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The Reeler Blog

King Richard II -- The Sequel

By John Magary

As we enter the second and final week of the 46th New York Film Festival, we resume our conversation with Richard Peña -- Program Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, and Omniscient Grand Poobah of the NYFF -- on the topics of film education, film selection, film audiences, filmmakers and more.

THE REELER: What about a community outreach for film, like reaching kids? By the time you show a kid his first black and white film in high school or whatever, it’s almost too late.

RICHARD PEÑA: We do have a kind of educational outreach program that we’ve been doing for about a year and a half now, and I think that we all see it as something we’ll be doing more intensely when we have our new theater. We’ll just have a lot more room. The Walter Reade is just one screen, and we don’t have access to it all the time... We’ve been more limited with that. Also, funds: It’s a great thing to do, if someone’s paying for it. But it’s hard to spend money if there’s no return on it. Obviously, there may be a long-range return, but it’s hard for an organization that’s paying its own way.

Just for an example, one of the things I’m really looking forward to when we have the new theaters is the ability to do a sort of constant program of screening film classics. Every Tuesday, we’ll have, you know, Open City, the next we’ll have Citizen Kane, the next week Stagecoach, the next week The 400 Blows, the next week Ivan the Terrible. So that these films are in sight -- it’s not like they’ve disappeared. When I was growing up in New York, you would have so many repertory theaters. Films would be in the New York Film Festival, then they’d open commercially -- the vast majority of them. Then after that, they’d move into these repertory circuits. You’d never have to wait too long [to see any given film]. Within a year, all these films would be shown in various cinemas. Nowadays, when’s the last time Dancer in the Dark was shown on screen in New York City? I don’t know. Who’s the last person to do a Lars von Trier series? I can’t even remember. It’s the idea that these films disappear from a theatrical presence. Of course, they’re on DVD, but I think we all feel that’s different. So one of the things that I’m looking forward to as a programmer is the ability to bring back films like that so that new generations can discover them as films.

R: What about reaching out to, say, a broader African-American audience, a Spanish-speaking audience...

I think if you come to programs like Spanish Cinema Now or our LatinBeat program, those really reach Spanish-speaking audiences quite widely. Of course, we don’t know when people are walking in, whether they’re Spanish-speaking or not. [laughs] African-American audiences, I think we do reasonably well with attracting them for our African Cinema program or for other programs of interest. There are some African-American cinephiles who come all the time to our programs. I do think we haven’t really brought in the large community. The African program certainly gets a good-sized African-American audience every year, but it’s a harder community to reach, in a way.

R: I knew you first as a teacher at Columbia, in their film studies department. What are your thoughts on the direction you see film studies taking?

RP: It seems to me that film studies went through a period -- it began in earnest in the mid- to late-'60s, into the '70s -- where for a long time it fought for its own specificity, to use a term from film theory. It really wanted to be completely separate from the other departments, and have its own identity. Increasingly, especially at a school like Columbia, where film studies arrived a little bit late, there’s an enormous amount of stuff going on in other departments. One time, I remember, I spoke to a dean, who said, "Maybe we should get those other classes and put them under the film division." But the horse was out of the barn. If you’re in East Asian Studies now, easily half the grad students there are doing film in one form or another. The new head of French at Columbia is a film scholar. It’s really a trend.

What’s good about it is [that] it emphasizes the very natural connections film has to all of those fields. What’s bad about it? You occasionally get people who really don’t know much about film. You know, I know a hell of a lot about rock music, but no one’s going to hire me at a university to teach a class on rock music. But lots of people, who know far less about film than I know about rock music, think nothing of announcing they’re teaching a class on Hungarian cinema. Because they’ve seen a few films, and maybe they know the history, or something like that. That’s a little bit worrisome in terms of quality control, and what kinds of things go on, but I don’t know if there’s much we can do about it.

