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It's also a safe thing to start with. In fact, the place Mitchell has shown the most innovation is in using celebrities as attractions in and of themselves. As an attempt to bring a younger, more general audience into the few classic films on the initial program, Mitchell booked "counterintuitive" guests for postscreening conversations.
It hasn't always worked. The first of these experiments, a screening of Chaplin's Modern Times followed by a chat between Mitchell and sitcom star Josh Radnor, was a notable disaster.
At the start of the conversation, Radnor admitted that he had never seen another Chaplin film: "I'm more of a Buster Keaton guy," he said. He seemed to think he was there to talk about Happythankyou-moreplease, an indie romantic comedy he directed and starred in, which played the Sundance Film Festival almost two years ago. To his credit, Mitchell repeatedly attempted to use Radnor's experiences directing himself in comedy as a way into a discussion of the film we had just seen, but Radnor simply had nothing to say about Chaplin.
Govan praises Mitchell for "not siding with anyone," but Radnor's ignorance and apathy embodied the worst-case scenario of a straight-down-the-middle approach. It felt like an insult to anyone committed enough to classic cinema to go see a silent movie on a Tuesday night.
Somewhat more successful was Reitman's first event, a live table read of the shooting script of The Breakfast Club, performed by an all-star cast, including Jennifer Garner, Patton Oswalt and, uh, James Van Der Beek. It was, essentially, an evening of cinematic karaoke, suggesting an approach to film history based on nostalgia for the familiar rather than one inviting the audience to explore the unknown. It also sold out — not an easy feat for the Bing, which is significantly larger than most repertory houses in the city.
Before the show, I asked Reitman how he'd respond to the criticism that a live table read of The Breakfast Club doesn't belong in a museum's cinema screening program. On the other end of the phone, he was silent for a long time. Finally, he said, "The Breakfast Club is a great movie and I think John Hughes is a great writer, so I wouldn't really even know how to respond to that."
"I understand that The Breakfast Club is not everybody's idea of a 'classic,' " Mitchell admitted over lunch. "It's more like a TNT 'New Classic.' "
This statement is maybe the key to understanding the philosophical rift between Birnie's program and Mitchell's. It's one thing to be more inclusive of audiences who aren't experts on the canon, who don't show up for more adventurous programming — and by extension, accommodate the needs of current and future Hollywood patrons. But does that need to happen at the expense of honoring the canon and adventurous, noncommercial contemporary work? Is the purpose of a museum to validate the general public's tastes, or is it to educate the audience about the past and future in ways that will challenge those tastes and expand them? Does the New Classic have to usurp just plain classic?
Perhaps in an effort to correct for such questioning, for his second Live Read, which happens tonight, Reitman chose an undeniable Old Classic: The Apartment.
Both Govan and Mitchell say that any short shrift being given to cinephile interests will be corrected in the long run. LACMA's program is currently bound to a single screen funded only for one or two screenings each week, and before that can change, audience numbers and patron dollars need to grow. The hope is to eventually add nights, and even to build new theaters on the LACMA campus.
"With three or four theaters, you probably satisfy almost everyone," Govan says. "You could have plenty of classic cinema, and you would have space to engage the commercial community, which is so much a part of our city."
Despite the wagers laid in some circles on how long Mitchell's latest gig will last, one thing everyone involved with his hiring stresses is that they're in it for the long haul. LACMA has a two-year contract with FIND, which has its own contract with Mitchell.
He says he takes that commitment seriously. "I said, 'If you guys aren't willing to bet on me for a couple of years and do what it takes to build an audience here, then I think we're all wasting our time.' "
Mitchell acknowledges that his learning curve "is a long one." He asks a lot of questions about the character of the programming and audience at L.A. venues such as Cinefamily and the American Cinematheque. He says he's never been to the ArcLight in Hollywood.
When I ask how he's going to attract notoriously fickle L.A. moviegoers to the Bing, he repeatedly brings up the fact that LACMA has a bar. "You can get a drink, talk about a movie afterwards without having to get into a car, [which] kind of dissipates the need to talk about it," he points out.
There's no question that conversation is central to what Mitchell brings to the table, and of the many LACMA events I attended while writing this story, the value of that was most apparent on Nov. 3, when Mitchell presented a screening of La terra trema. The 1948 directorial debut of Luchino Visconti (The Leopard), it's a nearly three-hour docudrama about the futility of ambition among peasant fisherman. It stars all nonprofessional actors and was initially commissioned by the Communist Party. It is not anyone's idea of a commercial film.
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