Movie Stars, Swimming Pools, and... Cinematheques; The Alternative Cinema Boom in L.A.
by Steven Rosen
To most people, a list of the top cities for the American alternative-cinema movement would include New York, Toronto, Park City in January, Austin and San Francisco, maybe. It would not feature Los Angeles. That's the belly of the beast after all -- home to the studios and their culture of worshiping movie-star glamour and box-office grosses. Intellect and artfulness -- cinematic ideas and traditions -- be damned.
And yet an extraordinary thing is occurring here in L.A. -- cinematheques are becoming almost as common as swimming pools. In fact, it's not unusual, during a typical week, for the discerning movie-goer to have this variety of experiences to choose from:
1) "Nothing Sacred," a retrospective of Carole Lombard's screwball comedies at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
2) A retrospective of director John Huston's films at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
3) A double-bill of recent political documentaries at UCLA's Film and Television Archive - "An Injury to One" about the 1917 lynching of a union organizer in Montana and "The Land of the Wandering Souls," about the exploitation of Cambodian peasants by a French communications firm.
4) A revival of Firesign Theater's countercultural spoof "J-Men Forever" at a Venice gallery, with Firesign members Philip Proctor and Peter Bergman present for discussion and, presumably, laughs.
5) Morning screenings of Jacques Demy's "Bay of Angels," Eric Rohmer's "Suzanne's Career," and Jean-Luc Godard's "Contempt" at three art houses as part of the local Laemmle chain's ongoing "La Nouvelle Vague" series. At the same time at Laemmle's Music Hall, a festival of recent Hungarian films is underway.
This is just some of what's happening -- from the scholarly to the avant-garde, the classic to the weird -- at inventive alternative-film programming venues all over town.
"Los Angeles sits on the cusp of an exciting alternative scene unlike any since the early 1970s, or perhaps ever," said Adam Hyman, director of one program, Filmforum, in a recent letter to the Los Angeles Times. His organization presents experimental films by such icons as Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage at the Egyptian.
Some of these programs are offered to intimate audiences at informal venues -- storefronts, galleries, and cafes. Others are at commercial art-houses or in museum and university theaters. Some are offered by well-known names like the American Film Institute and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Others are by smaller, grass-roots groups like the Echo Park Film Center.
But most striking are several expensive new or renovated theaters either just opening or being planned. They are evidence that interest in film's history here goes far beyond the casual stroll along Hollywood Boulevard's tacky Walk of Fame. Blessed with access to pristine 35mm prints of old movies from various studios and other archives, these venues are making L.A. a mecca for retro cinema. And independent and art/experimental films.
For instance, there's the new REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles. On the opening night of last month's four-day "Independent Los Angeles: A Festival of Independent Los Angeles Filmmakers" series, the black-box theater -- which seats about 250 -- was three-quarters full. It was presenting rare, silent animated/live-action shorts made by a young Walt Disney before Mickey Mouse discovered him and made him a studio titan.
REDCAT's executive director, Mark Murphy, welcomed the crowd to the theater's "first-ever screening"; film programmers Steve Anker and Berenice Reynaud shared their hopes for the future. After the screening, a spry, 84-year-old Virginia Davis -- who as a child starred in some of Disney's "Alice Comedies" -- recalled working for him and sold autographed stills of her work to animation enthusiasts.
REDCAT is part of the acclaimed Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall complex. With its swooping, reflective stainless-steel walls, likened to a flower's petals or a clipper ship's billowing sails, the symphony hall instantly has become the city's most famous building. But in the complex's basement, adjoining the parking garage, is REDCAT, a $21 million experimental-arts space programmed by California Institute for the Arts. It also has an art gallery, café, and book nook.
CalArts, like the concert hall, has been heavily supported by the Disney family and Walt Disney Company. REDCAT stands for Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater -- the idea and a sizeable financial commitment for it came from Roy E. Disney partly as a way of honoring his father, Walt's brother and business partner Roy O. Disney. (Roy E. just resigned from Disney's board in a controversial move.)
And while REDCAT will present all types of artistic programming, film and video represent an important component. The theater's aim is integrate the artistic pursuits of suburban CalArts into the cultural life of a city developing a loft-style downtown residential base. Yasuhisa Toyota, the acoustician who worked on Disney Hall, also did REDCAT's sound system. The theater comes with two 35mm projectors and a 16mm one. Plus it has capabilities for digital-video screenings.
"I think you could certainly think of it as having cinematheque functions," explains Steven D. Lavine, president of CalArts, of REDCAT. "We feel there are not enough outlets for contemporary independent film and video. And it's not an accident that the dean of our film school, Steve Anker, ran the San Francisco Cinematheque for many years."
Beginning on January 12, REDCAT will offer Monday-night screenings of experimental film and video, with filmmakers present for discussion. At the same time, the school's Engel Animation Advancement Research Center -- named for animator/CalArts instructor Jules Engel -- will begin its "Full Spectrum Animation: The Art of Motion" series.
Other upcoming programs are a Chantel Akerman retrospective in February, "Les Nouveaux Cinemas: Selections From the Montreal International Festival of New Cinema and New Media" in March, and "Global Film Initiative: Films From Developing Countries" in May and June.
