his native Singapore. In its unraveling narrative, this unusual, thoughtful evocation of time travel probes one of history’s most complex sites of colonialist intrigue.

Other highlights included two films shot clandestinely on tours to North Korea—Soon-Mi Yoo’s Songs from the North, which won the award for best first feature, and Marie Voignier’s Tourisme International—as well as Evaporating Borders, Iva Radivojevic’s exploration of emigration strife and the rise of extreme nationalism in her adopted homeland of Cyprus, which took the RTP Award for Best Investigation Film. And I won’t soon forget Duras et le Cinema, a portrait of the engimatic novelist turned filmmaker by one of her editors, Dominique Auvray. As the protagonists of Wang’s feature could tell you, the screen is a means of transporting one elsewhere: This is the wonder of the cinematic vehicle. It takes you places and it doesn’t expect anything in return. In its comprehension that these “elsewheres” form the overall picture that every being with a conscience should not only be cognizant of but also take responsibility for, Doclisboa ’14 cuttingly enunciated itself as a miniutopia—or the closest thing we may get to one in a world as troubled as ours.

Travis Jeppesen

The twelfth Doclisboa ran October 16–26, 2014.

Vincent Grenier, Armoire, 2007–11, digital video, color, sound, 5 minutes.

INITIALLY DRAWN TO PAINTING AND SCULPTURE, Quebec-born Vincent Grenier began making films in 1970 and has taught at Binghamton University since 1999. He has more than fifty films and digital works to his credit, many of which screened over the years in the Avant-Garde programs of the New York Film Festival. Watching and rewatching two dozen of them in a short span of time, I was struck by their modesty and simplicity, virtues that make it easy to overlook their concomitant beauty and observational acuity.

Many of Grenier’s titles describe quite literally the subjects and imagery of the works. In Travelogue (2010), we sit in the cab of a truck or a van as it moves along Route 79 in upstate New York—the filmmaker’s territory. De-Icing (2014) records the titular treatment airplanes often undergo before they are readied for takeoff. Because Grenier is as committed to the material reality of things as he is to the medium’s ability to transform them into estranging phenomena, titles may also be metaphorical. Burning Bush (2010) focuses on an actual bush, but by closing in on its vivid red leaves, shaking images to a blurry wash, fluctuating the camera’s distance and speed, filtering, and adding a crackling sound track—as if something offscreen were, in fact, burning—he creates a filmic reality as palpable as the one documented. On the other hand, in Mend (1979), we watch a tree and a snowfall through a window as a dark, indistinguishable shape in the foreground makes fleeting, indiscernible movements, only to learn at the last moment that they are the gestures of a woman sewing in the penumbral space around her.

In Straight Lines (2009) we gaze at grayish, gently rippling horizontal lines—anything but straight—that seem to belong to a fabric of some kind, as a large vague shadow moves above them. The shifting contours, stirred perhaps by a slight breeze, suggest the gentle strumming of a musical instrument. Then, slowly, into focus comes a view of what could be part of a bed, dressed with a bright white coverlet or sheets.

It’s clear that Grenier is as interested in what is unseen or barely seen as he is about what is directly before us. But this play with presence and absence, or virtual presence and absence, seems less about the importance of offscreen space than it is about enlisting the viewer’s tendency to “complete” the picture that the film offers only obliquely. In White Revolved (1976), we follow a revolving white object without a clear sense of what it is or in which direction it turns. At first glance, it could be anything from a swinging light fixture to an undulating area of flesh.

This fondness for initially withholding the identity of the object of the camera’s gaze and soliciting the viewer’s imaginative play is critical to Grenier’s aesthetic. By filming up close, or through some mediating element, via obscuring shadows or insufficient light, he enforces the viewer’s active engagement, creating a need to puzzle out what he or she sees rather than passively soak it up. The everyday world is thus invested with surprise and suspense as we perceive that ordinary phenomena—objects, spaces, animals, nature, people—carry within them unplumbed mysteries equally inherent to their existence.

Vincent Grenier, Burning Bush, 2010, digital video, color, sound, 9 minutes.

Grenier’s frequent tendency to frame ambiguously, or deflect the material basis or the genesis of a work, is not just an optical game he plays with the viewer—although, surely, he must draw great pleasure from this prospect. The strategy to incite discovery seems ingrained in his character, a natural proclivity to reproduce or literally reenact his way of looking at the world—as if to entice its response. Consider the phrase heard from offscreen in his film Tabula Rasa (1992–2004): As the camera pans over a pale, ghostlike space, a voice exclaims, “Watch this wall respond to me.”

Less cryptic are the transformations in Back View (2011). Shooting from a high angle, the camera is so fixed on the courtyards below between two apartment buildings that one might recall Hitchcock’s Rear Window. While no characters are in sight, a multiethnic, urban sound track colorfully reflects the buildings’ occupants, as the sun, shadows, and rain make their way across the spaces in the course of a day.

Nature studies like Tableaux Vivants (2011) and Watercolor (2013) testify to the meticulous sensitivity of Grenier’s painterly eye. The former is a long take of a deserted forest, its trees faintly fluttering in the breeze, followed by closer views of ferns and other greenery. The aptly titled Watercolor, one of the most stunning examples of digital cinematography I’ve seen, begins with a sustained shot of a body of water (it was filmed at Fall Creek Gorge in Ithaca, New York) that fills the frame, as people and objects beyond its upper border cast reflections in the water. Through Grenier’s mastery, standard effects like dissolves, superimpositions, and color control conjure a series of moving watercolors, their brilliantly varied palettes shifting, dissipating, and fusing moment by moment, each rich hue tempered by the play of light and rippling of the water before dissolving into the next.

