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An Interview with Ian Birnie

 | Interview |

  BY Sudarshan Ramani

Ian Birnie

I first met Ian Birnie at last year’s Mumbai Film Festival, during a screening of Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Swayamvaram (1972). I found out that he was the programmer for the American independent titles at the 2011 Festival but being an avid cinephile he couldn’t resist the chance to look at some of the older Indian titles being screened at the festival that year. Projection problems interrupted the screenings of both the Gopalakrishnan film and the film that followed that, Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1974). As unfortunate as these interruptions were, it did allow us time for conversation and discussion of films, old and new, directors we liked or whatnot. In short, the kind of intellectual exchange promised by a film festival in theory but rare in practice. Even though he was a programmer, Ian was affable and accessible. As willing to talk to regular first-time filmgoers as he was to arch-cinephiles, treating everyone with generosity and patience, and as interested in the films he had not seen or wanted to see again as anyone waiting in line before a screening.

A Canadian by birth, Ian would travel far from Toronto. He went to college in Chicago, where he funded his education by modeling from between the ages of 18 to 23 which put him through college. “Of course,” he says with a grin, “I flunked out of college because I was working to pay for college.” This was followed by an extended stay in New York and then a major part of his life and career in Los Angeles as head of the Film Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, popularly known as LACMA. In 2009, the decision to axe the film program at LACMA provoked a public outcry among American cinephiles, most notably Martin Scorsese who sent an open letter in the Los Angeles Times in support of Ian and the Film Department which as he notes was instrumental in inspiring him to commit himself to the preservation and restoration of films from all across the world.

Ian still travels to film festivals around the world and at MAMI 2012, offered an ambitious program of repertory titles from American and Italian cinema, as well as two restored prints of Satyajit Ray classics – Charulata (1962) and Shatranj ki Khilari (The Chess Players, 1977). Courtesy of the Film Archive at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) which, under Michael Friend and Mike Pogorzelski, undertook an initiative to restore all of Ray’s films. Performing a similar function for moviegoers in Mumbai as he did for Los Angelenos to whom he introduced the films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Abbas Kiarostami. On his final program at LACMA, Scott Foundas wrote in the LA Weekly newspaper that, “As a budding cinephile myself recently transplanted to L.A., the ambitious filmmaker retrospectives and thematic series presented at LACMA (including those on the blacklist, the evolution of sound design and Hollywood anti-Nazi movies) in the early days of Birnie's tenure were as crucial to my own cinematic education as anything gleaned in the hallowed halls of the (since renamed) USC School of Cinema-Television.”

The same sentiment was shared by many moviegoers at this year’s film festival, proving that Mr. Birnie’s skills as a programmer, to keep “the old” fresh and new for audiences across generations and borders, are as strong as ever.

The following interview took place at the Coffee Bean at Inox Cinema, on the 25th of October, not coincidentally the last day of the film festival.

Ramani: So, you are originally from Canada?

Birnie: Yeah, I was born and raised in Toronto. And then I went to college in Chicago and after that I moved to New York City and worked for Janus Films which was a classic film distributor. And then I spent 17 years in New York and then I moved to LA and I’ve been there 17 years! [laughs]

Ramani: And from when was the period of your stay in New York?

Birnie: 1979 to 1996.

Ramani: And in this period you worked for Janus Films3. Didn’t you also program titles at the Toronto International Film Festival(TIFF)?

Birnie: Yes, for four years. I used to go up for the summers, four summers from New York and I programmed the Gala films. Basically producing 16 events in 8 days…yeah, we did 2 galas every night. And they always came with stars or directors. It was great, it was interesting.

Ramani: And in 1996, you moved to Los Angeles and you took over the film repertory program at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). 

Birnie: The Film Department at Los Angeles County Museum had existed since about 1968. Okay but the person that ran it was, uh, there for over 25 years.

Ramani: Mr. Ronald Haver.

Birnie: Yes Ron Haver who had died in 1993. And for three years they had nobody running the film department. And then I was lucky I got the job. Thanks to Mary Lea Bandy who ran the Museum of Modern Art, who recommended me. Anyway, I moved there in summer of 1996 and I was there until summer of 2010. Last year, what’s last year.

Ramani: 2011.

Birnie: 2011. The department has always been influenced or shall we say modeled on the style of the Museum of Modern Art. Not the archive, not any of the other things, just the program. The idea … it was kind of great directors’ retrospectives and in the early years the Los Angeles Film Department was very influential in raising awareness of classic American films. The Department did a lot of early work on that. They did long and comprehensive series devoted to Fox, devoted to RKO that ran for months and months– 70 plus titles. By the time I got there in the mid-90s, we really didn’t have to focus so exclusively on American classics… We had already rediscovered them: more and more titles were showing on cable television, they were on home video (VHS), and of course today the classic American cinema is widely available in digital formats. So I made the program more international. We had really specialized in American films but I started showing Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Kiarostami, Bresson. A lot of director retrospectives.

