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Bringing Hollywood royalty like Reitman into the museum is a high priority for Govan. He beams as he brags about keeping Stark Bar open an extra hour to accommodate Quentin Tarantino and Pam Grier, who stayed to drink after the soft launch of Mitchell's series, a screening of 1997's Jackie Brown. And a major part of what he calls the "macro picture of how film plays a larger role in the museum" is the Art + Film gala, a would-be annual red-carpet event that took place Nov. 4. Its host was Leonardo DiCaprio, while Grazer, Tisch, Disney CEO Bob Iger and Hollywood power couple Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson served on its organizing committee.
Rather than go begging to each studio individually, Govan wanted to create an event similar to the Met's annual fashion gala, making support of the museum an annual Hollywood ritual. It worked.
"Lo and behold," Govan says, "the studios are buying tables, and throwing fifties and hundreds of thousands of dollars at the museum for the first time."
The gala reportedly raised $3 million. But, Govan says, the proceeds will not be earmarked chiefly for the film department. If anything, it seems the film department has been redesigned to make money for LACMA — and make the museum more hospitable to A-list patrons.
In the post-Birnie era, film at LACMA has exhibited signs of multiple personality disorder. For one thing, Mitchell is not programming every film event now taking place at the museum. Bernardo Rondeau, Birnie's programming assistant, is still at LACMA, and in addition to supporting Mitchell, he continues to program Tuesday matinees of classic films.
The Bing also shows films related to other museum departments; contemporary Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, was programmed as an ancillary to an installation of Buddhist art objects, and also to coincide with the end of LACMA's massive retrospective on Tim Burton, who led the Cannes jury that gave Boonmee its top prize in 2010. And then there are film-related events produced by the New York Times, which, a LACMA publicist says, have "nothing to do with Elvis Mitchell."
In his new role, Mitchell is responsible for just one or two events per week, usually on Thursday nights. The schedule for the first two months of the program, at its most basic, consisted of a combination of previews for soon-to-open films featuring Hollywood stars (Johnny Depp's passion project The Rum Diary; the George Clooney-starring family dramedy The Descendants; a documentary on legendary director-producer Roger Corman) and one-off screenings of crowd-pleasing classics (Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times; Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki's 1986 debut, Castle in the Sky, on a double feature with his 2001 hit Spirited Away). Reitman's Live Reads is scheduled for one Thursday each month.
Oddly, most of the new films screening during the first two months of Mitchell's program screened at other local venues (including the AFI Film Fest, a competitor to the L.A. Film Festival) within a week of their LACMA date. At lunch, Mitchell cited screenings of early films by Italian filmmakers Pier Paulo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti in the first weeks of his program as "pretty adventurous stuff." These would indeed seem like adventurous choices if UCLA weren't concurrently presenting a much more varied series of Italian neorealist films — co-curated by Ian Birnie.
But last week, LACMA posted its schedule for the first two weeks of December. It included a double feature of early work by Oscar-nominated Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki (whose 2011 release Le Havre was the toast of this year's Cannes Film Festival) and the 1951 Bollywood prototype Awaara — and zero new films. This is conspicuous, and smart, counterprogramming for a time of year when the rest of the town is obsessed with emerging Oscar contenders. And it's such a break from the first two months of the lineup that it almost seems like it was programmed by a different person.
Govan has encouraged Mitchell to build events around marquee guests. To him, it only makes sense that a museum in the heart of the home of the film industry would take advantage of that industry. He calls it "site specificity." But there's "taking advantage of the resources of Los Angeles," and then there's starfucking.
In response to the suggestion that his own stardom, and his relationships with famous people, greased his path into the LACMA position, Mitchell says, "Well, I think they were interested in the kind of things I would program here. I hope it wasn't as cynical as, 'We get him in here and he can call some people.' "
" 'I want to see classic movies' has been the main criticism," Govan acknowledges. "People say that I've gone commercial because we've got Johnny Depp, and I guess some people hate the idea of the Jason Reitman reading series because it's not a film."
If Mitchell's program lacks a unique identity, it's just another problem that Govan spins into a positive. He praises his programmer for "proving that [he's] willing to cater to different audiences. He's not siding with anyone. I think that's a smart thing to start with."
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