Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lacma and the Cinéastes

After protests, a museum reprieves its film program


Call it the revenge of the film nerds, if you must. But jokes aside, the surprising triumph of several thousand mostly ordinary film lovers over the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has inspired grass-roots organizations everywhere. And so it should, for it demonstrates that sometimes those who wield cultural power must listen, and heed, the concerns of regular folk.

In this version of the David versus Goliath tale, the museum's scruffy, decades-old weekend film program—long regarded within the institution as less than a stepchild, if not quite an orphan—was headed for oblivion thanks to a decision by the museum's director and CEO, Michael Govan, who arrived at Lacma (as the museum is widely known) 3½ years ago after a dozen years running New York's Dia Art Foundation.

I have strong feelings about this program because my mother often took me there on weekend nights when I was young. Then, as now, patrons would gather in the 600-seat Bing Theater, the least changed part of the museum, which opened in 1965. In the dark-paneled Bing, with its backlit swag curtain and always-uncomfortable seats, I saw films starring Laurence Olivier, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. And as my mother must have hoped, I fell hard, just as she had, for movies.

Back then, the legendary Ronald Haver—equal parts scholar and enthusiast—ran the program, and after he died in 1993 it was eventually taken over by Ian Birnie, who just lost his full-time job as the head of Lacma's film department after 13 years.

Mr. Birnie will remain at Lacma as a consultant through June 2010—and maybe even longer. He had previously been told that his services would no longer be needed after October of this year, when his series on Alain Resnais will have run its course.

What changed? An irate public, frankly.

News of Mr. Birnie's departure and his department's imminent demise were announced in a museum press release on July 28. The usual explanation for such things was offered: falling attendance, rising costs, a desire to start something bigger and better. But none of it rang true for the film program's longtime denizens, who knew that the operation was always run on a shoestring ($60,000 annually lately, excluding salaries) and that even years ago screenings only rarely sold out.

When the story broke in the Los Angeles Times the following morning, many were appalled to find a beloved fixture of their cultural lives suddenly imperiled. But a few went beyond clucking and acted, including two cinéastes who had never met. Both, not incidentally, were bloggers.

Doug Cummings, a graphic designer at Caltech, posted a short essay decrying the shuttering. Debra Levine, a dance critic, praised his cri de coeur and linked to it. And so was born—with a few intermediary steps—Save Film at Lacma, as grass roots an organization as can exist in the era of Facebook and Twitter.

Indeed, both those social-networking sites proved pivotal in the campaign to reinstate Lacma's film program. So did an online petition that has attracted more than 2,700 signatures. Most of the names, including a significant number of film programmers and critics, didn't seem to faze Lacma. But some had the potential to draw the sort of attention any public institution would rather avoid, among them the Oscar-winning filmmakers Alexander Payne (No. 1,117), Martin Scorsese (No. 1,532) and Curtis Hanson (No. 1,606). Even Hugh Hefner (No. 1,829) joined the chorus.

On Aug. 10, Save Film at Lacma asked to see Mr. Govan. He consented, though a previously scheduled vacation delayed the meeting until Sept. 1. By then, Mr. Scorsese had written an open letter to him, published in the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 12. Pressure was mounting. Aug. 26 found the museum crowing that donations of $150,000 from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Time Warner Cable had secured the program through the current fiscal year, ending June 30, 2010.

But the so-called popcorn summit between Mr. Govan and his Save Film foes didn't prove quite the capitulation some had anticipated. The protesters had clearly won the battle—the weekend film program was given a reprieve and Mr. Birnie will select its content—but its long-term future remains murky. Mr. Govan, according to those present at the meeting, spoke in grand terms of a revivified film program, but with a focus on art rather than cinema. And he insisted that millions be raised to keep the program sacrosanct.

He also unveiled CineClub, which the museum refers to as "a new membership opportunity." Lacma's film screenings are still open to anyone who buys a ticket, though museum membership slightly reduces the cost. CineClub asks museum members to donate a further $50 earmarked for the film program. But there is little incentive to do so short of funding a worthy cause, especially because Mr. Govan has not committed to keeping the weekend film program beyond June, even with the influx of such funds.

More vexing—to both the program's fans and outsiders—is the dichotomy of Mr. Govan crying poverty while simultaneously raising funds for grand projects like Jeff Koons's "Train," which will dangle a full-scale, 70-foot-long replica of a 1943 steam locomotive from a 160-foot-tall crane. The cost of what is being reported as the most expensive work ever commissioned by a museum? Twenty-five million dollars.

With such lavish indulgences well beyond the planning stage, according to the Art Newspaper, it's hard to imagine that Mr. Govan and the museum's trustees couldn't raise the much smaller amount necessary to run Lacma's modest film program if they really wanted to. For now, the life of that program has been extended. But there could be strife again come June. L.A.'s film fans have already risen to the occasion. Now it's Mr. Govan's turn.

—Mr. Mermelstein writes for the Journal on film and classical music.

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