Words by Kaylee Dugan
Photos by Nicolla Etzion
No matter how you feel about D.C., you can’t deny the quality (and quantity) of free events, parties and talks available all year round. From DIY house shows to large scale Smithsonian events, it’s incredibly easy to find free to cheap events that suit even your most niche interests. When it comes to free film programming, nobody can touch the National Gallery of Art. Holding multiple screenings a week, NGA’s film program is robust to say the least. At any given moment, the East Building auditorium could be showing art house darlings, cult classics, forgotten films or the big budget movies you know and love, but more often than not, they’re pushing boundaries.
The mastermind behind it all is Margaret ‘Peggy’ Parsons. From her office right behind the theater, she crafts NGA’s film screenings, and whether she’s drawing inspiration from an exhibit in the galleries or an international festival, her and her team are always doing something interesting. A font of film history knowledge, we stopped by her office to chat about running D.C.’s best film program, the history of D.C.’s porno houses (seriously) and why people still go to the movies. Sit back, grab some popcorn and join us.
Could you tell me about the first real job you ever had?
Well, as you can see, I’ve been working for a while. When I first came to Washington, which was in the 70s, I worked for the National Trust for Historic Preservation because my background was in art, both art in practice and art in history. I had also worked in museums. While I was in school I was at the Boston Children’s Museum and I worked a little bit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, just to get my feet wet in that kind of work.
I worked for the National Trust for Historic Preservation for a couple of years and then I came over to the Smithsonian. You know, the Gallery is not part of the Smithsonian, but I was working first for the Folklife Festival on the Mall. I loved that, but it was a temporary job. It was a contract for a couple of years. Then I started working in audiovisual work for one of the other offices… that was in the Arts and Industries Building. I was at the Smithsonian for a while and then the East Building was opening.
So I applied for a job here, which was also in audiovisual and production. At that time the Gallery had a fairly rigorous agenda for making movies, documentary movies, about art and the collection and about special exhibitions. I did that for a while and then things sort of started to develop and change. The theater was not being used to show films and yet it had a full projection room with beautiful German projectors, at that time it wasn’t digital, it was 35mm, and it had a great sound system and all that, but it wasn’t being used. I made a proposal, and there were some other things that influenced that, so I made a proposal somewhat informally to the Gallery and they said, “Yeah, okay try it out.” So we started in the 80s actually, working in film and presenting film. So I’ve stayed all this time.
What was the process of getting the film program up and running, considering they didn’t have any active screenings happening?
I think the catalyst for it was… One of the arms of the Gallery is called the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts and it’s a group of fellows, scholars and people apply to come here and serve a couple of years, or maybe a year. It’s sort of like the one they have at Princeton and the Getty, so very early on there was a scholar who came to be in residence here and he was working on an Italian filmmaker, Roberto Rossellini. We sort of struck up a conversation at some event and he wanted to see all of Rossellini’s films, but they were not on video. At that time there was video, but none of his stuff had ever been copied onto video.
I wanted to help him out, I was already showing a lot of documentaries here, and I knew that we had this great projection room. So we decided to work together and I could bring all the films and he could see them because he’s writing about the life of this guy, nobody had ever published, at least not in English, no one had ever published a biography or a critical study of Roberto Rossellini. That was the catalyst, having this guy here allowed me to make a formal proposition to the director, at that time it was the director J. Carter Brown, who was himself very interested in film, in fact his daughter is a filmmaker now. He was already interested in that, so it seemed like a good fit.
When you started with these Rossellini movies and you were envisioning the program, what did you think it would look like? Did it vary from what it is now?
Yeah, it did. I have to say, there was no big vision. It was just something that grew organically and kind of changed over the years. When we did the Rossellini program, the scholar, whose name was Peter Brunette, he was there for all the events and we had. The Q&A’s and introductions… It was a little more like a seminar situation, it was open to the public, but it was very much focused on interaction with the audience.
For the last screening we had to borrow a print, because there were no commercial prints, from the family… and Isabella showed up! Isabella Rossellini showed up with her twin sister Ingrid. She was not a big star, everybody knew that she was the daughter and a performer, but she hadn’t had any big breakthroughs yet. She came in with her twin sister and the twin sister had a baby, so they both went up onstage and Isabella did the Q&A that night. It was very informal, she was in jeans and everything. The reason that could happen was that Peter knew the family quite well. He’d been working with them and recording them for a long time.
So from the beginning there were already these magic moments.
Yeah. Everything was kind of informal in the sense that we didn’t have a big plan. In a lot of ways, it’s a good place to work once you get settled in. If you have a certain amount of autonomy you can do things that you want to do.
Nowadays, what’s the criteria when you’re creating a series?
I’m much more rooted in the bigger picture of film right now. I go to a lot of festivals and I know a lot of the people in the archival community. One of the things that generates ideas is simply going to these festivals and going to archival conferences and talking to people and finding out who’s got what. There’s a lot of restoration going on right now, a lot of preservation. Things we thought we’d never be able to see on screen are being digitally enhanced and we can do a lot of digital projection here. You kind of use your networks to come up with ideas.
