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The Reeler Blog

King Richard II

By John Magary

Richard Peña joined the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 1987, controversially replacing New York Film Festival co-founder Richard Roud as the event's programming chief less than a year later. Now overseeing his 21st festival alongside his FSLC colleague Kent Jones and critics J. Hoberman, Scott Foundas and Lisa Schwarzbaum, Peña recently spoke with The Reeler about this year's selection and how the NYFF both reflects and rejects some of contemporary cinema's most conspicuous trends. (Part 2 of his interview will run here later this week.)

THE REELER: This is your 21st year programming the New York Film Festival. What are some of the bigger changes in the landscape since the 26th festival?

In terms of film, I would probably say a more challenged arena, one can say, for serious cinema. We've had both in a certain way, a kind of explosion of venues--festivals and whatever--but on the other hand, I think there's been a diminishment in terms of the place for foreign-language and just overall challenging film. One of the big challenges all of us face is finding younger audiences. There is a kind of issue that "art cinema" is beginning to seem like an interest for people over 50. People who are under that age, for whatever reason, aren't refilling the seats.

The landscape's changed in that certainly when we talk about international cinema now we mean that much more. It's far broader than when the New York Film Festival began, when there was really a handful of countries that produced films every year. This year, we have two films from Kazakhstan--not that unusual, but certainly it was almost unthinkable, I think, when the festival was started. It would have been more difficult even when I began my own tenure here. On the other hand, many things about the festival remain the same -- we've certainly kept the same size of it, the same profile. I found the example of my predecessors very inspiring and tried as much to live up to it.

R: From the films you've picked through to make your selections, do you get the sense that art cinema itself is scarcer?

RP: No. That's the thing: People sometimes reminisce about the golden age and they mention all the sort of mythic names, but indeed I think there are a lot of really incredibly great films that are out there, and really challenging filmmakers, really important bodies of work, and we do our best to show them. I don't think there's been, in any way to my mind, a drop-off in quality. I happen to adore Antonioni, but it's hard to compare the work of that era, because it comes not only with itself but with all the critical and other kinds of build-up. In 40 years will we be looking at some of the filmmakers we have here as the equivalent? The Antonionis, the Truffauts, the Godards? Time will tell. But there's a very high level of talent, and it's much more diverse. Diversity in terms of genre, subject matter, gender. All kinds of different factors.

R: In terms of audience, do you have faith in cyclicality?

RP: I think we are reaching a certain point. The theatrical model everywhere is under attack. Even major blockbusters; we had a couple this summer, but there were quite a few disappointments as well. Increasingly, audiences are staying away, staying home, they're watching things on their very large TV's. It's not that I think people are watching films less, they're just not watching them in movie theaters. That trend, I think, I don't see reversing. That trend's going to continue. What eventual effect it will have on the whole industry, we have yet to see. My own prediction is that in five, 10 years, we're going to see a lot of movie theater closings. Movie watching on a theater screen is going to move more and more towards a kind of museum experience. It will never perhaps be totally that, but in the same way that theater eventually became quite a limited sort of art form. At one point there were legitimate theaters all over the country; now a lot of major cities have one, maybe two, possibly a traveling company that comes through. I hate to think that film will get to that point. Film will continue to be seen; I just think that it won't be seen necessarily in theatrical situations.

(Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center)

R: Let's talk about this year's festival. Are there films you'd like our readers to make a special effort to see?

RP: It's always hard to say. I'm very proud of the program. You know, I really think the Spanish film Bullet in the Head is a really remarkable film. I saw part of it today, and it's impressed me the three times [I've seen it]. I think it's rich, challenging, provocative, utterly original, all kinds of words like that. It's a film that's, you know, a challenge, and it does take a while for people to settle into it, but I think those who do are very richly rewarded. I'm a great fan of the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir. It's, again, a very, very original film. I've been interested in these kinds of more serious uses of animation we've seen in the last few years. It seems to me one of the freshest films we have in the program.

I think we have a very strong Latin American slate. Three very, very strong movies. Lucrecia Martel's Headless Woman, you know, it's just... She just gets better and better. It's remarkable what a great filmmaker she is, so mature, so confident. You can just feel it in every frame. Tony Manero is just a blast of... I'm not sure if it's hot or cold air. Really a film that just grabs you. It's like a whirlwind into this kind of milieu, and brings in so many different factors of everything from pop culture to individual psychosis to dictatorship. Very, very interesting work. The Mexican film I'm Gonna Explode really captures a kind of new-wave feel that I haven't really seen successfully done in a long time, but puts it in a different context.

