Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien in "Sunrise" from 1927. (UCLA Film & Television Archive,…)
Under ordinary circumstances, "Celebrating Classic Cinema: Curator and Audience Favorites," the exceptional new repertory program starting Friday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, would be a cause for unreserved happiness and joy. But these are not ordinary times at LACMA.
The series comprises some of the greatest films ever made, prime examples of classic cinema that include some of my own favorites — films like Max Ophüls' breathtaking "The Earrings of Madame de...," Ernst Lubitsch's daringly funny "To Be or Not to Be," and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's sweepingly romantic "I Know Where I'm Going."
Seeing these magnificent 17 on the big screen of LACMA's Bing Theater (for the complete schedule, go to http://www.lacma.org) will be a cinematic education in and of itself for people lucky enough to experience them all. But the joy the series will create has to be tempered by sadness and worry about the circumstances that made it possible.
The program is the swan song of Ian Birnie, who for the last 14 years has been director of LACMA's Film Department but is now out of a job. For his farewell program, he's picked an eclectic but irresistible collection of movies, all previously screened at LACMA, most more than once, some up to five times, and he has written distinctly personal program notes.
The films span nine decades, from F.W. Murnau's 1927 "Sunrise" to David Lynch's 2001 "Mulholland Dr." They include features from France ("Pickpocket," "Bay of Angels," "The River"), Italy ("L'Avventura," "The Conformist"), Mexico ("The Exterminating Angel") and Japan ("Late Autumn") as well as the United States ("Written on the Wind," "In a Lonely Place," "The Long Goodbye," "The Lady From Shanghai").
Birnie's replacement, former New York Times film critic and host of KCRW's "The Treatment" Elvis Mitchell, struck exactly the right note when he told IndieWire that "the first thing I want to do is not alienate people who have been coming to LACMA to see movies." But rejoicing in the quality of the films in Birnie's last series makes one wonder why he was replaced at all.
Birnie's exit was orchestrated in a breathtaking piece of gamesmanship by LACMA Director Michael Govan, as adroit a cultural politician as this city has. The inevitable implication of this chain of events is that the museum considers this kind of classic repertory programming to be cultural fogeyism, too dreary and old-fashioned to have a place in the hipster LACMA that Govan is dedicating himself to creating.
But to not value films like these and the others Birnie has selected over the years is to callously disregard the kinds of work that museums are supposed to be in the business of preserving. Though LACMA would (likely) never think of consigning its most significant Rembrandt to a closet, coolly turning its back on that painting's cinematic equivalents is apparently just fine and dandy. Thus pass the glories of the world.
"Celebrating Classic Cinema" features so many marvelous films, often in unexpected but vivid pairings, that there's no space to write about any but personal favorites.
These include "Sunrise," one of the first weekend's selections, a work of stunning beauty and visual sophistication and one of the peaks of silent film artistry. It's paired with "I Know Where I'm Going," a little-seen, 1945 black-and-white effort by co-directors best known for lush color epics like "The Red Shoes" and "Black Narcissus." Here, Powell and Pressburger handle a spirited romance with fantasy elements set among the poetic beauties of the Scottish coast.
The only way to follow this is with perhaps the most visually romantic film ever made, 1953's "The Earrings of Madame de ..." An elegant, opulent piece of work, it uses Ophüls' ravishing camera technique and a superb cast to turn the trifling story of the peregrinations of a pair of diamond earrings into an indelible French romance. Ophüls' lifelong fascination with camera movement bears exceptional fruit in this film, especially its centerpiece, a montage of a series of gliding, gilded parties in which the countess and the baron realize they are falling in love, a sequence which has to be one of the most sublime ever put on film.
One double bill is a pair of classic American screwball comedies, Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels" and Lubitsch's "To Be or Not to Be." "Sullivan" is probably Sturges' signature work, both a pointed satire on Hollywood and a poignant defense of screen comedy. It stars Joel McCrea as a major studio director, fresh from the success of "Hey, Hey in the Hayloft," who'd rather do the socially conscious "O Brother, Where Art Thou" than piffle like "Ants in Their Pants of 1939." He sets out to discover America and finds sultry Veronica Lake instead.