It may seem that Grenier’s work privileges the world around people rather than people themselves, but there are exceptions. YOU (1990) is a charming and hilarious piece in which a young woman (Lisa Black), posed in a series of unusual settings, addresses someone offscreen (hence the “you”)—the filmmaker? an imaginary person?—recalling his fury over people talking in a movie theater and other behavioral tics with which she’s had to cope. Though pitched as autobiographical, the woman, in fact, is not a former girlfriend of Grenier. Brendan’s Cracker (1999) juxtaposes, ever so gently, the antics of a young boy glaring into the camera’s lens while carrying a tiny cheese cracker, with a loving exchange between an old woman in a wheelchair, unable to speak, and a younger woman who may or may not be related. As the title of Grenier’s This, and This (2006)—a lyrical study of boys by a river—declares, he is not one to unduly press contrasting themes or moods, allowing them to coexist with equal weight, as they do in life.

One of my favorite moments in Grenier’s work occurs in the four-part Armoire (2007–11). A robin flits about a garden, flies up to a fence, then down to the grass—its moves oddly skittish, as if confused by the terrain. A slight pullback of the camera reveals why: What we took for the garden itself was, in fact, its reflection in a mirror. Our initial puzzlement, echoed by the bird’s, is wonderfully captured by the final shot, as the robin, poised by the mirror’s edge, looks up at the glass, then tilts its head at such a perfectly quizzical angle that it seems rehearsed. What better expression of the wonderment with which the filmmaker faces the world and the whimsical but subtle artistry of his celebrations of it.

Tony Pipolo

“Cinemas as Found Object: Films and Videos by Vincent Grenier” runs Sunday, November 9 and Monday, November 10 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Frederick Wiseman, National Gallery, 2014, color, sound, 181 minutes.

ON THE SURFACE, North American master documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s three-hour film National Gallery is a conservative observation of a conservative institution, the National Gallery in Britain. But as anyone involved in the conservation of artworks from the epochs of empires will inform you, all meaning is simultaneously obscured and revealed on the surface. Wiseman’s film subtly traces his invisible presence within the National Gallery, sometimes floating like an unseen voyeur, other times pausing like a mute docent. The resulting audiovisual palimpsests form the film’s calming yet intriguing investigation of the museum’s public and private machinations across three months in 2012.

For a conservative art-literate audience, the film will excite with behind-the-scenes protocols, from costing to selecting to crating to hanging to lighting to marketing to educating. It also reassures that the conservative scaffolding that modernism fiercely sought to wrench asunder remains as firmly intact as the faux-Greco architecture that encircles Trafalgar Square in London, where the National Gallery resides. By chance, the film covers the period of two blockbusters by Leonardo and Titian, and a retrospective of J. M. W. Turner. An Anglophilic perspective on European Art frames all discourse: The Renaissance predictably is posed as a sublime nexus of religious dogma and social consciousness, and successive premodern phases assume dependency on spirituality as a divining rod for artistic expression.

In a sense, Wiseman’s approach to long-haul production and long-form analysis is a precursor to Big Data in the current cloud-tabulating environment. National Gallery is literally a view of “walls with ears,” granting us privy to all manner of discussion within its corridors, porticos, boardrooms, and wings. Like Big Data, this information is coldly assembled and forwarded.

This allows one to sift through the film’s Big Data and make connections to something hardly noted across its three hours: contemporary art. Might National Gallery not be an exemplar of everything contemporary art has flirted with over the past quarter-century? The film can be viewed as a soft yet incisive inventory aligned with seminal institutional critique, from the social analyses of John Berger and Victor Burgin to the museographic interventions of Daniel Buren and Michael Asher. Viewed accordingly, National Gallery is a sharp consideration of how to navigate the problems of institutional critique by judiciously parsing significance to the multitude of voices heard within the National Gallery’s confines.

Notably, National Gallery is never condescending toward those people and apparatuses concerned with furnishing art’s discourse: docents, volunteers, didactic panels, or audio guides. If there is a problem with the film, it is one often shared by curators, critics, and artists alike: the impulse to signify narration and solicit imagination. These banal modes of participatory reading are voiced time and again, as docents and curators urge us to imagine we’re back at the flickering light of Plato’s cave, to consider the gallery’s collection as precursors to today’s cinema and its prescribed social relevance. It’s a clichéd ploy, regardless of political leanings, to reduce the act of looking to a mode of reading. Wiseman’s film itself sometimes takes this recourse in its edited sequencing of cropped details of paintings (particularly showing faces in the act of looking).

But elsewhere, phantom ties to contemporary art are notable. One perversely enjoyable moment occurs when an installation crew rips up the walls and floors. Amid the noise one could hear the jackhammers from Hans Haacke’s Germania, from the 1993 Venice Biennale. The irony is that all institutions accommodate temporary site-specific intervention. A quarter of the film is devoted to such logistics of installation and maintenance. It even opens with a solitary man gliding across an empty gallery buffing its wooden floor. Its audiovisual contradistinction—droning industrial noise engulfing the silent beauty of invaluable works of art—evokes an effectively modern artistry. Opposite, when Greenpeace activists unfurl a banner atop the museum’s portico facade to protest oil drilling in the Arctic, the few late-night passersby seem bemused and nonplussed by the macho heroics.

The film closes with a short ballet choreographed to a grave quasi-liturgical string quartet. One is reminded of the sardonic anti-intellectualism of “dancing to architecture,” but this finale to National Gallery does suggest that the best way to discuss imagemaking is to transubstantiate it in another medium. It’s as good an argument as any: It keeps the conversation going, and that might be Wiseman’s core assessment of the museum’s purpose.

Philip Brophy

Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery premieres Wednesday, November 5–Tuesday, November 18 at Film Forum in New York.