Monday, March 30, 2015

Two museum documentaries viewed at the 2015 Hong Kong International Film Festival

A set of paintings I wouldn't be surprised to see in a museum
like, say, the National Gallery but actually is 
currently located in Freiburg's Munster! ;b

The New Rijksmuseum - The Film (The Netherlands, 2014)
- Part of the Portraits of Museums programme
- Oeke Hoogendijk, dir.
- Featuring the staff of the Rijksmuseum, etc.

In what can seem like another lifetime, my ambition was to become a museum curator.  Actually, at several points in my life, I did work in museums and related institutions -- and happily for the most part.  And while I haven't done so for years, I still do retain an affection for museological establishments and happily visit them from time to time -- and also sometimes do get tempted to check out a book or film just because they are about museums (e.g., Dinosaurs in the Attic) or even just because they have the word "museum" in their title (e.g., Art Museum by the Zoo)!

While I've yet to make it to Amsterdam and its Rijksmuseum, this film has boosted my urge to do so.  Somewhat ironically, much of this documentary actually focuses on the problems and difficulties of renovating this grand Dutch museum that was founded in the Hague in 1800, moved to Amsterdam in 1808 and only relocated to its current location in 1885.  At the same time though, what definitely comes across throughout what turned out to be a 10 year renovation that cost 375 million Euros (~HK$3,156,450,000!) is the large amount of thought and care that went into ensuring that things would really be done right.

Shot over a number of years, the documentary begins with Ronald de Leeuw as the museum's general director but sees him give up and resign after a few years, and replaced by Wim Pijbes (who remains the director in charge of the Rijksmuseum to this day).  Both of these men feature in the work, as do a number of other museum staffers -- including Menno Fitski, the curator of Asian art, who comes across as a lovely human being as well as a super dedicated museum professional, thanks to the  sub-story involving two Japanese temple guardians now ensconced at the Rijksmuseum -- along with the architects who designed the renovations, the interior designers, and bicycling activists who had quite a bit to say about the changes to a main passageway through the museum!

With the great bulk of the museum being closed to the public for pretty much 99%  during filming, what largely gets shown in The New Rijkmuseum - The Film is what goes on behind the scenes.  As a former museum worker, it was really nice to see a lot of usually unsung heroes and their work being shown -- people such as the curators but also the restorers, the exhibit designers and also such as the press officer and the people actually doing the painting of the walls along with those who decide what color paints should be put on them.

This being the Dutch equivalent of the Louvre, the documentary also shows us processes such as senior staffers discussing works that they seek to acquire to add to the collection, and then a museum representative going to an auction to see if they can successfully purchase them.  And yes, I think it was pretty interesting to see how things work on that level these days.  

To be honest, this is one of those films that you have to generally be interested in the subject (museums -- thought not necessarily The Rijksmuseum in particular) in order to find the film worth watching.  But if you are, then this superb documentary should prove really enthralling! :)

My rating for the film: 8.5

National Gallery (France-USA, 2014)
- Part of the Portraits of Museums programme
- Frederick Wiseman, dir.
- Featuring the staff of the National Gallery

Having enjoyed viewing The New Rijksmuseum - The Film, I looked forward the next day to checking out a documentary by a highly respected documentary filmmaker who is a Hong Kong International Film Festival favorite (what with his At Berkeley having been part of last year's HKIFF and Crazy Horse the year before); and this all the more so since the subject of National Gallery is a beloved museum that I've paid a number of visits to in the past.

Sure, this documentary is on the lengthy side -- with IMDB stating that it's 180 minutes long, and the Hong Kong International Film Festival programme having a running time of 174 minutes -- but that's still not even half as long as the 5 1/2 hour long Carlos which I viewed at the 2011 HKIFF!  And it -- along with the other films in Portraits of Museums -- came highly recommended, including by Hong Kong International Film Festival Society executive director Roger Garcia.

Sad to say, however, I found this work to be on the meandering side and to also not tell me that much new -- seeing as a considerable amount of the documentary was shot in the publicly accessible sections of the museum, and shows museum docents and other educators delivering talks and lectures at various segments of the National Gallery's visitors.  (In particular, I think my familiarity with the museum and certain of the highlighted paintings worked against my enjoyment of this film -- for, let's face it, Leonardo da Vinci's The Virgin of the Rocks looks better in real life than on film, and I not only studied Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors but wrote an art history research paper on J.M.W. Turner's The Fighting Temeraire!)

Worse, I also found some bits of this documentary repetitive -- with the same painting being used to make different points (something I consider a real shame since this British institution is home to thousands of works of art) -- and certain of the museum staffers to be on the irritating side (including by showing how out of touch they actually appear to be with "the real world" or by not only being allowed to waffle on for minutes but being filmed, sans edits, doing so!).

On the subject of the museum staffers: it would have been informative for them to have been explicitly identified by name and title (as was the case with the equivalent people in The New Rijksmuseum - The Film).  And on a filmmaking note: I can't help but feel that some disciplined editing would have not only considerably shortened this documentary's length but also made it more interesting and focused.   

While I don't think it absolutely horrible to the point that it'll be the 14th worst film I'll watch this year, I will admit to walking out of the screening with about half an hour ago in order to go catch another film at the fest; this because I honestly didn't feel like anything especially exciting or revelatory was going to happen in the final 30 minutes or so of this documentary.  At the same time, because I've seen more than two hours of this film, I feel like I still can give it a rating, so...

My rating for this film: 5.5 (and even so, it's mainly because the subject is a really interesting one!)


Bill said...


Enjoyed reading this blog about museum documentaries, even if you were disappointed with the one on the National Gallery...Throughout the years I've spent time contemplating the three masterpieces you mention here: Virgin of the Rocks, the Ambassadors (especially the "anamorphic"skull), and The Fighting Temeraire.

You mention a research paper you wrote on The Fighting Temeraire. May I ask what attracted you to this painting? I see many levels of meaning in this work, one which would be the end of an era symbolized by the old warship Temeraire, and the coming of the Industrial Age, symbolized by the tug which tows her to the scrapyard. (BTW, I recall seeing this painting in the last Bond film, Skyfall).


YTSL said...

Hi Bill --

Oh wow, the first comment on a 2015 HKIFF entry! (And I have to say that I put up the latest hiking photo-essay partly as an experiment to see if it'd attract more comments!)

RE The Fighting Temeraire: I guess I was attracted to the "end of empire" idea expressed in the work. When living in the UK, the end of the colonial empire seemed so very real and recent for a lot of people.

And on a personal note: my parents grew up in British Malaya while I grew up in independent Malaysia. This really made an impact on how we viewed the world -- and Britain and white people in general...