Remembering a Groundbreaking Sergio Leone/Ennio Morricone Exhibit at a Los Angeles Museum



(I am reposting this story on the occasion of Ennio Morricone’s passing. Among other things, this museum show explored the influence that avant-garde New Music had on Morricone’s famous score for “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”)


It would be fitting if, for the duration of its “Once Upon a Time in Italy…the Westerns of Sergio Leone” exhibit, the Autry National Center called itself the Museum With No Name.

For Italian film director Leone is most famous for transforming TV actor Clint Eastwood into the enduringly mythic Man With No Name in a series of three mid-1960s “spaghetti Westerns”: “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

The history and impact of those films, as well as of Leone’s artistry, are the subjects of this innovative and surprising multimedia exhibit at the Autry’s Museum of the American West in Griffith Park through Jan. 22.

Leone changed the very nature of Westerns, as well as notions of movie heroism/anti-heroism in his Eastwood movies and his subsequent epic, 1968’s “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Leone saved the movie Western, which had lost its audience to TV cowboy shows in the early 1960s, by making it cool and new for Boomer-era teenagers.

“We focus on his Westerns because the West is the mission of this museum,” says the Autry’s Estella Chung, the show’s co-curator. “And the work he did with Westerns is groundbreaking.”

The accomplishment of creating the Man With No Name persona is so great that it’s trumpeted by a rare 1966 poster at the entranceway to this show. It has neither the film’s name nor the star’s on it. Rather, it contains three illustrations of a rather disreputable-looking, shadowy character. One can’t tell whether it’s Eastwood or not.

With each picture is a slogan: “This short cigar belongs to a man with no name.” “This long gun belongs to a man with no name.” “This poncho belongs to a man with no name.” And then, the kicker: “He’s going to trigger a whole new style in adventure.”

Thus was movie history and pop-cultural mythos changed. But as Chung explains, Leone didn’t plan it that way. An original Italian-language script on display in the show reveals that Eastwood’s character at first was named “Ray.” But that got dropped as unnecessary exposition.

The Eastwood films were made cheaply in Spain and released in Italy between 1964 and 1966, where “Spaghetti Westerns” were such a radical new idea that Leone at first tried to pretend he was American. An early Italian film poster here lists the first film’s director as “Bob Robertson,” an alias. But the films became hits, despite the fact the casts were polyglots of various nationalities.

Yet when MGM was getting ready to release them in the U.S. in 1967, it was stymied from a marketing standpoint. Why would Americans want to see an Italian-made Western? So it decided to hype the lead character’s lack of a name. It worked. “That mystique was a marketing ploy,” Chung says.

This is not only the largest exhibit devoted to Leone, who died in 1989 of a heart attack at just age 60, but Chung says it’s also the biggest devoted to a motion-picture director, period. The show was co-curated by Sir Christopher Frayling, a Leone biographer as well as the chairman of Arts Council England.

Objects were loaned by Leone’s collaborators on his films, including Eastwood. The actor also serves on a star-studded Leone Film Arts Committee created by the Autry for this show. And there is far more than movie posters here. “We made a decision to only bring in material that had maintained its original look since used in his films,” Chung says. “And we were lucky to find so much.”

Plentiful background material, including old photos and comic books, show how Leone, the son of a director and silent-film actress, grew up in Italy fascinated by American pulp fiction. In 1946, he entered the busy Italian film industry and worked on many English-language sword-and-sandal movies being filmed at Rome’s Cinecitta studios, including “Ben-Hur.” In 1960, he directed his first movie, “The Colossus of Rhodes.”

In 1963, he saw Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s samurai-warrior film “Yojimbo” and was impressed with its loner, man-of-few-words star. “He said if you got rid of the swords and put a cowboy hat on the guy, you’d have a terrific Western,” Chung says.

