Behind the Screen at the Museum
Photo by Michael PowersANYONE WITH A MIND TO TEST THE NOTION THAT L.A. moviegoers will digest only pap might have joined the sell-out crowd that showed up at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the summer of 1997 for a five-week series celebrating film sound as an art form. The audience was by no means exclusively pro, LACMA film programmer Ian Birnie assures me proudly, but a motley bunch of sound editors, audio geeks and just plain fascinated laypeople. "It was wonderful to come in here on a Saturday at 5 p.m., and there'd be three or four hundred people listening to sound editors talk about sound."
That kind of attendance for a series some would consider arcane has to be gratifying on more than aesthetic grounds. As the lone full-time programmer for LACMA's film department (his peers at the American Cinematheque and the UCLA Film and Television Archive operate with full departments), Birnie is required to be financially self-supporting. Which means not just aggressively soliciting corporate sponsorship, but regularly getting bums in the seats of the museum's 600-seat Bing Theater. Given LACMA's location in the well-heeled Mid-Wilshire district, and the older demographic skew of the 100,000 museum subscribers that define Birnie's database, the pressure to cater to the commercial middle must be overwhelming. So it's a tribute to Birnie's sense of adventure that LACMA's film offerings roam the cultural map, from the high end of popular culture (Charlie Chaplin, Jerome Kern, the films of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro) and the bracingly low (John Waters, Roger Corman), to art-house series such as the recent sold-out Robert Bresson retrospective and Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue. "In the three years since Ian took over," says the American Cinematheque's über-programmer, Dennis Bartok, "he's built on the museum's traditional strength, which was classic Hollywood films, but he's also expanded to do things like the Valley of the Dolls series. Between him and us and the smaller outfits that program specialist film festivals, there's more great exhibition in L.A. than anywhere in the country, including New York."
Under Birnie's predecessor, the late Ron Haver, the museum devoted itself to showing old American movies, a tradition that survives, up to a point, in the programming core and the Tuesday matinees, which are geared toward seniors. Even had he wanted to, Birnie couldn't have followed in Haver's footsteps. Classic-film exhibition has been irrevocably changed by cable television, which airs not only old favorites like Gone With the Wind, but a seemingly bottomless well of rare films from the '30s. "All looking beautiful on tape," laments Birnie, "and I can't get a print." Cable companies don't need a print to make a video copy, whereas striking a new 35mm print of an old movie is so costly that distributors can't earn back the losses on a re-release or sale of the new print -- which in turn limits the supply of old films Birnie can beg or borrow. And it's not only old films that are affected by cable. That LACMA's Meryl Streep retrospective flopped, says Birnie, is less a comment on the actress's star power than a function of the fact that cable stations have a lockhold on films released in the last 15 years. His Julie Christie series was a big draw, he thinks, largely because Christie has been reborn as a nostalgia item for aging boomers.
In addition to Streep and Christie, Birnie has showcased "It" girls Rita Hayworth, Jeanne Moreau and Clara Bow, along with a lively and well-attended series on women screenwriters. One senses that his lavish programming for women is not just a nod to the museum's heavily female audience, but a private passion. By contrast with the Cinematheque's Bartok, who favors genre movies, and the UCLA Archive, which leans toward international art cinema that reaches beyond Europe to Africa and Asia, the 48-year-old programmer's taste, honed through his close professional connection with the Museum of Modern of Art, runs to midcentury Manhattan urbane. To this extent he's perfectly in sync with LACMA's core audience, as witness the enormously popular Preston Sturges series and the current George Cukor centennial. "I like a musical," Birnie says, laughing, "with sparkling dialogue, a tuxedo, a martini, you know."
AS A CHILD BIRNIE WAS ATTRACTED TO THE DRIVE-IN movie theaters he saw from the window of his parents' car while driving to their cottage north of Toronto. "I'd see across the field a screen glowing with an image which you could see for three minutes approaching, and three leaving. I found that transfixing." The experience prefaced both a lifelong love of the U.S. that's unusual in a Canadian, and a moviegoing habit that prepared him better than any professional training for his future career. Birnie spent most of his two years as a film major at Northwestern University goofing off at Chicago's Clark Cinema, which played double bills for 66 cents a pop. After that, the young film fanatic oscillated between Toronto, where he became part of the frisky film scene in which young directors like Atom Egoyan were making their mark, and his beloved New York, where he worked for the classic film distributor Janus Films, did a brief stint as Ontario's cultural attaché to the United States ("one small step for mankind, but a big leap for me") and ran special series at the Toronto, Cannes and Berlin festivals.
Birnie's big break came on a single day when he was offered both the LACMA job and directorship of the Hamptons Film Festival. Los Angeles won. "It's a great city to come to with city skills from somewhere like New York, where you're constantly making decisions about what to do and how to respond to the constant barrage of what's going on. In Los Angeles, if you work at it, you can put together an extremely interesting day that the city isn't exactly giving you, but allows you to construct. You have to keep your Rolodex going."
After his first LACMA program, a "complete flop" based on the idea of narrative structure ("Now I could remount that series and do much better, because the audience has come along"), Birnie began to fatten that Rolodex by defining sub-mailing lists within the broad audience according to spheres of interest -- jazz lovers, animation lovers, foreign-film buffs -- as well as by age and gender. "If you can isolate an audience," he says, "you can develop an audience. Even if it's 600 people, there's a good chance half of them will show up, because how else can they see the cartoons of Frank Tashlin gathered together?"
Of necessity -- LACMA films play only Fridays and Saturdays -- Birnie's programming has to be more eclectic than catholic. Yet his range is wide and his reach bold, cannily slotted around the margins of the more traditional offerings that serve the museum's subscriber base, many of whom would flock to a 50th-anniversary screening of Exodus or a tribute to Jerome Kern, but might blanch at his Paul Morrissey retrospective, or at the Burroughs on Film series. "Ian straddles desire and expectation," says the UCLA Archive's head of programming, Andrea Alsberg, who worked with Birnie on a John Ford series and an Asian-Pacific festival that drew mostly UCLA audiences, and who speaks of Birnie with affection. So does Bartok: "The great thing about Ian is that he's got an ebullient personality, and a childlike enthusiasm for film, which you have to have in this business." Birnie is as generous to his colleagues as they are to him. There's little reason for them to be otherwise, given their radically different geographical and taste bases -- though such considerations have never deterred their New York counterparts from robust feuding. "In Los Angeles the programming community is so small," comments Cheng-Sim Lim, a UCLA programmer, "there's a level of collegiality that, relatively speaking, you don't find in New York."
For a man of his intellectual sophistication, Birnie is surprisingly leery of owning to a coherent programming philosophy: "I should have a pat answer, but not really. When I watch a film I'm struck by different things simultaneously -- 'Oh my, what incredible cinematography,' or 'This reminds me of another film that has this look,' or I'm struck by some thematic thing. Recently I've been thinking there's a whole group of films about postwar American life -- they're not even particularly good films, they're just interesting in what they tell you about the suburbanizing of America." He's full of ideas about what the L.A. cultural traffic will bear, but in the end his governing principle is personal taste. "If you don't program films you want to watch yourself," says Birnie, "you're going to have a really horrible evening, week after week after week." Which is why he's off to Europe for the summer, among other things to research a series on films made in the unified Berlin between the two world wars.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.