Ramani: Robert Koehler did a profile of you on the first week of your job. He quoted you saying that you wanted to create, “a living history for your audience”. Would you say that defines your philosophy of programming?

Birnie: I absolutely have that philosophy. I remember. I think it was Marty Scorsese who said once, that if you’ve never seen the film, it’s a new film. Old films are new films if you haven’t seen them and there’s no reason to think we can’t look at an old film the way we look at an old painting. Despite the stylistic changes, we get as much meaning from it as we would today as we would had we seen it in 1850.

Ramani: And I believe that your most successful programs were also the most challenging ones. I believe that the retrospectives of Bresson, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Kryzstof Kieslowski were sold out. At the Bing theatre which has a 600 seat capacity and that’s more than Film Forum, Brooklyn Academy of Music and Film Society of Lincoln Centre.

Birnie: That’s right. I mean Film Forum is a wonderful organization but it only has 150 seats. Brooklyn Academy has 350. Even the largest cinema at MoMA has only 400 seats and the large cinema at the Walter Reade is about 300 seats. LACMA is unique. And Los Angeles in general is a great city to see classic films on really big screens They show them at the Academy, at the American Cinematheque, at LACMA. Sometimes in restored downtown Movie Palaces. It’s remarkable. Whereas in New York, you see old films on fairly small screens.

Ramani: And how does the size of the Los Angeles theatres compare to some of the Mumbai theatres. I believe Liberty theatre is somewhat similar to a Movie Palace?

Birnie: Yeah. It is. Exactly. Liberty is a fantastic cinema for Mumbai to have and it’s in such beautiful condition. It’s a great screen and it’s wonderful to see films in a movie palace or a modern theatre with a screen that size.

Ramani: Your final program at LACMA was a repertory program of 12 titles that were popular favorites at LACMA in the years before. So if such titles as Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927), Late Autumn (1960, Yasujiro Ozu) and The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970) were popular and demanding programs like Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Bresson equally successful, why was there a need for LACMA to close its film program?

Birnie: Well, there were two things. One was internal museum politics involving the use of the theatre for film, many elements in the museum did not want the theatre booked for film every Friday and Saturday night. They wanted to mix in lectures. This was a kind of false issue but it was real politics. The second thing was that even though our programs were frequently sold out we still lost money. If you look in terms of the total cost of salaries and rentals and shipping. But losing money for non-profit…non-profit is called non-profit because they don’t make money. And the museum never tried to raise any money for the film department. They really put it out of business by not sustaining or believing in it.
I do want to add that although the film department as a museum ‘department’ is gone, in the future the current situation may be viewed as a transitional period because a plan for the Academy of Motion Pictures to open and program a film museum in a LACMA building is in the works. Assuming this comes together, LA audiences will have a whole new venue devoted to great cinema.

Ramani: Do you feel the closing of the department also has to do with the fact that a lot of the museum and the academic establishment, not only America but all over, still have problems accepting film as art?

Birnie: Yeah absolutely. The Museum of Modern Art can never get rid of film because it’s part of the founding documents when the museum opened. Film was one of the seven departments. That’s not true of any other museum in America that I am aware of. It’s very easy to get rid of them because they’re not considered part of the concept of the museum. Film departments in museums are usually used to publicize exhibitions or to bring people in on quiet nights or to generate revenue on weekends when there’s lot of attendance. Many museum film programs are considered education rather than art.

Ramani: Film societies have similar issues here with cultural centers. The American Centre for instance mostly allows films for research and informational uses, and not as aspects of American art.

Birnie: I really don’t know because I don’t know the program. I don’t know where they’re getting their films but if they’re getting their films from the government then they’re definitely educational. I don’t know if accessing the history of American film is even their goal.  The Alliance Française and the Goethe-Institut are the best examples I know of foreign governments promoting film as art and culture. And the Italian culture institute. A lot of these foreign offices support themselves with language classes.

Ramani: Martin Scorsese described you in an open letter to Michael Govan as “a programmer of immaculate taste and knowledge.”

Birnie: That’s true. [Laughs] He was a big supporter and that was very kind of him to say that. I met him a few times. But Marty had an interest in the film program at LACMA. After the success of Mean Streets (1973), he lived in LA for a number of years. And he used the film department at LACMA the way he used MoMA, he watched movies all the time. He told me that it was his second favorite place to see movies in the world. So when it was threatened with closure, complete closure, I got in touch with his office. I did it before it went public. I thought maybe Scorsese could influence the decision. I realized that was not possible. Then you are interfering in another institution. Once it became public, his office phoned me that he wanted to write something. And I was very grateful, if he hadn’t, I think it helped a lot. The Los Angeles Times film critic was very supportive of the film program and so he ran it on the front page. And together it extended the film department by two years.