This exhibit is at its best in showing how Leone was attracted to Eastwood. On a video monitor, it plays a scene from a 1961 episode of the TV series “Rawhide,” in which Eastwood played Rowdy Yates. Called “Incident of the Black Sheep,” it shows a quiet Eastwood exuding authority. “This is where he thought Clint Eastwood could be a star,” Chung says. “The myth is that he took a picture of Eastwood, drew some stubble, and put a cigarillo in his mouth to see if he made a star.”

The exhibit features original set-design illustrations and costumes worn by actors in “Once Upon a Time in the West” and a later Leone Western from the early 1970s, “Duck You Sucker.” (A gangster film that Leone made in the 1980s, “Once Upon a Time in America,” is not part of this show’s reach.)

The most famous object here is probably Eastwood’s trademark poncho (with sewn-up bullet holes). It’s in a case. “A lot of fans are curious about the origins of the poncho,” Chung says. “In the original script, he’d taken the poncho from a man taking a bath by the side of a river. But that scene was never shot. So we have the script explaining it all – in Italian.”

Another illuminating artifact is a script bearing the terms “primo piano” and “primissimo piano” as well as “P.P.” and “P.P.P.” Those mean “close-up” and “extreme close-up,” hallmarks of the groundbreaking way Leone chose to shoot gunfights to extend tension. Those brief notations represent five long minutes of actual screen time.

To recreate the proper environment for “Once Upon a Time in the West” artifacts and film clips, the museum commissioned a fiberglass life-size sculpture of the memorable opening scene, in which three gunmen waiting at a train station for “Harmonica’s” (Charles Bronson) arrival. That sequence, itself, plays on a screen with its eloquently eerie, famous soundtrack of just background noises, except for Bronson “talking” through his harmonica.

That was the idea of Leone’s musical collaborator, Ennio Morricone, whose quirky, eccentric work also is very much part of this exhibit. “Morricone had written music for that scene, but then he went to a concert of ‘incidental sounds,’ where all sound plays a part in the definition of music,” Chung says.

“In this case, it was of a man moving a ladder on stage and making a creaking sound. So he told Leone about it and they decided to do that approach in the film.”

From such disparate and unusual sources was an American cultural legacy made.



King Tut’s Forgotten First American Tour


By Steven Rosen /2005 / Los Angeles CityBeat

There’s a common misconception about King Tut.

Yes, he really is dead.

And, yes, the current “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of Pharoahs” exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a sequel to the famous 1976-1979 “Treasures of Tutankhamum” tour that lured some 8 million visitors to seven American museums. That one is considered the first of the blockbusters – the dawning of the modern era of museum exhibitions.

But contrary to popular opinion, that was not the first show devoted to the Boy King to tour American museums. There was an earlier one called “Tutankhamun Treasures: A Loan Exhibition from the Department of Antiquities of the United Arab Republic.”

It toured 16 American museums – including Los Angeles – from 1961 to 1963, under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution and American Association of Museums. It even had a catalogue whose cover looks remarkably similar to one of the current show’s featured objects. It is of a miniature gold coffinettes, in the shape of the king, that originally contained the mummified Tut’s embalmed internal organs.

“No one seems to talk about that one,” says John Norman, whose Arts and Exhibitions International helped design and produce the current show. He was not aware of the 1961-1963 exhibition until contacted for this story.

The show was not as large as the subsequent two. All the objects were small, the biggest being only 20 inches tall. The number of objects, too, was smaller – 34 were on display, whereas the 1976-1979 exhibition had 55, including the show-stopping golden death mask. The current show features 50 objects from King Tut’s tomb, plus another 70 ancient Egyptian artifacts.

But it was a major show for its time. Jackie Kennedy was photographed by the Washington Post at its first stop, the National Gallery of Art. Some 118,403 people attended the Los Angeles County Museum during its November, 1962, visit. (The museum in Exposition Park had three divisions – science, art and history – until LACMA moved into its Wilshire Boulevard site in 1965. The remaining divisions are now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.)

