Museum Gets ‘Reel’

Film Series Marks 25th Anniversary

Posted July 12, 2005 at 4:36pm

Over the next two months, the National Building Museum will play host to a film program each Wednesday celebrating its past exhibits as part of the museum’s 25th anniversary celebration.

The Reel Architecture Film Series kicked off last weekend with an examination of the use of Los Angeles and its structures in film, and the series continues tonight, and every Wednesday, through Aug. 24. [IMGCAP(1)]

“The whole idea was to do something fun,” explained the series’ curator, Deborah Sorensen. “Looking to Screen on the Green as a nice model of something to do, we decided to do a film series during the summer, in air-conditioned space, to get people into the museum.”

Screen on the Green is the annual film festival that shows a movie a week for five weeks on a large, 20-by-40-foot screen on the National Mall. This year’s Screen on the Green starts Monday.

But for those put off by the prospect of watching movies outdoors, the building museum’s film series will be shown in its Great Hall, a 15-story, football field-sized room that has played host to no less than

16 presidential inaugural balls since 1885.

The building that houses the museum, at 401 F St. NW, has not always been the country’s foremost site dedicated to architecture. Originally, it was home to the U.S. Pension Bureau and was known as the U.S. Pension Building. In 1926, the General Accounting Office took possession of the building until 1950, at which point it was occupied by a number of different government agencies and by D.C. courts.

In the 1970s the building was empty and faced demolition, but it was saved when Congress designated it the National Building Museum in 1980. Today, more than 400,000 people per year visit the museum.

As the festival’s program points out, the opening weekend’s shows were “a marathon of films dedicated to Hollywood’s hometown — Los Angeles.” Last weekend’s schedule featured classics located in Los Angeles, including Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” and Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye.”

It culminated with Thom Andersen’s study of how his hometown is used in film, “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” This festival marked only the second screening of Andersen’s documentary in Washington, according to the curator.

Fans of the current exhibition “Washington: Symbol and City,” a look at the District’s dual role as both the nation’s capital and home to some 500,000 people, should stop by tonight’s screening. The evening’s program begins with “Boomtown,” a short film circa 1942 that “brings a sense of humor to an otherwise strictly patriotic look at war-time Washington.”

The evening’s main attraction, however, is George Steven’s screwball comedy, “The More the Merrier.” The film features a “great opening montage of Washington during the war,” according to Sorensen, and takes a comedic look at the housing shortage created during WWII.

“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” is the featured attraction July 27. Sometimes described as a cartoon version of “Chinatown,” the film was selected to celebrate the 2002 exhibition “On Track: Transit and the American City.”

Not all of the selections are comedies, however. The showing on Aug. 10 is Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” an examination of simmering racial tensions reaching their boiling point on the hottest day of the summer. Lee’s film is tied to the “Stay Cool! Air Conditioning America” exhibit from 1999-2000.

“I tried to have a good variety,” Sorensen said. “First and foremost it was to look at the exhibitions [and] find a good range of films so that you could hopefully find a good mix.”

While Sorensen admitted that the connection between “Stay Cool!” and “Do the Right Thing” is somewhat tenuous, the dichotomy between “suburban America with its sealed windows” and urban America “with its open windows and fans,” as featured in “Do the Right Thing,” is an incredibly important one. The impact that something as trivial as air conditioning can have on personal identity is examined both in the film and in the exhibit.

The showing on Aug. 17 also uses a concrete idea from an exhibition (in this case “Between Fences,” from 1996-97) and how that idea translates psychologically to film.

The evening’s first film, a short titled “Neighbors,” features silent film star Buster Keaton in blackface. Despite this “offensive distraction,” Sorensen said the film “is worth watching for its clear illustration of how boundaries that surround race and class are undermined and exacerbated by urban environments.”

Orson Welles’ classic “Touch of Evil” rounds out the night’s program. “Thinking about fences and borders,” Sorensen said, “I started to wander a little bit, and thought of national borders.” The noir masterpiece focuses on a Mexican police officer’s battle with a corrupt American lawman in the United States border town of Venice, Calif.

Referencing the corrupt sheriff, played by Welles, Sorensen said the film is, in part, “an examination of the lines that people can step across and come back, or go completely to the other side. … It’s not as though he started that way. But it’s about how one decision leads you further and further down that road.”

Several of the screenings will be preceded by local musicians. Brett Seamans, director of marketing and communications at the museum, helped choose who would play.

“It would be great to be willing to offer local musicians a chance to play,” Seamans said he and others involved in programming the festival thought, “so I found an array of people who could play jazz, blues, folk and rock. It provided some variety.”

He said the artists were encouraged to choose which nights they wished to play based on that night’s schedule. “There’s a band playing at the end of July, Dead Men’s Hollow, that is preparing a new song to play that is themed appropriately for that night’s movie,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

The Reel Architecture Film Series begins weekly Wednesday showings tonight at 7:15 and continues until Aug. 24. All shows are free. For a full schedule, visit www.nbm.org/25ann.html#reel.