Many of the things that we do are triggered by something that’s going on here at the museum, although not everything. For example, one of our exhibitions over the summer is called America Collects Eighteenth Century French Painting and it never would have occurred to me to have a film series built around it. I mean I know there are plenty of films that are set in 18th century France, most of which are European in origin, but the curator of that show sent me an email several months ago and thought it would be kind of fun. So I thought about that and I said, maybe the way to approach it is not to bring in the European depictions of France, but since the focus of the exhibition is why Americans were interested in all that, why not see what Hollywood has done?
There are many more possibilities, but it’s hard to get that material… A lot of it is very funky right now. Some of the films we wanted, like The Scarlet Pimpernel for example, are a lot of fun, but we could only show it on DVD and we didn’t want to do that. We couldn’t get a print, we couldn’t get a really good digital copy, so we just eliminated it. It was a big process of elimination trying to get certain things and realizing it wasn’t possible. One of our criteria is to show good material, things that are physically in good condition. Not everything has been digitally enhanced.
I found a letter online that you had written in ‘95 or ‘93 talking about how the film program was having trouble sourcing these original documents and you were actively trying to push for a better archival process, is that still one of the bigger challenges you face?
It is, but I’ll tell you it’s a lot better now than it used to be. I don’t know whether I helped any, but I like to think I did. It’s very complicated and I think there was simply a realization that in order to preserve films one of the best ways is to show them to people and to allow artists to see them.
There’s a really interesting filmmaker named Bill Morrison who lives in New York and what he does is he gets inspired by seeing damaged old prints. A lot of his art is based on making sort of a collage of damaged nitrate prints. In fact, we’re showing his latest film, which is called Dawson City: Frozen Time because he was allowed access to many many films that were buried. They were frozen in the ground way up in the Yukon. Back in the 20s and 30s films were show in Canada on a circuit and Dawson City was the end of the circuit and nobody wanted the prints anymore so they were just dumped. Many of them got stuck in the ground, there was a hockey rink and they were buried under that. So those films were discovered and excavated in the late 70s and somebody in Canada established an archive.
I don’t know how Bill made the connection but he has created this very beautiful movie based on the films that were discovered in Dawson City. This film is going to have a life, even though it’s nothing but fragments. There’s just more interest now than there was in the early 90s, in having not only films restored and shown to a big public, but in all kinds of other uses for old footage.
Besides tracking down these prints and copies, what other challenges do you face when creating a film series?
Sometimes it’s coming up with an idea that we think would work or be of interest. That’s always a challenge. I have a good partner here in the office, Joanna Raczynska. She’s actually a filmmaker and she’s interested in new media and we talk ideas out. She might have an idea she wants to do with a newer filmmaker that’s only doing installations. We don’t really get into exhibitions of installations, or installation art, that’s kind of in the Galleries still. We haven’t crossed that line, we do all single screen stuff, but many of the filmmakers we show here are doing installations. One of the challenges is trying to get a balance of new work versus old work. Things that support what the Galleries overall mission is and yet introducing some new ideas. We’re constantly looking and searching. It’s quite challenging. Things don’t just pop up.
Have you noticed a change in the audience over the years?
The audience here has always been good, but we’re not into studying the audience. First of all, it’s a public institution, so we have to let everybody come in. Overall, they’re surprisingly smart. When we have Q&A’s, the filmmakers who come and the scholars who come and the artists who come, they always comment on the fact that the questions from the audience they get here are really pretty amazing. I think maybe they’re surprised at that. If you go to a conference, you know who’s going to be there and you know the kind of questions that are going to be asked. When you’re coming to a public museum, you just don’t know what you’re going to get.
I’ve seen it change, but I can’t really tell you exactly how or why. I think originally we had a core audience that would come all the time and now it’s not so much about the core audience. Although there is maybe 10-20% of the people who come a lot, but I see more people showing up and maybe not coming back but at least they’re curious enough to come out.
In the years you’ve been here, have you noticed a change in D.C.’s film scene? I know the amount of theaters have fluctuated.
Well, when I arrived here there was a lot of activity… I shouldn’t say a lot, certainly not as much as New York. The idea of the neighborhood theater was still very much happening in Washington. You had several theaters in Georgetown. Way over on MacArthur Boulevard was a theater. Downtown there were a number of them. Capitol Hill had a movie house and then along Wisconsin Avenue there was the Outer Circle and downtown there was the Inner Circle and the regular Circle, you could go to almost any neighborhood and find at least one theater. Maybe not as many as there were during the beginning of the 20th century, because that’s when the neighborhood theater was really important and it thrived because people really didn’t have anything else to do. I mean, this was the big mass entertainment in the 20s, 30s, 40s before television. Everybody went to the movies.