“That first show was of Tut miniatures – it was a mini-show,” says George Kuwayama, LACMA’s retired curator of Oriental art (which included Egyptian art). “But it was a spectacularly popular show. There were lines going around the block. Mummymania is innate in human beings.” He says he also believes that admission was 50 cents and that several of that show’s objects are in the current exhibition.

Overall, 1.112 million people saw the show in Washington, Philadelphia, New Haven, Houston, Omaha, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Boston, St. Louis, Baltimore and Dayton. (Statistics aren’t available for two other stops – Detroit and Toledo.)

Memories seem to have receded from the public consciousness – and institutional records – in Los Angeles, where it was difficult to find anyone who remembered the show. (A reader originally contacted CityBeat; LACMA’s Nancy Thomas – who co-curated “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs” but wasn’t familiar with the 1960s-era show – suggested Kuwayama as a source.)

But fortunately that’s not the case at the Dayton Art Institute. Its website features a message from the director boasting that “we hosted the first King Tut show in 1961.” (Actually, it was in Dayton in 1963.)

“Our archivist is worth her weight in gold,” says that director, Alexander Lee Nyerges, in a telephone interview.

From studying the museum records, he was able to report that each participating museum paid $4,575 for the show and the insurance premium for its objects was $50,000. (Norman has said the current show is insured for $650 million.) Dayton attracted 30,000 visitors – outstanding for the time.

“The purpose was to draw attention to the creation of the Aswan Dam (in Egypt),” Nyerges explains. “Money was being raised around the world to save the temples at Abu Simbel. The American government took the lead along with UNESCO.”

To prevent the rising waters of Aswan High Dam on the Nile River from submerging the four huge statues on the facade of Pharaoh Ramses II’s temple, the monument was cut into large blocks and relocated above the new water line. Besides being a massive engineering project, it was a landmark in Cold War-era international cooperation, especially in the Mideast.

And “Tutankhamum Treasures” was part of that.



(A young Lucian Freud, who died in 2011.)


It is more than just good fortune that the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is the only American venue for the Lucian Freud retrospective.

It is also poetic justice.

For Freud, certainly Britain’s greatest living realist painter and perhaps the best in the world, often makes viewers uncomfortable with his portraits. His palette is restrained, perhaps somber. His subjects — even his own mother — can look forlorn and melancholy, seemingly stripped of dreams, ambitions or illusions.

And their flesh — quite often unguardedly naked, splayed even — betrays the wrinkles and splotches, the flabbiness and fat of physical imperfection. His subjects look burdened by their self-awareness.

Or, at least, that’s how someone raised on the dream factory’s vision of beauty — a vision Los Angeles certainly has had a key role in manufacturing — might see it. As a result, says art historian William Feaver, who organized this show for the Tate Britain, Freud’s work often is criticized as depressing and his subjects’ ample flesh called “putrid.”

Indeed, some of this show’s most dramatic work, such as “Leigh Bowery (Seated)” and “Benefits Supervisor Resting,” are large canvases of quite large people, often the artist’s friends and family. They are not pretty people — or pictures — by conventional standards.

“That’s because people have been totally brainwashed by advertising over the last 100 years,” Feaver says. “In advertising, everybody smiles. On TV, everybody smiles. In real life, nobody smiles much. You can’t keep it up – and you look inane if you go on smiling. And you can’t sit for someone if you go on smiling.

“It’s a cliche that everybody’s beautiful, but it’s true. You have to go on looking at them and study them  — use your brain to make them more interesting. When Freud paints a very large woman or man who would be obese by our standards, there’s something magnificent and operatic. It’s a product of fantastic concentration.

“I think he’s got a poet’s honesty. He just looks at things like all poets do – without preconception, as if it’s for first time. And gradually he’s gotten better and better at looking at a body.”

In short, Freud searches for the truth in his subjects; he doesn’t flatter or glamorize them.

