Museums in Southern California seem to be losing their collective minds.
First downtown's Museum of Contemporary Art spent big chunks of its endowment on day-to-day expenses. Then the Orange County Museum of Art secretly sold some of its paintings to a private collector. And now the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the museum of record in ground zero for the film industry, is killing its movie program. What are these people drinking?
I know, I know, the official word from LACMA Director Michael Govan is that the film program is not dead but on some half-baked hiatus while he puts his best minds to work "reconsidering the nature, scale and scope" of what the museum is doing.
You'll excuse me, but the logic of needing to stop the program in order to rethink it sounds suspiciously like the apocryphal Vietnam War rationale that "we had to burn the village to save it." That the museum seems to lack the ability to consider the situation's pros and cons while things are up and running doesn't give me a lot of confidence in its ultimate decision.
More than that, as Isaac Newton, no film buff, once observed, a body at rest tends to stay at rest, which means that once something is killed it's harder to get it reanimated. Especially if that revival is tied, as it apparently is, to raising millions of dollars for an endowment. I can just see the crocodile tears flowing when the museum says it tried ever so hard but just couldn't raise those needed funds.
If I am being a little tough on the museum, and I know I am, it's because their reasons for doing what they've just done seem especially specious. LACMA's thinking may seem just fine in the abstract but it doesn't hold up under any kind of examination.
Take the question of the program's million-dollar loss. That's a nice round number, but it turns out to be a cumulative loss over a 10-year period. Broken down to $100,000 a year (and several museum sources tell me it has been more like $70,000 in recent years), it's a drop in the bucket in an annual budget of more than $50 million. Especially in a city with the powerful connection to film Los Angeles has.
Even if you think that those losses are too big to ignore, consider the reasons for them. Successful programs require healthy budgets, and it has been an open secret for years that the money LACMA has put into its film program has redefined the concept of operating on a shoestring. Axing it because not enough people are coming is like starving someone half to death and then firing them because they're too thin.
More than that, is anyone doing a comparable head count for the rest of the museum's collections? Would LACMA shutter its collection of Etruscan art if not enough people came? Probably not. Would it consider packing up its European paintings because excellent reproductions are available in books and online the way DVDs are available in stores? No, that kind of art is considered too central to the museum's mission to be dismissed in such a cavalier manner.
Which brings us to the question of that highly touted future rethinking of the film program. The truth here is that though things can always be improved, and audience numbers raised, the wheel that this kind of film exhibition represents can't really be reinvented.
If you are not showing film classics or new work from other countries -- which is the model the American Cinematheque, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and New York's Museum of Modern Art follow -- you are abandoning a core part of what institutional programming has to be about if it's to have any lasting value. And if LACMA thinks attendance is bad now, just wait till its planned interim screenings of "artist-created films" begin to truly empty its seats.
It is all those empty seats that make the LACMA situation especially frustrating. The museum's 600-seat Leo S. Bing Theater is one of the best movie-watching facilities in Los Angeles. It is also the city's most centrally located major venue, no small virtue in this traffic nightmare town. To see it jammed, as it was last year when director Christopher Nolan did a Q&A about "Following," his first film, is to experience moviegoing at its best.
Making all this even sadder is the fact that the economic realities of commercial exhibition mean that venues like the Bing are needed more than ever. In recent years UCLA, the Cinematheque and LACMA have all shown films that in a different, more prosperous era would have gone into first-run houses.
One such film, a new print of Jean-Pierre Melville's little-seen "Leon Morin, Priest," is in fact scheduled at the Bing on the weekend of Aug. 14. It's possible that this kind of thing would continue under a new regime, if there is a new regime, but given the museum's contempt for the current programming, that feels unlikely.
It is that contempt that is possibly the most distressing element in the entire LACMA equation. To shut this program down, in Los Angeles of all places, betrays both a disdain for the most vibrant of popular arts and a demeaning narrowness of vision about what Los Angeles wants and needs.
Make no mistake, the LACMA closure is an egregious slap in the face to those who believe in film as perhaps the most alive and vibrant of the arts. The fact that it's coming from the very people whose job it is to protect and promote, makes the whole sad scenario sadder still.
We deserve better as a film culture and as a city, we really do.