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Birnie's big break came on a single day when he was offered both the LACMA job and directorship of the Hamptons Film Festival. Los Angeles won. "It's a great city to come to with city skills from somewhere like New York, where you're constantly making decisions about what to do and how to respond to the constant barrage of what's going on. In Los Angeles, if you work at it, you can put together an extremely interesting day that the city isn't exactly giving you, but allows you to construct. You have to keep your Rolodex going."
After his first LACMA program, a "complete flop" based on the idea of narrative structure ("Now I could remount that series and do much better, because the audience has come along"), Birnie began to fatten that Rolodex by defining sub-mailing lists within the broad audience according to spheres of interest -- jazz lovers, animation lovers, foreign-film buffs -- as well as by age and gender. "If you can isolate an audience," he says, "you can develop an audience. Even if it's 600 people, there's a good chance half of them will show up, because how else can they see the cartoons of Frank Tashlin gathered together?"
Of necessity -- LACMA films play only Fridays and Saturdays -- Birnie's programming has to be more eclectic than catholic. Yet his range is wide and his reach bold, cannily slotted around the margins of the more traditional offerings that serve the museum's subscriber base, many of whom would flock to a 50th-anniversary screening of Exodus or a tribute to Jerome Kern, but might blanch at his Paul Morrissey retrospective, or at the Burroughs on Film series. "Ian straddles desire and expectation," says the UCLA Archive's head of programming, Andrea Alsberg, who worked with Birnie on a John Ford series and an Asian-Pacific festival that drew mostly UCLA audiences, and who speaks of Birnie with affection. So does Bartok: "The great thing about Ian is that he's got an ebullient personality, and a childlike enthusiasm for film, which you have to have in this business." Birnie is as generous to his colleagues as they are to him. There's little reason for them to be otherwise, given their radically different geographical and taste bases -- though such considerations have never deterred their New York counterparts from robust feuding. "In Los Angeles the programming community is so small," comments Cheng-Sim Lim, a UCLA programmer, "there's a level of collegiality that, relatively speaking, you don't find in New York."
For a man of his intellectual sophistication, Birnie is surprisingly leery of owning to a coherent programming philosophy: "I should have a pat answer, but not really. When I watch a film I'm struck by different things simultaneously -- 'Oh my, what incredible cinematography,' or 'This reminds me of another film that has this look,' or I'm struck by some thematic thing. Recently I've been thinking there's a whole group of films about postwar American life -- they're not even particularly good films, they're just interesting in what they tell you about the suburbanizing of America." He's full of ideas about what the L.A. cultural traffic will bear, but in the end his governing principle is personal taste. "If you don't program films you want to watch yourself," says Birnie, "you're going to have a really horrible evening, week after week after week." Which is why he's off to Europe for the summer, among other things to research a series on films made in the unified Berlin between the two world wars.
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