In this era of the $7 movie, Washington harbors a great secret: there are all sorts of free films showing day and night on the Mall.
At the Hirshhorn, Kelly Gordon screens up to 400 pictures a year to bring us important new art-house films from all over the world. At the Freer, Michael Wilpers has found rare treasures in the Asian cinema, especially works from mainland China, and more recently, Iran. And at the National Gallery of Art, which is not a Smithsonian museum but is definitely a presence on the Mall, Peggy Parsons regularly packs the 470-seat state-of-the-art theater, selecting the kinds of movies that attract long lines of fans.
Of course, just about every museum worthy of the name features some sort of film program, mostly documentaries connected with the exhibitions, or regular commercial releases that you pay to see, such as the spectacular IMAX productions at the National Air and Space Museum. But the freebies are something else.
"We screen works in progress," Gordon tells me. "We'll look at anything anyone sends us. In November we're showing B Movie, a work in progress by our projectionist, Edgar Davis, who happens to teach film at Howard University."
Gordon goes to film festivals all over the world, from Rotterdam to Jerusalem. She attends Sundance (the festival popularized by Robert Redford) and Slamdance, its offshoot, where she got a number of the films shown at the Hirshhorn this year. Then there are the Italian festivals at Taormina (in Sicily) and Florence, Spain’s San Sebastian, and Canada's Toronto festival. She accepts about 10 percent of the work she sees.
Nearly one out of three of the films she screens are premieres for the Washington area or even the nation. Director Chantal Akerman's sometimes difficult films are featured here, as are works by Cindy Sherman and Matthew Barney, artists who have made forays into filmmaking.
"What surprises me most is how diverse our audience is," says Gordon. "We get people from the art community, from the diplomatic community, or people who simply want something different. We call attention to the art and craft of it, and what it takes to complete a film. We had one director come in with a script for a work in progress and rehearse scenes with the actors. He returned a year and a half later to show the finished film."
Many a struggling young filmmaker has been helped by the Hirshhorn program, notably those from Film Crash, a New York art-performance group that first showed its student shorts, then graduated to feature films.
"What they earn at our screenings may help them complete a sound track or help pay for lab work," Gordon says. "It's good to feel we have a hand in what's happening out there right now in film." The museum doesn't do retrospectives or theme programs; the yardstick, says Gordon, is "what we exhibit at the museum," which would seem to guarantee an understanding audience. Derek Jarman's Blue, however, which consists of 70 minutes of a blank blue screen accompanied by a voice-over, drove some audiences up the wall.
"In Art Night on the Mall, when we're open till 8, the guards tend to direct people to the screenings, and so we do get some unsuspecting viewers," admits Gordon. "But it's free, so there's not much complaint." Indeed, viewers often want to hang around afterward for extended discussion.