Englert continues its film history

BY BRETT KARLAN | JULY 25, 2013 5:00 AM

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Downtown Iowa City is in the middle of a movie craze.

Much of the excitement is centered on Scene 1, 118 E. College St., a lounge and cinema slated to open in September in downtown Iowa City under the direction of nonprofit FilmScene in conjunction with the University of Iowa’s Bijou.

But while Scene 1 may represent a vision of the future of film in Iowa City, another venue represents its history: the Englert Theater, 221 E. Washington St.

“Movies are a part of our history, and the Englert has always had movies,” said Tori Morgensai, the production manager for the Englert. “The theater was built to be the crown jewel of Iowa City. It’s always hosted almost any film you can put in here.”

The long history of movies in the building will continue with two showings this weekend. At 7 p.m. Friday, the theater will present Munch 150, an installment in the Exhibitions Film Series, which marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edvard Munch. The artist created such famous paintings as The Scream and Frieze of Life. Admission is $18 for adults, $15 for seniors and students.

The subject matter then takes a more culinary turn at 3 p.m. July 28 with A Place at the Table, a documentary focusing on hunger in America. It offers some surprising and counterintuitive solutions. Admission is free with a food or cash donation, which will help support the Johnson County Crisis Center Food Bank.

No matter the specific movie, however, attending a film at the Englert is akin to going to a buffet of the senses. The iconic theater marquee sets the stage, lighting the street below. The interior of the building is elegant and historic, with intricate paintings and carvings lining every wall, and the seating is expansive, far larger than a mall cineplex. These features combine to make the viewer feel encompassed in history and artistry.

Certain features of the century-old venue make viewing movies a one-of-a-kind experience.

“We, for example, have a fly space: a space above the stage that the audience can’t see where things can be held,” Morgensai said. “As long as anyone can remember, there’s always been a movie screen that’s lived up there. We lower it down to project movies on it, which is unique.”

Munch 150

The first of two films to be shown this weekend is Munch 150; the movie is not a standard documentary of Munch’s life. It is part of the Exhibitions Film Series, produced jointly by Chait Galleries Downtown, M.C. Ginsberg, and the University of Iowa Museum of Art.

In this installment, the audience is taken into an exhibition of Munch’s artworks with the narration of art historian Tim Marlow. The movie is, in effect, a film of an exhibit.

“I view these types of films as a very exciting experiment,” said Sean O’Harrow, the director of the UI Museum of Art. “I also see them as a way of capitalizing on the success of the filming of other art forms, particularly opera, which has been very successful.”

Films such as Munch 150 cannot replace the experience of psychically viewing an exhibit, he stressed.

“Human beings are three-dimensional creatures that require three-dimensional experiences,” he said. “The two dimensions of film are wonderful and are great for understanding, but they will not replace that three-dimensional experience.”

Topics such as these are the subject of a talk that O’Harrow will give at a prescreening reception before the movie. The reception will be held at 6 p.m. Friday in Chait Galleries Downtown, 218 E. Washington St.

Chait Galleries will also host an exhibition, Interpretations of Munch, in conjunction with the film.

“One of the local art instructors [from Maroger Fine Art Classes] has had her students do work inspired by Edvard Munch’s work,” said Benjamin Chait, the proprietor of Chait Galleries. The artists range in age from 6 to older adults, he said, and some of the pieces will be for sale at the gallery.

The artwork for the exhibition falls under two main categories: Some of the pieces are reproductions of famous Munch works, hand-drawn or recolored in a way that suggests a personal style in the imitations. The other pieces are original works done in the style of, or drawing inspiration from, Munch. These tend to be more varied, although a consistent style does begin to emerge in the artworks.

All of these different aspects make the film at the Englert much more than merely a video recording of an exhibition.

“These sorts of films and experiences have a definite role to play in bringing art and promoting art appreciation to a very wide audience,” O’Harrow said.

A place at the table

The theme of community engagement will be accented further with the second film of the weekend, A Place at the Table. The movie is presented by New Pioneer Co-op and FilmScene.

The documentary was released by Magnolia Pictures, the same company responsible for the widely successful *Food, Inc.* documentary. It covers the widespread problems of hunger and malnutrition in America.

“Hunger is a very complicated issue,” said Ben Partridge, the marketing coordinator for New Pioneer, 22 S. Van Buren St. “And the film is a simple and great way to become more educated on the topic.”

He  said that the issue is far from black and white.

“A lot of times, people think of hunger as just being a lack of food,” he said. “But this film tells a different story: It’s not that there isn’t enough food, it’s that there isn’t enough food made available, and especially enough nutritious food made available, to people who are working poor.”

There’s a difference between being fed and being nourished, Partridge said, and the film offers a look at the gap between those two concepts.

Another aspect of both*A Place at the Table and Munch 150 is their independent status. These certainly are not mainstream Hollywood action movies. Organizers see themselves as filling a need for alternative film that the people in the Iowa City arts community crave.

“People want it,” said Andy Brodie, a cofounder and director of FilmScene. “The university and the city have done surveys, and a dedicated film presence downtown is always one of the top desires of people in Iowa City.”

It is particularly fitting, then, that FilmScene has teamed up with the Englert to screen A Place at the Table, because both institutions look back on Iowa’s history of film. And both say they are looking forward to the future of movies in the community as well.

“Film is a sort of confluence of all of these different art forms: music, writing, acting, design,” Brodie said. “Iowa City is a place where the arts matter, and film is the art of the 21st century.”

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