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.
Over at the Freer Gallery of Art, Michael Wilpers gets many of his movies from large art-film distributors like New Yorker Films and Kino International, from smaller distributors who specialize in Hong Kong, Arab or Asian-American films, or from archives or organizations that assemble, restore and tour a collection of films from a particular country or director. "When Cinematheque Ontario and the Japan Foundation toured films by Japanese directors Kenji Mizoguchi and Shohei Imamura," says Wilpers, "we copresented the two major retrospectives with the National Gallery of Art."
Wilpers has been showing a lot of Iranian films. They fill the 300-seat auditorium to bursting, he says. He likes them because they're thoughtful; the plot is slow-moving, few characters, and you get drawn in; you care. There's no interest in special effects; it's about real life."
Not surprisingly, there is a certain amount of state interference. In Iran, for instance, even though a scene may show a married couple in their own house, because the actors are not married to each other in real life or to members of the same family, the woman playing the wife has to wear her chador headpiece.
"I'm told this is true even in bed scenes," he chuckles, "because the audience is seen as a bunch of strangers invading that household. It's completely unrealistic. But the actors, who are often amateurs, are very natural; this lends a kind of realism that makes these films engaging."
In conjunction with the Freer and Sackler galleries, the National Museum of African Art is presenting the series "Great African Films of the 90s" through mid-December. "The films are divided into categories that represent a broad spectrum of the human experience," says museum fellow Aboubakar Sanogo, who organized the program. Works focusing on women's issues include the comedy Taafe Fanga, an adaptation of a myth in which women seize power and invert gender roles. Political themes are explored in such selections as Le Damier, a film about a president-for-life who turns to the game of checkers to ward off boredom, and the complications that ensue when he summons a checkers champion from the slums to compete against him. Several directors will be on hand to discuss their films.
At the National Gallery, where the audience is famous for its contentious outspokenness, free movies have been showing since 1982. Many accompany the current exhibitions — for example, the documentary that was shown with the recent Alexander Calder show at the East Building.
But for me the real appeal of the movie program at the National Gallery is the overall presentation of film itself as art. Just for starters, look at these offerings from recent years: The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, 1933 to 1949. Films from Greece that are reworkings of ancient myths. A Century of French Cinema. The Filmmaker's Venice. The films of Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio De Sica, Werner Herzog, Jack Clayton. Venezuelan film. Hungarian cinema. The great musicals. German silents. The films of Paul Robeson.
For newcomers to the movies it is an education; for lifelong film fans it is a veritable feast.
Video artists, both the famous and the relatively unknown, also show their work here and discuss it.
"We try to mix the old and the new," says Peggy Parsons, who heads the film program at the gallery. "In our first year we did Roberto Rossellini, and we had all the extant prints of his work. Isabella Rossellini [his daughter] came in for a screening of The Messiah, his last film. She had arranged for us to get the family print of the picture. She wasn't a big star yet, but she hopped up on stage in her jeans and gave a nice tribute to her father."
The audience loved it. The gallery encourages dialogue with the speakers, even though the scholars who come on using too much film jargon are apt to be given a hard time. Education in film awareness is, after all, the main focus of the programs.
In my years of attending free films on the Mall, I have noticed (and become part of, I suppose) a permanent floating audience that fills the seats to see the darndest things. I have gone early to see some obscure picture and found the doors still closed and the line extending 100 yards down the corridor. Kelly Gordon tells me about the movie Kangaroos: Faces in the Mob — two hours with no dialogue, nothing but kangaroos, whom you got to know. She thought it was hilarious and felt that other people would like it, too. But when she first showed it, the audience sat in deadpan silence. "I feared I had made a mistake," Gordon divulges. "But the next night, the audience rolled in the aisles. There's just no telling," she says.