The Academy Museum finds good intentions in messy film history

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The Academy Museum finds good intentions in messy film history
An exhibit at the Academy of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, Sept. 22, 2021. While the cinematic objects on display fascinate, the much-delayed institution opens with an emphasis on diversity and pluralism, not past and present sins. Justin Chung/The New York Times.

by Manohla Dargis

LOS ANGELES, CA.- Tucked in the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which opened Thursday in Los Angeles, is a surprisingly modest exhibit of “significant Oscars.” The museum, after all, is the latest venture of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that each year entertains, inflames and invariably stupefies movie lovers of every taste and critical persuasion with that gaudy bacchanalia of self-love known as the Oscars.

Given the academy’s focus on all things Oscar, its latest production could have played up the event even more than it does. Yet while the awards invariably loom large, as does Hollywood — this is very much an academy endeavor, as the many nods to Steven Spielberg underscore — the long-delayed museum has embraced a tricky, complicated brief to accentuate the positive, to borrow the title of an Oscar-nominated song. The industry’s ugliness, its racism and sexism, is directly addressed, but the emphasis is on diversity and pluralism, not past and present sins. Call it a museum of good intentions.

The 20 statuettes in the significant Oscars gallery underscores this idea. The oldest is the best cinematography award given to “Sunrise” in 1929, the first year of the ceremony and the only year the academy divided its top honors between “unique and artistic picture” and “outstanding” film; the latter was given to “Wings” and isn’t on display. The most recent is the 2017 best adapted screenplay award for “Moonlight,” which is part of an inclusive lineup that includes best actor (Sidney Poitier), costume design (Eiko Ishioka), documentary (“The Times of Harvey Milk”) and song (“Up Where We Belong”).

Like much of the museum, the Oscar exhibit is fun, informative, ideologically freighted and touching, in specific because of the empty case that should hold the best supporting prize Hattie McDaniel won in 1940 for her much-debated turn in “Gone With the Wind.” (It went missing years ago.) She was the first African American nominated for an Oscar; a clip of her poignant acceptance speech plays nearby. In 1940, the Oscars were held at the Cocoanut Grove, where picketers outside protested the film’s racism. Inside, McDaniel sat at a separate table, segregated from her white co-stars.

McDaniel’s lost Oscar and the empty display case resonate, partly because of her public role as a cultural flashpoint and because they symbolize the larger, structural absences that have long characterized the American movie industry and that the academy has struggled with, particularly in the past decade. Formed in 1927, partly to buff the image of the industry, the academy has recently expanded and diversified its membership, a venture that has generated a great deal of publicity and rather less substantive, real-world change in the concerns it represents. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite is unlikely to be retired anytime soon, however hard the academy tries to make it obsolete.

The academy’s push toward greater diversity extends to its museum. One room, “Composer: Hildur Gudnadottir,” part of the sweeping “Stories of Cinema” exhibit, features a work created for it by Hildur Gudnadottir that you can listen to in a dark room. Gudnadottir won an Oscar for her score for “Joker” — perhaps the strongest explanation for why she’s kicking off this exhibition — and belongs to a select cohort. As the museum’s website (if not its wall caption) notes, in 2019, just 6% of the top 250 films had scores by women.

There is a lot more to see and ponder, even if the exhibition space, at 50,000 square feet, also feels somewhat modest. (The Museum of Modern Art added close to that much space in its last expansion.) Elsewhere, there is an extensive Hayao Miyazaki retrospective. Housed in the Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg Gallery, it is down the hall from a much smaller room that holds “The Pixar Toy Story 3D Zoetrope,” a whirling, carousel-like amusement that features maquettes of characters from the Disney franchise.

The two-story “Backdrop: An Invisible Art” is a showcase for the huge reproduction of Mount Rushmore used in “North by Northwest.” In other galleries reserved for the museum’s biggest, most provocative exhibit, the multipart “Stories of Cinema,” you can gape at the bedazzled ruby slippers that Judy Garland wore as Dorothy when she clicked her heels in “The Wizard of Oz” and gawk at one of the sleds from “Citizen Kane,” glowing jewel-like in soft light. Elsewhere, a fiberglass model of the shark in “Jaws” floats above escalators.

