Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

Cinemawhat? The word, French-coined, may be unfamiliar to some American ears — and evocative of movie clips at the disco palace — but its meaning is straightforward: an archive, or preserve, for the study of movies. France’s fabled Cinema theque, founded in 1936 by passionate collector Henri Langlois, not only saved thousands of films from extinction during World War II; its screenings and restorations during the ’50s inspired a generation of film critics (Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol) to become filmmakers and, through them, sparked a “New Wave” whose impact is still being felt around the world.

Langlois died in 1977, while planning the creation of an American Cinematheque. His dream was taken over by Gary Essert (founder of L.A.’s first-ever film festival, Filmex) and his partner Gary Abrahams, who together promoted the idea — with heroic en thusiasm, against steep odds — until their own deaths in 1992. By this time, the Cinematheque had a board of directors and an endowment, and Barbara Smith, who’d worked closely with the two Garys, became executive director in their wake. With quiet diligence and a staff of sharp-witted young film lovers, she transformed the shared dream into a thriving reality.

Since then, the Cinematheque has become the best place in town for seeing and discovering foreign movies — “Recent French Cinema,” “Recent Spanish Cinema.” Programmer Dennis Bartok has organized superb tributes to mavericks and mad fiends alike: Acknowledged lights like John Cassavetes, Sam Fuller and Wim Wenders are given equal weight with such seldom-heralded maestros of the low-rent sublime as Mario Bava (Black Sabbath, Mark of the Demon) and Lloyd Kaufman (The Toxic Avenger II, Tromeo and Juliet). Individual films may vary wildly in quality, but one could never call the selections predictable, or pretentious. At first, events were monthly, then weekly, held in the smaller theater at the Directors Guild, and more recently in the largest theater at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. The Cinematheque had succeeded in creating a strong public identity without the benefit of a permanent home. But now, that’s changed.

The site is the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, “City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 584.” Since 1993, and somewhat delayed by the ’94 earthquake, the Cinematheque has been carefully restoring and refurbishing the insides of this vintage palace of the silent era, first opened in 1922. The original frescoes in the lobby and corridors have been restored with a patience worthy of mosaics from pre-Christian Byzantium. Indeed, the anonymous jazz-age cartoonists who executed these Egyptoid doodles would be tickled silly to see that their playful imitations of historical relics have, in the space of a few decades, become actual relics — “historic fabric,” in the law’s nice phrase.

The main theater has been entirely — and cleverly — revamped without harming said fabric. The 630 plush new seats filling the auditorium have been raked at an admirable angle: No moviegoer’s head will ever be in another’s way. Sliding panels have been mounted on tracks near the ceiling, and move into position whenever the lights dim, creating pristine acoustics — a perennial problem in a theater designed before there were even talkies. When a silent film is shown, the panels will stay in place and a vintage Wurlitzer organ, in permanent residence at the foot of the stage, will be deployed for accompaniment. The projection booth is specially outfitted for nitrate prints (which are otherwise fire hazards), as well as for 16-, 35- and 70-millimeter celluloid. A small second theater, hulking in the lobby under its closed shell like a Lakota sweat lodge cast in plaster, seats 80 — ideal for press screenings and video events. The vast, palm-lined atrium out front has been restored to its 1922 neo-Cleopatran splendor after decades of architectural monkeying.

On December 4, the Cinematheque celebrated its opening with a gala presentation of De Mille’s 1923 version of The Ten Commandments (which had premiered at the Egyptian 75 years ago to the day), complete with live orchestra. This week DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt opens there. And on February 3, the Cinema theque will open for regular business.

“Back in ’78,” says a European film director who’s been living here off and on for 20 years, “Los Angeles was the worst kind of provincial backwater. You had to drive to the Valley to find a decent cup of cappuccino. International newspapers were hard to find, and arrived a week late. You could never see decent foreign films. Now L.A. has become a truly international city.” Like Venice in the 14th century, the Los Angeles of the turning millennium has awakened to find itself at the economic and cultural crossroads of the world. This transformation — in part circumstantial and in part willed by Angelenos themselves — has never been more visible than in the efforts that have led to the birth of the American Cinematheque.

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