For the lonesome movie fan, the journey through Lincoln Center's DeChirico-scape posits one in a series of cinematic transports...crossing this vast, bright, cement desert, a triptych of stately, enigmatic and sadly forbidding modern construction emerges as a heat-buckled mirage, and as eyes adjust, hard lines of the edifices against the sky give a shiver, and one feels a cosmic, mundane alienation, as if in an Antonioni flick.
Having a beer, or perhaps a whiskey at the counter in the picture window of the "Eli" film center across the street from the stairs of the Walter Reade Theater (stairs which during special screenings might as well be the ramp to an interplanetary rocket launch) one feels as if in the frame of a Claude Sautét film.
Having surmounted those steps (with their Apollo rocket -- or for that matter, cave-painting -- letters emblazoned underfoot to prompt rememoration of philanthropic underwriting, underpinnings, as it were) and heading toward the movie house as Julliard dancers and musos go about their dayspring days (which are themselves countdowns to dreams realized, deferred, redirected, all of the above) one feels as if on the set of The Turning Point, Fame, La Danse, A Heart In Winter.
Opening the shiny metal doors to the Walter Reade Theater (or Alice Tully Hall, or any movie house, for that matter), the chest cavity wells up with an inward gush as one kens that timeless, personal solidarity of escaping, for a seemingly unknown duration, the demands of a long day's journey, and fleeing into the nightmind of cinema, which is always a sort of homecoming. It's one of my favorite places in this, my hometown.
This is where, half a lifetime ago, I sobbed unabashedly during Vagabond; it's where, as I watched Celine and Julie Go Boating, I wished I'd dropped the hit o'mesc I'd bought in Washington Square (though I'm glad I dosed for Koyaanisqatsi, which I saw at, I think, The Paris); it's where I predicted, as I watched a young Tilda Swinton do a whirling dervish during her non-speaking part in Derek Jarman's The Last of England, that she would someday win an Oscar. It's where, just last year, the great Béla Tarr told us that the only reason he came to New York was to see Richard Peña, the Film Society of Lincoln Center's program director and selection committee chairman of the New York Film Festival for this last quarter century. At a Q&A session where attendants' faces were fixed in a collective state of bliss and wonder over the director's stateside appearance, Tarr began by stating simply of Peña: "This man right here is the reason I came to New York."
As I make this walk, my insecurities just barely counterbalanced by my purpose-endowing camera bag, I am mindful that my interview subject today is the august Mr. Peña, who, despite a bout of laryngitis, does not cancel our interview, and begins by gamely delivering, per my request, a history of the New York Film Festival. As the conversation meanders and spontaneous follow-ups emerge from both parties, his laryngitis begins to fade and his habitually professorial (for much of this same quarter century, he's taught film at Columbia) tone becomes enlivened, and by the time the tape ended, the laryngitis was gone.
His at-times gangster lean along the Hopper-esque (Edward, not Dennis) midtown window frame is offset by a wondrous bit of spectral light in a projector-like arc, giving the effect of a human film projector -- and as someone who's watched a countless number of films, he is a kind of Illustrated Man with many a story to share.
By way of explaining tone, I'll note that I admire Mr. Peña, the way I admire, say, a great DJ, of which there are very, very few; the adventure of finding and experiencing culture, both challenging and empathetic, and the unassuming wisdom - not the coolness - this dedication can bestow upon one is of course, one of life's few legitimate purposes (and one of the few bulwarks against the nihilism of prevailing tribal mindsets), and the individuals who devote themselves to said discoveries and their de-fetishized, egalitarian dissemination are, simply put, heroic. Of course, this isn't to say that, just like any cinema fan, I don't have my own grudges against some of the festival's choices and omissions (see random notes below) every year when I read the schedule - we all have our cinema prejudices and that can be a good thing.IN PRAISE OF LOVE: THE STORY OF RICHARD PEÑA AND THE NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL Photographed with a construction site in the distance, he and his soda cup loom large in scale, seemingly three stories high and reminding me of a Sports Illustrated photo of George Steinbrenner from the early 1970s, in which Steinbrenner is seen Godzilla-sized, next to Yankee Stadium.