We started losing those neighborhood theaters and then the multiplexes came in at some point. I should also say that before downtown took the form that it has now, which is quite lively… When I first got to D.C., I always lived in D.C., but a lot of people who worked here didn’t. At that time, downtown D.C. would be pretty vacant at night, except there were a lot of porn houses. Some of them had been big movie palaces and then they just kind of fell into that because they could make money. There was an audience in D.C. that would go to porn houses. When downtown was renovated and cleaned up and gentrified, that whole culture disappeared.
The point of that is, after we lost the neighborhood theaters there were just a few art houses. There were still a couple in Georgetown, the Biograph and a theater called the Key, and there were one or two others you could go to… But then there was nothing for a while except the AFI. The AFI at the Kennedy Center, which was its original big home, that was always there. They didn’t necessarily thrive all the time, but they had a good regular audience. Now, in the last 15 or 16 years there’s been a boom. There’s really a lot of interesting stuff going on for independent cinema. I think the whole evolution of independent cinema and interest in other forms like documentary has rapidly accelerated the number of theaters that we can sustain here.
Do you think that’s because people are watching more films?
I think there’s just a new interest in movie culture. I think that partly because at university right now you can take film studies and 30 years ago it wasn’t so easy to do that. The availability of the material online, there’s just generally more interest in seeing moving images because you can see them everywhere. I think rather than pulling people out of theaters, I think this is actually bringing them in because it’s a culture that people want to participate in now. The whole moving image culture.
Has the boom of streaming changed what you show here?
It has. We kind of go out of our way to do things that won’t be available easily through streaming. You can’t always avoid that, but we really feel strongly that…Well, first off you should always try to use original format when you can because it’s more important, especially for the history of film, to be able to see something the way it was intended to be seen. I mean, there is a big difference!
If you’re watching a really good bright digital restoration, which I have nothing against, but if you’re watching the same film… Say it’s from 1955 or something, in it’s original shadowy frame by frame with the light streaming down from the projection room, it creates a totally different ambiance and a different sense of what the film is even about. You don’t always see the detail as clearly as you do in digital, but that’s the way it was supposed to be. It gives you a different look, a different sense. So we try to do that, and of course with streaming, those things don’t even come across at all.
Do you think people nowadays are consuming movies anyway they can? Or do you think people actively still seek out these classic movie theater environments?
You know, that’s a very hard question to answer. I think that people still like to go to movies. I think it’s as much a social event as it ever was, but they have less time now because there are so many more demands on their time. One thing that’s happened is when you go to a theater now, you’re walking into a small auditorium. Virtually every art house that I have been in recently, rather than a 1500 seat theater, or a 500 seat theater, you’ve got maybe a 100 seats. Maybe 50 seats. So the appearance is that it’s not emptying. I often go to E Street after work and I go to the late show and there might be three people in the audience. I don’t go on a Friday night and I don’t go at 7:30, but I still go. I think we’ll never lose an interest in going to a movie house. It would take some kind of radical thing to happen, because it’s a big social activity. It’s cheap, films are good. They’re a lot more diverse than they used to be. They come in all kinds of forms and you can see a film now that you couldn’t see even mid-century.
I believe in theaters, and I go to theaters, but I consume a lot online. Maybe it’s because it’s my business, but I think most people are in that situation. They really need to see stuff immediately, but they also go out.
Where is your favorite place in the world to see a movie?
I have my preferences. I like going to the Avalon, for example, partly because of what they did. Saving the old art house and saving that ceiling. I like going to the AFI, but I take the Metro out there so it’s sort of a transportation problem… But I like their big theater. If you ever go to any of the big festivals like Cannes, or Toronto even, it’s like night and day. The theaters at Cannes, I don’t like the town especially, but the theaters are phenomenal. It’s the brightest most brilliant digital projection, amazing sight lines, I mean it’s like nothing else. They spend so much money, clearly, on getting good high quality projection.
What’s your favorite festival?
I have a favorite, but it’s not a favorite that people think of. I like going to Rotterdam in the Netherlands because they have a lot of quirky stuff, plus, this will make you laugh… They have the most amazing digital library. So you don’t necessarily have to get to the screenings. They have good theaters there, kind of scattered around, but they do a lot with digital. If you have your badge, you can go to the digital library and they have really great Mac screens and almost 80% of the films are loaded into the database and you can sit there and just watch.
What do you think D.C.’s film scene is missing?
Honestly, I’m stumped at that question. I think that we could use more active discussion with filmmakers and artists. People who can introduce some ideas that we wouldn’t get just by watching a movie cold. We try to do that here, to some extent, whenever we can. AFI does it to some extent… I think it’s important because when you’re watching a film cold it’s like looking at a work of art. You can interpret it yourself and like it or dislike it, but it’s nice to get to a different level. I think to get to a different level you need a little help. Someone who has maybe seen other movies by the same director or has a different take on it.