Camping Out at the Hirshhorn: Apesploitation Film Series Begins Tonight!

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The summer months are upon us—and that means the Hirshhorn is revving up for it's annual celebration of questionable taste. That's right, the latest Summer Camp film series kicks off tonight! Past series have highlighted B-movies featuring femmes fatales from outer space, sea monsters and even that king of monsters himself, Godzilla. This year, you'll go ape for the simian cinema highlighted by the Hirshhorn, starting this evening with Gorilla at Large. But—as fun as these movies are—one has to wonder what a serious museum is thinking when they decide to showcase such deliciously tongue-in-cheek fare. To get an idea of the creative process involved in pulling this series together, associate curator Kelly Gordon was kind enough to answer a few questions by email.

Why did the Hirshhorn decide to start highlighting campy movies?

This museum is about the art of our times and this has high culture as well as so-called " low" culture dimensions—which is to say, sublime and ridiculous. During the year we feature films as art as well as films by and about contemporary artists. And the contemporary artists often find inspiration from popular culture—and High Camp has been central to art, especially since the 1960s. These events provide a chance for audiences to see these films on the big screen and the Summer Camp film selections offer a counterpoint to the more serious and intense fare we run between September and May.

To get an idea of what constitutes "camp," read Susan Sontag's essay "Notes on Camp." Or you can go by the Simpsons, which offered that camp is the ludicrously tragic and the tragically ludicrous—like when a clown dies.—Ed.

Why did you decide to screen these specific ape movies in this year’s lineup?

Once we determine a theme, I try to see as many titles as possible that reflect that theme and try to find ones that have something special—usually, one or more of the following: glaringly retardataire socio-political dimensions or other absurdities that may give the audience a laugh over how far we've come. I also look for groan-worthy, lame, low-budget special effects or not-great career moves by talented actors and actresses who make the best of melodramatic lines and clumsy plots.

I caught Gorilla at Large on TV and was entranced. And let's face it, you want to see Anne Bancroft and Raymond Burr in ANYTHING, no? The Mighty Peking Man was a midnight madness movie shown at the Rotterdam Film Festival a few years back. I hope it is as rollicking when not shown in the middle of the night.

What do you hope audiences take away from seeing these films?

I hope they will have a lot of fun. Dave Wilt, who returns as our Summer Camp counselor, will put each film into historical and artistic context. I always learn lots from his deeply-researched, thought-provoking and ultimately hilarious introductions and hope others find them as delicious.

Indeed, on one occasion when I saw Dave Wilt introduce a Summer Camp event, he wrapped up his lecture with a little song about the movie. Certainly something wonderfully different from belting out Kum-ba-ya around the campfire, no?—Ed.

I noticed that none of the Z-grade King Kong movie spinoffs were included. Was this a conscious decision?

Welllll, as with most things aesthetic the "Z-grade" designation may be subjective. Come and see these films and then tell me if you feel we dodged that!

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