Ramani: That eventually in 2011, you programmed your final event and then Elvis Mitchell took over.

Birnie: Well the way it worked out was that the Museum basically replaced the film department with a program run by another organization called Film Independent. It was a way for the museum not to spend money. They reduced it to one-night-a-week, Thursday, and that organization paid those costs and hired Elvis Mitchell as the curator or programmer. I think it was mainly underwritten by a sponsorship, some grant by the New York Times. So the museum paid off all those costs by an outside organization. There are still films programmed at LACMA by my previous assistant, who programs films in connection with exhibitions and he does a great job. There’s a Kubrick exhibition that started in Paris and Bernardo managed to program every Kubrick film including his shorts and that’s a great thing but that’s rare. I mean if the exhibition wasn’t there you wouldn’t be getting the Kubrick retrospective. Bernardo also did the Tarkovsky for LACMA which was a huge hit.

Madame De... (1953)

Ramani: I believe the titles that played in your last program was Sunrise, which is playing at this year’s MAMI film festival. Then I Know Where I’m Going! (Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger, 1945), Madame de… (Max Ophüls, 1953), Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1942) ... It’s an honor roll. Also Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) and Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). Also two films that are set in Los Angeles – In A Lonely Place (1950) and The Long Goodbye (1973).

Birnie: All films that I love and also films that had a history during my time at LACMA. Many of them shown more than once. I believe The Earrings of Madame de… was shown at least five times. Maybe six. And it was a way of looking back over 15 years, favorite films of mine and films that I knew the audience liked or from series they had affection in mind. For example, I showed Bay of Angels (Jacques Demy, 1963), which I showed the first year I was there and had never been showed again and I always loved it. But it also brought back a great memory because I showed it the night I interviewed Jeanne Moreau and it was a complete thrill to interview and have Jeanne Moreau as a guest. So that became a reference point and I myself hadn’t seen the film in fifteen years.

Ramani: I think, on the whole, I can say that LA’s loss was Mumbai’s gain. Considering your contributions over the last two years.

Birnie: That’s sweet of you.   

Ramani: October 2011 was your first year at the Mumbai Film Festival. You programmed a lot of the American independent titles.

Birnie: Mainly independent films, but also a number of documentaries. Personally I find, in the last couple of years, at least since I’ve been looking at American independent films, the documentaries on average have been better than the feature films. There have been some great feature films. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012) is a great feature film. This year I programmed six, no eight documentaries from North America, and they’re all strong, I mean each one is fantastic. And only two or three features.

Ramani: And also documentaries have more of a popular audience in America.

Birnie: And some of these documentaries, it feels like you’re watching a fiction film. There’s a documentary playing at MAMI called Stolen Seas (Thymaya Payne, 2012) which has not yet played in the US. It’s American but also many co-producers, international producers. But it opened in Locarno and I think this is only the second place it’s playing. It’s about Somali piracy and it plays completely like a thriller.

Ramani: Between your departure at LACMA and your time at MAMI, you programmed a festival in Italy, at Peruggia.

Birnie: Yeah, that was a wonderful festival that died in childbirth. It was going to be a little boutique festival in Peruggia, in Umbria, Italy, two hours north of Rome. Beautiful, medieval city and it was to focus on art, culture and we were going to have a special focus on costume and production design. It seems that there’s no festival that is specific to that and where better than Italy which has so many great costume houses, the classic Italian movie studio, Cinecitta. We planned to do an exhibition of costumes by Piero Tosi who designed all of Visconti’s films, from Senso (1954) right till the end and who was alive at the age of 85 at Rome. We were going to show 25-30 costumes. He also designed many other films, including La Cage aux Folles (1978) and other significant Italian movies. Unfortunately, the financing fell apart… I really regret that was never possible.

Ramani: This year, you programmed a lot of the repertory titles. Sunrise, which you also programmed at your last event at LACMA and also some of the restored titles, The Leopard (1963) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). Was there a demand for these older titles from last year, among Indians?

Birnie: Yeah it was. We had a meeting at the end of the festival last year, with Anu Rangachar and Rashid Irani and they very much wanted to do something with old films and we discussed a number of titles over the next few months and around March and April, we came up with the idea to make it about restorations.5 And there were several reasons for that. One, it was a popular topic at the moment. Two, a number of studios where I knew the archivists had been turning out some very good restorations. Not all the studios do that but I did know that the Fox Archive in particular was very active in restoration as was the Academy Film Archive and many of those restoration had been funded by the Film Foundation, Martin Scorsese’s organization. So what I did was first approach Fox and secured an agreement that we would show eight of their recent restorations, all of which were available on DCP except for Sunrise. And then we brought two films from the Academy Archive and two films that specifically the Film Foundation was involved in, because they wanted them restored. One was Once Upon A Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984), the other was Colonel Blimp. They were big fans of Michael Powell. And Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s longtime editor is the widow of Michael Powell and Powell is one of Scorsese’s favorite film-makers.