R: I've seen about 20 selections so far. One thing I've noticed to be in rare supply are traces of what you might call "humane hope." These are pretty ugly times, globally; do you think the films are reflecting that?

RP: It's always hard to talk about very general trends, but of the films we've selected, I think it is a slate that has a very political slant, or political profile. I don't think they're political films in any of the traditional ways. A film like Hunger to me is a film that offers a very interesting and very different way of thinking about politics. Many of the films really confront the world. Maybe that's the basis for politics: the moment that filmmakers turn their camera on the world around them, and make that an active factor in what they're doing. They're not sloganeering films, they're not films arguing a position or recreating a historical event. They're much freer than that. They're films that enter into a dialogue with what's going on around them. Perhaps what we're seeing is the emergence of a very new generation of political film artists that in their way are quite different from earlier generations.

R: Lola Montès really jumped out in contrast. The mise-en-scene is so painstaking, so restless and bold, a little garish, a little mad. In visual terms, are today's filmmakers pushing themselves as far as Ophüls did?

RP: Some are. Some like [Hunger director] Steve McQueen are pushing themselves quite far, and a few others. But indeed, there's something about Ophüls, when you see a film like Lola Montès, there's such an extraordinary faith in the power of the image. And maybe that's because you're talking about someone who's using color and widescreen and all these kinds of things. But I think our sense or our relationship to the image generally has been somewhat degraded. Because there are too many of them, they're all around us, we can't stop looking at them.

I remember years ago, I saw, rather early on, The Blair Witch Project, and thinking it was interesting, but I thought, you know, "It looks so horrible; no one's ever going to watch this!" [Laughs] That's why I'm in the non-profit world. Basically, I think the generation that related so powerfully to that film is a generation that grew up watching computers. So these images didn't look strange at all; they look like what images look like. Whereas for me, I had to make a sort of leap to Blair Witch Project, because for me images, at least at their best, looked somewhat like Lola Montes.

R: I'd like to talk about the Oshima sidebar a bit. I've only seen a handful of his films, but it strikes me that, as with previous directors to get Lincoln Center retrospectives, like Elem Klimov or Maurice Pialat, Oshima should be a much bigger figure than he is.

RP: You know, film history is written by the winners, and the winners are the ones whose films are available. Oshima unfortunately has not been well served by the whole DVD revolution. Some of this has to do with the circumstances of his production. He's somebody who worked for many different small companies, some of which were his own, some of which were others', most of which went out of business. Because of that there were complications and rights problems and things like that. So, his work was less available, because for someone like that, making a DVD or getting prints made was fairly complicated. That was something that held it back.

And as time goes on, people just forget it. You get a new generation of film teachers who don't know Oshima's work, they don't include it in the canon of things to show. So that generation of students gets taught without knowing Oshima, and the cycle kind of continues. People can get buried as time goes on.

R: On this shore, we've seen distribution turn pretty ugly -- especially for independent American cinema. How have things changed from where you're sitting?

RP: Well, there are far fewer players. Nowadays, really, who's going to buy a foreign-language subtitled film of a certain caliber? If it's not Sony Pictures Classics, who else is going to do it? Miramax doesn't really buy foreign-language films, the Weinstein Company doesn't seem interested in it, Picturehouse is out. Who else is there?

R: There's IFC.

RP: They have an output deal with their TV and their theater; yeah, IFC's been kind of a savior in many ways, so let's hope that they continue. I really feel for distributors--it's very hard. You pay $50,000 for a new French film. To launch it in New York's another $50,000 to $70,000. You're talking about a film that needs to make $300,000 to $400,000 before you're turning a profit. Pretty hefty sum. Nowadays, especially for foreign-language subtitled films, theatrical release is seen as a loss-leader. You have to get some quotes and some attention, and people hear about it, but making money off a theatrical release is pretty hard. Again, not a good situation.

R: With the sort of tightening atmosphere in distribution, have you noticed an effect on the films themselves? Are things feeling more or less conservative?

