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Ancient Egyptian’s Reincarnation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When American Cinematheque officials went to James Cameron asking permission to stage a retrospective of his films to launch their 1999 programming at the newly refurbished Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, the director of the Oscar-winning “Titanic” seemed surprised.

Cameron, they recalled, was on the set of the all-time box-office blockbuster at the time, wearing hip waders as he filmed flooding sequences below deck with stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

During a break, he jokingly said, “I thought you needed to make 60 films and be at the end of your career before you get a Cinematheque retrospective,” recalled Dennis Bartok, Cinematheque’s programmer. “We said, ‘No, we want filmmakers who are at the peak of their careers.’ ”

Cameron’s selection is an example of how Cinematheque, long known for showcasing foreign and independent films, is attempting to broaden its appeal.

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“That’s part of the reason for our move to the Egyptian Theatre,” Bartok said recently. “We’re now focused on bringing in mainstream Hollywood, younger directors and actively working filmmakers, in addition to showcases of rare films and overlooked directors.”

Cinematheque will officially reopen the Egyptian on Friday with the “re-premiere” of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent film, “The Ten Commandments,” presented with the original live orchestral score. The evening’s gala event, devised by Cinematheque executive director Barbara Smith, comes 75 years to the day after the movie premiered in the same theater.

Using the Egyptian’s 630-seat main auditorium and a smaller theater seating about 80, Cinematheque will kick-start its 1999 offerings with the Cameron retrospective on Feb. 3, continuing over five nights. (Cinematheque delayed the start of its programming so that renovations to the small theater and restaurant could be completed.) The director will be on hand to field questions during one or two of the screenings.

“I think it will be a wonderful way to show off the theater,” Bartok said. “With 70-millimeter projection equipment in there . . . it’s perfect to experience his films in a theater like the Egyptian.” Bartok said Cameron has committed to giving Cinematheque “the best possible prints of preferred versions” of his films, including “The Terminator,” “Aliens,” “True Lies,” “The Abyss” and “Titanic.”

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Formed in 1984 by the founders of its precursor organization, Filmex, the American Cinematheque is a nonprofit, viewer-supported film exhibition and cultural organization dedicated to the celebration of the moving image in all its forms. The Cinematheque presents daily film and video programming that ranges from the classics and world cinemas to the outer frontiers of the art form.

The move to the Egyptian will begin to address one recurring public complaint about the film organization, noted Margot Gerber, who produces the showcase in addition to handling Cinematheque’s marketing and publicity. Cinematheque screens its films either at a 150-seat screening room at the Directors Guild of America or at 150-seat screening room at Raleigh Studios.

“The public was starting to perceive that if you come to Cinematheque, you’re not going to get in,” Gerber said. “For example, our French crime series went through the roof. People would say to me, ‘Oh, yes, Cinematheque. Can’t get in to see the movie there.’ Hopefully, all those people that thought they’d never get in will realize that with the Egyptian’s large house, they will get a seat in the balcony or the floor.”

Despite its new emphasis on mainstream Hollywood films, officials said Cinematheque will continue to screen foreign and independent films, including crowd favorites like outlaw Japanese directors of the 1960s and early ‘70s whose samurai and yakuza films often feature leather-clad, stiletto-heeled female action stars. But the organization wants it known that it also embraces mainstream Hollywood movies.

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“For us, there is no contradiction in screening ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ one night with James Cameron and two or three nights later showing a great new independent film,” Bartok said.

The Cameron series is part of Cinematheque’s ongoing effort to showcase the modern filmmaker. In the past, retrospectives have been held for the work of Ken Russell, Don Siegel and Anthony Mann. Cinematheque is discussing with Spike Lee a retrospective of his films, and there are plans to showcase the works of Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and Atom Egoyan, with filmmakers holding discussions with the audience.

“We really want Cinematheque to become a halfway point, where the film industry and the film-loving public can come together on an equal footing and where filmmakers can talk about films they made and see other filmmakers’ movies,” Bartok said.

“I think we’ve been getting to the point more and more where directors, screenwriters and production executives are coming to our screenings,” he added. “We had a Jean-Pierre Melville screening two years ago, and filmmakers were soaking up the great French movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Melville was a great borrower of American crime films of the ‘50s. In that way, I think we’re coming full circle.”

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In mid-February, Cinematheque will host a series on emerging young actresses of the French cinema, including Juliet Binoche, Sandrine Bonnaire, Chiara Mastroianni and Virginie Ledoyen. The program will feature the U.S. premiere of Olivier Assayas’ “Late August, Early September.” Also scheduled is a new musical romance starring Ledoyen called “Jeanne and the Perfect Guy.”

In late February through mid-March, Cinematheque will host its annual series on recent Spanish cinema, the sixth year in a row for the program, which is the most popular event at Cinematheque. The upcoming series will showcase 15 new films from Spain along with a retrospective of the work of director Carlos Saura, who made “Flamenco” and “Carmen.”

In early April, Cinematheque will hold a series called “Treasures of Film Noir,” which will include such rarely seen films as “Kansas City Confidential,” “99 River Street” and “Nightmare Alley.” Glamour queens from the film noir genre like Marie Windsor and Evelyn Keyes will be honored.

In early June, Cinematheque will conduct what it hopes will be an annual event: a women-in-comedy festival.

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“We’d like to do Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett, Goldie Hawn and then do filmmakers who forged distinctive styles like Amy Heckerling and Betty Thomas, as well as many emerging actresses, writers and directors,” Bartok said.

On Tuesday nights throughout the year, the Egyptian will play host to silent films, with the first large retrospective centering on films by French director Louis Feuillade, who wrote and directed an estimated 800 movies, including such epic serials as “Judex,” “Fantomas” and “Les Vampires.”

“His work was very influential on generations of French directors afterward,” Bartok said, noting that “Les Vampires” is “filled with sinister criminal conspiracies and a very sexy cat-suited woman that is almost like an early 1920s version of Emma Peel in ‘The Avengers.’ ”

To re-create the feel of the old Egyptian, Cinematheque is restoring a 1922 Wurlitzer pipe organ that was received as a gift from a Pasadena movie house. Plans call for organists to accompany silent films.

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On two Thursdays a month, Cinematheque will continue to showcase emerging filmmakers through “The Alternative Screen Independent Film Showcase.” Gerber said the goal of the program is to provide a platform for independent filmmakers to gain visibility for their work.

Tickets will be priced at $5 for Cinematheque members and $7 for the public. The Egyptian will be dark on Sundays and Mondays, and it will be available on those days for premieres and other private screenings.

Ferment of Ideas in the Film Industry

One invaluable aspect of Cinematheque’s offerings, officials say, is that it allows people working in Hollywood to analyze and debate the work of other filmmakers.

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“There are screenwriters and producers and directors and [studio] development executives who love Anthony Mann movies or love Chris Marker movies,” Bartok said. “That’s a big part of our audience. This is our hometown. This is the audience we play to.

“People have talked for years that New York City is the center of film lovers for the United States,” he added, “but I think more and more Los Angeles is at least as good, if not better, for somebody who loves movies.”

BE THERE

American Cinematheque, Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Invitation-only re-premiere of “The Ten Commandments,” Friday; public reception and screening, Saturday, 7 p.m., $75; public screenings, Sunday, 2 p.m., and Monday and Tuesday, 8 p.m., $45. Regular programming begins Feb. 3. Phone: (323) 466-3456.

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