The Art and Science of Movies: The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

December 27, 2021   •   By Kevin McMahon

THE SABAN BUILDING — inside the renovated May Company, with its gold cylinder glorifying Wilshire and Fairfax and pet blimp tethered in back — is already an icon. And rightly so: the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is not a reliquary but a marquee. The building and everything in it is an advertisement for coming attractions, a multi-modal campaign to change visitors into viewers. The director and president Bill Kramer told me, “We want to be L.A.’s home for movies” — which is not the program of a building but an NGO.

There’s a lot going on. First-time visitors may wonder where to begin. The various ambitious sensibilities at work have not been homogenized; the components of the “Stories of Cinema” core exhibits have not been pinched to a beginner timeline. David Bordwell foresaw it all in his 1985 book The Classical Hollywood Cinema, affirming why this generosity and frankness is a feature not a bug:

The spectator passes through the classical film as if moving through an architectural volume, remembering what she or he has already encountered, hazarding guesses about upcoming events, assembling images and sounds into a total shape. What, then, is the spectator’s itinerary? Is it string-straight, or is it more like the baffling, “crooked corridors” that Henry James prided himself upon designing?

Way-finding in the museum is also refined by the fact that most of the materials on display — projections, monitors, paper, fabric — wither in daylight. Hence, they’re protected in windowless galleries behind closed doors. Confronted with a wall of such, which to choose? The Hayao Miyazaki retrospective, which kicked off on October 5 and runs until January 1, addressed this best by covering its exterior walls in Miyazakian motifs — providing not only the visual information visitors needed but irresistible Instagram selfie backgrounds.

But why not start with the café? The food at Fanny’s is good (full menu forthcoming), the ambiance civilized, and the decor skips to its own beat. Visitors can get their idolatry fix in the one place in the museum focused on stars. The murals by Konstantin Kakanias feature Barbara Streisand as Fanny Brice (and other roles), plus John Travolta, Carmen Miranda, Diana Ross, etc. Kakanias has mellowed a bit from his Mrs. Tependris period, but his wiry rococo line incises indelibly. And there’s more: upstairs are superb watercolors by Theadora Van Runkle of costume designs for Funny Girl.

Fanny Brice, who gives the café its name, is honored with posters, memorabilia, and — best of all — a wall opposite the bar lusciously crammed with photographs of all eras of her career, both glamorous and slapstick. If possible, visitors should linger in Fanny’s circular alcove at the base of the cylinder, which has become the museum’s logo and the focus of a gazillion Instagram posts. It’s the particular triumph of the overall triumph of building conservation expert John Fidler’s restoration of the May Company’s exterior to its sleek and snazzy 1939 prime. Restoring and repurposing it wasn’t the museum’s primary mission, but the opportunity was seized, and they went for the gold in the form of several hundred thousand Italian gold-leaf mosaic tiles.

Fanny’s is also a good (but not the best) perch for taking in the Sidney Poitier Grand Lobby. I suspect that the lobby will only make sense after social distancing protocols are relaxed and visitors are allowed to enter through the creamy limestone, gold and lacquer-black May Company facade on Wilshire. Then, stepping into the bare, boxy concrete and glass semi-soundstage, with exposed HVAC in the ceiling, will broadcast the message that this place offers interpretations of both Hooray for Hollywood and the Dream Factory shop floor.

Also visible from Fanny’s is the patio out back. The wow moment created by design architect Renzo Piano Building Works, executive architect Gensler Los Angeles, and structural engineers Buro Happold might not be the viewing deck on the top of the blimp but the space underneath it. On a hot, sunny day, the Walt Disney Company Piazza provides a shaded spot to ponder how the structure can be raised in the air on two not-so-massive legs sporting funky earthquake base isolator ankle bracelets.

After Fanny’s, visitors can start in the basement and work their way up. Downstairs is one ventricle of the museum’s heart: the 288-seat Ted Mann Theater (the other — the 1,000-seat Geffen Theater — is inside the blimp). This is a real movie palace in the sense of a place where it’s possible to be fully immersed in a movie. The acoustically engineered interior hush hits with a physiological punch. The look is sober and functional, with exposed poles deploying dismountable speakers and lights. The Emerald City green chairs provide a contrasting festive fizz. At one recent 3:00 p.m. matinee, about 40 adults and kids settled in and listened to a museum theater staffperson remind everybody of movie theater etiquette (perhaps forgotten during lockdown) and promote the Miyazaki retrospective on Level 4. The gray curtains parted and, instead of trailers, there was a land acknowledgment, an animated museum logo (May Company exterior), and a welcome from theater sponsor Dolby. The sound and image were impeccable. And then the show began.

