The average attention span of a Washington movie-goer? Two hours?
Whatever your guess, it probably wouldn't be nine hours, which is what one crowd sat through yesterday. They started at noon, took three breaks -- including one for an authentic Bayreuth Buffet -- and ended around midnight.
By the end they had seen "Wagner," the story of the life of composer Richard Wagner, which was only about the same length as two of his operas.
And they wore coats and ties. Coats and Ties! And pantyhose and dresses. Not a casual kind of crowd, maybe with pillows or picnic lunches. (Okay, one woman brought a sandwich, but that was about it.) Despite the nine hours.
"This isn't Woodstock," said David Nickels, from Rockville, who works at the State Department. "Or even that place out in Virginia, what's it called? Wolf Trap. This is a Smithsonian crowd, not a cross section of Washington."
Nine hours didn't bother him. It's just not that long.
"Not for Wagner," he said.
One Virginia woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said she's been a Wagnerian since she was 14. "So I'm used to this," she said. "I have Sitzfleisch, which is the ability to sit still for a long period of time."
And so did the 550 or so other people at the National Museum of Natural History's Baird Auditorium, who did very little dozing and even less squirming.
"You gotta be a fanatic of Wagner to sit through nine hours or in this case 12 hours with the breaks ," said Nickels. "It's one of those unusual, very different experiences."
He had the option of going to the second showing, which is divided into three consecutive nights starting tonight, or for the marathon fundraiser showing last night at Baird (which benefited the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program scholarship fund).
The movie -- starring Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier -- started about seven years ago and was originally planned as a European television mini-series. Then it was going to be a two-part feature film. Then a five-hour version came out and was shown in England. And finally there is the full-length, nine-hour version, which has now been sold to 37 countries, making back about half of the $11.5 million spent to make it. But not to American network television. The only showings here have been marathons like last night's, in four different cities.
"It's more cerebral than that which you tend to find on American television. It's not a mass, mass appeal project," said Martin Cooper, vice president of development and marketing for London Trust Productions.
"It takes a lot of intellectual involvement to watch this film. It's not a piece of bubble gum," said Cooper, who hopes to package the film for home video audiences and sell it to cable television.
He planned to watch the first half-hour of the movie and then go to the National Archives with a friend and be back in time for the first break. He was interested in the Washington crowd, mostly there because they were Wagner freaks.
"I'm in seventh heaven," said Edgar Snowden, who works in real estate appraisals in the District. He was wearing a tie. He didn't think anything of it. "I could spend a lifetime watching this guy. It's almost as good as being in RFK with Riggins just pushing for a touchdown."
Said CBS News correspondent Bob Simon, who did not respond with a rave review, "We're Wagnerians. We thought we'd find out something we didn't already know. But this deepens the mystery. It tells you nothing about Wagner's thought."
Said another Wagnerian, "Maybe the soul of all this is the buffet." In fact, the buffet had plenty of German spirit, from Eingemachte Ruben Mit Zwibel (pickled beets with onions) to Koenigsberger Klops (German-style meatballs) to the Schwartzwald Torte (Black Forest cherry torte).
"This film is an epic," said Janet Solinger, director of the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program. "One might say of Wagnerian proportions."