Birnie: With Fox though, I thought it was important to take a look at the whole Classic era of the studio and to start with Ford and Murnau who were two important film-makers at the studio in the 20s and 30s and so we selected Sunrise and How Green Was My Valley both of which  had been restored; and then move on to the 50s and 60s and show recent restorations like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Wild River. There were few others we could have chosen. But I like the line-up. It’s a mix of black-and-white and color, a mix of wide-screen and 1:33, and we included one foreign language title The Leopard. We hit every base. Famous directors like Preminger who were associated with the studio. Kazan. Stahl though was an anomaly.

Ramani: Leave Her to Heaven (1945) has Gene Tierney who was also in Laura (1944), another Fox repertory title at the festival.

Birnie: Yeah, it had Gene Tierney. Stahl was a Universal director and I’m not sure when he jumped to Fox. Either that or it was a one-off at Fox. But that’s such a beautiful color film that was more about the actual quality of the look of the movie. Because when you’re dealing with restoration people, it’s not always that it’s the world’s greatest film, it just might be the world’s greatest challenge to make the film look fantastic. In the case of the Fox program for Mumbai, we tried to do both. We tried to show great looking films that were also great films.

Ramani: How do you find the interest in India for repertory titles, do you feel that it’s strong compared to other non-American parts of the world?

Birnie: Well, just based on my experience last year and this year at the festival, I think there’s a huge fascination with new and old films in India and the audience is very educated about cinema. I mean they’re coming to see things not just because they are showing films but because they know the directors or they know the history of the movie and they want to see it. I had been to other festivals in the Middle East and I don’t think that was the case.

I don’t know if another festival would have committed itself to this many restorations. If you include the Italian retrospective, I think there must have been close to 35-40 old films out of a total of 200 films. That’s like a fifth of the festival that is given to not-new films. That may never happen again. Even in Mumbai. [Laughs]

Ramani: Are there any films you enjoyed in particular at the festival this year?

Birnie: Yeah, I really liked, or loved actually, Ship of Theseus (Anand Gandhi, 2012). I thought it was an amazing achievement as a first feature. It was really polished and it dealt with ideas in a way that very educational. And there were a lot of funny moments in it, but didn’t detract from the seriousness of the topic and it has a surprise ending. And I loved the Ken Loach film, The Angel’s Share (2012). I didn’t see a lot of new films. What else was there?

Ramani: The Kiarostami (Like Someone in Love, 2012)…

Birnie: I was disappointed in both the Kiarostami and the Bertolucci (Me and You, 2012). I don’t think they are working at the level they were at one point. Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, 2012), that’s a real test. I didn’t see it here, I saw it at Toronto. It was kind of painful to sit through because of the repetition and the hysteria on display, but I will say that the last five minutes are sort of the pay-off. Because what happens is that the modern world suddenly appears and you realize that these people aren’t living in some medieval world.

Ramani: That’s also framed in the opening isn’t it, where she finds her in the train station?

Birnie: And then they disappear into the cloister. And then they emerge at the end. You know how it ends. They  get arrested for murder.

Robin Hood (2011)

Ramani: My next question is unrelated but it’s something I want your opinion on. Are you familiar with the controversy about the situation with Mark Rappaport and Ray Carney?

Birnie: I read what Mark has written of course. I know Mark Rappaport and I think of him as a wonderful person. Kind, smart … and I don’t, I’ve got to trust what he’s saying is true and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be. And apparently Carney has a reputation in other dealings that make you believe that Mark has been robbed of his material. And what Carney wants to do with them? I don’t know what’s going to happen. Mark’s a sweet man and he’s not young, he’s 70 and he’s moved to Paris and left the US and he doesn’t deserve this. I spent a few days with Mark in Paris. About three or four years ago. I had met him 25 years back. We went to see Robin Hood (Ridley Scott, 2011). It was just like a popcorn movie and when we came out, we were the only non-French people there and I told Mark that we were surrounded by the enemy because in the movie, the French were the bad guys and there was this French teenager who said, “Yes, ve were ze bad guys!”[Laughs] I actually liked parts of that movie. I think Ridley Scott is great with boats. Did you see it? There’s a scene where the French boats invade England and the moment when the boats crash and the horses come galloping off into the water was fantastic.

Ramani: I haven’t seen any of his [Rappaport’s] films and his actions have made things a lot harder for me to see it.

Birnie: Well when you come to the States, we can visit some video stores if there are any that are still open. Though there’s a few in LA that will never go away.