It’s revealing that one of the museum’s very first screenings celebrated home not only via The Wizard of Oz but also the following Saturday matinee, which featured Brick by Brick (1982), Shirikiana Aina’s meditation on neighbors uniting to resist displacement in the shadow of Washington, DC’s monuments.

Throughout the museum’s opening month, the calendar of screenings kept expanding in range and ambition. The initial offerings of Hayao Miyazaki, Haile Gerima, Halloween horror classics, Saturday matinees, Academy Award winner Sunday evenings, and movies featured in “Stories of Cinema” have been augmented already by Anna May Wong, women composers, Jane Campion, and Satyajit Ray, and much more that will be announced later.

Bernardo Rondeau, the senior director of film programs, stressed that the role of the screenings is “to complement and extend what’s in the galleries” — which includes expanding on themes that exhibits may not have room to explore in depth. Rondeau is also aware that the act of screening movies at this moment is weighted with significance. After the pandemic theater closings, with streaming services taking over the world, Rondeau affirmed, “What’s important right now is to remind audiences of what movie-going was and is, and why it’s rewarding. To remind people of the power and delight of a communal experience. A focused experience.” Moreover, in this era of digital everything, he’s been surprised by “how avid people are for film” — for physical reels unspooling through a projector. “The appeal continues to rise,” he says.

High above the Mann is the Dolby Family Terrace. The museum has staged the space impeccably by not trying too hard: movable red metal chairs and tables, a shade system rigged up to moderate the glare, and no text panels or concessions. The museum app will point out significant movie-related sites on the horizon, but only if activated. Unfortunately, I missed the weekly shift of Spencer the Hawk, the museum staffer who helps keep the glass clean by scaring off pigeons.

And in between the terrace and the Mann — what about the exhibits? The stuff?

The apex is the Hurd Gallery, a double-height Pharaonic chamber in the middle of the Saban displaying a 30-foot-high painting of Mt. Rushmore that was used as a backdrop in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. It’s accompanied by videos, photographs, sketches, artifacts, and texts that clarify, complicate, and amplify the fascination of the stupefying thing.

While some exhibits, like the Mt. Rushmore backdrop, trend toward an art-museum experience, most are more science-oriented. Pixar’s Toy Story 3D Zoetrope flashes and spins, and the fixed figures accelerate into an illusion of movement. Then the display slowly comes to a stop, to reveal how it was done. Likewise, the Path to Cinema gallery presents 18th- and 19th-century optical toys realized in both handsome steampunk cabinetry and battered painted tin. There’s a projection that simulates the moving-image illusions these toys created: churning kaleidoscope colors, silhouettes taking flight, ghosts gliding through a room. In another corner, these elemental first steps in motion pictures are bridged to the history of cinema proper with a poster advertising 1895 screenings by the Lumière Brothers, and projections of their epochal productions.

The interplay between art museum and science museum animates the “Stories of Cinema,” where, according to Kramer, “We are presenting the myriad components of the arts and sciences of moviemaking to the public.” For example, The Art of Moviemaking: The Wizard of Oz doesn’t focus on Ozology but rather “the intricate network of craftspeople […] required to make a movie.” Artifacts, images, and texts explore “screenwriting, casting, hair and makeup, costumes, production design, special effects, sound, music, cinematography, editing, and publicity, not to mention the work of actors, directors, producers, and executives.” The exhibit makes its points visually, with judiciously selected treasures (the Technicolor camera is as thought-provoking as the ruby slippers). Visitors are invited inside the production in a way that’s an adventure rather than a lecture.

The galleries devoted to the art of animation also stress fabrication over interpretation but cover even more ground. Disney, Warner Bros., and Pixar are represented, but not only them. Individual animation artists and auteurs are featured. The craftsmanship of the drawings and maquettes is breathtaking. Breathtaking in a different way is the concise, to-the-point video outlining animation’s heritage of racist caricature — presented on a horizontal flat screen visible only to those who choose to view it.

