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The Long, Hot Summer of L.A. Film

Attention-seeker: LACMA director Michael Govan
Kevin Scanlon

As wildfires scorched Southern California and Angelenos choked on the ocher air, so too did Los Angeles film culture find itself gasping for breath. First, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art decided to suspend its long-running weekend film series. Next came word that the Mann Theatres chain would be vacating its leases on the historic Village and Bruin theaters in Westwood and was also looking for a buyer for the iconic Grauman’s Chinese in Hollywood. Then the Los Angeles Film Festival’s Director of Programming, Rachel Rosen, announced she would be leaving to take a similar job not at Cannes or Sundance or Toronto or New York, but rather at the San Francisco International Film Festival, which everyone in local and national film circles seems to agree is not just L.A.’s loss but Rosen’s decided gain. It was that kind of summer.

Relievedly, LACMA’s film department was not about to go nearly so quietly into that dark night. Faster than a tectonic shift along the San Andreas Fault, word of the museum’s decision rumbled through the L.A. cinephile community and beyond, stirring up an old-fashioned grass-roots protest movement in its wake. By the time I touched down at LAX on the first Sunday in August after two weeks serving on the selection committee for this year’s New York Film Festival, an organization calling itself Save Film at LACMA had already garnered more than 1,300 signatures and impassioned testimonials for an online petition (a number that would eventually double), started an even bigger Facebook group and released a self-produced viral video modeled on the famous “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sequence from the Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back. In addition, the LACMA brass — chiefly, museum director and CEO Michael Govan — had taken a public drubbing from Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, the first in a series of poison-pen letters published by the paper, including a Martin Scorsese op-ed and an outing of Govan’s $1 million annual salary.

Meanwhile, the rumor mill churned wildly: Some said that the film series had long been an object of scorn among LACMA’s other curatorial departments, which sought to get their hands on the 600-seat Leo S. Bing Theater for their own purposes — a theory bolstered by the museum’s July 29 press release stating that future film programming would “place greater emphasis on artist-created films.” Others suggested that the film series’ predominantly older, decidedly unfashionable patrons were a blemish on LACMA’s aggressive efforts to attract a younger, hipper demographic. All unconfirmed, mind you. But, as the silver-tongued SS Colonel Hans Landa wisely advises in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, “Facts can be so misleading, where rumors, true or false, are often revealing.”

Amid all the mudslinging, LACMA began to suggest that its move to suspend the film program was less a case of cold-blooded murder than a suicide attempt — an impassioned cry for help. “If people didn’t complain, we’d be in real trouble — it would mean people didn’t value film at the museum,” Govan told the Times’ Mike Boehm on August 7, three days before meeting informally with me, film critic and historian Richard Schickel, USC English professor Leo Braudy and writer Jamie Wolf at Wolf’s home in Beverly Hills for an alcohol-free version of President Obama’s Beer Garden Summit. There, Govan — an affable, impeccably well-groomed figure in an expensive black suit — further insisted that the ruckus he’d caused was fully intentional; that the film series had been dying a slow death since before his arrival at the museum in 2006 and that attempts to raise funding had fallen on deaf ears; that pushing LACMA’s film department out on a ledge was, in effect, the only way to save it.

He may have been right. When LACMA announced last week that it had secured two $75,000 gifts (from Time Warner Cable and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) to keep the film department operational through next summer, it was, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, a reminder that people often don’t know what they’ve got until it’s (nearly) gone. But if the initial battle to save LACMA’s film programming has been won, the war is far from over. As of this writing, the museum has made no official statement about the long-term future of the department, or of its longtime director, Ian Birnie — subjects I imagine will be near the top of the docket when Govan meets with the leaders of the Save Film at LACMA movement for a tête-à-tête dubbed the Popcorn Summit, scheduled to take place on September 1, just as this article is going to press.

For all the vitriol that has been spewed in his direction of late, Govan strikes me as a basically serious, tasteful guy who knows more about movies than you might expect (as an art student at UCSD in the 1980s, he studied film with the late critic Manny Farber and erstwhile Godard compatriot Jean-Pierre Gorin) and who, though he may have gone about it in an inelegant fashion, does want to do right by the LACMA film program. Just how much institutional support there is for film at the museum, however, remains open to debate: While researching this article, I was shocked to discover that an extensive selection of videos and podcasts available on LACMA’s Web site, grouped under the heading “The Screening Room,” contains not one single download related to the film department’s activities. There, you can see Govan interview artists Chris Burden and Jorge Pardo, watch a 30-minute documentary about Dan Flavin, or take a hardhat tour of the new Wilshire Boulevard atrium with museum president Melody Kanschat. But if you’re looking for, say, Ian Birnie’s onstage conversation with Olivia de Havilland from her 2006 retrospective — or any of the similar filmmaker dialogues that have more recently graced the Bing stage — you’re out of luck.

