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7.2.04

The Return of the Art Movie

So I went last night with a couple friends to see the restored version of The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1965; here is the screenplay in English) at the new E Street Cinema, in downtown Washington. (In case you missed it, here is how film critic Michael O'Sullivan wrote up this new theater, E Street Cinema A New D.C. Landmark, January 4, in the Washington Post.) When it opened on January 9, the E Street Cinema identified itself as "an eight-screen luxury movie theatre specializing in first-run independent and foreign language films." I naturally assumed that a cinema that shows anything but indigestible blockbusters (yes, I am talking about the last two Matrix coproliths) would follow a few standard conventions.

When I first moved to Washington (I see no need to be specific, so let's just say it was long ago in the last century), I used to go with some regularity to worship at the altar of foreign cinema. The only shrines to this neglected religion were the Biograph Theatre, which was converted in a quite unsophisticated way from an old car dealership on M Street in Georgetown, and the Key Theater, not far from it. The former was replaced by a drugstore in 1996, and the latter by a designer hardware store in 1997. Part of the fun in seeing a different kind of movie was surviving the surroundings: sitting in a room where porno films had been shown at another time that day, leaving scraps of food for the poor rat inhabitants, and being one of a handful of people in a cramped space with seats that had not been cleaned or disinfected since 1974.

Since the lamentable closing of the Georgetown independents, for foreign films or anything off the beaten path, you were pretty much limited to the screenings of the American Film Institute National Theater at the Kennedy Center, which is terribly inconvenient. A short time back, an eclectic little place called Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge opened on Florida Avenue, but I have not been thrilled with it. The E Street Cinema has a storefront on E Street NW between 10th and 11th, but all the screens are in the basement of that block, some of them at a considerable distance through a warren of tunnels. It's disturbingly posh and well lit: if having 25% less track lighting and less expensive carpet and tile would have kept down the ticket price ($9.25!), I think it would have been a good trade-off. Still, you can buy European chocolate or a cappucino instead of the more traditional cinema fare, which is nice. The screen for The Battle of Algiers was small, but the seats were comfortable. Plus, when you leave the theater and walk down 11th Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, you will see one of the most beautiful buildings in the District of Columbia, especially in the dense fog of a rainy night.

Also now playing at the E Street Cinema: Tokyo Godfathers (Satoshi Kon), Touching the Void (Kevin Macdonald), The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet; see his official Web site in French), Girl with a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber), Monster (Patty Jenkins), My Architect: A Son's Journey (Nathaniel Kahn), and Big Fish (Tim Burton; see Todd's review on January 17). If I still thought that the Oscars were at all relevant, I would now have a better chance of seeing some of the more obscure entries. Even so, Washington has a long way to go before we can enjoy the range of film viewing experiences available in Paris, for example, because of the burgeoning number of small theaters that show eclectic assortments of current and past movies. If you don't understand what I'm talking about, look at the list of movies playing there right now.

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