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Sometimes even the National Gallery of Art’s protective staff needs a little protection. Just ask John Washington Jr.

Assigned to guard one of the gallery’s most lavish exhibitions on Nov. 4, Washington took an important measure to ensure his personal safety: He slapped on a pair of gray-rimmed Ocean Pacific sunglasses.

After all, patrolling the gallery’s East Building mezzanine is risky business these days, what with all those harmful ultraviolet rays beaming off a 120-foot-long “barrier” of glowing green fluorescent lights, titled—er, untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection). “It’s intense,” says Washington.

Ever since the gallery’s Oct. 3 opening of “Dan Flavin: A Retrospective,” staffers watching over the sprawling display of 44 illuminated works by the fluorescent-tube-obsessed minimalist have complained of headaches, anxiety, and nervousness—all allegedly brought on by excessive wattage. A combined 48,600 watts, to be exact. One staffer is said to have passed out.

“You can’t stare at one thing for too long,” says gallery spokesperson Anabeth Guthrie. “If you were to stare at a painting for a long time, your eyes would eventually hurt, too. The fluorescent bulbs just enhance it.”

NGA brass “recommended” that guards don shades for the Flavin show, Guthrie says. “The glasses enable them to work their entire shift.” That’s from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday—with periodic 15-minute breaks.

Yet the gallery provided nothing. “We weren’t going to make them wear sunglasses,” says Guthrie. Though NGA conservators are routinely outfitted with special protective masks for their line of work, when it comes to guards, the gallery’s policy, according to Guthrie, is “to each his own. If it doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t bother you.”

But it clearly bothers many of the guards. On Oct. 24, a Washington City Paper reporter observed one rubbing his forehead, smarting from a headache, and overheard another guard complaining, “That green light, man….I can’t stand that green light.”

So several guards bring their own shades. And they’re stingy about sharing. Just ask to borrow staffer David Jakes’ beloved eyewear, reminiscent of a CHiPs-era Erik Estrada’s. With a smirk, Jakes, stationed opposite a pyramidal pattern of pulsating white circles, shakes his head emphatically: “No way.”

His post isn’t even the most blinding. More migraine-inducing: Flavin’s untitled 1989 piece dedicated to “the citizens of the Republic of France on the 200th anniversary of their revolution.” An entire room is devoted to the installation, which features scores of bright-blue and blazing-white tubes arranged vertically, with warmer red bulbs stacked horizontally on top.

“That’s the worst one,” says guard Nigel Brown, who boldly makes do without any UV protection. Brown needs prescription shades, he explains, but has none. At first, the intense lights really bothered him. But by now, more than a month into the exhibition, he just shakes it off.

“You get used to it,” he says. Good thing, too: The show runs through Jan. 9.

CINEMA DETENTE

For years, Loews Cineplex Dupont Circle, tucked between Cosí and Ben & Jerry’s on 19th Street NW, has showcased small films on small screens in each of its five small cinemas.

If you go there to see, for instance, deaf actress Marlee Matlin ponder quantum physics in the cinematic mindfuck What the #$*! Do We Know?, you’ll be seated on a slightly inclined plane within a tightly confined space, with room for just 59 viewers.

Washington Post writer Benjamin Forgey once described the tiny, circa-1987 theater as “just a few notches above the worst of the urban plexes squinched into this or that office building in the District.” And that was back when “the worst of the urban plexes”—such as Dupont Circle’s pillar-obstructed Janus 3—still existed.

Despite its cramped setting, however, the Dupont theater had found a niche showing films that you just couldn’t see anywhere else in town. If you wanted to catch, say, director David Wain’s 2001 summer-camp-movie spoof Wet Hot American Summer on the big screen, you had to make do at the Dupont.

But these days, you no longer need to squeeze into your seat to get your fix of indie flicks. Just two Metro stops away, at Landmark Theatres’ E Street Cinema, you can see such artsy hits as Zach Braff’s Garden State and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. And you’ll be sitting in one of eight spacious auditoriums, seven of which feature stadium-style seating and wall-to-wall screens. The most intimate theater seats up to 110, the largest, 270—nearly twice the size of Dupont’s biggest, which has a capacity of 139.

E Street further boasts “[t]he latest state-of-the-art sound technology, including one auditorium with Dolby Digital Surround EX,” according to Landmark’s Web site. That’s not to mention an espresso bar stocked with “fresh, locally-baked pastries and cookies and gourmet chocolates”—a cut above the usual popcorn, soft drinks, and candy you find at Dupont. And E Street even offers three free hours of validated parking in an adjacent garage. At Dupont, moviegoing drivers have to pay for their own garage or troll for metered spots along Connecticut Avenue.

Given all the modern amenities Dupont’s downtown rival has to offer, you’ve got to wonder: How much longer can this cruddy sentimental fave of a cineplex survive?

