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Visiting LACMA's Bing Theater for a Tuesday Matinee

Posted by Eric Brightwell, October 23, 2013 05:17pm | Post a Comment
A recent viewing of The Shining reminded me of just what a good idea it is for people who work at home (and perhaps have a bit of a tough time pulling themselves away from work) to forgo all work for occasional play. I also regularly suffer from a sort of paralysis that occurs when I try to figure out which of the hundreds (maybe thousands) of daily cultural events and then stay home. A good place for cineastes to check out is Film Radar, a website which lists most of the special film events taking place around town. After checking the site and seeing the names Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk, I decided before paralysis could take hold to take the Metro to LACMA’s Bing Theater (incidentally one of the few local movie theaters that doesn’t go for the pretentious, supposedly (because it’s nearly ubiquitous) “chiefly British” spelling of “theatre”) to see Shockproof (1949).


Shockproof Halfsheet


I’ve been to the Bing Theater a few times before. On the most memorable occasion I saw Mother (마더, 2009) there, a film directed by masterful genre-blender Bong Joon-ho (who, it also transpired, was sitting next to me. On the other side, by the way, was Charles Reece). That film screened back when the Bing Theater still had regular weekend screenings of films by the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky, Hong Sang-soo, and William Wellman. Sadly, the current CEO and director of the museum decided to pull the plug on the screenings -- faced as he was with declining attendance and the inability to find sufficient funding to continue what his predecessors had successfully done for more than four decades. (Here’s a thought: concession stands provide 85% of the profits for most successful cinemas and it’s frankly perverse watching a movie without popcorn or Jujyfruits).


Bing Theater with donor wall
The Bing Theater with a wall listing a few of the museum's donors

Although many big Hollywood filmmakers predictably expressed their dismay with the killing of the program, apparently they were less willing to loosen their purse and neither were the usual big-money donors. Luckily, the Bing Theater still has Tuesday matinees for just $4 and occasional special screenings attached to art exhibitions. In the meantime there’s a petition to return the weekend screenings (click here to sign).


Leo S. Bing Center
Leo S. Bing Center

The Bing Theater is located, along with the LACMA Café, inside the Leo S. Bing Center, one of the three original buildings (alongside the Ahmanson Building and the Lytton Gallery (since renamed the Frances and Armand Hammer Building)) designed by mid-century futurist William L. Pereira – the guy who designed San Francisco’s iconic Transamerica Pyramid, much of the campus of University of California, Irvine, and (with Charles Luckman, Paul Williams, and Welton Becket), the Theme Building at LAX.


LACMA opened in its present location in 1965 along a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard in Midtown’s Miracle Mile neighborhood that came to be known as Museum Row (after it was joined by the A+D Architecture and Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, the George C. Page Museum, the Petersen Automotive Museum, and the Zimmer Children's Museum. Before that, the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art had been located at Exposition Park in South Los Angeles’s Westside since 1910. Its move in the 1960s to the Mid-Wilshire area was part of a greater cultural and capital shift away from the vicinity Downtown vicinity toward Central Los Angeles and the Westside during the mid-20th Century.


Inside the Bing Theater
Inside the Bing Theater


The theater itself is a 600-seat, single-screen cinema equipped with DTS and SDDS capabilities and various projects film and video formats. I took Metro Rapid Line 720, which conveniently drops riders off at the intersection of Wilshire and Fairfax (where Christopher George Latore “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace was gunned down in 1997). In another ten years, the Metro Purple Line (aka “Subway to the Sea”*) is scheduled to arrive at the intersection because apparently digging a subway tunnel with spoons and chopsticks is easier than changing a stupid, century-old law regarding the city’s primary east-west street that states: 

No railroad or pipe line franchise shall ever be granted, and no railroad track or pipe line shall ever be laid or constructed, except water pipes, sewers, gas mains and conduits for telephone and electric wires, for service of the property fronting on said boulevards and house connections and connections of water, sewers, and gas pipe lines, or conduits for telephone and electric wires on intersecting streets.

