When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced last July that it would suspend its film screening series due to a shortage of funds, there was a huge outcry from cinephiles all over L.A. and beyond. One of the loudest (and most prestigious) voices leading the charge was director Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, The Departed) who penned an eloquent letter to the museum which was printed in the L.A. Times shortly after the bombshell announcement (read it here). For now, the museum will continue to screen films until at least June though the future looks uncertain beyond that.
But Scorsese himself sat down with LACMA’s Michael Govan last Wednesday in the museum’s Bing Theater in front of a packed house to discuss the importance of LACMA’s film programs and of film preservation in general. I was lucky to have been able to snag a ticket to the event (you can read a full account of the evening here). Both LACMA and Scorsese have played a vital part in nurturing my love affair with film so for what it’s worth, I want to share some personal thoughts on this subject.
When I was a kid and first entertained the thought of possibly being a writer and working in the film industry, there was only one name at the top of my wish list of directors I wanted to one day work with and that was Martin Scorsese (Clint Eastwood was a close second whom my fellow Offender Iris got to work with on her first film. Hate her!).
Scorsese’s Mean Streets was the first VHS movie I owned. I think I put that tape in my VCR every day and watched snippets, scenes, sometimes the whole film. It was unlike anything I had seen before. Up until then, my film diet consisted of works like Star Wars and the Indiana Jones series. Don’t get me wrong, those were great too, but I personally identified with the characters in Mean Streets in a more profound way. They weren’t Asian, but I felt a connection to them as an Asian American. I knew those guys. They were my friends. They were me. Mean Streets showed me that a film could be more than simply entertainment—it could be a highly personal work of art. It could tell a personal story but still touch a wider audience. I thought Robert DeNiro was so cool as Johnny Boy that I’d spend hours practicing the way he walked into the bar at the beginning of the film as the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” played; imagining that I was as bad ass as him and the world was moving in slow motion because I willed it so:
The first Scorsese picture I was old enough to see in the theater was After Hours. It’s considered one of his minor works, but it had so much energy and life that I couldn’t sleep that night after coming home. I was so pumped and wanted nothing more than to grab a movie camera and just go out and shoot something. When The Last Temptation of Christ came out, I had to see it on opening night. The excitement and anticipation I felt was similar to what someone else may feel about seeing Avatar or Star Wars for the first time—a type of total geekdom. My best friend Corey and I drove out to Century City to make the 9 PM show, but the screening didn’t start until close to midnight because of the protests (there were threats of violence, even whispers of a bomb threat). It didn’t matter. We weren’t going to miss this for anything. Let the theater explode, at least we’d go out in a blaze of cinematic nirvana.
But more than his amazing films, I think the greatest gift I received from Scorsese was a real appreciation of film history. It’s no secret that Scorsese has a deep knowledge and genuine love for the rich history of cinema and it was infectious. He made me care about movies more passionately than I imagined I could. One of the things Scorsese would always discuss in interviews were the great films and filmmakers of the past. And because he was my cinematic hero, his word was law on this subject. Anything he mentioned, I would seek out.
When he talked about the rich visual style of the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger collaborations, I immediately went out and rented The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. When he talked about how the Italian Neorealists taught him how cinema could be personal and immediate, I found every Roberto Rossellini film I could get my hands on. When he talked about how the relationship between DeNiro and Liza Minnelli’s characters in New York, New York was modeled after the relationship at the heart of the Doris Day film My Dream Is Yours, I drove 40 miles to a video store in the Valley that, at the time, was the only place that carried the movie.
Scorsese didn’t just talk about films. He talked about them in a way that made you want to see them; that made you care about them. Here’s how he described the work of his mentor John Cassavetes whom many consider the godfather of independent cinema:
“With John Cassavetes’ characters, the emotion was always upfront. It was at once their cross and their salvation. John’s approach was warm, embracing, focused on people. Relationships were all he was interested in—the laughter and the games, the tears and the guilt. The whole roller coaster of love…All of Cassavetes’ films were ‘epics of the human soul.’ Watching them brings to mind a comment made by John Ford to a collaborator who was complaining about the miserable weather conditions when they were trying to shoot a picture in the desert. The man asked: ‘Mr. Ford, what can we shoot out here?’ And Ford replied: ‘What can we shoot? The most interesting and exciting thing in the whole world, the human face.’”
How could I not rush out and rent all of Cassavetes’ films after hearing that?
Which brings me to the film program at LACMA. Living in L.A., I feel blessed that there are so many theaters here where I can watch classic movies on the big screen: The Egyptian, the Aero, the New Beverly, the Nuart, UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater, the Silent Movie Theater, the Arclight and many others. I consider them to be almost like my second homes. Even with blu-rays and the sophisticated home theater systems available now, there’s nothing like watching a movie on a big screen with an audience. But none of the revival houses have meant more to me than the Bing Theater at LACMA.
For one thing, their $2 Tuesday matinees are probably the best deal in town. The theater is well equipped and clean. The audience is comprised of dedicated and enthusiastic cinephiles. But it’s the vibe that really makes it unique. There’s something about showing movies at a museum that feels…special. It’s an acknowledgement that cinema is as legitimate an art form as the works of Picasso or Van Gogh and that it rightly has a place in a world-class arts institution.
I have special memories of the times I’ve spent at LACMA. I can rattle off the names of all the wonderful movies I experienced there for the very first time—Doctor Zhivago, Once Upon A Time In The West, Modern Times, Pickpocket, Seven Samurai, Day For Night, Shampoo, The Decalogue, countless others.
LACMA is where I would take girls on our first date to see if there was even the possibility of a real relationship. And if she got bored and wanted to walk out of Last Year At Marienbad, then forget it, game over, man! And for me, there is still nothing more romantic than a kiss shared under the stars in the LACMA courtyard after seeing Casablanca together for the first time.
If Scorsese really taught me how to love movies, LACMA was a place where I could express that love with as much uninhibited joy as I could muster. It’s my church. It’s my holy place. And my world would not be the same without it.