Probably as long as Loews and its landlord want it to, it turns out.

Despite targeting the same artsy audience, E Street and Dupont never seem to show the same films at the same time. That’s because of an industry practice called “clearance,” in which exhibitors strike deals with distributors to show a film only if their closest competitors can’t get it.

“Generally speaking, theaters or chains will try to play a picture exclusively within a certain zone,” explains Andrew Mencher, operations director for the Key Sunday Cinema Club. “You know, to try to ‘clear’ all the other theaters in their area, so they’ll gross more effectively and be able to hold onto the picture longer.”

“At the end of the day, it’s all supply and demand,” notes Adam Chapnik, head of distribution for Canoga Park, Calif.–based Cinema Libre Studio. Exhibitors “want their demand to stay high and supply to stay low. They want lots of people who want it and only one place you can get it.”

With big-budget mainstream movies, clearances are “virtually nonexistent,” notes Mencher. Consider the abundance of local venues showing Disney’s The Incredibles, for instance. But among art houses, they’re quite common—and sometimes quite contentious.

Earlier this year, both the District’s historic Avalon Theatre and Visions Bar Noir complained that Landmark, the nation’s largest art-house chain, was pressuring distributors to send their films to E Street and its other local venue, the Bethesda Row Cinema, rather than to smaller theaters (Show & Tell, 1/9).

And Landmark complained about its own booking woes. With D.C.’s “abundance of screens,” Vice President Ray Price told S&T (8/13), “It’s tough for us to get films, too.”

Indeed: Counting Bethesda Row, the 14-screen Loews Theatres Georgetown, the triple-screen AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, the reopened Avalon, E Street, Consolidated Theatres’ recently opened Majestic Cinema 20, and Regal Cinema’s brand-new, 63,000-square-foot, “state-of-the-art” Gallery Place Stadium 14, that’s 75 new screens springing up within six miles of Dupont Circle since 2002.

In this increasingly competitive motion-picture exhibitor market, Visions, a two-screener in upper Dupont, eventually folded (Show & Tell, 9/24). “We tried to clear things at Visions all the time,” says Mencher, formerly Visions’ film programmer. “I would always try to clear the Landmark and the Loews theaters whenever I could. And sometimes I could. Sometimes I couldn’t.” Working for a small, locally owned theater, Mencher admits, “I didn’t have that much clout.”

But Loews, the nation’s fifth-largest theater chain, with more than 140 locations and 1,463 screens, has a lot more pull, which might explain why the Dupont theater is screening The Motorcycle Diaries—and E Street isn’t. “They’re getting really strong titles,” notes Matt Cowal, E Street’s marketing manager, who wanted to bring Walter Salles’ $9 million–grossing flick to his own venue.

“Will the Dupont Circle stay open?” ponders Mencher. “I think the Dupont art theater will have enough product to play, especially with Visions out of the picture. But the issues are more about leases and rent and stuff like that as opposed to whether or not you can sustain.” And currently, Loews is on a month-to-month lease with the building’s owner.

Earlier this year, Loews shuttered two of its older D.C. facilities after their leases expired: the Inner Circle 3, at 2301 M St. NW, and the two-screen Outer Circle, at 4849 Wisconsin Ave. NW. But for now, it seems, the chain is standing by its Dupont location: With its “specialized audience,” the tiny venue remains a “complementary” component to the rest of the company’s local circuit, says Loews’ Senior Vice President of Marketing, John McCauley. “I don’t know of any nonplans for the theater.”

Price Club: Stretching your dollar at D.C.’s night spots

Venue: Fur Nightclub, 33 Patterson St. NE

Event: Fusion, Friday, Oct. 29

Item: One bottle of Rémy Martin Louis XIII

Cost: $3,200 plus tax and 15 percent gratuity

Dressed “sophisticated and chic,” according to code, and chillin’ at a $500-to-$5,000 reserved table in D.C.’s hottest new nightclub—why not select the best bottle the establishment has to offer? On Oct. 29, that would have been Rémy Martin Louis XIII Grande Champagne Cognac, a finer kind of brandy than either the $500 Courvoisier XO Imperial or the $600 Hennessy Paradis.

“Undoubtedly the world’s finest,” reads Rémy’s Web site, “this exceptional Cognac has always been a favorite in the world of politics, fashion, and art. Its connoisseurs include Christian Dior and Elton John.” It’s an ideal libation on a night when hiphop icon Sean “P. Diddy” Combs is in the house. In fact, this bling-bling bottle even tops Puff Daddy’s preferred Louis Roederer Cristal champagne ($550).

Note the initial “Cigar box Scent.” Perfect for Fur’s “Mafia Room,” where you can sip your Rémy and puff a $24 Zino Platinum stogie beneath the classy Al Capone mural.

—Chris Shott, with additional reporting by John Metcalfe

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