Elvis Mitchell has come full circle: In 1980, he ventured to California after graduating from Wayne State University in Detroit and landed his first job selling tickets for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's film series at the Bing Theater. After years as a movie critic, radio and TV personality, he's returned to LACMA — as head of the film series at the museum that kicks off this week.
Two years ago, LACMA Director Michael Govan announced he was going to shutter the museum's long-running film series, curated by Ian Birnie, because of financial concerns and dwindling audiences. But an outcry from the public and the likes of director Martin Scorsese was so loud that Govan changed his mind. Film Independent, which runs the L.A. Film Festival and the Spirit Awards, came in as a partner.
The programming for the first two weeks is diverse but quite populist, including Johnny Depp's latest film, a Charlie Chaplin classic and a homage of sorts to that master of 1980s teen movies, John Hughes. The series begins Thursday with the premiere of Depp's "The Rum Diary," in which the actor revisits the world of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. The opening week also features a screening of the Sundance hit "Martha Marcy May Marlene" on Oct. 16, Chaplin's beloved 1936 film "Modern Times" on Oct. 18, and "Juno" director Jason Reitman helming a live reading of Hughes' 1985 film "The Breakfast Club" on Oct. 20. Things get more esoteric Oct. 27 with a screening of Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1961 Italian drama, "Accatone."
Mitchell, 52, has served as a film critic for the Fort Worth [Texas] Star-Telegram, the LA Weekly, the Detroit Free Press and the New York Times and for the last 15 years has hosted KCRW's pop culture and film interview program, "The Treatment."
In 2008, he began his interview series, "Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence," for Turner Classic Movies and spent a term lecturing at Harvard University. But not infrequently, he seems to have struggled to find a comfortable perch — plans to have him co-host the new version of "At the Movies" fell apart last year; in January he took a criticism job at movieline.com, but three months later that ended as well.
Mitchell says he's committed to helming Film Independent at LACMA and discussed his plans for the series by phone last week from the Golden Boll Film Festival in Adana, Turkey.
Will you be able to continue to attend film festivals with the LACMA job?
I am hoping to because it's one way I can see stuff and meet filmmakers. And then just try to spread the word that I would like the film program at LACMA to eventually have worldwide import.
What drew you to the job?
Friends asked me about it. My friend Rebecca Yeldham, who runs the L.A. Film Festival, and Michael Govan, who is the director of the museum, they all asked me if this was something I wanted to do. I met Michael a couple of years ago and gave him some ideas about what I thought would be interesting to add to the film program. I wasn't campaigning for the job, I just said you might want to try this. Dawn Hudson [then head of Film Independent] called me when LACMA contacted Film Independent to take over the programming of the film series. I started to tell her about the enthusiasm I had about things that could be done there. The next thing I knew, they asked me if I wanted to do it. I had never done anything like this before, and that's always attractive to me to try something different.
Are you nervous about the job's challenges?
Nah. I am too foolhardy to be afraid.... I am excited about it just because there is such an interesting thing going on in L.A. in that neighborhood. You've got the American Cinematheque, the New Beverly and Cinefamily. All of these entities exist trying to show that film being shown in theaters is still alive — that you don't have to wait to see what will be recommended to you in your Netflix queue or on Amazon. I think people still want to see movies in the theater in Los Angeles.
There are a whole generation of filmgoers I found that don't know there's a theater [at LACMA]. One key point for me is to bring a younger audience in. Those people who do have an interest in film. I knew there was a community of people who always went to that place and I guess what happened is that audience aged up.... I want to expand that sense of community. It is such a beautiful theater and such a great place to go. I just want to encourage people to come out. I need to raise the profile of the place.
How will your program be different than the Cinematheque or Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, both of which show old, art, indie, foreign and experimental movies?
One of the things that is key is to expand the definition of what a film series is — not just programming, like this terrific idea that Jason Reitman has, this live read. Something that L.A. audiences and movie audiences don't get to see in general is an actor shape a performance and see actors sitting on the stage with the script of a piece of material that people know and love and bring their own shadings and powers of acting to it. I think in some way that will change the way people look at movies. That is my mission: going forward to help people understand how much the world of film encompasses.
You have 'Rum Diary' as your opening and then Reitman's live reading a week later. Is your programming going to be more celebrity-driven than in the past?
Well, [Reitman's participation] is one of the things that just happened. I was at lunch with Jason Reitman and told him I had this job and he said, "Dude, I have the greatest idea for you. Do you want to try this?" And I said, "OK."
What type of balance will you be striking among commercial, art house, vintage and independent films?
You have got to have balance. There should be something for everybody. I don't want to drive away the people who come to LACMA every week, who come to the Bing and love those movies, because when I lived [in L.A.], I was one of them. I don't want those people to feel like they are being pushed out of the way. I want to build a program that appeals to everybody. I want to get more documentaries in. I think documentaries have changed the way we look at the world now. The more things I can do to expand the definition of what a film series is….
What do you say to those who are upset that former curator Ian Birnie is now gone?
I like Ian tremendously, but things change. I hope their loyalty to Ian doesn't prevent them from checking out what the museum has to offer. I am sure there will be people who don't like that I am there and that I am taking over for Ian. At the same time, I hope there are people who think, things are changing, take a look and see what's happening.
I have to admit when you were named curator, I heard several people say they wondered if you would show up for the job.
Really? OK. I know what you mean. When the legend is better than the fact, print the legend. I have been on a radio show on KCRW for 15 years. And nobody has said I have not shown up for that!