This retrospective is the largest to date from throughout Freud’s long and still-active career, with 103 oil paintings plus watercolors, drawings and etchings. The preponderance of the work consists of portraits, but the occasional still life or cityscape proves Freud a man with a keen eye for all aspects of his environment.

It’s tempting to say the search for an interior truth comes genetically to Freud. After all, he is the grandson of Sigmund Freud. His father Ernst, an architect, was the youngest son of the pioneering psychoanalyst.

Yet Freud had only a slight relationship with his grandfather – geographic distance and historical events wouldn’t allow it. Born in Berlin in 1922, Lucian and his family emigrated to England in 1933, escaping the Nazis. He became a naturalized British subject in 1939. (His grandfather didn’t escape Vienna for England until 1938; he died in 1939.)

Lucian was already drawing by the time he arrived in England. After studying drawing and painting at school and serving a stint in the British Merchant Navy in World War II, he had his first solo exhibition in 1944.

This exhibition includes examples of his early work – accomplished realism with just enough sense of drama to give the work a contemporary sensibility. The intense, large-eyed gaze of his subjects, for example, has a slightly frightening effect.

Feaver makes a persuasive case that Freud’s work is always autobiographical — and not just because he sometimes paints self-portraits, nude (1993’s “Painter Working, Reflection”) or clothed (the new “Self Portrait, Reflection,” in which the veins seem ready to burst out of his hand). He doesn’t accept commissions and only paints from life using models.

“He can’t work from anything but what’s in front of him, and he only paints what interests him,” Feaver says. “Everything else follows from that. And he paints people that are prepared to sit for him and are, to his mind, people with a bit of an inner life that interests him. They can sit still for a long time without looking like dummies.”

This well-organized, uncluttered show reveals how Freud began to find his great strength – his patience to stay working on a single painting as if painstakingly exploring a rugged, uncharted shore – in the early 1950s. His large 1951 oil painting, “Interior at Paddington,” features a young man in a creased olive trench coat, holding a cigarette and looking away from us, standing behind a large potted plant. Remarkably, both seem equally mysterious and inscrutable, yet compelling.

To like Freud’s work is to be intrigued by the mysteries inherent in his subjects. With time and age, he has gotten better at conveying those mysteries. The 1988-89 “Standing by the Rags” shows how he can imbue a female nude portrait with a sense of movement. And his new “David Hockney” portrait, while a relatively small work, shows that age hasn’t rendered Freud any less unsentimental in depicting subjects.

As good a painter as Freud is, and as heralded as he is in Britain, his work still is relatively unfamiliar to the American public. (However, he’s much in demand among American collectors.) True, he’s not user-friendly; his work isn’t superficially complimentary.

But also, he and other heralded post-war British painters like the late Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach (there are Freud portraits of both in the show), worked outside the fame and celebrity of art-related American popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

Freud isn’t an abstract expressionist like Jackson Pollock or a pop artist like Andy Warhol. He never declared painting dead. Rather, he’s kept working steadily at portraiture and realism.

“We’re incredibly conventional about believing that there’s a progression to contemporary art,” Feaver says. “But all the great figures are oddballs, and they don’t fit into any progression. Great artists, like great poets, always stand on their own two feet with a few acolytes and friends to admire them. It takes a generation for them to start fitting in.”


Where: The Museum of Contemporary Art at California Plaza, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.

When: Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Thursday through May 25. Closed Mondays.

Tickets: $8 adults, $5 students, 12 and under free. Call (213) 621-2766 or visit

Movie Stars, Swimming Pools, and… Cinematheques; The Alternative Cinema Boom in L.A.

BY STEVEN ROSEN / INDIEWIRE / Steven Rosen / Dec. 16, 2003

The new REDCAT, a 250-seat theater that’s part of the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall complex, is one of several homes to alternative film programming in Los Angeles. Photo by Scott Groller.

