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LACMA Goes Hollywood With Elvis Mitchell 

Museum scrapped its film program for a star-studded partnership aimed at courting showbiz bucks — helmed by the nation's most controversial critic

Thursday, Nov 17 2011
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The burger at Ray's, the Kris Morningstar–cheffed, Renzo Piano–designed restaurant at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, comes topped with red onion confit, Gruyère cheese, watercress, bearnaise sauce and a soft-fried egg — no substitutions. As at countless other restaurants in the neighborhood, the waitstaff at Ray's have been told by the chef that menu items are not to be modified for customers, except in the case of food allergies. Even then, they'd really rather you just order something you're not allergic to.

But Elvis Mitchell is new to the neighborhood — he's been living in New York since the turn of the millennium. And at our lunch meeting one sunny afternoon in mid-October, he does not want an egg on his burger.

"Are you allergic?" the waitress asks.

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY KEVIN SCANLON - Elvis Mitchell
 

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He is not. But Mitchell, 53, turns the charisma up to 11. He convinces her to tell the chef that he is. When the burger arrives, the egg is nowhere in evidence.

This scene is vintage Elvis Mitchell. One of the best known, and definitely most controversial, living film critics in America, Mitchell is both irresistibly charming and legendarily incapable of playing by the rules, or perhaps simply oblivious to them. Those qualities are part of the reason we're having lunch: He's been brought to LACMA as the embodiment of a major break from business as usual at the museum's film department.

In 2009, LACMA CEO Michael Govan announced that he was suspending the museum's long-running, highly respected, world- and classic-cinema-heavy film screening program. The execution earned a reprieve when public outcry led to $150,000 in cash donations from corporate sponsors.

Then, in April 2011, LACMA announced that the program's well-respected curator, Ian Birnie, was leaving. His program would be replaced by a new screening series produced in partnership with Film Independent (FIND) — the nonprofit that, through its Los Angeles Film Festival and Independent Spirit Awards, is in the business of creating meeting points between red-carpet glamour, industry solvency and indie credibility. Two months later, Elvis Mitchell was hired as the programmer of that new series.

It would be Mitchell's third job change in 2011 alone. In April, he was fired from Movieline.com following allegations that he had published a review of a movie he hadn't seen. That scandal came less than four months after news broke that Mitchell had been "dropped" from Roger Ebert's then-yet-to-air PBS reboot of At the Movies.

In the press release announcing his hiring, Mitchell mentioned his LACMA roots. "Selling tickets at the Bing Theater at LACMA was my first job in L.A.," he said. His latest job is about more than selling tickets: It's about selling the museum to the deep-pocketed film industry.

"A lot of studio people have said to me, 'LACMA is historical repertory, but you're not involved in the L.A. that is L.A., the movie business,' " Govan tells me. While he calls playing classic and world cinema "an absolute requirement of mine," he stresses that his primary goal is to "engage the commercial world a little bit more in dialogue with its own history than we have."

"Engaging the commercial world" may seem like a strange goal for a film program housed by a nonprofit organization in a town already dominated by Hollywood commerce. But by its CEO's own admission, the museum is on a "growth kick." Govan spent two years working toward this moment, massaging what at first was taken as an intent to eliminate all film screenings at the museum into a multitiered embrace of film as a moneymaker.

He's not about to let second-guessing slow him down.

"Listen, I've had my share of people who say that I've — we've — destroyed our film program," Govan says. "Because we had a nice repertory film program. The old program, as nice as it was, was unsustainable."

Govan's ambitions have found perhaps their ideal complement in Mitchell, who has cultivated a persona as the outsider with insider access. The theater and program once were one of the city's premier destinations for cinephiles, yet they failed to attract sustaining support from Hollywood institutions. Together Mitchell and Govan are turning them into a key cog in Govan's strategy to plumb the film industry for patrons.

Elvis Mitchell is probably best known to non-industry Angelenos for The Treatment, KCRW's weekly show featuring an extended conversation between Mitchell and a filmmaking professional. In an entertainment media big on quick-take sensationalism, The Treatment is one of the few remaining places where the people who make movies can talk about their work in depth and with reasonable intelligence. Filmmakers love Mitchell for giving them that platform.

The gamut Mitchell runs is represented on one end by his radio show and on the other by a 2007 episode of HBO's Entourage. In it, Mitchell plays himself, a former New York Times film critic who lunches at swank restaurants with movie stars and drives off in a cherry-red convertible.

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