LACMA jettisons film program


The Los Angeles County Museum of Art–the largest art museum in the western United States–announced yesterday that it will be shutting down its roughly 40-year-old film program this fall. Along with the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the much more eclectic Cinefamily and REDCAT theaters, LACMA is one of the few venues in Los Angeles to regularly screen world cinema features. (It used to be that the American Cinematheque figured prominently in this quartet, but ever since the 2005 departure of Dennis Bartok, it has increasingly emphasized genre and cult programming.)

I moved here eight years ago, and my initial impressions of the city were born during my 90-minute, round-trip commutes each weekend to see LACMA’s complete retrospectives of Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Since then, courtesy of 13-year-veteran director Ian Birnie and more recently, program coordinator Bernardo Rondeau–two of the friendliest and most resourceful programmers you’ll ever meet–LACMA has hosted retrospectives devoted to filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray, Nuri-Bilge Ceylan, F.W. Murnau, Michelangelo Antonioni, Kenji Mizoguchi, Bela Tarr, Lee Chang-dong, Miklos Jancso, Edward Yang, and Nagisa Oshima, not to mention countless repertory screenings and premieres. My wife (who lived in Japan for four years) discovered Yasujiro Ozu for the first time when LACMA co-hosted the filmmaker’s 2003 centenary. Not for nothing are Angeleno cinephiles shocked and saddened by the recent turn of events. (Rumor has it that Birnie and Rondeau were planning Jean Renoir and José Luis Guerín series for next year, as well as a repeat performance of 1999’s sold-out Bresson retrospective.)

Public shock has quickly turned into anger as a statement issued by LACMA’s CEO, Michael Govan (a New Yorker appointed in 2006) seems simultaneously insufficient and wrong-headed. Instead of the coup de grâce to a film program whose budget has been whittled away for years (many of us, for example, remember the day when the museum actually printed a film calendar), Govan insists the cut is about “increasing [LACMA’s] commitment to film.” Part of that, he writes, is an embrace of “artist-created films.” (Out with Oshima and in with Matthew Barney, I suppose.) And even though Birnie “has done a marvelous job,” he will now be “charged with advancing LACMA’s ongoing discussion about the type of film program the museum should envision.” Lastly, curators with non-film specialties will take “an expanded role” in programming. You don’t have to be a rhetorician or a business person to hear the contradictory impulses sentence after sentence.

Given that the filmmakers listed above headlined cinematheque programs worldwide for the last decade, it’s clear that Birnie’s programming wasn’t esoteric or misguided. Despite its key position for film press and industry premieres, Los Angeles simply remains a surprisingly difficult market for repertory, indie, foreign, and experimental films, which manage to trickle through due to the invaluable efforts of several activists and organizations. The city’s decentralized layout and lack of efficient public transit makes community building more difficult than it should be, and ensures sporadic attendance to any given screening despite the city’s legions of movie lovers. Though the many LACMA screenings I’ve attended usually seemed reasonably well attended, it wasn’t a sellout crowd every weekend–nor should it have been. Why should a major art museum (currently in the midst of a Renzo Piano-designed $450 million transformation) adhere to the maximizing commercial paradigms of the multiplexes?

The Los Angeles Times hasn’t exactly been a champion of specialty screenings around the city in recent years, but Kenneth Turan has written one of the best critiques I’ve come across regarding LACMA’s announcement:

“Take the question of the program’s million-dollar loss. That’s a nice round number, but it turns out to be a cumulative loss over a 10-year period. Broken down to $100,000 a year (and several museum sources tell me it has been more like $70,000 in recent years), it’s a drop in the bucket in an annual budget of more than $50 million. . . . More than that, is anyone doing a comparable head count for the rest of the museum’s collections? Would LACMA shutter its collection of Etruscan art if not enough people came? Probably not. Would it consider packing up its European paintings because excellent reproductions are available in books and online the way DVDs are available in stores? No, that kind of art is considered too central to the museum’s mission to be dismissed in such a cavalier manner.”

I haven’t been privy to any insider reasonings for the dissolution of Birnie’s program, but on a larger level, this kind of cut is becoming more and more prevalent at universities and art institutions nationwide during the current economic crisis. It’s indicative of widely held assumptions about the importance and placement of art (and particularly art films) in our society at large, forever framed in negative commercial terms. Take, for example, the Los Angeles Timesown article yesterday announcing LACMA’s decision, a piece glowing with industry centrism. “The money-losing program,” its subhead intones, “featured cinematic masterpieces but failed to build a big following.” It claims there are “local film festivals nearly every week,” which isn’t true and, worse, suggests that the kinds of films LACMA screens are a dime a dozen. While most of the cinephiles I know complain that even Netflix is too limited, the authors naively suggest that Target has a sufficient art film collection with DVD titles like A Room with a View and Gosford Park, that “adult dramas” like Duplicity and State of Play are a lost cause, and that Slumdog Millionaire and Juno represent the “hits” of art-house cinema. With commercial frameworks like this, is anyone surprised that the work of Birnie and Rondeau seems unprofitable to some?