The Director’s Inspiration: Spike Lee provides another model: a substantive immersion in a moviemaker’s work and world, combining — in not that much space — art (Roy DeCarava’s portrait of Billie Holiday), insight into influences (Lee’s movie poster collection), glimpses of technique (clips showing Lee’s double dolly shots), catnip for fans (Mookie’s shirt from Do the Right Thing), plus family, politics, activism, and selfie backgrounds.

The costumes are a highlight. Ruth E. Carter’s delirious assemblage for the Wicked Witch Evillene in The Wiz might be the most exhilarating work of art on display in Southern California. The presentation has good ideas: mini-projectors show clips of garments in motion; The Dude’s bathrobe from The Big Lebowski is presented with a half-dozen wildly dissimilar costumes also crafted by costume designer Mary Zophres for other projects. But couldn’t some of the square footage lavished elsewhere have been used to give these in-the-round treasures more breathing room?

Likewise, the “Significant Movies and Moviemakers” gallery shoehorns six separate presentations into a space that fits three. Couldn’t there be more space for visitors to reflect on the dazzling mirrored wall in the Bruce Lee corner? And, in the opposite corner, an eye-opening selection of clips, posters, and documents on pioneer Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux could have used twice the space.

In a provocative bit of stagecraft, Oscar Micheaux segues into Oscar®. “The Academy Awards History Gallery” fills a space inside the cylinder, realizing and amplifying the glamour promised by the exterior. The plush, hushed, gold concentric circles are an Art Deco dream by Cedric Gibbons — whose own 1946 award (Best Art Direction for The Yearling) is displayed here, along with 19 other representative statues. Visitors view a giant still of Paul Robeson in Micheaux’s 1925 film Body and Soul overseeing the empty display case commemorating the lost award of the first Black Academy honoree, Hattie McDaniel. The view in the other direction reveals the “Academy Awards History Timeline,” featuring highlights of each award ceremony, clips of notable acceptance speeches, a chronology of set decorations, and the red-carpet showstopper costumes of Rita Moreno and Cher, plus Paul Newman’s Rolex (look it up).

Visitors beguiled by this ceremoniousness should take an escalator ride up to “The Oscars Experience,” where you can hold a real Oscar on a simulated stage in front of a simulated audience. A robot arm films a 14-second video document that is sent via email in a few minutes. The Visitor Experience associate encourages camera-worthy behavior: “You’re free to do anything you want: jump up and down, roll around on the ground. Just don’t kiss the Oscar.”

There will be visitors who recoil in horror from this Oscarmania, dismissing it as an irrelevant provincial distraction from contemplation of the global art of cinema. Such a response misses the integrity of an institution that’s making clear where it comes from rather than feigning impartiality. Bill Kramer makes no bones about it: “We are part of the Academy.”

With a clearly defined point of view, the museum can carve out its own niche in the Southern California/Hollywood ecosystem, distinct from the Walk of Fame, the Hollywood Museum, the American Cinematheque, the superhero impersonators, the buses, the tours, the studios, the souvenir shops, the Billy Wilder, Filmforum, Redcat, the New Beverly, the Vista, and the upcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Exposition Park.

Those who complain that the Academy has no business operating a museum might be forgetting that the organization has been performing all the essential tasks of a museum for decades — collecting, preserving, and restoring movies and related artifacts — without a public venue. The museum provides theaters, a showcase, and an unmissable reminder-monument for the world-class collections of both the Academy Film Archive and the Margaret Herrick Library.

Moreover, the curators I talked to refer to the Academy as an essential collaborator, especially the Inclusion Advisory Committee and the 17 Academy Branch Task Forces. They — everybody altogether — define the museum’s purpose and personality and keep it on track.

The idea of trade guilds splashing out for public enlightenment and entertainment is nothing new. Seven centuries ago, they were commissioning the church of Orsanmichele in Florence and producing mystery plays in York. The annual red-carpet hoopla, which generates global scrutiny of the industry (and its costumes), demonstrates the continued vitality of a tradition of guild pageantry.

