The moving image is THE art form of the 20th century. If there is one person you would expect to appreciate that fact it is the head of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art - after all Los Angeles has been creating that art for over 100 years and has called itself the international center of filmmaking since at least 1920, the year that city fathers announced that movie making and the ancillary jobs that resulted from it was the city's largest employer. The people who come from throughout the world to put their feet in the cement outside Grauman's Chinese and tour the studios recognize that, and yet as I write this Michael Govan is announcing that he is closing the LACMA film department.
There are those who will say other venues will "pick up the slack," but they are wrong. While we are blessed in Los Angeles with having the Academy, the Cinematheque and now the Billy Wilder theater at the Hammer, LACMA is unique - where else could you see "The Manchurian Candidate" with Angela Landsbury and John Frankenheimer, the 6 hour Russian version of "War and Peace" or "Good Night and Good Luck" introduced by George Clooney? Then there are the career retrospectives, bringing to fore talents such as Gregory LaCava, Fritz Lang and Joel McCrea, showing their films on the glorious big screen, often for the first time in fifty or more years.
There have been fabulous, emotional in-person tributes to Robert Altman, Olivia De Havilland, Jules Dassin and Blake Edwards. And then there are the ripple effects that no one would necessarily even know about. I helped work on a tribute to the Kanin family - Michael, Fay and Garson - and it was discovered that there was no loaning copy available of Fay Kanin's Oscar-nominated "Teacher's Pet." Calling that to Paramount's attention, they - at Sherry Lansing's urging - put time and money into preserving it and making a copy to be screened. One more film saved.
Ian Birnie has, over the past thirteen years, proven to be a master curator of films. Just this summer, his tribute to Norman Jewison was sold out weeks in advance - and that was before it was known that Cher would be there in person to introduce the filmmaker and the screening of "Moonstruck." Tonight, the screening of "Julie and Julia" is expecting overflow crowds. But more importantly, quietly and methodically, Birnie has given us a chance see the films, foreign and home grown, current and historic, that we couldn't see anywhere else. He could be faulted for failing to schmooze funders, but he has earned the respect of film lovers, archivists and studios on an international scale. What he has pulled off on such a small budget should be celebrated, not punished. I don't know him that well, but I have worked with him on several retrospectives and he has always been incredibly professional while revealing himself to be a veritable fountain of information and knowledge on films past and present.
Rumors have been flying for the past week or so about Govan's plans. He didn't mention the film department per se in the article in last week's Times about the financial drain they were facing, but he did say they have a new "associate director of Korean art" and that he was still searching for a curator of Chinese Art. Room and money for those and others - and of course building more buildings - but not for film? Yet when it comes to fund raising, they are more than willing to reach out to the film-making community.
While I am confident that if each curator's department budget was scrutinized for profit, most would find it difficult to justify their existence for that purpose alone. The Film Department - which is much easier to quantify because it has a separate box office - lost a little over $50,000 last year, yet Govan has apparently reached back and rounded off numbers to claim that they have lost a million dollars over the last decade.
He can say audiences have "dwindled" but attendance hasn't been helped by the fact that the museum has been treating the film department as a second class citizen for some time. I became a LACMA member because of the films there, yet you arrive a little after 7 for a 7:30 screening and find the members' window closing and the number of windows reduced from four to one. The stand alone calendar which promoted the films to be shown was killed off some time ago. Good luck finding the film listings inside the convoluted general "Content" brochure they now send out. And there are few if any film books in their store.
Although Birnie has done an amazing job finding appropriate films, I cannot believe attendance has been helped when weekends on end are booked with films that promote exhibits at the museum. And surely we don't want them to screen "Sunset Boulevard" or "Casablanca" every Saturday night. Part of the joy of LACMA films is the gems that you would see nowhere else. Yet the message from on high is loud and clear: Films are not considered "art" at LACMA.
Behind the scenes Govan seems to have different explanations for different people. He told the press it was financial, but then alluded to others that closing the department was only a ruse to get people to pay attention - that by shutting it down maybe something better can bloom. Is he being too clever by half or does he actually believe it? Does he not realize how fortunate he is to have Ian Birnie at the helm? Govan wanted to embargo the story until he was out of town, but apparently, to the Times credit, they wouldn't bite. He supposedly prides himself on being willing to take any heat, but would he change his mind if a certain director or producer wrote a $500,000 check to guarantee the film department's existence for the next five years? At that amount, the film department might even get a budget increase out of it.
Back in the early 1930's Iris Barry of MOMA was just putting together their film collection and she was a voice in the wilderness. She came to California and personally convinced Mary Pickford not to destroy her films as she had been telling friends she wanted to do - they were works of art to be preserved for generations to come. Barry convinced Pickford, yet we know today that around 80 percent of all silent films are "lost" - a euphemism for scrapping them for a penny a foot at the time, dumping them off piers into the ocean to make room in vaults or simply ignoring them to the point that the film destroyed itself. Since Barry's seminal efforts, appreciation of film and film preservation has been on a growing curve of being recognized as the true art that it is. Govan, with his actions today, has announced his belief that film isn't worthy of having one of its own curators out of the dozen or more that are currently employed at LACMA. To me, as a film historian and more importantly as a film going LACMA member, that is blasphemy.