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Scorsese speaks at LACMA about museum's film screening program

The Oscar-winning director urges museum chief Michael Govan to continue screenings.

January 22, 2010|By David Ng and Amy Kaufman

Never underestimate the power of Martin Scorsese to galvanize a room full of movie buffs.

The director drew cheers and standing ovations when he appeared Wednesday evening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to discuss the fate of the institution's imperiled weekend film program.

The discussion with LACMA director Michael Govan covered film-preservation and museum topics.

But many attendees expressed frustration over the lack of a clear statement about the 40-year-old screening series, which the museum has said would end in June.

At one point, Govan provided hints to the series' continued existence by asking Scorsese to return to the museum to present restored films.

"Do I have a promise?" Govan asked.

"Yes," the director replied.

Though the two appeared congenial, they had a seemingly more contentious relationship last summer, when Govan announced the museum would suspend its film program because of funding issues. The news sparked an outcry from the public as well as from Scorsese, who in August wrote an open letter published in The Times urging LACMA to continue the program.

In a statement issued Thursday, Govan said LACMA has vowed to develop a "growing commitment" to film as part of the museum's overall program, though he did not specify dates or what form that commitment will take:

"We feel it's very important to celebrate film as an important part of the story of art history we present at the museum and have appreciated the support and involvement of Mr. Scorsese and others as we build our new programs."

Some champions of the film program, including one former LACMA employee, expressed guarded optimism regarding the museum's renewed commitment. They said that the publicity that Scorsese has brought to the controversy would make it difficult for LACMA to go back on its word.

Ian Birnie, the former head of the museum's film department, said Wednesday's dialogue represents a positive step. "I don't think this conversation could have happened a year ago," he said.

Birnie, whose position was eliminated last year, serves as a consultant for the museum's film program. He said he is planning screenings "through the summer," possibly including a retrospective of the films of Ernst Lubitsch.

Members of Save Film at LACMA, an informal group of activists who launched a petition to rescue the series, said Govan appears to be making the connection between film and art in ways he hadn't before. They also said that film's role in a museum context is starting to "click for him."

During the talk, , Govan addressed the controversy briefly in his opening remarks, classifying the public's reaction over the possible cancellation of the program as "honest and appropriate skepticism."

During the conversation at LACMA's Bing Theater, Scorsese said it's crucial for film "to be shown properly. And that's why this room is important."

Scorsese also recounted anecdotes about attending LACMA screenings during the 1970s when he lived in L.A. He recalled one screening where the film was of such poor quality that "we had to leave . . . we couldn't stand watching it." He said that experience helped solidify what became his commitment to film restoration.

Scorsese said he would like to screen recently restored movies such as "Al Momia," a little-known 1969 Egyptian film, at LACMA.

"We will do that," Govan said.

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