Film Independent at LACMA: Q&A with Elvis Mitchell

With tonight’s sold-out premiere of The Rum Diary, the new Film Independent at LACMA Film Series officially launches. The rest of the month sees a range of films, from tonight’s in-person appearance by Johnny Depp to classics like Modern Times to foreign masterpieces like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Accatone. Next week sees the debut of a new series, Live Read, in which director Jason Reitman assembles a cast to read well-known and well-loved scripts before a live audience (first up: The Breakfast Club). We talked with film curator Elvis Mitchell about his new job, what audiences can expect from the new series, and the future of film at LACMA.

photo by Marc Goldstein

What can audiences expect from the new series?
Audiences can expect to be welcomed to the Bing and the film series in the same way they always have. That has not changed. There are a few different elements because I’d like to expand the definition of a film series—that it needn’t be limited to movies. Jason Reitman’s Live Read project is just one example—a major director at the height of his powers contributing his time and efforts to increasing the breadth of what a film program is. I can’t think of many cases in which something of this import has happened. And it’s just the beginning—check in with me in a year.

How did the Live Read series come about?
Live Read came from Jason Reitman. When I told him I was coming to LACMA, he told me about this idea he had been nurturing for a while. He grew up attending movies in Los Angeles, and wanted to find a new way to generate the kind of excitement he felt going to the grand—and rapidly disappearing—single screen theaters in Westwood, when film-going demanded a specific kind of decision making. He wants to make attending the film series as compelling and surprising as going to the movies can be in the best of all possible worlds, and he hit upon a terrific way of doing so.

This apparently isn’t your first time working for LACMA—what was your first job at the museum?
My first paying job in Los Angeles was selling tickets at the Bing, when Ron Haver was the director of the film program. He cut an enormous swath through the film world of Los Angeles—everywhere, to be honest. Coming back to LACMA appealed to me as a chance to pick up his mantle: he was a charismatic figure, a showman and entrepreneur—he brings to mind that description Robert E. Howard had of Conan: a man of gigantic mirth and gigantic melancholy. His vitality enabled him to attract audiences and instill in them the same bone-deep affection for movies that they held for him. It’s a tradition I’d like to continue.

How have you adjusted from being a film critic to being a film curator?
I think the adjustment will be ongoing. It’s a unique position I’m in—I was discussing this position with the esteemed film critic Todd McCarthy, and neither of us could think of a case in which a major American museum had brought in a critic to assume the curatorial duties, whereas it’s something that happens as a matter of course elsewhere in the world. I imagine that both disciplines intersect—since, at heart, both are about spotlighting films that deserve further consideration.

What is your take on the news last week of LACMA and AMPAS entering into an agreement to explore plans for the creation of an Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in the LACMA West Building?
It’s the beginning a new world, and the opportunity for Los Angeles to join New York, Paris, and other major cities as a place where film history and film culture can be celebrated in an institution worthy of the medium itself. I’m thrilled to be on the ground floor of this project.

Scott Tennent

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