perils of preservation academy museum
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I think the floating shark is key to what bummed me out about the Academy Museum. Suspended from the ceiling of the museum’s fourth floor hangs a full-scale model of the shark from Jaws, popularly known among trivia nerds as “Bruce.” It’s not the mechanical terror that’s captivated viewers since the 1970s. Like a toothy mall Santa, there was no singular Bruce the shark, but rather three sharks constructed and used for production, all badly degraded and eventually destroyed in subsequent years. Rather, this Bruce, the fourth and final cast from the original mold, was commissioned for Universal Studios Hollywood tourist photo-ops. Once Bruce IV had outlived its usefulness, it spent years languishing in a junkyard before restoration and donation to the museum.

A happy ending—and an object lesson in how easily Hollywood history can be lost. 

Celluloid itself is an ephemeral medium, costly and difficult to preserve. Until the early 1950s, movies were shot on dangerously flammable nitrate film base (an estimated 75 percent of silent cinema is lost to history), only to be replaced by chemically unstable acetate “safety film.” The infamous Star Wars special editions were as much an act of restoration as revision; by the 1990s, films from the not-so-long-ago 1970s were already fading away (polyester has since become the preferred film stock for archival and exhibition purposes). 

There isn’t much celluloid on display at the Academy Museum, a splashy, multi-floor celebration of film history. What the museum does contain is screens, many screens, those screens displaying clips from movies of varying genres/decades/countries, though predominantly narrative and commercial in nature. The eclectic assortment of exhibits are organized around various aspects of filmmaking and filmmakers, one devoted to the production of The Wizard of Oz, another to Spike Lee’s cultural influences, animation, etc.

Opened to the public on September 30, 2021, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is located in Los Angeles, neighboring the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (currently a massive construction site, though you can still take selfies among the lamp posts). It’s operated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, better known for its annual Academy Awards celebration. The arrival of the awards also invites a deluge of think pieces, a good chunk noting the lack of racial diversity in nominees and recipients, pointing to a broader issue of an American film industry historically/currently controlled by white men.  

The museum’s curators are well aware of Hollywood’s past and present shortcomings, as the exhibits’ overarching rhetorical mode is to highlight films and filmmakers previously overlooked by the Awards, while also acknowledging Hollywood’s troubled past, such as an assortment of Max Factor makeups used for black/yellowface (Jackie Mansky’s thoughtful review goes into more detail on this front).

On the second floor is a showcase of “Significant Movies & Moviemakers” which includes memorabilia relating to Citizen Kane, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, pioneering Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The displays aren’t organized into any sort of linear progression; it’s more a labyrinthian gallery space for visitors to wander towards whatever catches their eye, from Bruce Lee’s nunchaku to Real Women Have Curves wardrobe test Polaroids. It’s egalitarian in design—the nonlinear juxtaposition puts the disparate titles/personalities on seemingly equal ground. 

And all the while there are these inescapable screens, reflected in the glass of display cases protecting artifacts, the fragmentary disorientation of the “streaming wars” rendered in three-dimensional space. It’s the anti-The Clock. That 24-hour art installation/supercut consists of scenes from movies in which either a clock is visible or the time is verbally stated in dialogue, synched up so that the “time” depicted in the movie is also the actual time you are watching The Clock (Daniel Zalewski wrote an excellent piece about it). Rather than merging disparate films into a hazy dream, The Clock brings an acute awareness of time’s passage, as if its 12,000 clips are an omnipresent view of vignettes playing out over the course of one day. 

Time is subtly communicated in other ways, through the museum’s artifacts. Several facets of commercial filmmaking are ad hoc; things are quickly made and discarded once production is complete. Bruce is an extreme case; consider instead the common screenplay, inexpensive sheets of paper bound with brass fasteners. They don’t easily lend themselves to museum presentation. A page from Psycho‘s screenplay with Joseph Stefano’s annotations, a fascinating archival document, is also an ephemeral means to an end, interesting for what it says about the thought that went into creating the end product, but profoundly ugly when looked at from behind glass. 

