LACMA Goes Hollywood With Elvis Mitchell
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.
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.
In entertainment-journalism circles, Mitchell is something of a pariah; so many columnists and bloggers weighed in on his Movieline firing that Variety covered the coverage. Mitchell's résumé (which includes a stint as critic at this publication, circa 1989) is so checkered that blog The Awl posted it earlier this year without editorial comment, as a statement in itself.
That résumé peaks with the four and a half years Mitchell put in as co–lead film critic at the New York Times (1999-2004) and two semesters as a guest lecturer at Harvard (2004). "He's certainly the most powerful black film critic in history, full stop," Harvard professor Henry "Skip" Gates told New York magazine that year.
Two words often dropped in criticism of Mitchell are "opportunist" and "flake." Some would say these are not mutually exclusive: Unable to say no to offers and invitations, Mitchell has been known to be so overscheduled that such basic job requirements as communicating with editors and meeting deadlines tend to fall through the cracks. Mitchell also has long baited charges of conflict of interest. (In 1992, he spent a few months as a development exec at Paramount, a post from which he reportedly was fired for refusing to give up a simultaneous gig reviewing movies on NPR's Weekend Edition.)
When FIND announced Mitchell's hiring for the LACMA job on June 16, it was hours before the Los Angeles Film Festival's opening-night, open-bar party. It quickly became a hot topic within a crowd thick with film journalists, curators and festival programmers — some of whom had applied for the job. Wagers were laid on how long Mitchell would last at the position. One friend joked that the hiring might be Govan's attempt to take a page from The Producers — engineering a program destined to fail, so that he could kill off Film at LACMA once and for all.
This kind of bitter bitchery is nothing unusual. Journalists, filmmakers, random people on the street — it seems everyone has an Elvis Mitchell story. Both those who consider themselves Friends of Elvis and those whose relationships with him are sour or worse are happy to dish about him — albeit almost always off the record. Some are afraid of losing current or future jobs in the ever-more-tenuous world of film journalism. Others simply enjoy his admittedly fine company too much to risk losing it.
This reticence only fuels a legend that some suggest is overblown.
"I do not recognize the Elvis Mitchell who is often written about in the press," screenwriter Brian Koppelman (Ocean's Thirteen), a friend of Mitchell's for 14 years, told me via email. "The guy I know is focused, present, insanely bright and totally reliable."
Over lunch at Ray's, when the conversation turns to Mitchell as a constant topic of conversation, the critic-turned-curator sits back in his chair and smiles slyly. "I kind of like it that people gossip about me."
Not that he'll cop to reading any of that gossip — just as most filmmakers claim they don't read reviews.
When asked about his work history, Mitchell says, "I haven't moved around that much." He points to the gigs he's held on to for more than a decade, his once-a-week spots on NPR and KCRW. "I mean, I end up doing a couple of things at a time, but that's OK. I like being stimulated."
Mitchell says neither of his two high-profile job exits this year is relevant to his new position. "The Ebert thing just didn't work out, we just couldn't, like, come to an agreement. And Movieline, they obviously didn't want me, because they fired me."
While Chaz Ebert, wife of Roger and producer of At the Movies, did not respond to an email request for comment, a Friend of Elvis suggests one reason why Mitchell and the Eberts "couldn't come to an agreement" is because Mitchell may have been concerned that the show, a low-budget affair produced independently in Chicago and aired on public TV, was too small-time for him. That would jibe with the oft-reported notion of Mitchell as a social climber, whose work as a critic arguably is compromised by his desire to live the kind of life enjoyed by the people who make movies.
Mitchell acknowledges that he feeds this part of his legend: "I dress well, I travel, I seem to be relatively glamorous for a film guy — which, to me, is like being the fastest midget in the circus," a phrase he uses to denote something meaningless.
Movieline also ignored a request for comment, but sources say that during his brief employment for the site, Mitchell was hard to reach and bad with deadlines — not terribly unusual for a star columnist. This was tolerated until director Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie) took to Twitter to protest Mitchell's review of his sci-fi flick Source Code.
While the review was generally negative, Jones took particular issue with this couplet: "It's up to Jeffrey Wright, as the administrator supervising the Source Code — the machine that keeps firing Colter back, back, back to the recent past — and his eccentric brio to keep the silliness from piling up like ash from his pipe. That's how you know this film is science fiction — someone is smoking indoors in the United States — and that Wright is a martinet whose malevolence must be checked."
The problem, to quote Jones' tweet: "Find it odd Movieline choose to complain about Jeffrey Wright smoking a pipe, something in an old draft of the script that's not in the film."