 

In our own face-to-face meeting last month and in a series of subsequent e-mails, Govan repeatedly stressed his desire to expand rather than contract the film presence at the museum. One of his ambitions, he writes in an August 24 message, is to “create a film department within the curatorial center of the museum that will be charged with critical thinking about the history and future of film as art. Not only should LACMA consider a classic history of film,” he continues, “we should consider film’s increasing importance in the larger narrative of art history, and be on the forefront of thinking about how film and moving images are playing an ever-increasing role in contemporary art and life.”

That is by no means an ignoble goal, though it could be argued that it is what the film department has already been doing on a somewhat smaller scale. Contrary to reports that have characterized the current LACMA program as consisting strictly of Hollywood and foreign-language classics, the museum has, in the past few years alone, introduced Los Angeles audiences to much new work by some of the leading figures in contemporary world cinema — filmmakers like Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas (whose Silent Light played to sold-out crowds in the Bing earlier this year), Germany’s Heinz Emigholz and South Korea’s Hong Sang-Soo (the subject of a nearly complete retrospective beginning later this month), who exist on the very forefront Govan is talking about. And at a time when it is more difficult than ever for such films to find commercial distribution in the U.S., LACMA is exactly the sort of institution that should be taking it upon itself to give them wider exposure.

In a perfect world, LACMA would be presenting film programs not just on the weekends but 300-plus days a year, like the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It’s clear, however, that anything of the sort — even keeping the weekend screenings going past June 2010 — is going to take money, and a lot more than $150,000 at that. Govan speaks idealistically of a $5 million-to-$10 million named endowment that would keep the film department in the black for the next decade and allow the museum to incorporate it as a full curatorial department — it has been, until now, a subsidiary of the education department — but, as Weekly features editor Tom Christie pointed out in a related blog post, the Hollywood studios and their A-list talent, who many expected to ride to LACMA’s rescue, have thus far kept their checkbooks sealed (despite a summer movie season that set a new record for domestic box-office receipts). So for the moment, I’m prepared to take Govan at his word, though given that LACMA’s biggest film-related benefactors to date have been a cable-TV provider and a much-maligned group of foreign journalists, I’ll wager he has his work cut out for him.

Los Angeles moviegoers, it must be said, have their work cut out for them too. When friends and colleagues have written and called over the past few weeks expressing their dismay about the LACMA situation, a typical refrain has been: “How could something like this happen in L.A., of all places?” You know, Tinseltown. The nerve center of the entire worldwide film industry. To which my response has been: “How could it not?” What I mean is that while L.A. certainly doesn’t lack for a community of passionate, informed, dedicated film buffs who value the programming at LACMA and the city’s other specialized film venues, even the best of us have a tendency to take this cornucopia of cinematic offerings for granted in a way that audiences in other major cities don’t. It’s almost as if, this being the company town, we feel we have free license to embrace movies when we want to and ignore them whenever it’s convenient, certain that they will always be there. Oh, another world-famous auteur is doing a Q&A at the Egyptian tonight? Yawn, I’ll catch the next one.

 

But institutions like LACMA and REDCAT and the UCLA Film and Television Archive won’t survive on our goodwill alone, and as one whose job involves staying in constant contact with the curators of those venues, I am only too aware of how many of their programs play to half- or three-quarters-empty houses. For every bona fide blockbuster like LACMA’s 1999 Robert Bresson retrospective and its 2001 Hou Hsiao-hsien series, or last year’s multivenue Emigholz show, there are many more like this past May’s survey of the legendary Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, co-presented by LACMA and the American Cinematheque, which reportedly averaged sales of less than 100 tickets per film. In a recent interview with the San Francisco–based film blogger Michael Guillen, James Quandt, the veteran Cinematheque Ontario programmer who organized the traveling Oshima series, singled out L.A. as one of the cities where it had the poorest performance (far less attendance than Toronto and Berkeley), and noted that other traveling exhibitions he has coordinated have been picked up by L.A. venues only in dramatically abridged versions — a way of guarding against the losses incurred by a long, poorly attended series.

That perceived apathy may be one reason why, earlier this week, LACMA and Govan announced the launch of a new program, CineClub, which will allow LACMA members to make a direct contribution to the film department by adding an extra $50 to any level of museum membership. Modeled on the Cinema Club membership program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the CineClub program will entitle members to priority ticketing and seating, as well as other benefits. It also throws down the gauntlet for the Save Film at LACMA campaigners — the majority of whom, LACMA’s press release took pains to note, are not current museum members — to put their money where their mouths are. (In another positive turn, LACMA used the occasion to announce a Birnie-curated programming slate through the end of November, including retrospectives of Hitchcock and Tarkovsky, as well as work by master avant-garde filmmakers James Benning, Bruce Conner and Ernie Gehr.)