At least Birnie is going out with a bang in October, screening a series of Alain Resnais films. I wonder how many Targets sell copies of Resnais’ 1968 masterpiece Je t’aime, je t’aime? (I’ll save you the trouble of looking–it’s never been released on video in the US in any form.) By offering challenging, thought-provoking, life-changing works of cinema in public venues, museums and cinematheques inspire audiences with images and ideas that might not always have sellout potential but nevertheless are foundational in laying the groundwork for all interpersonal relations and endeavors, business or otherwise.

What the LACMA film program needs isn’t downsizing or streamlining, but increased funding, better promotion, and more opportunities for community building; however, given that LACMA has raised its ticketing and membership fees substantially in recent years, it’s increasingly becoming a luxury for the rich and less an opportunity for most people to discover and experience art. Masterpieces of world cinema are at their most important and vital during times of economic crisis, international tensions, and stressful living. Govan, you can keep your “artist-created films” and programs curated by non-film experts. I’ll be watching films at whatever venues remain in this city for essential movie viewing.

8 thoughts on “LACMA jettisons film program

  1. Great article! Let it be heard by all parties concerned.

    I’m sure they are trying to justify a budget cut with dubious arguments, like you say.
    However, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think it’s a good idea to rest the responsibility of the art-film market on the shoulders of museums…

    It’s not the job of museums (their mission would be to support video art, experimental cinema, multimedia installations… which has no theatre circuit to fall back on) to replace arthouses, and it’s not good for artfilms to be associated with “museum elite” permanently…

    I agree that Je t’aime, je t’aime, and Tarr would never get a mainstream audience. But Ozu, Mizoguchi, Murnau, Ceylan, Lee Chang-dong, some of Resnais and some of Kiarostami could be easily watched by anyone, by mainstream audience. So people shouldn’t have to go to a museum to see them.

    It’s the responsibility of art-houses and the commercial circuit to make room for these films. There is a ton of foreign films that would make more money than half of Hollwood flops, if they are given to chance to meet a public. So it’s not just an economic incentive, it is truly a political obstruction (protectionism) against foreign films!

    What are the artfilm lobbies doing in America???

  2. Thanks for your comments, Harry. I think it’s important to recognize the differences between Paris and Los Angeles. In Paris, repertory and art films play night and day, whereas here we only have a few select venues. I agree that it’s certainly not ideal, but we have to do what we can.

    Los Angeles does have a couple chains of first-run art houses, like Laemmle and Landmark, and we have some extremely good video art/installation/experimental venues, like the L.A. Filmforum and the REDCAT. But I really can’t emphasize the need for centrality and community building here–there are a lot of cinephiles but not much of a cinephile community, and venues like LACMA become good meeting grounds, which is probably their biggest service (apart from seeing rare films and films on actual celluloid, of course).

    I’m the first person to argue that foreign films would make money if they were given the same theater space and marketing as Hollywood products…but until that starts happening, we need accessible venues to see such films. An art museum seems as good as any.

  3. Even in the the next two/three months, Birnie/Rondeau show why their program is so vital: Leon Morin, Priest, then (just announced) a Hong Sang-soo series, a 20th anniversary print of Hou’s landmark City of Sadness, and the Resnais series. No one else consistently does this in L.A.

  4. I agree that full retrospectives can only be pulled off by the big institutions (like museums or cinémathèques) and not by little arthouses or repertoire houses, because it requires a lot of work and some screenings of an oeuvre will inevitably appeal to a very little audience.

    However I would be surprised if traffic and recession were the only factors explaining the problem of foreign films on USA market…

    P.S. Don’t diss Matthew Barney, he makes better cinema than most “real” filmmakers! 😉

  5. Lack of availability in the commercial market makes for lack of a demand–people don’t know what they’re missing out on (unless they’re obsessed cinephiles). Rosenbaum’s Movie Wars is an excellent articulation of the problem.

    Barney may be an interesting filmmaker (reports vary and I haven’t seen his work yet) but he’s definitely not part of the continuum of world cinema in the way someone like Oshima is.

    By the way, LACMA is responding to the growing outcry by setting up its own forum:

  6. Great article, Doug! The work you all have done on the Save Film @ LACMA blog, FB page and promoting this to the press is really wonderful. Keep up the good work!

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