Ready for Their Close-Up
By Stacy Davies
Filmmaker Orson Welles once said, “a film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet,” and one viewing of his masterpiece Citizen Kane is proof enough that he walked his own talk. Welles, of course, was eventually crushed by small-minded, profit-hungry studio executives who butchered his subsequent works but the dismantling and destruction of artistic vision is nothing new—lately, however, it’s been picking up steam.
More so than ever before, movie arts, much like the other arts, have been hijacked by businessmen and women who yearn for dollar signposts instead of soulful roadmaps when they navigate a new script, and now, 20 years past the last great cinematic revolution in Hollywood (that would be the early 1990s), films that prioritize story and character above marketing, merchandising and trend-chasing are all but extinct.
That’s a problem, not just for art, but for humanity, because film is the storyteller of the modern world. More people see movies each year than read books, in fact, which makes film our ambassador to other nations and other cultures. The films we make reflect who we are and who we want to be—at least, that’s what the majority of them are supposed to do. Enter LACMA and a comprehensive new project that takes film—at least momentarily—out of the hands of moneymakers and places it back into the hands of storytellers.
The LACMA9 Art + Film Lab outreach project encompasses nine Southern California cities with diverse populations whom LACMA curators would like to meet. In fact, they want everyone to meet everyone else, too. The nomadic, five-week Lab launched last month in Redlands, and arrives in San Bernardino this weekend before heading west; at each stop, it invites local residents to participate in both the viewing and the telling of stories on film.
Several free workshops designed to teach the filmmaking process should prove particularly popular, like “Mini Docs,” which allows participants to take high-end movie cameras out into the world and make short documentaries. The “Composition” workshop might be a good precursor—although there are no prerequisites—for it’s here that residents learn how to set up shots like filmmakers, using framing, texture, light and shadow to create atmosphere and mood.
“We’re leaving everything pretty open-ended by design,” says Sarah Jesse, Associate Vice President of Education and Public Programs at LACMA. “We’re essentially just giving people the tools and resources they need and allowing them to run with it in the direction that they choose.”
Much of the film equipment is state-of-the-art, in fact, and using it will be a rare experience for most – but don’t worry about your prior film expertise, none is required.
“The point is to really cultivate your eye and to see creatively—to see like an artist, to see like a filmmaker—not to become certified in Final Cut Pro,” Jesse jokes. Do arrive early to ensure you get one of the coveted spots, however.
Other workshops include “Soundscapes,” which offers an appreciation for the cinematic sounds we often take for granted, as well as guidance in how to create such sounds from everyday objects, and “Instant Film,” is geared for those already equipped with iPhones or similar devices to shoot footage for cinematic conversion.
Stories begin with the telling, of course, and the oral tradition is the oldest form of storytelling in human history. LACMA has therefore constructed an oral history video booth where visitors may interview one another or be interviewed by Lab staff on camera. Participants receive a digital audio copy of their contribution, and the video itself is then pooled into that community’s group to be viewed by video installation artist Nicole Miller, who will select various stories to be turned into longer pieces for an amalgamated presentation at each community’s featured LACMA day in November.
For those who’d rather watch films than be in them, the Lab also offers free screenings every Friday and Saturday night featuring a lineup of some of the best international storytelling on celluloid: from Charles Laughton’s gorgeously twisted The Night of the Hunter to Spike Lee’s brilliantly controversial treatise on race relations Do the Right Thing, and a host of foreign language titles from Columbia, Mexico and France—with Godzilla and Bruce Lee thrown in for good measure.
It’s an incredibly ambitious project and an opportunity that should be embraced by the selected cities. After all, the arts are important to a nation’s history, but are even more so to a people’s history. Art, in every form, creates connection to one another, and now, more than ever, those connections should be both preserved and celebrated.
LACMA San Bernardino Art + Film Lab, Perris Hill Park, 780 E. 21st St., San Bernardino; www.lacma.org/series/san-bernardino-art-film-lab. Opens Fri, July 26, 6PM. Thru Aug 25. Free. All ages.