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Making Up For A Lost Centennial

Getting LACMA Up to Speed

July 14, 1996|Robert Koehler | Robert Koehler is a regular contributor to Calendar

If only the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had appointed Ian Birnie a year before it actually did.

This year marks the 101st anniversary of cinema, but for the centennial in 1995, the museum had no permanent director of its film department--a major reason why the centennial went unacknowledged at the museum's movie home, the Leo S. Bing Theatre.

To be sure, the birthday was a pretty quiet one in general in the world's movie capital. But Birnie, newly appointed as LACMA point man for film, seems to be trying to make up for lost time.

"I've only been here a few weeks," he says, sitting at a table on a sun-drenched patio outside the Bing, "but we're already planning things well into '97 and '98." His first show was organized with remarkable speed--"Playing With Story: Narrative Experiments and Achievements" earlier this month with a double-bill of silent film masterpieces, D. W. Griffith's "Broken Blossoms" and F. W. Murnau's "Sunrise." (Future weeks include such storytelling experiments as Jean-Luc Godard's "Pierrot le Fou" and Todd Haynes' "Poison.")

Partly because of his deep interest in international cinema and, as he says, "creating a sense of living history for an audience," Birnie appears a bit pained thinking that the movie centennial passed Los Angeles--and LACMA--by.

But there was nothing to be done: LACMA's long, multiyear search for a museum director only ended last November, when Andrea L. Rich was appointed president and CEO. With Rich in place, the museum could then set its sights on a new film program director. Birnie was chosen from a small pool of candidates in mid-May.

Birnie's profile strikingly contrasts with that of Ron Haver, who ran LACMA's film department for 20 years until 1993, when he died from complications of AIDS. While Haver built the program into one of the country's most highly regarded showcases of American classics, Birnie says his mission is to set sights on a wider, international profile.

"I met Martin Scorsese last month in New York," he says, "and when I told him about my job, he became very excited all of a sudden. He told me that, next to the Museum of Modern Art [in New York], this was his favorite repertory program anywhere. And nobody knows American movies better than him. That's why it's an advantage following in Ron's footsteps--he's created such a legacy--though I'm glad I didn't have to follow him the next month."

Birnie, 48, is a native of Ontario, Canada, who has headed various prestigious positions in the tiny Canadian film world, from director of creative affairs and project development for Telefilm Canada and a board member of the Ottawa International Animation festival to founding director of the Art Gallery of Ontario's film and video department. Most recently, he was programmer for the Toronto film festival, where he helped create such events as "Dialogues: Talking With Pictures," where major filmmakers presented the movies that most influenced them.

"It's the kind of thing I want to do here, that really creates the feeling of an event," Birnie says. "There's lots of things, like bringing in live orchestras for silent films, and creating better, bigger brochures and literature, which are pretty bare-bones right now. It means more expenses, but they're also ideas worth fund-raising for."

It also means working within a budget of approximately $200,000, and a reliance on ticket sales and corporate sponsorships. Though LACMA's membership totals 60,000, "that number won't deliver 600 people to fill our seats. I've already learned that in L.A. you have to go very wide to attract an audience, and different audiences than the ones who usually come here.

"Ron was very prescient about the enduring entertainment value of American movies, but the cable channels and video have really become the place now to see them. We want to mix some American classics with programs that draw new audiences." Birnie cites great opportunities with Asian-Pacific films, and "we'd be crazy not to explore Spanish-language films. Now we don't want to put on a 'foods of the world' show, but we want new audiences to feel welcome here."

The top challenge, though, is the tough, time-consuming process of hunting down films, which can sit in cans and vaults anywhere in the world. For the upcoming William S. Burroughs festival tied in with LACMA's Burroughs retrospective, Birnie is currently sniffing down some very obscure, "Burroughsian" titles such as Derek Jarman's documentary on the author, "Pirate Tape" ("I have no idea what shape it's in") and Conrad Rooks' '60s-era "Chappaqua" ("we finally tracked it down in Vienna, of all places"). "It's a curious process," Birnie adds, "since Burroughs himself never made any films."

Like any newcomer to the city, Birnie keeps talking about how "split up" L.A. is, and how he doesn't know if growing regular film programs such as American Cinematheque will eat into his audience. "But I look at my friends in Ontario, who have to pay these exorbitant sums to track down and pay for prints. Here is where a lot of the film libraries are. Now I'm like a kid in a candy store."


"Playing with Story: Experiments and Achievements in Film Narrative" continues through July 27 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Information: (213) 857-6010. Tickets: (213) 480-3232.

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