I believe in the cinema. I just don’t trust it.
Telling a history of film requires being decisive about what gets told and what gets ignored. Much of the traditionally told history of Hollywood cinema labors through an overwhelmingly white and male centered canon of artists. That is also because the playmakers of the industry as a whole, and those who have written the history of it, have too been a part of that fold. If I believe in going to the cinema to discover the world, I am also skeptical of the world it forces me to see. Having opened just last fall, the Academy Museum of Moving Pictures, located along Museum Row on Miracle Mile in Los Angeles, adjacent to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and across from the Petersen Automotive Museum, knows that there is more to cinema and its history than typically meets the eye.
Wedged between the aforementioned museums—one dedicated to the visual arts and the other to automobiles—the site of the Academy Museum makes sense, as it fits in with the arts and histories of Museum Row but also features a blend of visual artistry and mechanized assemblages just on a celluloid (and later, digital) canvas. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Renzo Piano, the museum’s gold front and large exterior houses a seven-story structure known as the Saban Building, offering various ongoing and temporary exhibitions and workshop spaces that contribute to expanding the knowledge of cinema, its playmakers, and its power. Behind the Saban building sits the David Geffen Theater, with its shiny, glass and silver round roof atop the Dolby Family Terrace overlooking part of Los Angeles. What works best to the strengths of the Academy Museum’s design is actually most recognizable in the curation of its exhibits. As conveyed in their mission statement, “the museum strives to contextualize and challenge dominant narratives around cinema.” Retelling and reimagining Hollywood cinema necessitates recognizing those marginalized by the industry and those using the medium to resist that marginalization. Turning to how the museum highlights film history and illuminates those typically left out of it makes for an interesting endeavor as we move towards the 94th Academy Awards broadcast on March 27th.
One navigates the entire museum through a set of escalators and elevators on the far north side of the building, with exhibit entrances promptly available on levels one through four. Each exhibition is wholly enclosed, offering an optimal museum experience that keeps escalator traffic flow out of sight. Of the various ongoing exhibitions at the museum, “Backdrop: An Invisible Art,” presents a fascinating case study of the history of the movies. It also showcases my favorite Hitchcock film, North by Northwest (1959). The oversized and double height gallery (extending past level two with a viewing deck located on level three) is half encased by the film’s opening backdrop—green walls with white intersecting stripes mimicking the New York skyline. The other half of the gallery houses a monumental Mount Rushmore painted backdrop, a sight made iconic in film history by the entire third act of the Hitchcock picture. The backdrop is featured in several scenes in the film, which build to the moment when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint cling on Lincoln’s nose for dear life—an act not approved by the National Park Services. But how much of the film actually takes place in, around, and on the presidential monument in South Dakota? The fascinating thing about the movies, as the exhibit reveals, is that almost none of it does, and for significant reasons.
The magic of the movies—the way movies trick us into being swept away by them—is a condition of the realities of the world. Filming on the national park monument was probably never going to be granted. But, under a prerequisite of “no violence” that Hitchcock ignored, he schemed his way into filming in the national park’s visitors center and recreating portions of the carved heads in a studio. As explained through various production stills, concept art, and captions in the exhibition space, much of the film’s final sequences were filmed with some form of a Mount Rushmore recreation. Part and parcel to movie magic is making the fake seem real.
Hitchcock’s manipulation of and play with Mount Rushmore produced a headache for the National Park Services, who found the treatment of the monument disrespectful. But often overlooked is the view of indigenous communities and their relationship to the land the monument occupies. The exhibition acknowledges the view of the Oglala Lakota, who contest the ownership of the hills on which the monument sits. Recognizing the monument as a desecration of sacred land, the Oglala Lakota’s relationship to the land, the monument, and Hitchcock’s film produces a wrinkle that unknowingly undergirds this piece of film history. In the opening page of the museum's program, they claim that “[w]hile there is much to celebrate about the power of cinema, there is also a long history of excluding diverse voices from the development of this art form.” For all the film history the Academy Museum labors through, it works doubly on recognizing the sociocultural politics bolstering what makes and has made cinematic history. “Backdrop” works as a perfect case study for the layered approach the Academy has taken to honoring, problematizing, and redefining a history of the cinema.
The largest ongoing exhibition in the museum, Stories of Cinema, is divided into three galleries on three different levels of the museum. Part one of this core exhibition begins on the lobby level, right behind the COVID vaccine check-in and museum admission tables. Housed in the “Spielberg Family Gallery” next to the museum’s gift shop and across from the in-museum restaurant, Fanny’s, the beginning of the exhibition serves as a prelude to the museum as a whole. Featuring an assortment of large televisions laid out in a wave or film strip-like pattern for guests to walk through, each television offers a montage of scenes from classic and contemporary films from a wide variety of genres. As you move away from one screen, you are directed to the next.
