LACMA Film Wrap-up

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The Wall Street Journal published an article this weekend–“LACMA and the Cinéastes”–that provides a good account of the efforts of my colleagues and I during our previous five-week campaign to convince the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to reverse its decision to end its 41-year-old film program this October. At the moment, films have been announced for November, the program has been guaranteed to continue at least until next summer, and LACMA has promised to seek out large donors (with the help of Martin Scorsese and others) to fund the program on a long term basis. The museum also says it will upgrade the program from an underfunded public outreach to a genuine curatorial department.

While the program’s long term future is still hazy, the initial objectives we laid out for our Save Film at LACMA campaign have been met, and I can’t imagine the museum will step forward next year and announce that it just couldn’t find the funds after all–numerous public figures, journalists, and media have promised to hold the museum accountable to its pledge to seek donors; the public drubbing that would occur if it doesn’t would make the current outcry seem relatively minor.

In addition to the continuation of the LACMA program itself, I’m particularly pleased with the way the story has highlighted issues surrounding repertory and specialty cinema in Los Angeles in general; from the many venues that screen films to their potential vulnerability, to the role of the mainstream media in reporting the activities of the parallel universe of cinephilia thriving in our company town. I’ve often complained about the ailing community and lack of cohesion of Los Angeles, and social media may well provide a cure.

There is one aspect of the campaign (and resulting media coverage) that I haven’t seen highlighted very much, and that’s the basic spirit of the protest, the passionate voice of the thousands of working class Angelenos and international supporters who joined our Facebook group and signed our petition (often providing deeply felt memories). This may be a town of multimillionaire executives, but it’s also a town of technicians, artisans, and laborers who care deeply about the history of their craft. In a time when federal bailouts and corporate layoffs have promoted a kind of socialism for the rich, there has been an intensity to the Save Film at LACMA campaign that testifies to the widespread frustration with lavishly paid but remote CEOs around the country and their careless evisceration of personnel and services in order to maximize profits.

LACMA’s much beloved but modest film program, with its two friendly employees and spacious but aging Bing theater, epitomized the kind of high value/low cost labors of love that are increasingly being pushed to the edges of a financially desperate culture looking for larger than life solutions. Many felt this was their golden opportunity to rise up and make a difference for this one cherished program currently facing the corporate chopping block. (A related point, given equally little play: CEO Michael Govan may have his roots in the Guggenheim and Dia:Beacon, but we’re talking about the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; 30% of its budget comes from taxpayers who want their museum to continue to offer repertory and world cinema they can’t see anywhere else.)

In fact, it’s the spirit of making a difference that makes it difficult to get very excited about LACMA’s most recent idea, a Film Club that asks museum members ($90/year minimum) to donate $50 extra for priority ticketing/seating benefits and an e-newsletter. I commend those who want to join the Club, but given that the museum has made it crystal clear that the future of the program lies solely in the hands of large donors, I’m not sure how a few extra thousand dollars will help.

I wish the Film Club was designed to produce something concrete on behalf of its members that would enrich the program and increase awareness, something like a high-quality brochure that could be made available to the public at large. Once upon a time, LACMA printed such things as film calendars and programs, like the one pictured below that coincided with Ian Birnie’s nearly complete, four-month long Fritz Lang retrospective in 2001 (photos courtesy of Andy Rector). Is this too much to ask for again?

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