Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Paved Paradise

August 03, 2009

From Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister harmóniák

One of the more disappointing bits of Los Angeles arts news last week was that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is ending its film program, which has screened work of most stripes at the Bing Theater on LACMA’s campus for nearly 40 years. Frankly, it’s an embarrassment to the organization and the county that in the geographical heart of the film industry our most prominent museum can’t find a way to keep a film department and program alive. Michael Galvan, LACMA’s director, notes that the program has been losing audience and money for years and is reportedly shutting the department down while the museum comes up with some kind of new film strategy. And, while I understand that times are tough for arts organizations everywhere, I can’t help but agree with Kenneth Turan – why does the program have to be shut down while things are being “rethought.” I find it hard to believe that the decline of the program is something so recent that it’s just occurred to everyone that the program needs to move in some sort of unspecified but yet to be imagined new direction.

From Jacques Rivette’s Celine et Julie vont en Bateau

Of course, I guess I’m as much to blame as anyone. I know I haven’t attended a movie screening at LACMA in years. Honestly, I stopped mostly because the whole scene had gotten so annoying. The audiences were particularly unruly with lots of talking and unnecessary noise that only enraged other patrons who would then accost the talkers making the whole show even worse. I recall there was a particular group of rather elderly folk that would come every weekend and sit in the back row and make noise like the Bing Theater was their private living room. It just got to be too arduous to take. Even in a half-empty theater, there was nowhere to sit to get away from all of the noise sometimes.

From Jacques Tati’s Playtime

Of course, the quality had gone down as well in recent years. As recently as the late 90s, LACMA would frequently fund and host newly restored and rare prints of foreign films, forgotten classics and other fare not readily available even in a DVD saturated world. Even following the death of its long-time director Ron Haver in 1993, the program was robust and exciting well into the late 90s and early 2000s. It compared favorably to the programming at outfits like the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and the American Cinematheque. But the Bing Theater and the movies I saw there in the mid-90s will always be near and dear to my heart. Over half of my all time favorite movies came to me through LACMA. Jacques Rivette’s Celine et Julie vont en Bateau, Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister harmóniák and Jacques Tati’s Playtime were only a few of the evenings that changed the way I thought about film if not about art and perhaps life as well. (Not to mention Merchant of the Four Seasons and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) But I suppose we all lose places like that as we get older, so apparently it’s my turn now. Still, something has been lost and it’s very, very sad that our biggest public art institution will apparently have nothing to say about film after November.


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