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Academy Museum Finds Good Intentions in Messy Film History

Academy Museum Finds Good Intentions in Messy Film History
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Academy Museum Finds Good Intentions in Messy Film History

Academy Museum Finds Good Intentions in Messy Film History

Tucked away at the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which opened Thursday in Los Angeles, is a surprisingly modest display of the “important Oscars.” The museum is, after all, the latest venture of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that annually entertains film buffs of every taste and critical persuasion with that gaudy bacchanalia of self-love. Oscar.

Given the Academy’s focus on all things Oscar, its latest production could have struck the event even more. Yet while the awards are always large, as does Hollywood—it’s very much an Academy effort, as Steven Spielberg has outlined—the long-delayed Museum borrowing the title has to emphasize the positives. A difficult, complicated abbreviation is adopted. of an Oscar-nominated song. The ugliness of the industry, its racism and sexism are addressed directly, but the emphasis is on diversity and pluralism, not past and present sins. Call it a museum of good intentions.

The 20 statues in the important Oscar gallery underscore this idea. The oldest best cinematography award was given to “Sunrise” in 1929, the first year of the ceremony and the Academy split its top honors between “unique and artistic picture” and “outstanding” film; The latter was given to “Wings” and is not on display. The most recent is the 2017 Best Adapted Screenplay Award for “Moonlight”, part of an inclusive lineup that includes Best Actor (Sydney Poitier), Costume Design (Eiko Ishioka), Documentary (“The Times of Harvey Milk”) and Best Actor (Sydney Poitier). Songs are included. (“up where We Belong”).

Like most museums, the Oscar exhibit is fun, informative, conceptually freighted and touching, especially because of the empty case that Hattie McDaniel won the Best Supporting Award for her much-loved turn in “Gone with the Wind” in 1940 Was. (It disappeared years earlier.) She was the first African American to be nominated for an Oscar; a clip of her poignant acceptance speech is playing nearby. In 1940, the Oscars were held in Coconut Grove, where picketing outside Givers protested the film’s racism. Inside, McDaniel was seated at a separate table, separate from his white co-stars.

McDaniel’s lost Oscar and empty display case resonate, partly because of his public role as a cultural flash point and because he embodies the larger, structural absence that has long characterized the American film industry and The Academy has struggled, especially in the last decade. Founded in 1927, partly to tarnish the image of the industry, the Academy has recently expanded and diversified its membership, an enterprise that has generated a great deal of publicity and the concerns it represents are less genuine. , has changed in the real world. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite is unlikely to be retired any time soon, although the Academy is trying to make it obsolete.

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The Academy’s emphasis on greater diversity extends to its museum. One room, “Musician: Hildur Gudnadottir,” is part of the wider “Cinema Tales” exhibition, featuring a masterpiece by Hildur Gudnadottir that you can listen to in a darkened room. Gudnadottir won an Oscar for her score for “Joker”—perhaps the strongest explanation as to why she’s launching this exhibition—and belongs to a select group. As the museum’s website (if not its wall caption) notes, in 2019, only 6 percent of the top 250 films were scored by women.

There is much more to see and consider, even if the 50,000 square feet of exhibition space seems a bit modest. (The Museum of Modern Art has added so much space to its previous expansion.) Elsewhere, there is a comprehensive Hayao Miyazaki retrospective. Housed in the Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg Gallery, it’s down the hall from a very small room that houses “The Pixar Toy Story 3D Zoetrope,” a dizzying, carousel-like entertainment featuring machetes of Disney franchise characters.

The two-story “Backdrop: An Invisible Art” is a showcase for the giant reproduction of Mount Rushmore used in “North by Northwest.” Among other galleries reserved for the museum’s biggest, most evocative exhibit, the multipart “Stories of Cinema,” you can jump on the glittery ruby ​​slippers that Judy Garland wore as Dorothy when she appeared in “The Wizard of Oz.” Clicked on his heels and gawked at one of “Citizen Kane’s” sledges, shining like a jewel in the soft light. Elsewhere, a fiberglass model of a shark in “Jaws” floats atop an escalator.