Jones' implied accusation — that Mitchell reviewed the film without having seen it — spread like wildfire across the net. Critics came forward to say they had seen Mitchell at a screening of the film in New York (one told me it was hard to miss him, since he walked in with SNL star Bill Hader as his plus-one). But when Movieline demanded a formal explanation from its critic, it didn't get one.
When I tell Mitchell I want to give him the chance to tell his side of the story, he says, "Well, I feel like my career and the work I've done speaks for itself. That's why I don't respond to any of this stuff. If somebody wants to attack my work, that's one thing — that I'll respond to."
So did he ever respond to Jones directly?
"No, I did not," Mitchell says. He categorizes Jones' tweet as a strategic effort to undermine the authority of one of the film's few negative reviews. "I made a joke ... and he jumped on it. And that was his very well-played way of dealing with things."
In Mitchell's new position, he's paid by one organization (FIND) to put on a screening series housed by another organization (LACMA), pulling from a budget supplied, in part, by outside patrons whose support could well be susceptible to gossip and bad press.
His new employers say they're not worried.
"We have our complete faith in Elvis," says Sean McManus, acting director of Film Independent. (Though FIND pays Mitchell's salary, it refused to disclose to me what it is.)
Govan, incredibly, manages to spin Mitchell's bad rep into a positive.
"You know, people have said things to me and I think it was discussed that he, uh, can be a bit nomadic," Govan admits. "But we saw it as a potential strength. Some people can see it as, 'You weren't in the office today,' other people can see it as, 'You were in the world today!' And I felt that that's what for me was a plus, not a negative. I'm not obsessed with curators being tied to desks."
The FIND/LACMA collaboration may have been set up to allow for its figurehead to be untethered from either of his desks. (He has offices at both FIND and LACMA.) But when asked if this is a job Mitchell can do fully remotely, via email from international film festivals or wherever he may be, Govan dials back.
"Well, no, I mean, he's gotta be here to talk to people in person, because he's got a killer personality and you need him to be here meeting with Jason Reitman, having lunches, connecting people together, and he's going to be helping to raise some money. So he'll be here and away."
If you allow Mitchell's work to speak for itself, rather than let his work history overwhelm it, his writing offers insight into what he represents, and how that fits Govan's vision.
As a critic and as an interviewer, Mitchell has promoted a variety of informed but casual, entry-level cinephilia, which cuts a wide swath through classic film and contemporary Hollywood, blockbusters and festival indies. His omnivorous appetite for culture manifests itself in the hallmark of his writing style: the free-associative zeitgeist reference. In one L.A. Weekly review, he described Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as "a boy's book of adventure written by Mister Rogers." His New York Times review of Mean Girls noted, "Sometimes, the film is like a teenage version of the undercover mob saga Donnie Brasco." Everything he takes in, he converts to pop culture shorthand.
Mitchell has a lot in common with his friend and mentor, the late Pauline Kael — another reviewer whose nonacademic sensibility and slippery professional ethics drew controversy even as her stubborn individualism and conversational tone turned her into a legend. For better or worse, both Kael and Mitchell have turned people who think they don't care about film criticism into consumers of it. Maybe more significantly, as Kael was a New Yorker reader's idea of an iconoclast, Mitchell is a KCRW listener's idea of a scholar and a rebel.
Under Ian Birnie's curatorship, LACMA's film program offered Angelenos a place to worship at the altar of Hollywood legends as diverse as Audrey Hepburn and Terrence Malick via comprehensive surveys of their careers. It also provided crash courses in international cinemas outside of — but often in dialogue with — American commercial filmmaking, such as Hong Kong action flicks or the thrillers of Claude Chabrol. The program was regularly the only place in town to see new films by emerging world-cinema stars and major auteur rediscoveries. In August, the Bing Theater was full for one of the last pre-Mitchell events, a weekend run of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's four-hour sci-fi telepic World on a Wire.
In 2009, when Govan first announced he was suspending the film program, outraged fans banded together to form a group called Save Film at LACMA. They successfully kept the issue in the news by maintaining a blog and by circulating a petition in support of Birnie's program.
A turning point came on Aug. 12, 2009, when the L.A. Times published an "open letter" by Martin Scorsese, addressed to Govan and LACMA, pledging his support to the Save Film at LACMA cause.
If a screening series like Birnie's is "not valued in Hollywood," Scorsese wrote, "what does that say about the future of the art form? Aren't museums serving a cultural purpose beyond appealing to the largest possible audience?"
Today, Govan forcefully insists that an increase in attendance could never have saved Birnie's program. "I never put that forward. It was always over-simplified.
"You do some programs that are going to bring in a lot of people, so that you can do some programs where there aren't a lot of people, but you have more intellectual influence," he continues. "But numbers don't pay the bills. Not-for-profits, these days, are really based on patronage.
