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In our own face-to-face meeting last month and in a series of subsequent e-mails, Govan repeatedly stressed his desire to expand rather than contract the film presence at the museum. One of his ambitions, he writes in an August 24 message, is to “create a film department within the curatorial center of the museum that will be charged with critical thinking about the history and future of film as art. Not only should LACMA consider a classic history of film,” he continues, “we should consider film’s increasing importance in the larger narrative of art history, and be on the forefront of thinking about how film and moving images are playing an ever-increasing role in contemporary art and life.”
That is by no means an ignoble goal, though it could be argued that it is what the film department has already been doing on a somewhat smaller scale. Contrary to reports that have characterized the current LACMA program as consisting strictly of Hollywood and foreign-language classics, the museum has, in the past few years alone, introduced Los Angeles audiences to much new work by some of the leading figures in contemporary world cinema — filmmakers like Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas (whose Silent Light played to sold-out crowds in the Bing earlier this year), Germany’s Heinz Emigholz and South Korea’s Hong Sang-Soo (the subject of a nearly complete retrospective beginning later this month), who exist on the very forefront Govan is talking about. And at a time when it is more difficult than ever for such films to find commercial distribution in the U.S., LACMA is exactly the sort of institution that should be taking it upon itself to give them wider exposure.
In a perfect world, LACMA would be presenting film programs not just on the weekends but 300-plus days a year, like the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It’s clear, however, that anything of the sort — even keeping the weekend screenings going past June 2010 — is going to take money, and a lot more than $150,000 at that. Govan speaks idealistically of a $5 million-to-$10 million named endowment that would keep the film department in the black for the next decade and allow the museum to incorporate it as a full curatorial department — it has been, until now, a subsidiary of the education department — but, as Weekly features editor Tom Christie pointed out in a related blog post, the Hollywood studios and their A-list talent, who many expected to ride to LACMA’s rescue, have thus far kept their checkbooks sealed (despite a summer movie season that set a new record for domestic box-office receipts). So for the moment, I’m prepared to take Govan at his word, though given that LACMA’s biggest film-related benefactors to date have been a cable-TV provider and a much-maligned group of foreign journalists, I’ll wager he has his work cut out for him.
Los Angeles moviegoers, it must be said, have their work cut out for them too. When friends and colleagues have written and called over the past few weeks expressing their dismay about the LACMA situation, a typical refrain has been: “How could something like this happen in L.A., of all places?” You know, Tinseltown. The nerve center of the entire worldwide film industry. To which my response has been: “How could it not?” What I mean is that while L.A. certainly doesn’t lack for a community of passionate, informed, dedicated film buffs who value the programming at LACMA and the city’s other specialized film venues, even the best of us have a tendency to take this cornucopia of cinematic offerings for granted in a way that audiences in other major cities don’t. It’s almost as if, this being the company town, we feel we have free license to embrace movies when we want to and ignore them whenever it’s convenient, certain that they will always be there. Oh, another world-famous auteur is doing a Q&A at the Egyptian tonight? Yawn, I’ll catch the next one.
But institutions like LACMA and REDCAT and the UCLA Film and Television Archive won’t survive on our goodwill alone, and as one whose job involves staying in constant contact with the curators of those venues, I am only too aware of how many of their programs play to half- or three-quarters-empty houses. For every bona fide blockbuster like LACMA’s 1999 Robert Bresson retrospective and its 2001 Hou Hsiao-hsien series, or last year’s multivenue Emigholz show, there are many more like this past May’s survey of the legendary Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, co-presented by LACMA and the American Cinematheque, which reportedly averaged sales of less than 100 tickets per film. In a recent interview with the San Francisco–based film blogger Michael Guillen, James Quandt, the veteran Cinematheque Ontario programmer who organized the traveling Oshima series, singled out L.A. as one of the cities where it had the poorest performance (far less attendance than Toronto and Berkeley), and noted that other traveling exhibitions he has coordinated have been picked up by L.A. venues only in dramatically abridged versions — a way of guarding against the losses incurred by a long, poorly attended series.
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