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In 1994, when Microsoft mogul Bill Gates purchased Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester from the Armand Hammer Museum for over $30 million, commentators worldwide expressed dismay, fearing the work would disappear into Gates’ private collection, never again to be publicly exhibited. But now that Gates-owned art-licensing company Corbis has issued an acclaimed CD-ROM version of the Codex, most criticism has subsided. The most unforgiving faultfinders, however, continue to point out what they say is Gates’ untrammeled hubris in attempting to associate himself with one of the most highly regarded figures of Western culture. (It is somehow easier to imagine Leonardo authoring Windows 95 than Gates painting the Mona Lisa.) Considering the widespread veneration of Leonardo’s painterly skill, it’s surprising that David Alan Brown’s recently published Leonardo da Vinci: Origins of a Genius is the first book-length study of his early paintings to appear in nearly 100 years. Brown, curator of Italian Renaissance Painting at the National Gallery of Art, effectively blends boldly speculative scholarship (he identifies Tobias and the Angel, pictured, as Leonardo’s first painting) with a vivid evocation of Leonardo’s early artistic life, during which the precocious 20-something produced several resplendent exemplars of Renaissance painting, gained the patronage of the powerful Medici family, and was accused of consorting with an infamous male prostitute. By that age, Gates may have become a programming whiz, dropped out of Harvard, and founded more than one high-tech company, but he certainly couldn’t boast a sex scandal. At 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, at Barnes & Noble, 12089 Rockville Pike, Rockville. Free. (301) 881-0237. (Leonard Roberge)
Many staples of Americana, if not adopted as “retro,” will inevitably be left behind with the 20th century. So I admire any attempt to sift through our multifarious cultural lapses, especially when it’s free. The Shakespeare Theatre opens the 1998-1999 season of its Re-Discovery Series, which presents readings of lesser-known works by the world’s great playwrights, with Thornton Wilder’s last major work, The Alcestiad, a reinterpretation of the Greek myth of Alcestis. But this ain’t your father’s Our Town: The Alcestiad is fraught with love, death, sacrifice, and communication breakdown on a classical scale. Wilder’s grandson and literary executor, Tappan Wilder, will lead a post-reading discussion with the audience and the cast, which features Jennifer Harmon (pictured), Philip Goodwin, Floyd King, Ted van Griethuysen, and Tana Hicken. No stranger, though, to retro, Wilder: “I am not an innovator but a re-discoverer of forgotten goods and I hope a remover of obtrusive bric-a-brac.” At 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 7, at the Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Free. (202) 547-1122. (Amanda Fazzone)
From 1960’s The Magnificent Seven to last month’s A Bug’s Life, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai has proved a bottomless reservoir of inspiration for Hollywood. Of course, the wily Japanese master had studied John Ford’s esterns before shooting this sweeping adventure picture about seven scruffy men—only six of them actually samurai (Toshiro Mifune as the wannabe is pictured)—who agree to defend a dusty little town from bandits. Made in 1954, three years after Kurosawa’s Rashomon introduced Japanese cinema to the world, this 200-minute movie inaugurated the director’s epic style: The film was shot with several cameras running so Kurosawa could choose from different angles of the same action; features operalike musical motifs for the major characters; and skillfully contrasts action and interlude, drama and comedy. Seven Samurai has been so widely imitated that it has no doubt lost a bit of its original impact, and its deglamorization of the relationship between samurai and peasant could never mean as much here as it did in Japan. Still, the film is widely influential and formally dazzling, as well as simply one of the best action flicks ever made. At the American Film Institute Theater, Kennedy Center. $6.50. (202) 785-4600. (Mark Jenkins)
Festival of New French Women Filmmakers
Since the beginning of the post-Key Theater drought of foreign films, Washington’s commercial cinemas have presented more movies in French than in any other foreign language. But that doesn’t mean that Washingtonians (or Americans in general, for that matter) are being introduced to the next generation of French filmmakers. This series is a modest redress of the situation: four films made in 1995 and 1996 by young women directors, only one of which (Anne Fontaine’s underwhelming Augustin, Dec. 9) has been seen here before. The other three offerings are Pascale Ferran’s The Age of Possibilities, an account of 10 young underemployed Strasbourg residents who fall in and out of love with a gentle delight that has caused the film to be compared to the work of Jean Renoir and Eric Rohmer (Dec. 7, pictured); Christine Carriäre’s Rosine, a working-class drama in which a 14-year-old girl’s stormy relationship with her immature mother is further tested by the arrival of the father Rosine never knew (Dec. 8); and Noemie Lvovsky’s Forget Me, the story of a few young people who are all in love—but not with the people who are in love with them (Dec. 9). At 7 p.m. (except Augustin, at 9 p.m.) at La Maison Franáaise, Embassy of France, 4101 Reservoir Road NW. Free. (202) 944-6090. (Mark Jenkins)