But REDCAT is just the first of the new theaters. Two new full-time cinematheques are being planned within a couple miles of each other on the city's middle- to upper-income west side. And they will be just a short distance from the new 14-screen complex for L.A.-based Landmark Theatres, the nation's largest art-house chain. Slated to open in early 2005 at the Westside Pavilion, the new complex will replace Landmark's small, four-screen theater at the West L.A. shopping mall. It will contain several screening rooms capable of niche programming.
Scheduled to open in February is the Aero -- the second theater to be operated by the non-profit, L.A.-based American Cinematheque. A neighborhood house on vibrant, fancy Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, it was built in 1939 by the McDonnell Douglas aircraft company for its employees. It had been kept going in recent years by a devoted film buff, Jim Rosenfeld, who just couldn't make it work commercially. He had tried to sell it to Robert Redford's short-lived chain of Sundance theaters, but when that fell through he approached American Cinematheque.
In 1998, for $15 million, American Cinematheque restored and took over one of Hollywood's legendary old fantasy palaces, the temple-like Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. The breadth of its programming has been breathtaking -- for December, it is offering everything from Werner Herzog's new documentary on the Dalai Lama, "Wheel of Time," to a Christmas revival of the Pink Panther series. Its ongoing Alternative Screen Independent Film Showcase, co-presented with Slamdance Film Festival, offers cutting-edge fare with the filmmakers often present. The December offering is Curtis and Paul Hannum's "The Real Old Testament," a biblical parody featuring sock puppets.
Despite some initial financial difficulties, the Egyptian has found an audience. The American Cinematheque has reduced its debt to $3 million, doubled its membership to 2,000, and ticket sales now are its greatest revenue source, says Barbara Smith, executive director. Yet at the same time, because of L.A.'s infamous traffic congestion, many from the L.A.'s west side have trouble getting there for screenings.
So when Rosenfeld approached her about the Aero, she was receptive. "We've always thought that we spend years putting a program together, show it once and off it goes," she says. "I thought having a theater there wouldn't take an audience away from the Egyptian. So this is an expansion more than anything else."
Smith approached Max Palevsky, a founder of Intel and arts benefactor, to finance the Aero renovation; he eventually gave $500,000. The money has gone toward a bigger screen, a new sound system and 35- and 70-millimeter projectors. Although the Egyptian is a far more elaborate piece of architecture, both theaters have about the same seating capacity -- the Aero holds 500; the Egyptian 600.
While programming details for the Aero have yet to be worked out, Smith expects a 75-percent overlap between her organization's two theaters. Already planned for 2004 at the Egyptian are tributes to Kim Novak, Clint Eastwood, and David Cronenberg, plus retrospectives of films by Orson Welles, Lars Von Trier, and Federico Fellini.
Meanwhile, UCLA in Westwood also is poised to dramatically increase the urban presence -- and shed the campus identity -- of its cinematheque. Its Film and Television Archive is the largest of any university's, with 220,000 films and TV programs and 27 million feet of newsreel footage. And its James Bridges Theater offers some 400 programs each year.
Yet, as co-head of programming Andrea Alsberg says, "We still get questions whether we're open to the public or are just for students." That's because the theater, in the middle of the school's campus, has no street presence. Parking is also difficult and expensive - the garage costs $7, the same as a movie ticket to a screening. As a result, the place has seemed more a part of the university than the city, despite its outreach efforts and its fascinating programming.
But Audrey L. Wilder, widow of Billy Wilder, this year gave $5 million to build the new Billy Wilder Theater off-campus. It will be attached to the existing UCLA Hammer Museum in commercial Westwood Village, right off one of the busiest corners in the entire city, Westwood at Wilshire boulevards. The new stadium-seat theater will have 288 seats, roughly equal to the Bridges capacity, but will have additional amenities.
"The benefits will be enormous," Alsberg says. "Parking will be $3, or available on the street. "You'll be able to eat and drink, there will be film books in the bookstore and we'll be able to coordinate projects with the museum -- say, a gallery with costumes from a Fellini film."
While the Wilder gift provides complete financing for the theater, the museum is trying to raise funds for a concurrent renovation. Details of that haven't been worked out, but plans are for the new Billy Wilder Theater to open in 2005.
What's happening here may go beyond just an increased interest in alternative film programming. It may have sociological dimensions -- a "Tinseltown" manifestation of what author Richard Florida has termed "The Rise of the Creative Class."
Ian Birnie, head of the film department at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, wonders if the interest in showing movies at cinematheques isn't about more than just seeing old -- or unusual -- movies.
The museum, in the city's older but still-vital central Miracle Mile section, long has screened classics on weekends -- opening night of its Carole Lombard retrospective, featuring a restored Technicolor print of "Nothing's Sacred," packed its 600-seat theater. Coming next year are retrospectives for F.W. Murnau and Jules Dassin. (There has been a housing boom near LACMA, as luxury apartments have been built near a new outdoor shopping mall called The Grove.)
"Increasingly, this area is defying its reputation of a place where everyone is willing to keep driving to get around," Birnie says. "They're creating pods within the city -- village situations -- so it's more realistic that they don't have to drive so much. And movies are part of the mix."