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’snew 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.”


More ‘Ecstasy,’ Less Agony at Los Angeles Museum


By Steven Rosen (Correspondent) / Los Angeles Daily News /2005

One room makes you larger, and one room makes you small … 

It’s natural to paraphrase lyrics from Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” a 1960s-era psychedelic-rock classic, while describing the “Ecstasy: In and About Altered States” art show at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. 

This is an exhibit inspired by the legacy of the hippie era, during which often-drug-induced attempts at consciousness expansion became a mass social movement and impetus for widespread, often-rebellious artistic expression. 

For this show, some 30 international artists have submitted works – many room-size installations, including films – that address the quest for the ecstatic experience. The show’s origins are in an earlier MOCA exhibit, 1992’s “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s.” That contained Charles Ray’s “Yes,” a luminously smooth portrait of the California artist high on LSD. “Yes” is in this show, too. All the art here was created since 1990, and certain pieces were done specifically for the show. 

Some “Ecstasy” work means to consciously evoke and revive the druggie, blissed-out spirit of that 1960s experience. Others wryly comment on it or critique it. And some look for fresh, new artistic means to heighten and change the viewer’s consciousness today. 

There is gentle humor but also a utopian questing in German artist Klaus Weber’s sweetly idealistic “Public Fountain LSD Hall,” the show’s first piece. It is a three-tier antique-crystal fountain made by the same company that once fabricated a Victorian-era fountain for the Crystal Palace of London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. Liquid – containing legal amounts of potentized LSD, the museum says – gurgles forth. 

Nearby is a display about the artist’s proposal to isolate and encased a town center in a glass and steel box and install a fountain that circulates trace amounts of the psychoactive drug that allows for heightened perceptions. It was proposed for Dresden but who knows – Pershing Square, maybe? 

MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, the show’s organizer, said in an interview that “Ecstasy’s” title isn’t meant to imply this show is solely about drug-inspired or -induced art. (Ecstasy, itself, is the colloquial name for a drug popular among rave-party aficionados.) 

“It has multifaceted meaning about collective experience,” he said. At the same time, drugs most certainly do have something to do with this show’s existence. “Throughout the 20th century, artists have alluded to or made use of mind-altering drugs and mushrooms to extend consciousness and take them outside the realm of reality,” he explained. 

And one would be hard-pressed to miss the drug reference in the room-size “Upside Down Mushroom Room,” by Belgian-born Swedish artist Carsten Holler. After walking down a long, dark entrance, visitors arrive in a room to find 10-foot-tall fabricated mushrooms bathed in bright light. The effect is dizzyingly mad as a March hare; it makes one feel like Tom Thumb to sit underneath these giants. 

But another artist who uses mushrooms as a subject, Roxy Paine of New York, goes for a more elegiac and loving effect. In “Psilocybe Cubensis Field,” she has individually molded and hand-painted 2,200 life-size psychedelic mushrooms and placed them on a section of the Geffen’s cold gray floor as if it were a tiny field. 

Clustered or separate, they look fragile and vulnerable, a bit like the birds in “March of the Penguins” or even an indigenous village in the remote wilderness. Paine has brought an artistic approximation of nature – a reverse earthwork, in a way – into the post-industrial expanses of the museum. 

One phenomenal work explores notions of ecstasy quite apart from any drug connections. It is Austrian-born, Brooklyn-based Erwin Redl’s “MATRIX II,” consisting of row upon row of vertical strands of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in a dark room. There are 5,000 lights in the 200-square-foot space. The effect of looking upon them, or walking through them, is disorienting and consciousness-altering, but in a calming, peaceful way that turns the room into a sanctuary. 

Redl said his inspiration is the spare, post-Minimalism Light-and-Space environmental art of James Turrell and Robert Irwin, as well as earthworks like Walter De Maria’s “Lighting Fields” in New Mexico. It’s not about drugs and the 1960s at all. “I love that period for the freedom it inspired, especially the music, but not really the psychedelic art,” he said. “For me, it (art) is about purity of space.” 