"Before, we were losing audiences, and we had no patrons," Govan says. "So that was going nowhere fast."
The initial response to the suspension was, indeed, an increase in patronage. Time Warner's Ovation cable network and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (best known as the organization responsible for the Golden Globes) combined to provide $150,000. That funded the program through June 2010.
But when Govan approached the foreign press group about continuing its patronage for a second year, the organization declined. "They said, 'We aren't giving you a grant because we aren't sure we think that your program is necessary.' I was furious."
Govan says he convinced the Hollywood Foreign Press to give LACMA a grant to explore its options. He then consulted with studio heads and nonprofits as to the best way to build a program that local, cash-rich entities would consider indispensable.
One of the key takeaways from these meetings was that LACMA could benefit from collaborating with another institution. A major asset LACMA brought to any partnership was its 600-seat Bing Theater and — perhaps more valuable in L.A. — ample, free nighttime parking. This was attractive to FILM Independent. That organization based its L.A. Film Festival at a multiplex at downtown's L.A. Live but had no permanent home for film events for the rest of the year.
In addition to infrastructure, FIND had access to two things Govan wanted: a large constituency of industry workers, and proven relationships with major corporate sponsors. FIND's ability to get the New York Times on board as a presenting sponsor at launch helped seal the deal.
Govan paid lip service to the concerns of the cinephile community. But today he admits that Birnie's program never could have been saved. Once the museum set its sights on film as a way to attract private donations and corporate sponsorship, Ian Birnie had to go.
"The collaboration would need new leadership," Govan says. Curating films would be just one aspect of the "growth program" he had in mind; Govan also wanted his curator to play an active role in fundraising and marketing.
Of Birnie, Govan says, "Ian's a very modest guy. That kind of entrepreneurial growth was not what he was in it for."
Govan has unquestionably been a catalyst for growth at the museum. He's led the construction of two new exhibition halls, as well as a restaurant and a bar. Attendance reportedly has increased 40 percent during his tenure. But LACMA's 2009 tax returns (the most recent available) show that donations to the museum on the whole, while on the rise in 2006 and 2007, plummeted to a five-year low of just under $41 million in 2009. That might help to explain why, after basically functioning as an ancillary program for decades, the film department suddenly was tagged that year as a potential area of growth.
Expert at attracting media coverage and deep-pocketed patrons, Govan — like his new film programmer — has been accused of living a little too large. In 2009, even as he told various media outlets that the museum couldn't afford to keep supporting a film program that he claimed had lost $1 million in the course of a decade, Govan notched a total of $1.1 million in annual salary, bonuses and deferred compensation, according to LACMA's tax returns.
Govan's own 1 percent status allows him to get close to the elites whose patronage the museum needs. A number of Hollywood players have joined LACMA's board of trustees during Govan's tenure, including Barbra Streisand, CAA super-agent Bryan Lourd and producer Brian Grazer. In April, a $467,500 donation from another board member, Steve Tisch (producer of the Taking of Pelham 123 remake), covered the full purchase price of Christian Marclay's video installation The Clock. The Clock was installed in a gallery for two months, and, though the film department had nothing to do with its acquisition or presentation, it was given two 24-hour screenings at the Bing over the summer. These screenings had the aura of happenings, attracting new audiences.
Writer-director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) had never seen a film at LACMA before The Clock. "I kind of knew that there was a screening series, but not really," he says. He's now presenting live table reads of screenplays at the Bing once a month as part of Mitchell's series.
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."
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.
Mitchell had originally booked Paul Feig, director of the summer blockbuster Bridesmaids, as his postscreening guest. After the Josh Radnor debacle, Feig was quietly taken off the schedule and replaced with James Gray, a filmmaker who, like Mitchell, keeps one foot in Hollywood commerce while maintaining higher-brow interests: His last film, Two Lovers, was a riff on Dostoyevsky's White Nights, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and a pre–hip-hop Joaquin Phoenix.
Opening with an anecdote about seeing La terrra trema as a 14-year-old double-feature rat in New York, Gray dominated the conversation — schooling Mitchell and the audience on Visconti's backstory as a "Mercedes Marxist," doing a charmingly terrible Scorsese impression. It was as lively and engaging a postscreening presentation as I've ever seen at a classic film screening in L.A.
It doesn't take a cynic to see that a program that met the needs of a small but passionate group of film lovers has been replaced with a program designed to attract general audiences and curry favor with Hollywood players, in order to pull big-money donors to the museum at large. But there is a best-case scenario in which Govan could have his "sustainability" and LACMA could serve an audience that cares about film as an art form and not just a commercial enterprise. Maybe they can't all be James Gray nights. Let's just hope for no more Josh Radnor nights.
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