Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, which received its local premiere last night at the Chicago International Film Festival, climaxes with a dance performance inside one of the exhibition halls. Though Gallery is a film about painting, I wasn’t at all surprised that Wiseman worked in a scene of ballet. He’s already devoted three features to the subject (Ballet, La Dance—The Paris Opera Ballet, and Crazy Horse), and his last film, At Berkeley, concluded with a choreographed sequence as well. And last month it was announced that Wiseman is collaborating with the Minneapolis company Sewell Ballet on an adaptation of his debut film Titicut Follies. It seems as though America’s greatest living filmmaker just can’t get his fill of dance. Or does Wiseman’s enthusiasm for ballet speak to some crucial aspect of his art?
(On an related note, Gallery wasn’t the only new work by a major filmmaker to debut in Chicago this weekend. This past Friday Showplace Icon began a run of The Golden Era, an historical drama by the great Hong Kong director Ann Hui. The film wasn’t previewed for the press—and I haven’t had time yet to catch it myself—but I’d aver that anything by Hui is worth seeing. Golden Era likely won’t play for more than a week, so hightail it to the Icon in the next few days before it leaves town.)
Like cinema, ballet is an art based on motion—it only really exists as it transpires. Home video formats have created the impression that movies can be stored and accessed as easily as books, though as Krzysztof Zanussi said to me last week, this impression is illusory. Who knows how many movies being made today will be accessible in another century—or even in another few decades? Video technology is being updated all the time, which raises new (and as-yet-unanswered questions) about the preservation of movies. In the recent documentary Side by Side, David Fincher admitted that the master copies of the music videos he shot in the late 1980s aren’t playable on any current system. It seems that video, while not as fragile as celluloid, might be no less vulnerable to the passage of time.
This brings us back to National Gallery. In the film Wiseman observes the process of art restoration, which employs such complex technology as chemical analysis and X-rays in addition to hands-on work. Classic paintings might alert us to a timeless sense of beauty, yet they must be frequently retouched (and with the aid of up-to-the-minute technology) in order to remain beautiful. How timeless is any art, really? Perhaps we’re better off approaching all art (movies included) as we do dance, Wiseman seems to be proposing. Perhaps true beauty resides in the spark of creative inspiration, which like all sparks inevitably fades.
National Gallery opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on November 21 for a two-week run. See here for more information.