(The standout exception is a small exhibit titled “The Path to Cinema: Highlights from the Richard Balzer Collection.” Curated by Jessica Niebel and Ana Santiago, it contains delightfully weird pre-cinematic contraptions with Seussian names like Pamphengos, Zoetrope, and Pettibone Sciopticon. Film history textbooks of yore don’t do these things justice.) 

Another fetishized nostalgia object, Rosebud, the elusive childhood sled at the heart of Citizen Kane, is on display. Like Bruce, its siblings are lost to time—Welles burned two of the three balsa wood props built for the closing scene. This third Rosebud was auctioned to Steven Spielberg in 1982 (a fourth, pinewood sled seen earlier in the film was auctioned to an unidentified bidder over a decade later). Welles was still alive at this point, appearing in wine commercials just a year prior to fund projects that would mostly go unfinished.

The museum’s most apt use of temporality is its installation dedicated to legendary animator/celebrated curmudgeon Hayao Miyazaki, which takes up most of the fourth floor. Though many of the items are reproductions (including the adorable stuffed goats, the originals residing in Miyazaki’s house), no visitor photography is allowed in the exhibit space. This is likely an extension of the no-photos policy enforced at the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka

Adults “always think they have to capture the good times with their cameras,” the director explained in a 2006 interview (republished in Turning Point). He claimed that prohibiting picture-taking liberated children. This philosophy extends to his attitudes toward film and distrust of DVDs, their convenient rewatchability robbing viewers of a “true ‘film experience’” that “comes from watching something that can only be seen in the moment.” 

A museum is by design antithetical to this; its purpose is to preserve and exhibit objects so that as many visitors as possible might enjoy them. But looking at the trippy flower costume from Midsommar, divorced not only from its narrative context, but the specificity of how it was lit, framed by the camera, occupied by Florence Pugh, robs it of something essential. While worthy of admiration for its technical/aesthetic craft, it’s also reducing Midsommar to its base components, Miyazaki’s dreaded DVD on perpetual, atomized freeze frame.

Perhaps Stanley Kubrick was onto something when he ordered the models, sets, costumes, etc. from 2001: A Space Odyssey intentionally destroyed, lest they be reused, repurposed, sullied, by derivative works (oh, sweet Stanley, if you only knew). An Aries-1B model from 2001 is displayed in glorious, necromantic defiance in the same room housing one of the Skeksis puppets from The Dark Crystal. In that film, the Skeksis are ancient, cadaverous monsters obsessed with extending their excessively prolonged lives. It’s like they’re doing this on purpose.

An Aries-1B model from 2001 is displayed in necromantic defiance in the same room as one of the Skeksis puppets from The Dark Crystal. The Skeksis are ancient, cadaverous monsters obsessed with extending their excessively prolonged lives.

It’s like they’re doing this on purpose.

I closed my visit with a screening at the Death Star-like David Geffen Theater. The film was The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a 1926 animated feature using intricate cutouts to create a silhouetted, shadow puppet effect. It’s incredible. Director Lotte Reiniger spent unfathomable hours, days, years (production began in 1923) cutting the puppets from cardboard and manually exposing each frame. One of the puppets is on display in the museum’s animation exhibit, a tribute, like countless others in this strange building, to the grueling tedium required for the sake of illusions that are, in all likelihood, destined to enjoy only fleeting moments of screen time.

Maybe that’s what sucks about Bruce. Not that the shark, technically three sharks, seen in the movie, are gone, consigned to Hollywood’s amnesiac dustbin, but that they aren’t. Persistent technical malfunctions limited the shark’s overall screen visibility to a few, tactically chosen, now-iconic moments. All that careful labor undermined and unappreciated when confronted by the scrutiny of gawkers able to point at the seams. Exposed to crisp daylight and smartphone cameras, Bruce (Bruce IV, theme park Bruce), is no longer “Bruce,” the shark that scared the shit out of audiences in 1975, but a fiberglass model of a shark.  

Marty McFly was right. It does look fake.

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Myles Mikulic holds a BA in Film and TV from Cal State University Northridge, an MA in History and Archival Studies from Claremont Graduate University, and is a History doctoral candidate at the same....