During his tenure, Peña's overseen the creation of both the Walter Reade Theater in 1990 and, twenty years later, the Elinore Brun Monroe Film Center, (the "Eli") which enabled the festival's expansion, begun last year, much of it free to the public.
With a poignant sense of triumph, he notes that the expanded version of the NYFF in 2011 -- which will expand even more this year -- was something "I always hoped we could do that at the New York Film Festival; the reality was that for the first twenty-three years I worked on the festival, we didn't really have the means to do that...it's been a gradual process, and some of it was convincing ourselves that we could do it."
Although it's understandable that he's decided to leave after twenty-five years, he still seems the perfect man for the job, and the man who could do much more, perhaps now more than ever.
And while he humbly describes himself as the artistic son of Roud-the-Eurofilm-connoisseur and Vogel-the-avant-garde-and-independent-cinema-champion, Peña's own legacy to the archive is a truly maverick internationalism and global-mindedness, during a time when such a mindset was most crucial.
Along these lines, I find it also important to say that given the instant socio-cultural empathy inherently created by film, Pena's twenty five years of internationalism, along with the work of many other curators the world over, are of immeasurable consequence, via countless butterfly effects, particularly in this new era of burgeoning American soft diplomacy, though his estimates of the impact of engagé cinema are fairly conservative, a point with which I mildly -- and likely, I'll concede, naively -- disagree.
He also shares anecdotes about lessons learned and his experiences dealing with the blunders of nations' leaders adherence to political dogma or cultural ignorance, be it Iran or China or America.
While he may be viewed as a priest of high culture, his is the jovial, serene persona of a world-wizened country priest. I notice as he walks through a room making small talk, his gait slightly bent, that others view him as a kind of measure of their own sophistication, and drop references - it's understandable, given how culture can be at times, for better or ill, the religion of the meaning-seeking sophisticate. Peña seems to rise above this, without condescension; his is the Zen largess of a been-there-done-that cinema pilgrim, not the haughty self-importance of someone defined by their lofty vantage point.
When he notes how he's "always amazed" as he's watched NYFF committee members "get it" as they realized what is and isn't possible at the NYFF, his explanation is not in a jaded tone; rather, it is a Hogwarts-esque recognition of a thoroughgoing ethos of a festival which will never award prizes and remains relatively small, even with its jump in 2012 from two dozen to just under three dozen main slate titles this year.
After his lucid tirade about prize-giving at festivals, my view on The Social Network and Carlos (for which he may have been calling me out, given my review of both films during the 48th NYFF) remains unchanged, though I will ever after look upon award announcements with an uncertain regard, as it were. For the video, I've edited my long-winded questions for brevity, but have included them in this transcript.
In taking over this festival that's only ever been handled by these two persons you can either break new ground or continue on in a certain way....
Those who remember that far, or care to, will remember that the departure of Richard [Roud, prior NYFF festival director] was very controversial; and I think the invitation of me to replace him was somewhat less controversial, but still was grounded with a lot of question marks. So, I think I probably entered fairly cautiously - and I love the festival; I mean, I was the festival's number-one fan. I'm a child of the New York Film Festival; I wouldn't be anywhere where I am today if it hadn't been for the New York Film Festival, Richard Roud and Amos Vogel; those people are like my spiritual fathers -- my artistic fathers, in many ways.
Even if you often disagree with your father or do different things than your father did, he's responsible for making you what you were, and that's certainly true in the case of Amos and Richard. So I think I entered somewhat cautiously and tried to sort of understand the festival -- and the festival, like any institution, has its own ways, I think, that you learn.
I think probably the thing that impressed me most was one time I remember going to Joanne Koch, our executive director when I began, and telling her that I really wanted to have some money to be able to offer foreign film critics a chance to come to the New York Film Festival -- as foreign critics are often invited to other festivals -- to write about it, so that the festival has more of an international impact. And Joanne looked at me and said: 'But this isn't a festival for foreigners, this is a festival for New Yorkers; this is a festival for the people of New York. So it's nice to have foreign writers here, but we're not gonna invite them. If they wanna come, we'll do our best to make them feel welcome, but this is really a festival for the people of New York'.
