News has finally arrived that the biggest Los Angeles repertory success story of the last ten years, Cinefamily, is permanently shutting its doors due to accusations of sexual impropriety and harassment among its employees. I write “success story” (even though the owners now say they have “crippling debt”) because Cinefamily, especially in its early years (say, 2007-2012), was regularly touted by local culture commentators as “some of the most vibrant and unusual repertory and independent-film programming in the country.” This included art house, music videos, cable video, repertory, and many other genres programmed on a nightly basis. And Cinefamily had couches! They had beer! The organization promoted itself as a scene as much as a screening venue. It was regularly crowded, often with lines forming on the sidewalk outside the theater—a fairly unusual sight in this age of repertory and art house diminution.
I recall meeting a 20-something recent Los Angeles arrival who had almost immediately become a regular attendee even though she wasn’t a cinephile. When I asked her why she loved Cinefamily so much, she thought for a moment and said, “Because you can see things there that you can’t see anywhere else.” Ergo, when Cinefamily’s scandal erupted earlier this year, news sites such as Buzzfeed lamented that “[t]he resignations of Belove and Elnashai have clearly roiled Los Angeles cinephiles, who revere Cinefamily as an artistic institution.”
I yield to no one the moniker “cinephile,” and having written about local film culture in Los Angeles since 2003, I am admittedly disappointed to see any rep house shut down, but what was Cinefamily really? Yes, it was popular, but almost exclusively among 20 and 30-somethings, and the frumpy, basement couch, party atmosphere overwhelmingly appealed to avid scenesters to the significant exclusion of everyone else. It was the fanboy equivalent of a repertory house, which is why I for one was not surprised to hear that it sexually discriminated against female employees. Some of the films it showed were important contributions to film culture, but a lot of what it showed was simply pop culture ephemera and trash cinema, served with a dose of self-flattering, MST3K-style irony and casual indifference.
Frankly, I hated the atmosphere of the place, and judging from conversations I’ve had with other cinephiles, I’m not the only one who did. (You’ll find few reviews of Cinefamily screenings in the archives of Filmjourney or in the articles I wrote for the LA Weekly.) That’s not to say that I wouldn’t occasionally attend Los Angeles exclusives there (Celine and Julie Go Boating or The Fabulous World of Jules Verne come to mind) but the experience was always a compromise, to the point where I would dread the possibility of distributors such as Kino or Janus premiering films there. In addition to having fairly uncomfortable seats and sight lines that reflected the original Silent Movie Theater’s 1942 idea of spectatorship, the screen was rather small and the constant glow of iPhones was grating.
Even one of Cinefamily’s better ongoing series, La Collectioneuse, which showed rarely projected French films, could be an ordeal. A couple of years ago, I met with some friends at the La Collectioneuse screening of Jacques Rivette’s excellent Duelle (1976) that was advertised as starting at 6:30 p.m. When we arrived, there was already a line for tickets, but we were informed that the film would not start until 8:00 because there would first be a “French outfit” and cocktail reception on the theater’s back patio. Thus cinephiles who came to see the movie had to sit in the theater for an hour while all the hipsters imbibed outside. To make matters worse, the theater played a loud mixtape of random French TV commercials that was difficult to talk over. Eventually, however, the film started; the now-tipsy patrons sauntered back into the theater, but most of them then promptly left after balking at a few minutes of Rivette’s unusual mixture of fantasy and reality. So much for cinephilia.
Much more to my liking as a repertory film venue was the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when it was programmed by Ian Birnie and Bernardo Rondeau. LACMA had been screening films for 40 years, and it was not only a centrally located venue (actually just a few blocks down Fairfax from Cinefamily), but attracted a much wider demographic, and offered the city’s best forays into world cinema. (Birnie would devote multiple weekends to showing complete retrospectives of Kiraostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien, or Fritz Lang, for example.) Even as LACMA security guards strong-armed patrons out the gates within minutes of the films ending, there were countless times I fell in with a spontaneous group of friends for drinks and conversation afterward. But in 2009, blaming the Great Recession, LACMA announced it would no longer continue the series despite attracting hundreds of patrons on a regular basis. I co-founded an online initiative called Save Film at LACMA (and blogged about it here quite a bit) that helped prompt a national dialogue (the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal both interviewed us) regarding the need for the largest art museum west of the Mississippi to include film as part of its mission. I’m happy to say we had an effect, and the weekend program did continue for a few more years, but eventually the media attention died down, and LACMA quietly ended it anyway. They were determined, what can I say?
Buzzfeed might blithely apply the term “cinephile” to mean movie lovers in a general sense, but it would pain me to think that Cinefamily’s media-infused hipsterism—to say nothing of its atmosphere of frat boy gender discrimination—would have anything to do with cinephilia in a precise sense. In fact, the French have an entirely different word for an indiscriminate binge-watcher: cinéphage, meaning someone who consumes media in large amounts without a whole lot of reflection about it. To me and others, cinephilia entails an amateur (in the best sense) or professional engagement with film history and aesthetics and their social impacts, not beer parties that relegate Rivette to the level of groovy wallpaper, an atmospheric backdrop to their greater social ambitions.
It remains to be seen how Los Angeles’ film culture will respond to the closing of Cinefamily. To be sure, it is not the only venue in town, and you will find my warmest recommendations of other venues in the right hand column of this website. But there is no question that our alternative film scene is much less adventurous, substantial or supported by the media than it was when I started Filmjourney 15-odd years ago. Tarantino’s self-serving takeover of the New Beverly Cinema may have increased the amount of celluloid it screens, but the prints are often terrible and the programming is decidedly more cultish. When the American Cinematheque offers a “Landmarks of Soviet Cinema” series (as it did in October), it amounts to four movies, all of which are readily available on video. When I first moved to Los Angeles in 2001, I recall that the LA Weekly—at that time the standard reference for local listings and commentary on alternative film events—had no less than three regular film columnists: Manohla Dargis, John Powers, and Ella Taylor. Conversely, I hadn’t looked at an issue of the LA Weekly since I last wrote for it two years ago, but was recently shocked to discover how emaciated it has become in thickness and page size (with much of its film content merely recycled from the now-online Village Voice).
Of course we’re all aware of the death of alternative weeklies in the U.S. But while there remains enthusiasm for blogging, websites, podcasts and social media, we still have yet to find a way to properly fund or monetize serious film commentary that allows it to continue as a viable day job. Nor have we fully considered how our film culture disconnect from the local actually impacts our communities. I persist in believing that a large number of Angelenos retain enthusiasm for physically gathering together and enjoying new and archival prints and even DCP restorations on the big screen, hearing from guests that relay the human element of film production, and who knows, maybe even conversing about movies apart from internet discussion boards and 150-character tweets.
This year, there has been a welcome groundswell of attention addressing the culture of sexual abuse and discrimination in the media industry. Let’s hope the demise of Cinefamily also triggers a dialogue about what it means to be cinephiles, to creatively engage our cultural heritage and contemporary mediascape and promote its dissemination in meaningful, intergenerational, politically empowering ways.