Last week, The Los Angeles Times reported that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art would shutter its film program, reducing the head of its film department from a full-time employee to a part-time consultant. In a statement defending his decision, Michael Govan, director of LACMA, declared it an effort to "rethink" the program rather than dismantle it. In order to save film at LACMA, it seems, he must first destroy it.
The response from the film community in Los Angeles has been heartening, but the loss of film programming at LACMA isn't just a problem for film enthusiasts. Some of the most significant artworks of the 20th century were forged in film. Unfortunately, knowledge of these achievements may be lost if museums do not continue to encourage an appreciation and exploration of the medium through theatrical screenings. DVDs are a blessing in many ways, but they cannot replace the experience of sitting in a darkened theater and seeing an artwork projected in its original medium. It's as though they would close the Louvre based on the availability of excellent slides.
All films suffer when not projected in their original format, but some of the best are not even watchable. Tony Conrad's The Flicker cannot be transferred to video; the perceptual effects that are the subject of the work are wholly dependent on the apparatus of the 16mm projector. It has been described as one of the greatest artworks of the 1960's. Without a theater to show it in, however, Angeleno museum goers will never know it even existed.
Meanwhile, one of Conrad's paintings, Yellow Movie 2/27-28/73, is currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art. At first I was delighted to see one of my favorite filmmakers' work exhibited. Upon second thought, though, I was disheartened that he should find it easier in Los Angeles to exhibit his paintings than his films.
It's true that other institutions do incredible work--the Academy Film Archive and UCLA Film and Television Archive both preserve and present remarkable restorations--but there is currently no art museum that actually collects film, making this city, richer in terms of film history than any other, one of the poorest in terms of museum-led appreciation.
But if the outlook for a serious consideration of film looks ugly, the film buffs themselves haven't exactly helped.
Since the first article, the pages of the Los Angeles Times have been a beachhead for the assault on Govan. Describing the merits of one screening series at LACMA in an opinion for the Times, Richard Schickel wrote: "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." Schickel also chose to open his opinion piece with a curious lede: he begins by denigrating a show of contemporary Korean painting, describing it as "an ugly, off-putting exhibition" that panders to the Korean community in Los Angeles. Not exactly the smooth-talking sales pitch that might win over a director he characterizes as "a culturecrat in a smart suit."
In an even stranger turn, Times film critic Kenneth Turan determined that the best way to defend the film program at LACMA was to offend not only Govan, but film-makers and -lovers alike, writing, "if LACMA thinks attendance is bad now, just wait till its planned interim screenings of 'artist-created films' begin to truly empty its seats." Forgive me for being obvious, but it is hard to mount a defense of film as an art form if you consider films made by artists unwatchable.
The costs of a film program are real--equipment is expensive to purchase and maintain, the films themselves are delicate and skilled technicians are necessary for archiving, preserving and projecting them--but the benefits are enormous. Countless artists, from Edward Hopper to Ed Ruscha, have been affected by film culture and at least one major American filmmaker claims to have learned everything he knows about cinema from the film program at the Museum of Modern Art. In fact, without LACMA's film program, Los Angeles will be the rare major world city without a museum-led effort to promote the appreciation of cinema and preserve its past.
Cultural institutions, especially those as important and well-funded as LACMA, have a responsibility not only to the past, but to the future. It's not just our film culture, but art itself that will be poorer for our loss when the film program at LACMA closes.