The Art of the Art History Documentary; Gallery's 'Hopper' to Air on PBS

Article excerpt

Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Opening shot: the interior of a cafe at night. Catchy jazz rhythms play in the background behind a montage of paintings by Edward Hopper. "Everybody thought he was the greatest. He was a god," narrator Steve Martin intones in his familiar flat pitch. "He invented or developed a lot of ways of picturing the American experience, which becomes a metaphor for bigger experience."

Thus begins "Edward Hopper," the latest "hit" film presentation of the National Gallery of Art - having its local debut Thursday on WETA-TV Channel 26, 10 days ahead of the museum's opening of the latest retrospective of works by the iconic American artist.

If smooth upbeat music typical of the 1940s seems to undercut the somber scenes portrayed in the paintings, that is the deliberate choice of producer-director Carroll Moore, setting a mood and marking the key period of 1925 to 1950 represented in the show.

The contrast hints at the depths of a painter who offers as much pleasure as mystery. It's the hand of experience juggling the many tricky elements involved in attracting viewers and holding their attention for 30 minutes of talking heads and illustrated commentary.

Art films aren't exactly at the top of the pop charts these days, but they could be, given the star power attached to some of the productions created by the gallery to accompany major exhibits. Narrators, often well-known American actors, are chosen for voices that match the spirit and mood of each artist or genre on display.

Choosing the talent is just a small part of what Mr. Moore does in his job as producer of film and video in the NGA's department of exhibition programs. A one-man band of sorts, he also does the research (with plenty of scholarly curatorial help), writes the script, selects images and coordinates the whole into a polished 30-minute original documentary to be seen by television viewers and gallery visitors of every stripe. (The NGA's "Edward Hopper" exhibit, comprising 47 oil paintings, 35 watercolors and 12 prints, was already seen at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and will move on to the Art Institute of Chicago in February.)

If Mr. Moore's title is grand, so are some other past narrators: Danny Glover and Morgan Freeman on "Art of Romare Bearden"; Christopher Plummer for "The Greek Miracle"; Joanne Woodward on Willem de Kooning; Kevin Kline on Henri Rousseau; Washington's own Ted van Griethuysen for Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Edouard Vuillard, Henry Moore, and the quest for immortality in ancient Egypt.

Mr. Hopper was in the hopper, so to speak, while Mr. Moore was finishing a film about English landscape artist J.M.W. Turner (a landmark Turner retrospective opens at the NGA Oct. 1) and turning over in his mind possibilities associated with an exhibit on Roman villas. He averages three films every two years, courtesy of funds from the HRH Foundation. DVD copies sell for $19.99 and are distributed widely.

Mr. Moore said early on in the process that he was "sitting on a huge mountain" of Hopper scholarship because so much has been written about the artist. "There are no new perceptions in my script," he added modestly. Even so, that doesn't detract from the job of composing a comprehensive, visually arresting tribute that is neither too laudatory nor pedantic, one that is as entertaining as it is insightful.

"The camera is the pen," Mr. Moore likes to say. A script comes first, before the images. The 30 pages of the Hopper script went through three drafts. Editing began late in January in the gallery's small studio space. The narration was done in March in New York. Mr. Martin was a natural choice, being a collector of Mr. Hopper's works and, in Mr. Moore's view, "having the best American accent of anyone I can think of."

About the only direction he gave Mr. Martin was asking if the narrator could read a certain line "a little more upbeat in tone. …