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LACMA Film: Remembering Ian Birnie 

Thursday, Jul 7 2011
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The series "Celebrating Classic Cinema: Curator and Audience Favorites" would be just as well served by the title of one of the films it includes: The Long Goodbye. For the next four weeks, LACMA's outgoing film curator, Ian Birnie, will bid adieu to himself with a 21-film "carte blanche" — an extended farewell that truly began in July 2009, when the museum announced it would be terminating its 40-year-old film program due to declining attendance and revenue. And though film at LACMA has been kept on life support these past two years through a combination of public outrage and modest corporate sponsorship, the writing never truly vanished from the museum's wall. As announced earlier this year, following Birnie's departure LACMA will hand over the reins of the film program to Film Independent, the nonprofit organization that produces the Los Angeles Film Festival and the annual Spirit Awards.

In the introductory notes to his final series, Birnie is typically coy, explaining that he "sidestepped the task of devising a list of 'favorite' or 'desert island' films ... in favor of a nostalgic look back at the program itself" — movies that played one or more times in previous museum series and were well attended by the public. But to deny that other themes and through lines abound would be like ignoring the thick fog that envelops the remote Scottish isle at the center of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's glorious I Know Where I'm Going (which opens the series, paired with F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, on Fri., July 8).

Stroll down this particular memory lane with Birnie and you will encounter multiple tales of people trapped in doomed relationships (Max Ophuls' The Earrings of Madame de ... , Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place) or simply trapped, like the immobilized dinner guests of Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel. Also favored are chronicles of disappearance and the loss of identity, from the missing woman quickly forgotten by her friends in Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura to the two femme fatales who freely swap identities in David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. Even the ostensible comedies here — Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be and Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels — are set against the Holocaust and the Great Depression, respectively.

All, in their way, are stories of people who think they know where they're going, but, like most of us, haven't got a clue.

click to enlarge In a Lonely Place
  • In a Lonely Place

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Birnie came to Los Angeles in the summer of 1996 from his native Canada, where he had been one of the programmers for the Toronto International Film Festival, and set about following in the formidable footsteps of the late Ron Haver, who had stewarded the LACMA film program from the early 1970s until his death in 1993. (Because Haver's death coincided with LACMA's prolonged search for a new museum director, the film program was forced to subsist for more than two years on a series of guest curators.)

As a budding cinephile myself recently transplanted to L.A., the ambitious filmmaker retrospectives and thematic series presented at LACMA (including those on the blacklist, the evolution of sound design and Hollywood anti-Nazi movies) in the early days of Birnie's tenure were as crucial to my own cinematic education as anything gleaned in the hallowed halls of the (since renamed) USC School of Cinema-Television.

Profiled by the Los Angeles Times a few weeks into the job, Birnie told reporter Robert Koehler that he aspired to create "a sense of living history for an audience," and those words as well as any capture the spirit of Birnie's programming over the subsequent decade and a half. If LACMA is but one of the many jewels in L.A.'s robust repertory cinema crown, it has long been the one most assiduously devoted to what we might call "the canon." So while the American Cinematheque blazed trails into the annals of B movies and other marginal cinemas, and UCLA performed its miraculous preservation work , it was at LACMA that you were most likely to find major surveys of world-class auteurs (Altman, Bergman, Oshima), iconic stars (Bogart, Olivia de Havilland, Audrey and Katharine Hepburn) and — because the canon isn't a closed object — important figures on the leading edge of world cinema today, from the South Koreans Lee Chang-Dong and Hong Sang-Soo to Mexico's Carlos Reygadas.

Time and again the conventional wisdom that says Los Angeles moviegoers are less art film–savvy than their East Coast counterparts was disproved, with LACMA retrospectives of Robert Bresson, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Krzysztof Kieslowski generating sold-out crowds in the 600-seat Bing Theatre, a venue more than double the size of the largest auditoriums at such stalwart New York cinephile haunts as BAM, Film Forum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Of course, Birnie's LACMA years coincided with the rise of DVD, on-demand video, HD technology and other similar breakthroughs that make it easier than ever to dial up a century of cinema from the comfort of our living rooms. So what will really be on exhibit over the next month is a look back not just at a certain style of film programming but at a certain style of moviegoing, too. As Martin Scorsese rhetorically asked in his now-famous L.A. Times editorial, published in the immediate wake of the museum's 2009 film crisis, "Without places like LACMA and other museums, archives and festivals where people can still see a wide variety of films projected on screen with an audience, what do we lose? We lose what makes the movies so powerful and such a pervasive cultural influence. If this is not valued in Hollywood, what does that say about the future of the art form?" Indeed, now we have more movies at our disposal than two lifetimes will allow us to see, and ever smaller screens on which to watch them, but the collective viewing experience has never felt so endangered, and with it the presence of expert voices like Birnie's to guide us.

For most of the past decade, as the Weekly's film critic/editor, I assigned dozens of articles about LACMA film programs to myself and other writers — never enough for my own satisfaction (or, I suspect, the museum's), but then these were the dog days of print journalism, with their incredibly shrinking page counts and freelance budgets. Working for a newspaper at the dawn of the 21st century, it was easy to feel that one had arrived at the tail end of something formerly great and glorious.

Working for a film programming organization, as I have since leaving the Weekly in 2010, I've been dogged by a similarly uncertain feeling. Good prints of older films are harder than ever to come by, and by "older" I mean anything made before 1990. Studio archival divisions have been decimated by layoffs and belt-tightening. The hoped-for digital revolution that will make projection-quality HD masters available for more than just a few hundred canonical classics is still years, if not decades, away.

Let me try, however, to end on something other than a funerary note. Elvis Mitchell, a friend and fellow Weekly alum, will oversee the new LACMA program for Film Independent, and I salute him as he joins the ever-growing fraternity of critics turned programmers, even as I suspect he has his work cut out for him. Despite an April 7 L.A. Times report that characterized the LACMA/Film Independent partnership as an "expansion" of the museum's movie offerings, sources close to the discussions confirm that, at least initially, the series will consist of only a single weekly screening, presented on Thursday evenings, starting in the fall.

Are 52 screenings a year enough to give moviegoers the sense of "living history" that past LACMA film curators strived so diligently to foster? I hope so, for the history of cinema, like that of any art form, is a narrative unto itself, and we need good programmers (and critics) to help tell that story, lest we become hopelessly lost in the dark.

CELEBRATING CLASSIC CINEMA: CURATOR AND AUDIENCE FAVORITES | July 5-30 | Bing Theater at LACMA | LACMA.org

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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