“Ecstasy’s” most famous – some might say notorious – piece already has been shut down by city officials because it lacked proper permits. MOCA is looking for another site. It was a site-specific work by Japanese installation artist Tatsurou Bashi called “Kariforunia,” located atop a 30-foot-high flagpole near City Hall on First Street between Main and Los Angeles streets.

There, the artist built and furnished a spacious room with a lovely, mind-expanding view of downtown L.A. and a closer one of the top of the pole and its state flag. The pole was right in the middle of the room. 

Figuratively and literally, it was far-out art. While it was briefly open, I climbed up into it via a temporary staircase and encountered two proud workmen installing finishing touches. “When I drive by from now on, I can tell my son I touched the top of this flag pole,” one said. 


Where: Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave. downtown Los Angeles. 

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; through Feb. 20. 

Tickets: $8 adults; $5 students; free 5-8 p.m. Thursdays. (213) 626-6222.


(PHOTO: Carsten Holler, Upside Down Sculpture, location of installation unclear)

DISPATCH FROM L.A. | Boutique Landmark Theater Complex Eyes Wider West L.A. Audiences


If Los Angeles could become stronger, many indie distributors believe, it could help their films get bookings and publicity in the rest of the nation. It could also help the films stay longer in L.A. and thus make more money in America’s second-most populous metropolitan region.

“Los Angeles with this theater becomes a lot stronger art market,” declares Ted Mundorff, Landmark’s chief operating officer and head film buyer.

Landmark’s new $20 million complex is located in the heart of the city’s busy, film-savvy Westside at Westwood and Pico boulevards, strategically placed between Beverly Hills and Santa Monica and across from two quintessentially colorful L.A. restaurants — the tiny, counter-seat-only Apple Pan hamburger joint and Junior’s deli. But it’s also part of the Westside Pavilion shopping mall, replacing an open-air section of the otherwise-indoor mall that failed to take hold with shoppers. It is next to a remodeled Barnes & Noble and a Nordstrom’s.

The theater presents itself to the street with a modernist, demure wall of glass — set off by a tan frame — revealing escalators inside. There will be a blade-shaped marquee announcing the theater but no outdoor flashing neon, garish billboards or wall scrims promoting specific films. “We certainly aren’t going to have anything like Times Square,” Mundorff says. “We’re trying to have what we think will be a boutique hotel – when you walk into the lobby we’ll have a concierge and a feeling of complete public service.”

Inside the theater, three of the auditoriums will be small “living rooms” with relaxed seating. There will be a wine bar and customers can take drinks into screenings. The concession stand will sell fresh pizza from a local restaurant as well as Korean-style frozen yogurt. The theater will also have a store. Auditoriums will have digital sound; some will have digital projectors. 9 of the 12 theatres will be stadium seating and will take reservations (the 3 “living rooms” won’t take reservations).

A rendering of the new Landmark West Los Angeles in California. Image courtesy Landmark Theaters.

“I’d be comfortable saying it has the potential of being one of the big arthouses in America,” says Stephen Gilula, chief operating officer of Fox Searchlight Pictures as well as a co-founder and president of Landmark from 1974-1998. “The impact depends on how Landmark books it.”

He remembers working on plans for this theater in various configurations in the 1990s, but that was put on hold when Landmark was sold in the 1990s. After Dallas entrepreneurs Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner purchased Landmark in 2003, they gave the go-ahead on the long-gestating project.

“L.A. is not as responsive to smaller art films as New York is, but there are fewer theaters receptive to these films in L.A. than Manhattan,” Gilula said. “But the Westside has been severely undercooked. With traffic becoming worse, location becomes more and more important. It’s hard for people to go across town to see a movie.”

