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LACMA Film Program Saved? Not So Fast.

I wondered if I was sounding too sour a note when I suggested, in a September 2 editorial, that Los Angeles moviegoers shouldn't be entirely exempted form blame regarding the recent decision of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to suspend and reconfigure its 41-year-old film series. Even after the series received a year-long reprieve thanks to generous donations from Time Warner Cable and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, I cautioned that those who had so vocally protested the museum's action shouldn't pat themselves on the back just yet: "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," I wrote, "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."

And then, as if to prove my point, word has reached me here at the Toronto Film Festival that LACMA's first major film program since its new lease on life, an eight-film retrospective of the maverick South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, has been close to a disaster. As I noted here, the series, which began last weekend with the U.S. premiere of Hong's latest film, Like You Know It All, and concludes this weekend with the local premiere of his previous feature, Night and Day, marks the first significant Los Angeles survey of this major director, who has had two of his films selected for competition in Cannes and five for inclusion in the New York Film Festival. And yet, a colleague who attended most of last weekend's Hong screenings reports that there were less than 100 people in attendance for each show -- numbers on par with the turnout for last spring's retrospective of the master Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Oshima. It was a situation hardly aided, I suspect, by the complete absence of coverage for the Hong series in the Los Angeles Times (which was all ears a few weeks ago, back when film at LACMA was still, you know, cool).

LACMA Film Program Saved? Not So Fast.

As one who had a hand in programming Night and Day

for last year's New York Film Festival, I'll be the first to admit that

Hong isn't exactly an easy sell. His films are talky and idiosyncratic,

filled with awkward sexual encounters, and lacking in the overt

pictorial beauty of so much art-house catnip. But he is also one of the

sharpest contemporary observers of the befuddling battle of the sexes,

and his movies have grown warmer, funnier and more accessible over

time. (Here in Toronto, his Woman on the Beach was an audience favorite back in 2006.) 

The

more pressing question is whether or not the moviegoers of this city

are seriously committed to supporting an eclectic, ambitious...oh, I'll

just come out and say it...New York-calibre film program at LACMA.

There is no simple answer. Although it would be easy to surmise that

the LACMA filmgoing faithful are primarily interested in seeing classic

Hollywood and world cinema along the lines of the recent series on

James Mason and David Lean -- a year-round Turner Classic Movies, if

you will -- some of the museum's most popular recent film programs have

been focused on newer (and, it should be noted, quite challenging)

work, like the retrospective of Hungarian director Béla Tarr and the

sold-out screenings of Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light.

With

luck, the Hong series will prove a momentary lull in LACMA's hoped-for

film renaissance, but I for one have never been a gambling man. In the

meantime, in an effort to boost attendance, LACMA is offering free

admission to Saturday afternoon's screening of Hong's superb 1998

sophomore feature, The Power of Kangwon Provence, and Hong himself is flying in for Toronto to conduct an on-stage Q&A following Saturday evening's screening of Night and Day. When he gets there, will he find the Bing Theater half-full or half-empty?

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