By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
That perceived apathy may be one reason why, earlier this week, LACMA and Govan announced the launch of a new program, CineClub, which will allow LACMA members to make a direct contribution to the film department by adding an extra $50 to any level of museum membership. Modeled on the Cinema Club membership program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the CineClub program will entitle members to priority ticketing and seating, as well as other benefits. It also throws down the gauntlet for the Save Film at LACMA campaigners — the majority of whom, LACMA’s press release took pains to note, are not current museum members — to put their money where their mouths are. (In another positive turn, LACMA used the occasion to announce a Birnie-curated programming slate through the end of November, including retrospectives of Hitchcock and Tarkovsky, as well as work by master avant-garde filmmakers James Benning, Bruce Conner and Ernie Gehr.)
Heartening as it has been to see the enormous outpouring of support from both the public and the press over LACMAgate — it is, after all, a worthy cause and a good story — it doesn’t negate the fact that serious film culture has been struggling to keep its head above water in this city for a long time now, often to the evident indifference of moviegoers and media alike. Even as the L.A. Times emerged as media ground zero for LACMA updates, it was hard to forget that, only last November, the Times failed to include so much as a single mention of REDCAT’s film programming in a multisection package about the venue’s fifth anniversary. And once calm and order is restored at LACMA, will the Times continue to afford the museum such lavish attention, or will it go back to burying coverage of LACMA’s film programs in the back pages of Calendar? More importantly, once all the current hoopla dies down, will anyone notice if it does?
In the case of Rosen, her departure for the San Francisco festival is actually more of a homecoming — she worked there as an associate programmer for most of the ’90s. It’s also a festival that doesn’t lack for prestige — it’s the oldest in North America, presently gearing up for its 53rd edition, and last year alone presented gala awards to the likes of Robert Redford, Francis Coppola and James Toback, all in one room, all on the same night. But the meat and potatoes of SFIFF, as has always been the case, is a carefully curated program of the best in recent world cinema, for which the festival attracts a devoted and adventurous local audience. That’s a programming philosophy Rosen very much brought to bear on LAFF in her near-decade there, dramatically expanding a festival that had once shown almost exclusively American independent films to include international and avant-garde work, films from developing countries, and sidebars on everything from expat directors working in L.A. to 1950s hot-rod movies. “After 10 years in San Francisco, I knew what would go over there, and I knew generally how many people would show up to everything,” Rosen told me in a 2004 L.A. Weekly interview, explaining any programmer’s need to know his or her audience. “It was almost the opposite of here,” she continued. “Invariably, programs like the 20-hour Chris Marker TV series would be the first thing to sell out there. It’s not exactly anti-elitism, but there’s very much more a consciousness about popular culture in L.A. In San Francisco and New York, it’s more about intellectual culture. Of course, those are broad generalizations, and they’ll offend certain people.”
But rather than offend, Rosen quickly learned her new L.A. audience, helping to nearly double LAFF attendance while testing the waters with such challenging fare as the four-hour Argentinian film Extraordinary Stories and Chinese director Wang Bing’s gallery installation Crude Oil, both included in LAFF’s 2009 program. Even then, one sensed Rosen may have faced compromises here that she won’t in the Bay Area, like the increasing proliferation of white-noise summer blockbusters (including Wanted and both Transformers pictures) selected for LAFF’s high-profile gala slots, to say nothing of this year’s opening-night film, Paper Man, an atrocious Sundance also-ran tub-thumped by the festival for its marquee names (Jeff Daniels, Ryan Reynolds, et al.) and “world premiere” status. Those, I dare say, are programming choices decidedly lacking in Rosen’s unfailing good taste, and while I have every confidence that the executives at Film Independent (LAFF’s presenting organization) do not wish to proceed too much further down this particular, soul-selling road in the post-Rosen era, it never hurts to offer a gentle nudge in the right direction.
All things considered, we are presently living in something like a golden age for movies in this city, with two significantly revitalized festivals (LAFF and AFI Fest) and more specialized venues (I have thus far neglected to mention the thoroughly wonderful Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre) doing more consistently interesting work than at any other moment in the 15 years since I moved here. The UCLA Archive is ensconced in beautiful new digs at the Billy Wilder Theater, and the American Cinematheque now has not just one but two permanent homes, bestriding the city from Hollywood to Santa Monica like some celluloid colossus. Not least, the venerable New Beverly Cinema, deemed a goner after the 2007 death of its longtime owner/operator, Sherman Torgan, has somehow stayed the course (and gotten a face-lift in the bargain). And what is most remarkable is the diversity of the programming, the lack of overlap between these venues, each one bringing some unique offering to the city’s cinematic farmers market. But Golden Ages tend to be fleeting, and the problem with this embarrassment of riches is that it is fundamentally poor — underfunded, underattended and chronically underappreciated. The storied L.A. revival and repertory cinemas of the ’60s and ’70s vanished almost overnight, like the dinosaurs swallowed up by tar, and there are no guarantees against history repeating itself. I wish I could be more optimistic. Instead, all I can say is that if you care about film culture in this town, enjoy yourself — it’s later than you think.
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