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 Times‘ own 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.