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LACMA to Film Buffs: Stay Home. Alone.

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The Los Angeles film community has been in a major tizzy since July 28, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced it was (for all intents and purposes) tossing its film program on the cutting room floor. The museum claims that the program was losing millions (over a ten year period) and not to worry: they plan on revamping the film program. Indeed. They're so committed to revitalizing the program that they knocked star programmer Ian Birnie down to a part-time consultant.

According to LACMA, the new film program will:

place greater emphasis on artist-created films reflecting the museum's growing relationship with contemporary artists and the contemporary art world. We will also continue to plan art exhibition-oriented festivals that will be presented in the context of the museum's overall curatorial program. These films will be presented in the Bing Theater occasionally throughout the year.

Great idea, LACMA. Those "artist-created films" really do pack the house, certainly more than The Adventures of Robin Hood. Nobody goes to see that crap. It's too exciting.

Scathing missives have hit the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times every week, penned by the likes of in-house critic Kenneth Turan, Time Magazine's Richard Schickel, and now the ultimate cinephile himself, Martin Scorsese. It seems like the message is clear: for film geeks, when the lights go dark on a cinema forever, the gloves come off.

LACMA's announcement not only royally stinks, but it also represents a major blow to the appreciation of film as an art form on equal footing with painting and sculpture. As corny as it may sound, when a major museum screens the best of American and world cinema in a welcoming and respectful environment, people tend to take the medium more seriously. It certainly worked that way for modern art.

Killing the LACMA film program also asks the question: if a serious museum film program cannot sustain itself in Los Angeles, then where can it survive? Are repertory programs as a whole doomed? If LACMA goes dark, what else will go dark with it? Will old movies only exist on TCM and our Netflix queues? And who cares?

I do, of course, though it's hard to explain the effect such an announcement has on someone who loves to see old movies on the big screen. I can say that I'm crestfallen, but will this make any sense to someone who doesn't feel the same way already? Probably not, and that's the problem. Those who care already will be upset and will find it hard to infect those who don't with their disappointment.

But let me try anyway. As a LACMA member and devotee of its film program, I can only describe this announcement as isolating. What I mean is that LACMA's theater going dark has made my film obsession more private. Nothing gives me a bigger charge at the movies than showing up to a screening of a 200-minute Belgian structuralist feminist film like Jeanne Dielman to discover that the theater is two-thirds full. That makes you feel like you're among your people. I know that no one else may care, but to someone who spent a great deal of high school and college watching films alone, LACMA going dark makes the world seem smaller, which, last time I checked, was not the purpose of art.

So what can we do about it? Well, we too can write angry letters to LACMA or the Los Angeles Times, but since we didn't direct Taxi Driver (or even Shutter Island-- in theaters October 2), our letter probably won't mean much to an organization with both eyes on the bottom line. We could go all Norma Rae on them and threaten to cancel our LACMA memberships and stop patronizing the museum and its Tupperware party art exhibits. That might get them where it hurts, but will it be enough to force a change? After all, isn't the lack of action on the public's part one of the reasons why LACMA is cutting its film program in the first place?

LACMA was well aware of the ruckus its announcement was going to cause. Yeah, getting chewed out by Scorsese's gotta sting, but LACMA will get over it so long as it can ride out the storm. Once everyone re-stocks his/her Netflix queue and abandons the cause, LACMA will return its attention to trying to run a large-scale, expanding museum at a profit. Good luck with that, LACMA.

In memory of the great programs LACMA has brought to Los Angeles, here's a short list of my five favorite film programs I was lucky enough to see at LACMA:
1. Heaven's Gate -- the full cut of Michael Cimino's unfairly maligned film, with a Q&A afterwards with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.
2. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxhelles - Chantal Akerman's masterpiece will never look as beautiful as it did at LACMA on April 10, 2009.
3. Satantango - how many theaters will screen a seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian film?
4. Veronika Voss & Mother Kuster's Trip to Heaven - two wonderful films by the wonderful Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
5. La Belle et La Bete - Jean Cocteau's perfect fantasy.

But I can't act superior all day. LACMA's film program lost money because enough people did not attend their programs. That includes me. So here's a list of the films I missed that I wish I hadn't:
1. The Decalogue
2. Eraserhead
3. The Third Generation & Lola
4. Bigger Than Life
5. Le Cercle Rouge
6. L'Avventura & Red Desert
7. 1900
8. La Strada
9. War and Peace (1968)
10. Ivan the Terrible, Parts 1 and 2

For more information on the effort to stop LACMA from looking totally corporate and stupid, visit the blog Save Film @ LACMA.