For such a self-absorbed company town, Los Angeles is surprisingly sparse on organized tributes to its raison d’etre: Besides the Hollywood Museum and the Walk of Fame stars scattered around the sidewalks, there are few places dedicated to promoting and preserving the history of the film industry.
So when the long-anticipated, then long-delayed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (a venture of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which sponsors The Oscars) finally opened on Wilshire Boulevard in late September, it filled a gap, if perhaps not a burning need.
The $25 tickets, purchased online in advance, secured a timed reservation. Masks were required (this is Los Angeles, after all). A sign seen nearby offered this depressing anti-science language: “Wearing a face mask over nose and mouth is encouraged in outdoor spaces.”
Some say the museum resembles the Death Star from the outside, which pains the architect Renzo Piano, who insists it’s more of a soap bubble. Inside, the proceedings are dark, rather like a movie theatre (remember those?) Maybe too dark; twice I was directed to continue the tour when I prematurely exited an exhibit.
Since this is the Academy Museum, there is a focus on the annual Oscars ceremony. We skipped paying an extra $15 for the Oscar Experience, when you can deliver your own videotaped Oscar acceptance speech while holding a genuine gold statue.
The museum’s core exhibit is spread across three floors under the rubric “Stories of Cinema.” The “Significant Movies and Moviemakers” gallery contained, along with “Citizen Kane” (of course) and Bruce Lee (sure) an exploration of the 2002 film “Real Women Have Curves,” which I don’t remember as particularly influential. Then again, all aesthetic judgments are judgment calls.
Other details weren’t judgment calls, but panicky attempts to stay abreast of the current unforgiving political environment. The map guide included a “Land Acknowledgement” in which the museum “acknowledged the Tongva people as the traditional caretakers of the water and land on which we program, curate, educate, and discuss.”
The museum certainly reached beyond the white male Jewish origins of Hollywood. A voluminous temporary gallery devoted to renowned Asian anime filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki was initially puzzling but ultimately enchanting in its quirkiness, including a fake tuft of grass where visitors could absorb video of passing clouds.
Also charming was The Pixar Toy Story 3D Zoetrope, a carousel of characters from the “Toy Story” movies that worked like a 3-D flipbook under the flickering light.
But Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller “North by Northwest” was used seemingly as a pretext to apologize on behalf of the U.S. government of 130 years ago for offending the Lakota Tribe by using Mount Rushmore with its “a controversial and painful history” as a backdrop — a controversy that barely anteceded the invention of celluloid.
In the gallery ostensibly devoted to the monumental backdrop of Mount Rushmore (Hitchcock didn’t film any action scenes on the monument itself), the designs were given short shrift in favor of handwringing inside the gallery’s wordy wall captions. One read in part: “…Indigenous communities consider the monument itself a desecration of sacred land taken from the Oglala Lakota in 1877. Ownership of the land is contested to this day.” Given the museum’s long gestation, one suspects an ideologically motivated change in emphasis midstream after liberals suddenly remembered during the Trump administration that Mount Rushmore was racially problematic.
The sometimes-dogmatic filmmaker Spike Lee has his own suite within the museum’s sprawling three-floor core exhibition “Stories of Cinema,” with a surprising emphasis on Lee’s personal items such as autographs and notes from celebrities. Of course, the left-wing filmmaker is in no danger of having his exhibit canceled for his attempt to spread 9-11 inside job conspiracies in his 2021 HBO special.
More dire were the embedded slide presentations under the rubric, “Complicated Histories Of Animation.” The introduction contains this amazing passage: “….the slapstick nature of cartoons, in which an exploding stick of dynamite has no lasting consequences, readily makes way for casual depictions of violence against minorities and women.”
The subject “Women In U.S. Animation” was introduced with a warning: “This media contains sexist content that may be disturbing to individuals.” Even a seemingly innocent childhood memory like “Sleeping Beauty” is problematic: “The depiction of an unconscious woman being saved by a kiss suggests that physical affection without express consent is justified. Such messaging about consent can be especially influential on young viewers, animation’s primary audience.”
Pepe le Pew is of course a serial sexual offender: “Throughout the history of animation, male characters have pursued female characters through predatory behavior…” Dan Quayle’s 1992 “Murphy Brown” controversy, in which the Republican vice president was mercilessly mocked for criticizing a fictional mother for having a child out of wedlock, seems positively quaint now.
Thankfully, the hysterical politics can be skipped by avoiding the wall captions and video displays. When it’s not trying too hard to impress, the museum recaptures the serendipitous magic of the movies.
Give yourself two hours and you’ll see something you didn’t know you wanted to see. Dorothy’s ruby slippers are here, but there is also “Wizard of Oz” ephemera like wardrobe test shots from actress Gale Sondergaard in costume as the Wicked Witch, before leaving the project when the filmmakers decided to ugly up the character.
Alongside the lens and scripts used on “Citizen Kane” is a lame early poster for the now-classic movie featuring the pleading tagline “It’s Terrific,” leading one to suspect the studio didn’t know what to do with the masterpiece. A full-scale model of the shark from “Jaws” dangles over the atrium. There’s an interesting segment on how the layering of sound effects makes the rollicking opening scene of “The Raiders of the Lost Ark” so memorable.
My favorite artifact was a skull from “Alien.” I foolishly rushed through the costume gallery and missed the crazed, colorful “May Queen” dress from “Midsommar,” composed of 10,000 silk flowers. There’s much more in that vein, including one of the three original animatronic E.T.’s.
Overall, the exhibits successfully balance unexamined celebration and knee-jerk condemnation. And if it’s all too much dazzle, you can step away and enjoy the panoramic views via sky bridge from the rooftop deck, from which one can see the famous Hollywood sign.