As wildfires scorched Southern California and Angelenos choked on the ocher air, so too did Los Angeles film culture find itself gasping for breath. First, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art decided to suspend its long-running weekend film series. Next came word that the Mann Theatres chain would be vacating its leases on the historic Village and Bruin theaters in Westwood and was also looking for a buyer for the iconic Grauman’s Chinese in Hollywood. Then the Los Angeles Film Festival’s Director of Programming, Rachel Rosen, announced she would be leaving to take a similar job not at Cannes or Sundance or Toronto or New York, but rather at the San Francisco International Film Festival, which everyone in local and national film circles seems to agree is not just L.A.’s loss but Rosen’s decided gain. It was that kind of summer.
Relievedly, LACMA’s film department was not about to go nearly so quietly into that dark night. Faster than a tectonic shift along the San Andreas Fault, word of the museum’s decision rumbled through the L.A. cinephile community and beyond, stirring up an old-fashioned grass-roots protest movement in its wake. By the time I touched down at LAX on the first Sunday in August after two weeks serving on the selection committee for this year’s New York Film Festival, an organization calling itself Save Film at LACMA had already garnered more than 1,300 signatures and impassioned testimonials for an online petition (a number that would eventually double), started an even bigger Facebook group and released a self-produced viral video modeled on the famous “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sequence from the Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back. In addition, the LACMA brass — chiefly, museum director and CEO Michael Govan — had taken a public drubbing from Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, the first in a series of poison-pen letters published by the paper, including a Martin Scorsese op-ed and an outing of Govan’s $1 million annual salary.
Meanwhile, the rumor mill churned wildly: Some said that the film series had long been an object of scorn among LACMA’s other curatorial departments, which sought to get their hands on the 600-seat Leo S. Bing Theater for their own purposes — a theory bolstered by the museum’s July 29 press release stating that future film programming would “place greater emphasis on artist-created films.” Others suggested that the film series’ predominantly older, decidedly unfashionable patrons were a blemish on LACMA’s aggressive efforts to attract a younger, hipper demographic. All unconfirmed, mind you. But, as the silver-tongued SS Colonel Hans Landa wisely advises in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, “Facts can be so misleading, where rumors, true or false, are often revealing.”
Amid all the mudslinging, LACMA began to suggest that its move to suspend the film program was less a case of cold-blooded murder than a suicide attempt — an impassioned cry for help. “If people didn’t complain, we’d be in real trouble — it would mean people didn’t value film at the museum,” Govan told the Times’ Mike Boehm on August 7, three days before meeting informally with me, film critic and historian Richard Schickel, USC English professor Leo Braudy and writer Jamie Wolf at Wolf’s home in Beverly Hills for an alcohol-free version of President Obama’s Beer Garden Summit. There, Govan — an affable, impeccably well-groomed figure in an expensive black suit — further insisted that the ruckus he’d caused was fully intentional; that the film series had been dying a slow death since before his arrival at the museum in 2006 and that attempts to raise funding had fallen on deaf ears; that pushing LACMA’s film department out on a ledge was, in effect, the only way to save it.
He may have been right. When LACMA announced last week that it had secured two $75,000 gifts (from Time Warner Cable and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) to keep the film department operational through next summer, it was, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, a reminder that people often don’t know what they’ve got until it’s (nearly) gone. But if the initial battle to save LACMA’s film programming has been won, the war is far from over. As of this writing, the museum has made no official statement about the long-term future of the department, or of its longtime director, Ian Birnie — subjects I imagine will be near the top of the docket when Govan meets with the leaders of the Save Film at LACMA movement for a tête-à-tête dubbed the Popcorn Summit, scheduled to take place on September 1, just as this article is going to press.
For all the vitriol that has been spewed in his direction of late, Govan strikes me as a basically serious, tasteful guy who knows more about movies than you might expect (as an art student at UCSD in the 1980s, he studied film with the late critic Manny Farber and erstwhile Godard compatriot Jean-Pierre Gorin) and who, though he may have gone about it in an inelegant fashion, does want to do right by the LACMA film program. Just how much institutional support there is for film at the museum, however, remains open to debate: While researching this article, I was shocked to discover that an extensive selection of videos and podcasts available on LACMA’s Web site, grouped under the heading “The Screening Room,” contains not one single download related to the film department’s activities. There, you can see Govan interview artists Chris Burden and Jorge Pardo, watch a 30-minute documentary about Dan Flavin, or take a hardhat tour of the new Wilshire Boulevard atrium with museum president Melody Kanschat. But if you’re looking for, say, Ian Birnie’s onstage conversation with Olivia de Havilland from her 2006 retrospective — or any of the similar filmmaker dialogues that have more recently graced the Bing stage — you’re out of luck.
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