Monday, April 19, 2010

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

That most sardonic of French proverbs—the more things change, the more they stay the same—is on our minds. Perhaps that's because LACMA just completed its 19-film Jean Renoir film retrospective in tandem with the exhibit of paintings by Renoir-père, Pierre-Auguste. Yes, we’re thinking in French!

But it’s also because, regrettably, the saying characterizes where things stand right now for LACMA’s film program. As the museum’s budgetary year-end approaches on June 30, the one-time $150,000 bail-out funding package by Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Ovation television will also expire. The time is right to revisit the progress of film at the County Museum.

Eight months ago the grassroots movement run by Save Film at LACMA induced museum director Michael Govan to reverse his decision to cancel the much-loved but purportedly budget-draining 41-year-old classic film program.

And much has changed since:

• Attendance has skyrocketed.
Awareness for the program, sparked by our campaign’s publicity, has resulted in very full houses at the Bing Theater’s 600-seat auditorium. A broad audience that values viewing art film in an art museum is voting for LACMA film with its feet. Not only did the popular Audrey Hepburn series achieve multiple sold-out screenings, but the demanding tone poems of the Andrei Tarkovsky series also boasted high attendance. Screenings are fun, super-charged community outings. And LACMA attracts the best crowd: well heeled, educated and respectful.

• LACMA successfully launched a dedicated “Film Club” membership feature.
Angelenos generously responded to LACMA’s urging that they tap their pocketbooks to support the program – adding an additional $50 to the basic $90 LACMA membership charge, this in tough economic times for all. “Film Club” membership now stands at 450.

• LACMA executive management openly supports the popular program.
Mr. Govan, who made the decision to ax the program, is now its ardent vocal supporter.

• The program has garnered high-profile pledges of support.
During the season, our County-funded arts institution was consigned to a private firm, Warner Bros., to promote the launch of its Clint Eastwood boxed-set film retrospective. On that occasion, thrilling to our ears, Mr. Eastwood himself publicly pledged to financially support the program. In another hopeful evening for our community, director Martin Scorsese engaged in dialogue with Mr. Govan both implicitly and explicitly lending his support to the program.

• LACMA’s Board of Trustees is newly peppered with entertainment industry names.
Wealthy film-industry art patrons populate Mr. Govan’s roster of Trustees, including: William J. Bell, Brian Grazer, Michael Lynton, Carole Bayer Sager, Terry Semel, Barbra Streisand, Steve Tisch, and Casey Wasserman.

• We’ve entered a golden age of big-screen classic film projection in Los Angeles.
Film lovers are coming out in droves, bucking traffic and the increasing rat’s maze of parking automobiles on our city streets to join fellow citizens in the shared experience of viewing movies as they were meant to be seen, on the big screen. The campaign to save LACMA’s program has trickled down benefit to repertory film programs across the city, ranging from the American Cinematheque to REDCAT to Cinefamily to Filmforum to UCLA Hammer to Last Remaining Seats. Within this group, however, LACMA remains the paramount bastion of classic world cinema.

And yet, despite all this positive change, much remains dismally the same:

• No results (yet) from Mr. Govan.
Mr. Govan’s stated ambition to raise multi-millions to convert the program from a budget-draining line item (his characterization) into an independently funded endowed museum program to parallel its peers has thus far come to naught. The economic environment, a LACMA press spokesperson reminds us, is difficult. She also notes that Mr. Govan, whom she says has been actively fund raising for the program, has a “lot of ‘asks’ out.”

• New revenues are not directly benefiting the program.
Neither the uptick in box office revenue, nor the film membership fee income is directly benefiting film. According to a LACMA spokesperson, this money is instead relegated to the Museum’s general operating fund.

• The film program has yet to receive a targeted contribution either from a new (or existing) LACMA Trustee, or from high-profile pledgers like Clint Eastwood.
This astonishing fact despite the reality that for one million dollars you too could not only be a local hero but probably get your name on the program in perpetuity.

• Film is still not integrated into the Museum panoply.
Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote of the current Pierre-Auguste Renoir show: "It all adds up to this: Conventional wisdom is confirmed, not denied. Late Renoir is mostly bad Renoir, an array of often cloying paintings." Jean Renoir, on the other hand, is a genuine titan of world cinema, a major influence--probably the major influence on the French New Wave, and thus on modernist cinema. And his films are rarely screened. So, where’s the significant fine art?

• Still a begging orphan…
The Museum has reapplied to Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Ovation TV to re-up their combined $150,000 underwriting package. Since it’s the best sponsorship deal in town, we see little reason why the organizations should not continue their funding.

• … on a shoestring budget.
LACMA film still operates on a minimal annual budget of approximately $200,000. It’s managed by a small staff led by film curator Ian Birnie, still working on an external consulting contract.

As life goes on, so, too, the travails of LACMA’s film program. We cannot imagine that the museum would again cancel the program--unless it wishes to see a perfect storm of Paris 1968 and the Watts Riots ominously roll across Wilshire Boulevard!

Jaded LACMA filmgoers may sigh Gallicly, “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose,” but we hope the museum will take counsel from another French quarter, that of Emperor Napoleon, when, in writing to General Jean Le Marois, he declared, “Impossible n'est pas français!”

Debra Levine and Doug Cummings


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