Metropolitan L.A. has theaters dedicated to indie/specialty fare — Landmark currently has three screens exclusively on the West devoted to such films and used to have four rather dated screens in the indoor-mall section of Westside Pavilion. And Laemmle Theatres, the region’s premier art-house chain, has nine theaters throughout the area, including a single-screen house on the Westside and older multiplexes in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. It has a new five-plex opening in July in the college town of Claremont, south of L.A.

There are those who say L.A.’s car culture, which renders it more suburban than urban, is the key reason indie/specialty films can disappoint here. Ideally, most such films open in one or two theaters and depend upon word-of-mouth to justify holdovers and expansion. In New York, especially in the Village, it’s easy for film buffs to get to the theaters via subway for a well-reviewed art film. But in L.A., driving and parking can be such a problem and expense that it takes a lot of motivation for dedicated buffs to get quickly motivated to see such films, however highly praised. As a result, the films don’t last.

Here, the new theater has a big plus – 3,000 free parking spaces in an underground garage originally built for the shopping mall. “Someone asked me the other day what I was most excited about in the theater and I said, ‘unlimited free parking,’” Mundorff says. “If you’re arriving by car, there are so many parking spots you can actually take two.”

Landmark especially seems to be looking at the chic, state-of-the-art, adult-oriented Pacific ArcLight multiplex in Hollywood as a model. Since opening in 2002 with 14 auditoriums, including the renovated Cinerama Dome, it has become an attraction in its own right by mixing Hollywood fare with higher-profile specialty films, festivals and special presentations. Currently, for instance, “Away from Her” and “Once” are screening alongside “Shrek the Third” and “Spiderman 3.” It also has a cafe, bar, gift shop, reserved seats and parking garage. Not so much an art-house as a luxury theater, its grosses have been impressive.

“I do think L.A. has traditionally over the years not been as strong a market as people’s expectations,” says Mundorff, who used to work for Pacific before joining Landmark in 2004. “I think ArcLight has given people a reason to think that is changing. It offered an alternative — going to a new facility and seeing specialty films in a modern facility built after 2000. Adding an additional theater to the Westside, that will offer upscale amenities and a unique atmosphere, will increase business. Having 12 screens will increase the business.”

The extent to which Landmark’s flagship will emulate the ArcLight remains to be seen. “We certainly welcome playing major studios’ product that is offered,” Mundorff says. “People are inclined to want to see everything from ‘Spiderman’ to ‘Paprika.’ But there’s a certain niche audience who doesn’t want to go to a theater than has video machines and emphasizes the ‘popcorn’ type of movie. So what we’re going to offer is an atmosphere where you can see many kinds of movies. While the independent films and specialty films will be our primary focus, we’ll also offer certain studio films as long as studios want us.”

That could be tricky because Landmark West Los Angeles is in the same exhibition zone as the new and glitzy AMC Century City 15, which is more mainstream than the ArcLight but does show higher-profile releases from studio “classics” divisions, like “Babel,” “The Namesake” or “Waitress.” It’s highly unlikely both theaters will be able to open such films simultaneously, as that could divide the gross when such titles needs high per-screen average in New York and L.A. to create buzz and establish a platform for national release.

Many of the films that will open at the new complex on Friday are exactly the kind that traditionally need a boost in L.A. – “Golden Door,” “Bamako,” “Paprika,” and “ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway.” (Others opening include “Mr. Brooks,” “Gracie” and “Day Watch.”)

For Dori Berinstein, director of “ShowBusiness” — a documentary about Tony Award-nominated musicals in the 2003-2004 season — this new showcase is exciting. “What a thrill to have this film screened in such a state-of-the-art theater,” she says. “When I heard the possibility, my reaction was, “This exists? They’re building something like this?’ Hopefully, this is the beginning of rolling out theaters like this across the nation.”

[Steven Rosen is a Cincinnati-based film writer and former movie critic at the Denver Post. CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN:]