May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
October 25, 2009
As the fall winds along, and the summer recedes into the past, the furor over the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s embattled film program gradually diminishes. And, yet, the museum, which is the largest of its kind west of the Mississippi River, and which has had a vibrant film program for more than forty years, ignited a firestorm when Michael Govan, the museum’s director, decided to cancel film screenings because of apparently declining attendance and an annual program deficit of approximately $100,000. Film at LACMA (as the museum is called) had become a line item on a spread sheet, a number in the red, an unnecessary expenditure, nothing more. This was unfortunate; cutting spending always seems to be the immediate purview and the reaction in dire times of directors, foundation boards, governors, deans of colleges, presidents, and CEOs, and yet there are many occasions in which the line item, the red number, mean more than just a problem to be solved.
Los Angeles, of course, is the center of the U.S. film industry, the locus of a nationally and globally dominant cultural machine, but it can be a fairly rich place for those of us who prefer international, art-house, and repertory cinema over the bulk of current mainstream films that the studios here generate. We have venues such as the Nuart on Santa Monica Boulevard, the Landmark on Pico (thanks to Mark Cuban, no less), the American Cinematheque, the Red Cat, the Billy Wild Theater, New Beverley Cinema, Laemmle’s various houses, and more. But the loss of LACMA’s film program was a harmful, disturbing development. The program, to a great degree, was the heart pumping all the celluloid blood: the museum is centrally located; its Bing Theater is spacious enough for large turnouts (600 seats); and the museum over the years has hosted career retrospectives of directors as diverse as Bergman, Bresson, Ozu, and Mizoguchi, of actors and actresses such as Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, and Humphrey Bogart. In September, LACMA premiered an entirely new print of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness, while, in October, it ran a retrospective of the films of Alain Resnais, including the mysterious Je T’aime, Je T’aime, which rarely, if ever, screens in the United States. And last year, LACMA was the only venue in Los Angeles to show Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light. The museum’s importance to the cinematic life of its city is difficult to overstate; we need this program.
In the very least, this need arises from Los Angeles’ undeserved reputation as a relatively hollow place, an apparent cultural also-ran slouching far behind New York and Chicago. Los Angeles is certainly many things: an oasis in a desert, an endless freeway, a holiday, a headache, an excuse (as in, I can’t make it because it’s thirty miles in stop-and-go traffic). The city is expansive and diverse; a trip from the east side, along the 60 and 10 freeways, to the west, beyond Fairfax, crosses entire social worlds. But the city is certainly no slouch. Its celebrated philharmonic, led for nearly two decades by the accomplished Esa-Pekka Salonen, now has a trailblazing leader in the young Gustavo Dudamel. The Mark Taper Forum, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Ahmanson Theater, and various venues in west L.A. provide theater and opera lovers with their cultural fixes. Listeners can find jazz at the Catalina Bar & Grill or rock at historic clubs on Sunset. We have two Getty Museums, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, the Museum of Contemporary Art, literary events and readings on a year-long basis, Shakespeare festivals, used book shops, and ethnic restaurants. But, even for all that, the decline of an institution as central as LACMA’s film program only feeds the stereotype of L.A.’s vast emptiness.
More than anything, though, the fate of LACMA’s film program revealed just how much attitude and perspective matter in the treatment and survival of any cultural endeavor or institution. As K.A. Westphal has pointed out in an incisive editorial on the crisis at LACMA, the museum has historically failed to promote its film program thoroughly, treating it is an afterthought and granting it only the tiniest portion of the museum’s massive $75 million annual budget. The director and staff of the museum can’t honestly expect citizens and museum supporters to take the film program seriously if they don’t. Or, as director Martin Scorcese wrote in a stern letter published in the Los Angeles Times, “the film department is often held at arms’ length at LACMA and other institutions, separate from the fine arts, and this simply should not be. Film departments should be accorded the same respect, and the same amount of financial leeway, as any other department of fine arts.” The question about the future of cinema in Los Angeles was not, and is not, a question solely about what a museum is going to do with its movie theater or how many tickets it will sell for a film starring Audrey Hepburn, much less one starring Setsuko Hara. The question, as Scorcese suggests, involves how we all think about cinema as participants in a larger conversation about the arts, as members of a larger culture in this city, this nation, and across the globe. Scorcese’s words reminded me of the late Susan Sontag, who spent a career battling colleagues and institutions who refused to take film seriously and who privileged the other arts over it; the belief that film is somehow a separate, and by extension inferior, form of expression was antithetical to her notions of artistry. It should be antithetical to ours as well. At the heart of it all, the debate about the future of a major film program is a debate about how we think about film, how we interpret its vitality as an art.
Keeping international, art-house, and repertory cinema alive in Los Angeles, and well beyond it, amidst all the challenges that face public institutions, among all the other activities that divide the public’s attention, seems to be a greater priority now than it has in the past. Due to the efforts and pressure of a grass-roots organization called Save Film at LACMA, the museum has agreed to maintain its film program at least through June 2010, although its plans beyond that involve grandiose financial visions more than they do a requisite adjustment of aesthetic and cultural attitudes. The wrong approach could very well condemn film at LACMA, and in the city, to relative obscurity because of the precedents it could set; all the while, a renewed focus, some passion, and a seriousness about the importance of cinema are likely to keep film alive. Following Scorcese’s cue, if institutions here, and elsewhere, hold cinema closer than arm’s length, perhaps everyone else will too.