I was at LACMA three weeks ago and joined about a dozen people wandering grimly through an ugly, off-putting exhibition of contemporary Korean art. I understand the rationale for the show; Koreans are a significant minority in our community and are entitled to attention from our premiere art museum.
After that, I joined about 300 others for a screening in the Bing Auditorium of “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.” As art, it was in no way superior to the Korean daubs, except that this weirdly pretentious 1950 movie is also rarely seen. And it was part of a series of films starring James Mason, now a half-forgotten actor but, as the series proves, a powerful and skillful one who deserves our awed attention.
As important, the film, however silly it was, had much to teach us about the fantasy life of the American 1950s. Louche idlers on the Spanish Riviera, a cruel and decadent bullfighter, a guy trying to set a land speed record in a wonky-looking sports car and Ava Gardner lusting after the mythically wandering seafarer of the title. I mean, really, can you ask for anything more?
And that’s my point. It is the duty of museums to place before us the accumulated works of the ages, movies definitely included -- old and new; obscure and well known; good, bad and absurd -- in order to keep us in touch with the rich and ever-informative history of an ever-evolving, yes, I’ll say it, art form.
Which is why the news that the L.A. County Museum of Art’s director, Michael Govan, has decided to close down the museum’s expertly managed film program is so dismaying -- and don’t believe for a moment that this hiatus is designed to refresh and strengthen film at LACMA. As Times’ movie critic Kenneth Turan observed in his angry, excellent article Thursday, that sounds like a slick rationale from a culturecrat in a smart suit.
Some simple truths need to be stated here: Film may often be marred by goofy plots and preposterous characters, but it is no less a visual art than painting or sculpture. The fact that good movies arise out of a corrupt commercial system makes it more, not less, worthy of our attention. How in the world does a “Chinatown” arise out of that unpromising soil?
For that matter, what about something like “Police Python 35"? It was for me the great discovery of the brilliant “French Crime Wave” series that LACMA film curator Ian Birnie, now demoted from full- to part-time status, mounted earlier this summer. Though I like to think of myself as a knowledgeable film historian, I had never heard of it or of its auteur, Alain Corneau.
Something similar could be said of about half the other films in that series. If nothing else, you could have found in it the roots of the French New Wave -- a phenomenon I’m sure even Govan has heard about. And you could have witnessed the great Jean Gabin (weary, taciturn and the kind of actor Spencer Tracy aimed to be but never quite became) in “Touchez pas au Grisbi,” experiencing a screen portrayal at its highest and most subtle level. And, no, folks, it is not available on DVD in the U.S.
Nor is it likely to be re-shown in Los Angeles any time soon. We may or may not be, as the annoying KUSC tag line has it, “the creative capital of the world,” but we are surely the movie capital of the world. And once LACMA closes down its film program, we will not have a serious, well-planned repertory series. Sure, there’s UCLA and the Aero and the Hammer Museum and the odd one-week runs of classics at the Nu-Art -- worthy venues all -- though none of them offers what LACMA has for 40 years presented. Or what is available in our true “creative capital,” New York, where three imaginative repertory series constantly run.
We are exploring a bitter irony here. Huge advances have been made over the last 50 years in film scholarship and teaching, and even in film restoration. But LACMA, despite its pretense of being a world-class arts institution, has always treated film as a stepchild, operating its program on a minuscule budget, as Turan reported, making only small efforts to find subsidies that would cover its modest deficits. It has always regarded its film audience as not quite full members of the artistic community, as “movie bozos,” in film scholar Jeanine Basinger’s weary, devastating description of that earnest breed.
Govan is right about this much at least -- they deserve better. They -- we -- may be a minority, but the devotees of James Mason and Jean Gabin are no more outlanders than the devotees of Korean art. Certainly we do not deserve to be summarily cut off from the pleasurable and intellectually profitable contemplation of this great, infuriating, richly ambiguous art form while Govan thinks over some so-far-illusory plan for a movie renaissance at LACMA.
For the moment, his decision signals that we are far from being a “creative capital.” It signals that we remain a provincial outpost, braying boosterism while heedlessly diminishing the expressive form of which this city is the most significant avatar.