These relics have charm and an iconic aura, and there’s an undeniable kick in seeing them in person. More than once, I found myself wildly grinning at an object — cool, the typewriter that Joseph Stefano used to write “Psycho”! — even as I tried to decide whether these items were important cinematic artifacts, Instagram-ready tourist bait or, really, both. François Truffaut, for one, found little value in a film museum that spent resources on objects rather than on the preservation of film or on programming (both will be well-represented in the museum by the academy’s own holdings). “Putting a Garbo costume next to the skull from ‘Psycho’ was a gimmick for tourists,” he said.

Truffaut was wrong, I think, and not simply because I’d like a close look at the skull from that Hitchcock shocker. Movies are many things: art, artifacts, representations, statements, manifestations of specific times and spaces, real and imagined. But they’re also filled with and defined by material objects that have their own meaning and magic. Nothing makes that clearer than “The Path to Cinema: Highlights From the Richard Balzer Collection,” a fantastic selection of early optical devices with marvelous names like the praxinoscope that speak to our curious human desire for viewing machines.

“Stories of Cinema” stretches across three floors and has a name that is strongly redolent of Sundance. The first part is on the ground floor in the soaring Sidney Poitier Grand Lobby, a vaulted, not especially inviting industrial-looking space. On large monitors mounted in a dim room, you can sit transfixed watching clips culled from international film history, spanning the commercial mainstream and the avant-garde. There are snippets of work from the first woman filmmaker, Alice Guy Blaché (two clips), as well as from Yasujiro Ozu (six), John Cassavetes (one! come on!) and Steven Spielberg (nine) as well as from too many 2021 Oscar contenders (eight).

The first part of “Stories” is expansive enough not to offend, though it will generate arguments. Because the clips are not identified (the list is online), it also has the quality of a game that allows visitors to guess which “X-Men” zipped by (“Days of Future Past”) and wait to see if Roman Polanski, who was expelled from the academy, made the cut. He did (two clips), though notably Woody Allen, the Oscar fave turned persona non grata, did not. He never joined the academy but his exclusion here is striking. Instead, the museum has set its sights on filmmakers who together tend to represent a parallel, less-known vanguard that has been systematically ignored, forgotten and marginalized.

To that end, the museum has made some other notable choices, including about canon formation. The indie movie “Real Women Have Curves” has been given pride of place next to “Citizen Kane” in the second part of “Stories.” This section also highlights Bruce Lee; cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (a collaborator of Alfonso Cuarón); and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (best known for her work with Martin Scorsese). Also here is African American pioneer Oscar Micheaux, a radical independent who worked outside of Hollywood. His exhibit and another temporary one organized by Spike Lee include some of the few references to D.W. Griffith, of “The Birth of a Nation” infamy.

Lee has talked in the past about watching “Birth” in a class at New York University, where he was shown the film without consideration to Griffith’s racism. That attitude was long common in film studies. For too long, scholars and critics tended to focus on the aesthetic and narrative aspects of Griffith’s work while ignoring or eliding its racism. Among other things, “Birth” became a recruitment tool for the Ku Klux Klan. Griffith’s placement in the museum is emblematic of the bind it faces: To give him prominence would generate criticism, but sidelining him distorts the true arc of American cinema.

I broached the subject of Griffith and the provocations presented by vexed filmmakers like him with Jacqueline Stewart, the museum’s chief artistic and programming officer. Speaking by phone Tuesday, Stewart noted with a laugh that the morning had gotten away from her. Just hours earlier, the MacArthur Foundation had announced that she was one of the recipients of its 2021 “genius” grants, recognition for a highly regarded film scholar who’s made an unusual, welcome leap to public prominence, most notably as a host for Turner Classic Movies. Stewart joined the Academy Museum staff only in January, after the exhibitions were designed. She describes her role as “fine-tuning.”

Addressing the challenges that American cinema presents, Stewart said that in both “major and oblique references” to filmmakers, the museum is seeking to encourage people to learn more. The greatest hits are here, but so are movies that are unlikely to be included in more rarefied canons. The museum, Stewart said, wanted to use its space to surprise and inspire. “I think that folks will be surprised that the way that we get at narrative in this opening iteration of our museum is through these two Black filmmakers,” referring to Micheaux and Spike Lee. If, for instance, visitors seek to know more about Griffith through Micheaux, she continued, “I think that’s amazing.”

Whether visitors will seek more than selfies with the “Star Wars” bots remains to be seen. That is, if they stop streaming for a while and get out of the house.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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