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Consider the alternatives

L.A. may be an industry town where blockbusters rule, but eclectic programming for the film buff is thriving.

August 28, 2003|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

Let's say it's a Tuesday and you're in the mood to catch a film. Not one of the "Freaky Friday" or "S.W.A.T." sort, but something unexpected, unusual. A film born and raised outside the studios' mainstream, the kind that would be lost in a multiplex world. Or perhaps a classic with no big screen afterlife at all. Nowhere else in the world are the options so rich and diverse -- and available -- virtually every day of the week.

For the classics, try an afternoon matinee at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where anything from "Superman" with Christopher Reeve to "The Band Wagon," circa 1953 and starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, will be screening to an audience populated by screenwriters, retirees, students and even the occasional Miracle Mile suit on a long lunch break.

Then head to the Egyptian Theatre or the New Beverly Cinema in Hollywood, where the choices range from Japanese swordsman films to French gangster pictures. In the same neighborhood, the American Film Institute is usually sponsoring a screening at the ArcLight -- a documentary on an underground band one night, a groundbreaking Russian movie on another.

It is an alternative scene driven by a growing number of distinctive film series shaped by a handful of tastemakers. The curators and programmers at UCLA, the American Cinematheque, the AFI and LACMA are among the more prominent players.

Sweetening the mix are numerous film festivals and the always evocative Last Remaining Seats, an annual series held by the Los Angeles Conservancy in the aging movie palaces of downtown Los Angeles. Then there are those truly on the fringes, the Naz 8 theater in Artesia featuring new films from India and Asia, the occasional screenings at the Forever Hollywood cemetery and the Pacific Northridge, a shabby discount theater that is one of the few remaining tenants in a lonely strip mall and often the very last place in the area to catch a mainstream film released months ago.

So whether you consider yourself a casual movie fan or a certified cineaste, in this town it's possible to construct an alternative film festival of your very own.

American Cinematheque

It may be hard to imagine people feverishly lining up around the block to see a movie such as "Dr. No," the 1962 film that launched James Bond as a film franchise. Between home video and cable, "Dr. No" is certainly not out of circulation. But long lines happen all the time at the Egyptian, the restored movie palace about to celebrate its 80th birthday.

The theater has memories as well as movies -- the electric buzz that took the room when beloved actor Farley Granger (best know for his role in Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 film "Strangers on a Train") once appeared, or Shirley Jones introducing a screening of "Oklahoma!" and remembering the film's original premiere at the Egyptian.

The American Cinematheque at the Egyptian has in many ways made its mark on the local scene by featuring obscure genre films, as it did in its recent Festival of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction. But Dennis Bartok, a programmer at the American Cinematheque, chuckles at the notion that the theater caters to the "film geek" crowd, saying, "I've been called a film geek, but I didn't realize we were known for geek cinema."

Bartok, 38, has been with the Cinematheque since 1992. He and the team of other programmers working at the Cinematheque fill its schedule with new American independent films, foreign films new and old, and classic Hollywood films. They also work hard to bring in directors, producers, writers or actors affiliated with a film for introductions and post-screening Q & As.

In a twist that speaks to the dedication of the Cinematheque's audience, Bartok says that after scheduling the new film "Love Object" for the horror series, he realized that Robert Parigi, the writer and director of the film, was a familiar face from other screenings.

Though he expresses some concern over DVD and home video eating away at the audience for revival screenings, Bartok is not entirely worried.

"It's great to watch 'Lawrence of Arabia' on a beautifully restored DVD with lots of extras," he says, "but you're never going to get the same experience as seeing a beautiful 70-millimeter print of that film projected on a big screen. It's just not the same experience at all. It's a little like comparing a live concert experience to listening to a CD. They are both great experiences, but they are very different ones."

There is an upside to the DVD explosion -- an increased cooperation from major studios looking for ways to promote their releases. A recent event, for example, featured the cast and crew of "The Right Stuff."

"The different studios have been a great asset for obtaining new prints or getting guests to come down to the theater," says Bartok. "It goes a long way toward promoting film culture and the love of film."


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