R: Changing the subject entirely, I’m interested in the Festival’s selection process. Obviously, not every member of the selection committee watches every submission--

RP: I see the vast majority of them. As Chairman, it’s not only my job, but it’s also a good way for me to see films. Even if we don’t want them for the Festival, we might be able to use them in some other context at the Walter Reade, since we’re showing things year-round.

R: How many are you watching personally? Roughly?

RP: I’m probably getting through about 2,000 films.

R: Per year?

RP: More, if you’re counting New Directors and Rendezvous and stuff like that. Sure.

R: Is exhaustion a concern?

RP: [Laughs] Certainly. And age.

R: Do you ever reach a breaking point with a certain type of film? Like, “If I see one more minimalist drama, I’m going to shoot myself..."?

(Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center)

RP: Occasionally. We’re all human, and you gauge yourself as well as you can. There are days when I’m going through stuff and it just seems like everything’s terrible. And you feel like, "OK, do I need a break? Am I upset about something else? Is it really that the films are bad? What is it?" You always hope that you didn’t miss something along the way. For example, after Toronto, I’ll hear about a film that I know we rejected, that did well, and sometimes I go back, thinking, “Was I unfair to that film?” Most of the time I think I was right. But of course, there are times when I go, “Jeez, where was I? What was I thinking? Why was I so harsh on that film? I should’ve been a little more open, or at least I should’ve passed it on to my colleagues.” Another time, you’re watching a movie really late -- I often work until one, or even a little bit beyond -- and then at 12 o’clock you put something in, and you’re mesmerized by it. You feel, well, if it is good, it can still get me. But we’re humans, and there’s no science to this, it’s really a sense of feeling. The fortunate thing is, I’ve got a selection committee that can ratify or deny my own choices.

R: Essentially, you are passing films on to the committee--

RP: I’m a little bit of a gatekeeper. Also, if I were getting a film by X filmmaker, whose work we’ve shown, I’ll often pass that on to the committee, just because I feel that we should all opine on this one. Sometimes there are films I don’t like, but because it’s somebody we’ve shown in the past, or I hear the film’s been invited to Venice or something, I’ll want my colleagues to ratify my feeling. Most of the time they do; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they really like something that I haven’t been particularly impressed by. There’s some give and take. But by the time we get together in early August, we’re probably down to about 100 films, around there. Then probably 50 drop out pretty quickly, because there’s not enough support, or people think they might be better in another program. From there it gets a lot tougher. You really have to start whittling down.

R: To a consensus, or a majority?

RP: I hate doing individual votes, because then you’ll just get a general level of mediocrity. So, what I tend to do is, after we’ve seen a bunch of films -- say, 30 films that we’ve all seen -- we’ll say, "Of these 30, I think we should invite these six." Sometimes, people will say, “Well, I really don’t want that one.” But I think it’s better when it works as a slate, because that way, hopefully within the slate there’s something that everybody really loves and there’s something that everybody isn’t wild about but can accept. They’re not going to be the same films for all five of us. So, you just work that out.

I’ve been very lucky in my 21 years to have worked with, you know, adults. They’ve all been very committed to the fact that we’re doing a great project called the New York Film Festival, and it doesn’t belong to any of us, and the real goal is to put together the best and most challenging possible slate of films that we can. Even when films that you like don’t get in, at least you’re working with people who are honest.

R: For our readers who make or want to make films, what words of advice could you offer?

RP: [Laughs] Well. It’s easy for me to say, but: Make the film you really want to make. Nothing saddens me more than when someone claims that they’re trying to make a film that they think will get picked up by somebody. Usually, those films are phony, and you can feel it from the first frame to the last. So make your film. Ideally, it will get picked up, and you’ll go on to fame and fortune. If you don’t, hopefully you’ll make another, and maybe that one will do it. But it’s much more interesting for everybody involved if you make the film you want to make. Don’t try and assume or imagine what other people want, because you can’t. What did Wittgenstein call it, “the problem of other minds”? It’s just very sad when I see filmmakers trying to anticipate what they think Sony Pictures Classics will want. It’s a death knell for any kind of real cinema.

Posted at October 6, 2008 8:50 AM

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