Part two of Stories of Cinema begins on level two of the museum, which is actually above a red carpet-lined “T” floor for the David Geffen Theater, the museum’s thousand-seat film and digital theater. Part two opens on the components of moviemaking, highlighting six rotating distinguished artists who have and currently fill key industry roles.
Moving past Citizen Kane (1941) and the “Rosebud” sled propped up in a glass display (a sight all too common in the history of cinema), we come upon a Bruce Lee mannequin in a showroom on his significance as an Asian American leading performer whose contributions to cinema define an era of martial arts film. As with the rest of the filmmaking spotlights, each category is highlighted by the important work and influence of an artist, whose presence is itself a radical departure from the ways the history of cinema is typically told. One of the highlights of this exhibition for myself was the acknowledgement of Oscar Micheaux, an African American writer, director, distributor and out-right pioneer of Black silent cinema or “race” films. Working against the currents of cinema in the early nineteenth century, dominated by the often cited work of D.W. Griffith and his despicable yet seminal film, Birth of a Nation (1917), Micheaux is contextualized as the literal antithesis to Griffith and the racist propaganda of Griffith’s film, offering an understanding of cinema as a site of struggle over the determination of race as constituted through the arts. Other temporary showcases among Welles, Lee, and Micheaux include cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and the film Real Women Have Curves (2002).
As the exhibition continues through part two and into part three, various rooms offer fascinating insights and picture-worthy moments relating to films from over the last one-hundred years, ranging from classic film and Oscar-winning moments, to a brief history of animation and a close encounter with legendary silver screen creations. A few other notable rooms include exhibits on Spike Lee’s collection of memorabilia and a spotlight on the work of Pedro Almodóvar. The expansive Stories of Cinema exhibition is assuredly the highlight attraction of the museum, and it offers a creative and educational experience that demands and deserves one’s time.
One of the smaller yet essential exhibitions, especially for cinephiles, is The Path to Cinema, which highlights a history of film and its technologies in the era prior to what we consider the beginning of narrative cinema. Featuring material from the Richard Balzer Collection, this is a must-see for those fascinated by the idea of cinema and how it was first brought to life (but perhaps less so for a non-cinephile audience).
Two exhibitions that garner perhaps the most attraction are the Pixar Toy Story 3D Zoetrope and the temporary Hayao Miyazaki exhibitions, located on level four. The former is without a doubt the smallest exhibition in the museum, but if offers the most fun social media-friendly spectacle, as Woody, Buzz, and others seemingly come to life as the zoetrope spins—educating, showing how maquettes, photography, and frame rates all coalesce into creating the illusion of a moving image. The Hayao Miyazaki exhibition, on the other hand, would be the most photographed exhibition if photography were allowed in it.
Reminded of the strict no-photos rule by the museum attendant (as well as the various ones throughout each exhibition), one enters the Hayao Miyazaki exhibition—the first Miyazaki exhibition in North America—through the wondrous, tree-like tunnel inspired by “Mother Tree,” from Miyazaki’s animated classic, My Neighbor Totoro (1988). The tunnel transports visitors into the imagination of Miyazaki, with hundreds of materials lent out by Studio Ghibli for public viewing outside of Japan, including: concept art, animation cels, background art, and posters. Also included within the exhibition are various art installations inspired by the renowned artist, including a brilliant depiction of Totoro’s Mother Tree, with branches streaming down from the gallery’s ceiling. It is stunning how many characters, creatures, and otherworldly creations have stemmed from the work produced and inspired by Miyazaki. The exhibition, curated by Jessica Niebel and assistant curator J. Raúl Guzmán, presents a unique opportunity to revel in the imaginative and humane spirit of Miyazaki’s work; the inaugural limited exhibition should be able to attract a decent-sized audience familiar with the films—particularly a younger generation attracted to the cultural panache of Miyazaki’s animation style. Hayao Miyazaki runs until June 5th.
Although there are no exhibits on level five of the museum (which is technically the seventh-floor, as floor “T” and the lower lobby floor are not open to the general museum admission public), there is the Dolby Family Terrace and the cityscape of LA, with the Griffith Observatory and iconic Hollywood sign visible in the distance. The view and open airspace offers a moment to reflect on all that the Academy Museum offers. Most people seemed to use the terrace as an opportunity to remove their face masks and take selfies in an outdoor setting, as permitted by California and Los Angeles’s COVID restrictions (for masks, not selfies). While many used the moment to breathe in fresh air, I found it to be the opportune moment to exhale. The Academy Museum offers a thorough experience of cinema and challenges how we perceive it. By the end of my visit, I found the terrace to be a contemplative space, particular in a time of a global pandemic. Confronted by the realities of cinema and the challenges brought through and against it, the museum compounds memories of the past in a manner that allows visitors to navigate the future. As of writing this, restrictions across California have been lifted, but still persist within Los Angeles County. How will we frame our present once it’s past? Are we truly moving towards a maskless moment and out of the pandemic? What will time make of this? Maybe we’ll find our answers in the arts? I’ll start by going to the movies.