Heartening as it has been to see the enormous outpouring of support from both the public and the press over LACMAgate — it is, after all, a worthy cause and a good story — it doesn’t negate the fact that serious film culture has been struggling to keep its head above water in this city for a long time now, often to the evident indifference of moviegoers and media alike. Even as the L.A. Times emerged as media ground zero for LACMA updates, it was hard to forget that, only last November, the Times failed to include so much as a single mention of REDCAT’s film programming in a multisection package about the venue’s fifth anniversary. And once calm and order is restored at LACMA, will the Times continue to afford the museum such lavish attention, or will it go back to burying coverage of LACMA’s film programs in the back pages of Calendar? More importantly, once all the current hoopla dies down, will anyone notice if it does?

In the case of Rosen, her departure for the San Francisco festival is actually more of a homecoming — she worked there as an associate programmer for most of the ’90s. It’s also a festival that doesn’t lack for prestige — it’s the oldest in North America, presently gearing up for its 53rd edition, and last year alone presented gala awards to the likes of Robert Redford, Francis Coppola and James Toback, all in one room, all on the same night. But the meat and potatoes of SFIFF, as has always been the case, is a carefully curated program of the best in recent world cinema, for which the festival attracts a devoted and adventurous local audience. That’s a programming philosophy Rosen very much brought to bear on LAFF in her near-decade there, dramatically expanding a festival that had once shown almost exclusively American independent films to include international and avant-garde work, films from developing countries, and sidebars on everything from expat directors working in L.A. to 1950s hot-rod movies. “After 10 years in San Francisco, I knew what would go over there, and I knew generally how many people would show up to everything,” Rosen told me in a 2004 L.A. Weekly interview, explaining any programmer’s need to know his or her audience. “It was almost the opposite of here,” she continued. “Invariably, programs like the 20-hour Chris Marker TV series would be the first thing to sell out there. It’s not exactly anti-elitism, but there’s very much more a consciousness about popular culture in L.A. In San Francisco and New York, it’s more about intellectual culture. Of course, those are broad generalizations, and they’ll offend certain people.”

 

But rather than offend, Rosen quickly learned her new L.A. audience, helping to nearly double LAFF attendance while testing the waters with such challenging fare as the four-hour Argentinian film Extraordinary Stories and Chinese director Wang Bing’s gallery installation Crude Oil, both included in LAFF’s 2009 program. Even then, one sensed Rosen may have faced compromises here that she won’t in the Bay Area, like the increasing proliferation of white-noise summer blockbusters (including Wanted and both Transformers pictures) selected for LAFF’s high-profile gala slots, to say nothing of this year’s opening-night film, Paper Man, an atrocious Sundance also-ran tub-thumped by the festival for its marquee names (Jeff Daniels, Ryan Reynolds, et al.) and “world premiere” status. Those, I dare say, are programming choices decidedly lacking in Rosen’s unfailing good taste, and while I have every confidence that the executives at Film Independent (LAFF’s presenting organization) do not wish to proceed too much further down this particular, soul-selling road in the post-Rosen era, it never hurts to offer a gentle nudge in the right direction.

All things considered, we are presently living in something like a golden age for movies in this city, with two significantly revitalized festivals (LAFF and AFI Fest) and more specialized venues (I have thus far neglected to mention the thoroughly wonderful Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre) doing more consistently interesting work than at any other moment in the 15 years since I moved here. The UCLA Archive is ensconced in beautiful new digs at the Billy Wilder Theater, and the American Cinematheque now has not just one but two permanent homes, bestriding the city from Hollywood to Santa Monica like some celluloid colossus. Not least, the venerable New Beverly Cinema, deemed a goner after the 2007 death of its longtime owner/operator, Sherman Torgan, has somehow stayed the course (and gotten a face-lift in the bargain). And what is most remarkable is the diversity of the programming, the lack of overlap between these venues, each one bringing some unique offering to the city’s cinematic farmers market. But Golden Ages tend to be fleeting, and the problem with this embarrassment of riches is that it is fundamentally poor — underfunded, underattended and chronically underappreciated. The storied L.A. revival and repertory cinemas of the ’60s and ’70s vanished almost overnight, like the dinosaurs swallowed up by tar, and there are no guarantees against history repeating itself. I wish I could be more optimistic. Instead, all I can say is that if you care about film culture in this town, enjoy yourself — it’s later than you think.

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