Michael Govan

The Gold Standard: How the movies -- past and present -- changed our lives

The CEO and director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” at age 5, and “Those images forever haunt me,” Govan says. “My greatest interest in art is modern and abstract, and that movie had a big impact on my aesthetic.”

He points to the final images of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi classic: “The monochromatic colors, the open space, the monolith, the abstract interiors, and even HAL, the circle that glows red. There are these spaces which are devoid of decoration and yet have incredible meaning and emotional content. This is what was going on in art at the time.”

In high school, Govan toyed with becoming a computer programmer, and he later worked as an assistant editor on documentary films. “There was a point at which I asked myself: Did I want to go into museums or films? They are both a way to map out culture through images — film through narrative, museums through objects. For me, it wasn’t a particular movie about art that led me to (museums), but rather the incredible process of filmmaking that allows you to travel in time. It is not so different from hanging paintings so people can experience a landscape. It is cinematic.”

Govan recalls how curators in the 19th century often hung paintings in big frames with curtains on either side, lighting the art in darkened rooms to further reinforce the images.

“The end of the 19th century was the great moment for grand landscape painting. What happened to landscape painting in the 20th century?” he asks. “I make the case that landscape painting went into film. John Ford’s ‘The Searchers,’ for me, is one of the great landscape paintings. Ford owns Monument Valley in Utah. People could say that Jackson Pollock made the new landscape paintings.”

Beyond the aesthetics, Govan relates to Ford’s message of history in the 1956 masterpiece. “The other aspect of ‘The Searchers’ that makes it great is how Ford deals with the complexities of the West, especially racism and the genocide of the Native Americans,” the LACMA director says. “Yet, it’s also about the toughness of the American character and the heroic quality of these people.”

Looking to the future, Govan applauds Ridley Scott’s sci-fi movie from 1982. “The weirdly dystopian image of L.A. in ‘Blade Runner’ seems weirdly plausible, if you think of Hong Kong and Tokyo and New York and world corporations,” he says. “It is so contemporary regarding the issues of what is human. That is one of the most relevant issues in art right now: what defines ‘human’ in the age of manipulating DNA.”

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