Shockproof turned out to be highly enjoyable – wonderfully welding Fuller’s pulpy sensibility to Sirk’s melodramatic style. I’d guess that the average age of the audience was somewhere around 65 years old and one of the only people around who looked decidedly too young for retirement looked suspiciously like Stephin Merritt (although I couldn’t be sure since I’ve never seen him at a talkie before).

Other members of the eccentric crowd included a guy wearing a fur-lined hunting cap (the temperature outside was somewhere in the mid-20s… Celsius). Another had an elaborate comb-over fashioned from and consisting of a single dreadlock arranged like a bouffant and attached to a visor. He snacked from a baggy full of sliced mangos (again, why no concession stand?) Behind me a man behind me grew increasingly aggitated, asking in an irritated voice that grew progressively louder, “So? …so what? …WHO CARES?!” Turning around and expecting to see either a Bluetooth or someone whispering into nasty nothings into his ear, I instead discovered that the nagging voice was apparently coming from within his head. Thankfully both were quiet once the film began.


There was considerable clapping throughout many of the film’s opening minutes. “Directed by Douglas Sirk” was followed by a round of applause. Written by Helen Deutsch and Samuel Fuller – cue a second round of clapping. A shot of “Hollywood Blvd.” painted on a curb – more clapping. The interior of the Bradbury Building – another uproar. When the site of Patricia Knight’s gams produced another paroxysm, I wondered how long this Pavlovian exercise would continue. The appearance of Cornel Wilde was thankfully followed by the last clap although someone later blurted out “the room is dark!” – which was both a statement of fact and a helpful reminder for those otherwise too wrapped up in the film.


After the film ended, the walker-heavy audience shuffled slowly toward the exit – often struggling to reach past their walking aids to open the non-automated doors and slowing the flow of filmgoers to a point that I honestly thought that I might lose my balance and topple over. 

The Bing Theater sign

I attempted to return home on the 720, but was turned away with several others because the bus was too full. I took the alternative, not-rapid (and less-full) Metro 20, which stops about every eight feet and crawls along only slightly faster than the Bing’s audience. Our already slow progress ground to a halt when the driver of a minivan (license plate 2KGY858) attempted to merge his vehicle with a bus and found it impossible. Rather than exchange information, the driver crawled away with comical slowness through gridlock to a red light about twenty feet from the scene of the accident as the bus driver calmly looked on (those buses are equipped with interior and exterior cameras). At that point I decided to walk across Koreatown and Little Bangladesh, neighboring enclaves whose uniquely Los Angeles mash-up was perfectly embodied by a Bengali boy in a dobok. 

As I trekked across the area I thought about the Bing Theater and Los Angeles, the so-called “Entertainment Capital of the World” and where our great theaters fit into the larger picture.  Los Angeles has been home to 369 movie theaters -- 307 of which have closed, 171 of which are demolished, and only 43 are currently showing films. More than the crummy Walk of Fame, the fairly lame Hollywood and Highland, or the 35-year-old replica Hollywood real estate sign, the city’s movie theaters are arguably the greatest legacy and embodiment of the city’s cinematic soul. Today the Broadway Theater District – the first and largest historic theater district listed on the National Register of Historic Places – is home to only concentration of picture palaces in the country (twelve in six blocks). For now the Bing Theater remains a small but important part of that fabric but seems to be heading in the opposite direction.

Los Angeles has a great legacy of placing importance on private space which I respect. But as Angelenos increasingly ditch cars for public transit and single-residence suburban bungalows for urban, mixed-users, hopefully they’ll also remember how much better it is to watch almost anything in a public cinema than streamed on a smartphone.

Shockproof is available on DVD in The Samuel Fuller Film Collection (which also includes It Happened in Hollywood, Adventure in Sahara, Power of the Press, The Crimson Kimono, Scandal Sheet, and Underworld U.S.A. 


*The “Subway to the Sea” is scheduled to reach the VA – still six kilometers from the sea – in 2035. Meanwhile, the light rail alternative Metro Expo Line will be celebrating twenty years of seaside service.


*****

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Museums (3), Movie Theaters (1), Museum Row (1), Mid-wilshire (5), Samuel Fuller (1), Douglas Sirk (2), William Pereira (1), William L. Pereira (2), Midtown (10), Bing Theater (1), Leo S. Bing Center (1), Lacma (7)