Max Ophüls's Lola Montès
RP: Happily, no. I think there are plenty of adventurous films. What we're lacking are adventurous audiences. I think audiences have become very conservative, and very reluctant to sort of move into things that they don't fully understand. The feeling of being lost is no longer seen as pleasurable. People want to know what they're going to know, and that's about it. In cities like New York, there are still plenty of adventurous people, but if you take the national profile, I think there's a lessening of interest in that kind of work. I think it's a generational thing too. You have less people of a younger age who are looking out for those films.

Again, people compare it to the great figures of the '60s or whatever; I think those comparisons are a little silly to make at this point. These films and filmmakers are having a much harder time finding an audience than some people in the '60s had. Is that often because some of these adventurous films are from parts of Asia or other parts of the world that maybe have less of a resonance than Italy or France? That might be part of it too. People have a harder time getting into the deep personal feelings of a Hong Sang-soo or a Hou Hsiao-hsien, as opposed to a Bergman, who maybe is just a little more familiar.

R: This coming week, MoMA is giving a run to two of last year's NYFF selections: The Man from London and Silent Light. They're subsidizing a kind of limited distribution. Has the Film Society dabbled much in the past with Film Forum-style limited runs, and do you see a future in it?

RP: We have over the years. Looking back to 1991, you'll see a number of times we've given limited runs. I'm always reluctant to do it, merely because we only have one screen, and that kind of knocks us out. When we have three screens, which we will have in the next two-and-a-half years, then I think we'll be doing it a lot. One of the plans is, at least one of the screens will be devoted to a kind of Film Forum-like, calendar programming. We'll give films one or two-week runs, or something like that. At least that's on the drawing board now. I think that it's much needed. I think it's a great idea that MoMA's doing that, because when you get down to it, when these films can't play Lincoln Plaza or they can't play Angelika, that's pretty much it. BAM does limited runs, but they tend to do more mainstream independents. Their Cinematek does great work, but their runs tend to be a little more conventional.

R: Film exhibition is a localized game, and you're on the Upper West Side. A pretty specific area: older, wealthier. Do you feel like you're reaching the rest of New York, or is that a concern?

RP: Well, of course it's a concern, because we like to see new audiences come all the time. It's more kind of an impression than anything else. I think there's plenty here for younger audiences to come and see and enjoy--they often do find those things, and do come here. But we're not downtown. New York's a very neighborhood city. I used to live in Chicago, and when I would come to New York to visit friends, I would always chide them for not getting around the city more. You know, they all seemed to stay in their neighborhood. The idea of going to Lincoln Center, or the idea of people from the Upper West Side going to the East Village... Now that I've been living here again for now, what, 21 years, I understand them perfectly! I'm an Upper West Side creature. I teach at Columbia, I work at Lincoln Center, I live between the two of them. And I don't leave it much.

I mean, I leave it. But, you know, I'll see wonderful programs that are happening at the Museum of the Moving Image, and I'll say, “Yeah, I wanna go.” Then it's like, “Oh jeez, it's a little late, I'm gonna miss it. I'll get there late.” And somehow I don't get there. Film Forum, you know -- great stuff, I would love to go much more often. The Nakadai show had some films I really wanted to see either for the first time or again. And I just didn't really make it there. Once, I made it there. You know, some of these are life choices, some of these are whatever, but I think generally speaking New Yorkers are fairly neighborhoody. So I think Upper West Side people, if they want to see a movie, they'll look at the Walter Reade. But going outside of the Upper West Side, it's not anathema, but it's not their reflex.

Posted at September 28, 2008 4:53 PM

Comments (3)

Nice interview. We see the perennial grousing about a diminishing audience for art film; nothing could be more obvious. It's time we (and especially those with positions of 'power' like the subject of this interview) organize serious attempts to expand the audience. This can't be done with film series, festivals, or marketing campaigns competing for the same extant audience: there has to be some education-policy component. Ideas?

Very cool. I'm looking forward to NYC getting another 2 screens; it may not seem like it, but I think another 2 non-profit screens would go a huge way to making it easier for people to see more festival circuit films without the often financially unfeasible expedient of going to festivals.

Yeah, the 2 extra screens will really help. Richard gets a bit more in-depth about what else they might try to offer on those screens in the 2nd half of the interview...posting soon...

He also gets a bit into education policy, as well.

The screening of Silent Light at MoMA tonight, by the way, was packed to the gills with young'uns. Neat-o.

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