Academy museum finds good intentions in messy film story

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Nestled in the new Cinema Academy Museum, which opened Thursday in Los Angeles, is a surprisingly modest “big Oscar” exhibit. The museum, after all, is the latest venture of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that each year invariably entertains, ignites and amazes moviegoers of all tastes and critical beliefs with this garish bacchanal. of self-esteem known as the Oscars.

Given the academy’s focus on everything Oscar-related, her latest production could have played into the event even more than it does. Yet while the awards are invariably important, as is Hollywood – this is truly an academy effort, as the many nods to Steven Spielberg point out – the long-delayed museum has adopted a delicate dossier and complicated to emphasize the positive, to borrow the title of an Oscar nominated song. The industry’s ugliness, racism and sexism are directly addressed, but the emphasis is on diversity and pluralism, not on past and present sins. Call it a museum of good intentions.

The 20 statuettes of the important Oscars gallery underline this idea. The oldest is the award for best photography given to “Sunrise” in 1929, the first year of the ceremony and the only year the academy has divided its main honors between “unique and artistic image” and “remarkable”; the latter was given to “Wings” and is not exhibited. The most recent is the 2017 Best Adapted Screenplay award for “Moonlight,” which is part of an inclusive lineup that includes Best Actor (Sidney Poitier), Costume Design (Eiko Ishioka), Documentary (“The Times of Harvey Milk “) and the song (” Where We Belong “).

Like much of the museum, the Oscars exhibit is fun, informative, ideologically charged, and touching, especially given the empty case that is expected to contain the best supporting prize that Hattie McDaniel won in 1940 for her very turn. controversial in “Gone with the Wind.” (He disappeared years ago.) She was the first African American nominated for an Oscar; an excerpt from his poignant acceptance speech is played nearby. In 1940, the Oscars were held in Cocoanut Grove, where picketers outside protested the film’s racism. Inside, McDaniel was seated at a separate table, separate from her white co-stars.

McDaniel’s Lost Oscar and Empty Showcase resonate, in part because of its public role as a cultural flashpoint and because they symbolize the larger structural absences that have long characterized the American film industry and with which the academy has struggled with, especially over the past few decades. Formed in 1927, in part to improve the image of the industry, the academy has recently expanded and diversified its membership, a business that has generated a lot of publicity and less substantial change in the real world of concerns it represents. . The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag is unlikely to be removed anytime soon, even as the academy tries to make it obsolete.

The academy’s push for greater diversity extends to its museum. One piece, “Composer: Hildur Gudnadottir”, which is part of the extensive “Cinema Stories” exhibition, features a work created for her by Hildur Gudnadottir that you can listen to in a dark room. Gudnadottir won an Oscar for her score for “Joker” – perhaps the strongest explanation for which she is launching this exhibition – and belongs to a selected cohort. As the museum’s website (if not the legend of its wall) notes, in 2019 only 6% of the top 250 films had female scores.

There is a lot more to see and meditate on, although the exhibit space, at 50,000 square feet, also seems a bit modest. (The Museum of Modern Art added near this space in its latest expansion.) Elsewhere, there is a vast Hayao miyazaki retrospective. Housed in the Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg Gallery, it’s at the end of the hallway of a much smaller room that contains “The Pixar Toy Story 3D Zoetrope,” a swirling, carousel-like fun that features mockups of characters from the franchise. Disney.

The two-story “Backdrop: an invisible artIs a display case for the huge reproduction of Mount Rushmore used in “North by Northwest”. In other galleries set aside for the museum’s largest and most provocative exhibition, the multi-part ‘Movie Stories’, you can gawk at the dazzling ruby ​​slippers Judy Garland wore as Dorothy when ‘she clicked on her heels in “The Wizard of Oz” and speechless at one of the sleds from “Citizen Kane”, shining like a jewel in a soft light. Elsewhere, a fiberglass model of the shark in “Jaws” floats above the escalators.