Perhaps the most famous object in the museum is not in a gallery but suspended above the escalators. The full-scale model of the shark from Jaws is not a prop from the movie’s production (as misreported in much of the media coverage) but a promotional piece that was “created for display at the Universal Studios Hollywood at the time of the film’s release.” In other words, it was created for admirers to take pictures of. Seeing it now, at the museum, it’s delicious to savor how its transfer here has not altered its function.

Flat screens and projections looping montages of movie clips are everywhere inside the Saban Building. Bill Kramer told me that they were meant to “bring movies into the space.” And how! In the lobby, in the Spielberg Family Gallery, a dark grove of freestanding, double-sided monitors loop a 13-minute montage of clips from movies made around the world from 1895 to 2020, several movies for each year (see the museum’s website for montage playlists). The sound blurts out — if there is sound — for only one clip at a time. Hearing it bounce around the room is unexpectedly spellbinding. I was surprised to see that the clips aren’t identified. When I asked exhibitions curator Jenny He about it, she admitted film titles had been considered, but the goal was “an immersive experience, not didactic.” Not a Film History quiz, but “juxtapositions and multiplicity.” It seems to be happening. There’s usually a sizable crowd taking it in, and there’s less “I know that!” and “What’s that?” than you’d think.

Upstairs on Level 3 is another flat-screen grove that forms Pedro Almodóvar’s special exhibition. Instead of the entire universe of cinema, here the clips are limited to his own movies. “Limited”?! The hot colors, the flamboyant costumes, the outrageous goings-on create another kind of immersion. Welcome to Almodóvarland. Not for everybody, but definitely for me.

The hallway leading into “Significant Movies and Moviemakers” features a montage of clips with related imagery: moons, eyes, floating figures, swimming pools … The hallway is long but narrow, and even though there’s not much room, people flatten against the opposite wall to take in the whole loop with rapt attention.

Most mesmerizing of all is the montage in the cylinder gallery on Level 3. Sound designer Ben Burtt’s Behold animates the circular walls with scenes from science-fiction movies, ranging, in terms of chronology, from A Trip to the Moon to Arrival, and, in terms of prestige, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Queen of Outer Space. It’s an informative, vertiginous inventory of the genre’s essential tropes, presenting multiple versions of the rocket-launch countdown, the ship from Earth landing on another world, the ship from another world landing on Earth, the good alien, the scary alien, the good robot, the scary robot … It is alarming to discover some of the things that are clichés (immobilized women being energized — or threatened — by arcs of electricity). The delirium peaked with generations of heavily made-up extraterrestrials excusing their perfect English with, “We have been monitoring your radio broadcasts for years.”

Exit through the gift shop. Like the artifacts on display in the museum, the merchandise in the store both acknowledges and jolts expectations. Likewise, as in the exhibits above, the craftspeople — many based in Los Angeles — are called out and celebrated. For those looking for the kind of souvenirs found on the Walk of Fame, there are artful and cheeky reinterpretations. Instead of miniature gilt plastic toy Oscar statues, the store offers a statue in Legos by Nathan Sawaya. The Wizard of Oz gear is more MOMA Design Store than Hollywood Blvd. There are stylish cases by Susan Kere with a pixilated gingham and ruby slipper motif. Fans with a different aesthetic can opt for a flashy oversize PVC tote bag by Moschino. On top of an array of books, toys, and clothes on or about Miyazaki, there was a set of stunning limited-edition fiberglass chairs with different motifs from Modernica. One thing this film museum does not have are any Blu-ray or other discs. Supply-chain bottleneck? Every time I visited during October there was new and different merchandise. Like the rest of the museum, it’s a work in progress.

It’s all in motion now. The Academy has launched a loop of loops, like their signature montages: the store, the screens, the shark, the Oscars, the histories, the costumes, the directors, the crafts, the vistas, the cylinder, the café, the programs … After a month, the museum seems to be swinging between art and science, reverence and irreverence, solemnity and sass, so that, as Henry James put it, “the past seems to have left a sensible deposit, an aroma, an atmosphere. This ghostly presence tells you no secrets, but it prompts you to try and guess a few.”

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Kevin McMahon is a writer, scholar, and archivist based in Los Angeles.

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Featured image: “The May Company Building 2021” by Downtowngal is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.