When a movie about a building bring tears to one's eyes, that's a good movie. And in this case, that's a good building, too. "A Place to Be," a film commissioned by WETA and being shown Sunday at 8 p.m. on Channel 26, chronicles the 10-year planning and construction of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, and as such it represents a conquest in behalf of a triumph.
Charles Guggenheim, a master at this sort of filmmaking, and Steven York have made this an ideally modulated and visually impeccable record of the work and thought that went into the construction, and the film is given an additional lustre by the appearance of some of the major artists who created new works for it.
And so we see French sculptor Jean Dubuffet visiting the construction site, his name neatly label-taped on his regulation hard hat. And British sculptor Henry Moore tours the old building of the National Gallery to acclaim its Picassos as "wonderful, marvelous."
Most movingly of all, though, perpetual mobilist Alexander Calder, a grand old enfant terrible of 20th-century art, visits the new building when it is only a shell, to see where his proposed mobile will hang. He died in 1976, one week after approving the completed plans, and the last shot of him in the film shows him wandering off across the concrete floor, pausing just once to wave a jaunty and indelible goodbye.
The most pervasive presence, naturally enough, is the almost abrasively ebullient. I.M. Pei, the architectural genius behind the project. He calls the spot on which the building is to stand "the most sensitive site in the United States," and it is widely considered a truism that he not only did not betray that sensitivity but enhanced it.
Guggenheim's script has so much talk of trapezoids, tetrahedrons and isosceles triangles that it begins to sound like a geometry lesson, albeit a sensitivity geometry lesson as hushed along by narrator David Wayne. But for the most part the film succeeds in telling the story of an edifice and its art in gratifying human terms.
The cameras catch innumerable insights and footnotes to this saga, whether it is Pei and associates looming over a scale model like giants visiting a planet of the tiny, or the construction workers standing patiently by as the elderly artists thrash out esthetic logistics. At one point a foreman tells his men, "You'll just never do anything like this again in your life," and the reverence in their faces is inescapably moving. "A Place to Be" is not so much a work of art as a work for art, a case for art, and a lyrical, decorous tribute to something done monumentally right.