These relics have charm and an iconic aura, and there is an undeniable pleasure in seeing them in person. More than once I have found myself grinning wildly at an object – cool, the typewriter Joseph Stefano used to write “Psycho”! – even as I was trying to decide if these items were important cinematic artifacts, Instagram-ready tourist bait, or, really, both. François Truffaut, for his part, found little value in a film museum that was spending resources on objects rather than film preservation or programming (both will be well represented in the museum by the company’s own funds). academy). “Putting a Garbo costume next to the ‘Psycho’ skull was a gimmick for tourists,” he said.

Truffaut was wrong, I think, and not just because I would like to take a close look at the skull of this Hitchcock shocker. Films are many things: art, artefacts, representations, statements, manifestations of specific times and spaces, real and imagined. But they are also filled and defined by material objects which have their own meaning and their own magic. Nothing makes this clearer than “The Path to Cinema: Highlights From the Richard Balzer Collection”, a fantastic selection of early optical devices with wonderful names like the praxinoscope that speak of our curious human desire to watch machines.

“Stories of Cinema” spans three floors and bears a name strongly reminiscent of Sundance. The first part is on the ground floor in the large Sidney Poitier hall, a vaulted space, not particularly inviting with an industrial look. On large monitors mounted in a dark room, you can sit and watch captivating clips of international cinema history, covering the general public and the avant-garde. There are excerpts from the work of the first female filmmaker, Alice Guy Blaché (two clips), as well as Yasujiro Ozu (six), John Cassavetes (one! Come on!) And Steven Spielberg (nine) as well as too many Candidates. at the 2021 Oscars (eight).

The first part of “Stories” is long enough not to offend, although it will generate arguments. Because the clips are unidentified (the list is online), it also has the quality of a game that allows visitors to guess which “X-Men” zipped through (“Days of Future Past”) and to wait and see if Roman Polanski, who was kicked out of the academy, made the cut. He did (two clips), but notably Woody Allen, Oscar favorite turned persona non grata, didn’t. He never joined the academy but his exclusion here is striking. Instead, the museum has set its sights on filmmakers who together tend to represent a parallel and lesser-known avant-garde that has been systematically ignored, forgotten and marginalized.

To this end, the museum has made other notable choices, especially with regard to the training of the cannons. The independent film “Real Women Have Curves” was honored alongside “Citizen Kane” in the second part of “Stories”. This section also highlights Bruce Lee; the director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki (a collaborator of Alfonso Cuarón); and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (best known for her work with Martin Scorsese). Also here is African-American pioneer Oscar Micheaux, a radical freelance who worked outside of Hollywood. His exhibit and another temporary curated by Spike Lee include some of the rare references to DW Griffith, from the infamy “The Birth of a Nation”.

Lee has spoken in the past of watching “Birth” in a class at New York University, where he was shown the film without considering Griffith’s racism. This attitude has long been common in film studies. For too long academics and critics have tended to focus on the aesthetic and narrative aspects of Griffith’s work while ignoring or eliminating his racism. Among other things, “Birth” has become a recruiting tool for the Ku Klux Klan. Griffith’s placement in the museum is emblematic of the bond he faces: giving prominence to it would generate criticism, but sidelining it distorts the true arc of American cinema.

I broached the subject of Griffith and the provocations presented by upset filmmakers like him with Jacqueline Stewart, artistic director and museum programming. Speaking by phone on Tuesday, Stewart noted with a laugh that the morning had eluded him. A few hours earlier, the MacArthur Foundation had announced that she was one of the recipients of its Engineering scholarships 2021, recognition from a highly regarded film specialist who has made an unusual and welcome leap to public awareness, notably as a host of Turner Classic Movies. Stewart didn’t join Academy staff until January, after the exhibits were designed. She describes her role as “tweaking”.

Addressing the challenges of American cinema, Stewart said that in “major and indirect references” to filmmakers, the museum seeks to encourage people to learn more. The biggest hits are here, but so are films that probably won’t be included in more rarefied canons. The museum, said Stewart, wanted to use its space to surprise and inspire. “I think people will be surprised that the way we approach storytelling in this first iteration of our museum goes through these two black filmmakers,” referring to Micheaux and Spike Lee. If, for example, visitors are looking to learn more about Griffith from Micheaux, she continued, “I think that’s amazing.”

It remains to be seen whether visitors will be looking for more than selfies with the “Star Wars” robots. That is, if they stop broadcasting for a while and leave the house.


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