These relics have charm and an iconic aura, and there’s an undeniable kick to seeing them in person. More than once, I found myself smiling wildly at an object—well, the typewriter that Joseph Stefano used to write “Psycho”! — even as I tried to decide whether these items were significant cinematic artifacts, Instagram-ready tourist fodder or, indeed, both. François Truffaut, for one, found little value in a film museum, which spent resources on the objects rather than on preserving or programming the film (both would be well represented in the museum by the Academy’s own holdings). “Putting a Garbo costume next to the skull from ‘Psycho’ was a gimmick for tourists,” he said.

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Truffaut was wrong, I guess, and not just because I want to get a closer look at the skull from that Hitchcock shocker. Movies are many things: art, artifacts, representations, narrations, expressions of specific times and places, real and imaginary. But they are also filled with and defined by material objects that have their own meaning and magic. Nothing is clearer than in “The Path to Cinema: Highlights from the Richard Balzer Collection,” a stunning selection of early optical instruments with wonderful names like the praxinoscope that speak to our curious human desire to see machines.

“Cinema Stories” spans three floors and has a name that strongly matches Sundance. The first part is on the ground floor in the soaring Sidney Poitier Grand Lobby, a vaulted, not particularly inviting industrial looking space. On a large monitor in a dimly lit room, you can watch clips drawn from international film history, spanning the commercial mainstream and avant-garde. There are snippets of much work from the first female filmmaker, Alice Guy Blatch (two clips), as well as Yasujiro Ozu (six), John Cassavetes (one! Come!) and Steven Spielberg (nine). 2021 Oscar contenders (eight).

The first half of “Stories” is enough not to hurt, although it would generate arguments. Because the clip has not been identified (the list is online), it also has a game quality that allows visitors to guess which “X-Men” (“Days of the Future Past”) zip by. Done and wait to see if Roman Polanski, who was expelled from the academy, made the cut. They did (two clips), although especially Woody Allen, the Oscar fave made the persona non greta, no. He never attended the academy but his exclusion here is striking. Instead, the museum has set its sights on filmmakers, who simultaneously represent a parallel, lesser-known vanguard that has been systematically overlooked, forgotten, and marginalized.

To that end, the museum has made some other notable choices, including one regarding the formation of the canon. The indie film “Real Women Have Curves” is ranked next to “Citizen Kane” in the second half of “Stories”. This section also throws light on Bruce Lee; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (collaborator of Alfonso Cuarón); and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (known for her work with Martin Scorsese). Also here is African American pioneer Oscar Micho, a radical independent who has worked outside of Hollywood. His performance hosted by Spike Lee and another fluke includes some references to D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” notoriety.

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Lee has spoken in the past about seeing “Birth” in a class at New York University, where she was shown the film without considering Griffith’s racism. This attitude had long been common in film studies. For too long, scholars and critics tried to focus on the aesthetic and narrative aspects of Griffith’s work, while ignoring or eradicating its racism. Among other things, “birth” became a recruitment tool for the Ku Klux Klan. Griffith’s place in the museum is symbolic of the bond he faces: giving him prominence will generate criticism, but bypassing him distorts the true arc of American cinema.

I discussed Griffith’s subject and the provocations presented by troubled filmmakers like him with Jacqueline Stewart, the museum’s chief artistic and programming officer. Speaking on the phone Tuesday, Stewart laughed as the morning turned away from him. Just hours earlier, the MacArthur Foundation announced that she was one of the recipients of the 2021 “Genius” grant, a recognition for a highly respected film scholar who made an unusual, welcome leap to public prominence, special As a host for the Turner Classic. Movies. Stewart joined the Academy Museum staff only in January, when the exhibitions were designed. She describes her role as “fine-tuning”.

Addressing the challenges presented by American cinema, Stewart said that in both a “dominant and oblique context” for filmmakers, the museum seeks to encourage people to learn more. The biggest hits are here, but there are films that are unlikely to be included in the more rare canon. The museum, Stewart said, wanted to use its space to surprise and inspire. “I think people will be surprised that the way we get to the narrative in this inaugural iteration of our museum is through these two black filmmakers,” referring to Maiko and Spike Lee. If, for example, visitors want to learn more about Griffith through Michio, he continued, “I think it’s amazing.”

Whether visitors will be looking for more than a selfie with a “Star Wars” bot remains to be seen. That is, if they stop streaming for a while and leave the house.

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