And that was like a big lightbulb, in a way; I think at that point I realized: you know, this is really the object of what we're trying to do. And, you know, that's why I've never been involved in this whole thing of who showed what first, who has the American premiere, who has the world premiere. Sure, fine. I can't waste time and energy on such concerns. My concern is always putting the best festival possible together. And if that means Toronto or Telluride or Montréal or someone has shown a film before we did, well, who cares? Because New York wasn't at that festival. New York is here in New York. And if four hundred or five hundred people go to Toronto or three hundred to Montreal or two hundred to Telluride, those are a lot of people. But we have eight million left who can still enjoy our work.
You mentioned that you applaud Roud for keeping the festival small and for not awarding prizes.
I think we live in a culture that's been somewhat spoiled by sports; I'm a sports fan like other people, but everything works out to be some kind of competition in some way -- who's up who's down...What would be the point of saying Well, I think David Fincher was a better director for that film than Olivier Assayas was for that film. These are nonsense calls; I don't think they mean anything. All they do is satisfy a kind of weird bloodlust that runs through our society of for winners and losers. I like to think that the prize is getting in to the New York Film Festival. Once you're in, everything's democratic, everything's equal. And over the years, in fact, many filmmakers have told me they appreciate the non-competitive nature of the film; that it gives a very cool atmosphere; that they can come, watch other people's films, meet other filmmakers -- without having that residual competitiveness.
Any anecdotes about what it's like to be the guy in the wings with the director pre-screening, post-screening?
I think the one thing I feel confident about is that Art will out. That is, Art will eventually survive. So because of that, even when something is forgotten, attacked, whatever: if it really is good, eventually people will realize it. Let me give you an example:
My third New York Film festival, 1990. We opened with Miller's Crossing and uh, we saw the film very, very early on -- it must have been about April, and my colleagues and I liked it very much, and we immediately invited it for its world premiere. And you know, everything was fine, everything was going, I remember we had the press screening and it went okay, you know, you had the feeling it was whatever.
But then, that Friday, Vincent Canby just tore it to pieces, [he] called it mundane and repetitious and, you know, derivative, and on and on and on about what a terrible film it was. Then, to put icing on the cake, he then said 'But you have to feel sorry for the New York film festival, because they have to put on this opening night, where all their not very smart but very rich donors come, so they have to show them something like this to keep them entertained' -- something really, really insulting.
So anyway, we're showing the film and I would say fifteen minutes into it, the people started leaving, and, you know, we're in Avery Fisher Hall [which has] twenty-eight hundred seats. I swear, it was like a steady stream of people just leaving and leaving and leaving and it was terrible -- it was terrible for the Coen brothers, it was terrible for us.
I just didn't get it. I thought the film was so terrific as did my colleagues and a few people I really trusted. I just, I couldn't believe we were that off. And I remember at the party, people were coming up to me and saying: 'What were you thinking?' and all this type of stuff. Well, you know, cut to the chase twenty-two years later, I think it's regarded as one of their very best films, and I remember at the end of the nineties, it appeared on a few "Best of the 90s" lists and in fact, I even heard a personal story from a friend who was at the screening that night, and she was a friend of Vincent Canby's, and felt the same way, that it was a bad film.
But then a few weeks later, because she's a working critic, she went to see the film again, and this time had a completely different experience of it and really loved the film. And she told Vincent: 'You know. I think you were really harsh on the film; I think you should see it again', and, you know, to his great, great credit he did, and said to her: 'Yeah, maybe I was a little harsh'.
Well, be that as it may, the next film by the Coen Brothers got an unbelievably glowing review -- over the top and whatever -- and I like to think a little of that was penance for what he did to Miller's Crossing. Again, what remains is the fact that Miller's Crossing is still with us; it's a great film. Most people that I know that like the Coen brothers think of it as one of their two or three very best films -- and that's what I mean [when I say] that Art will out. And there are a lot of examples like that over they years. You know, sometimes we've been wrong, but I think very often we've been right in the long run.
You come from a generation that has seen first hand the promise and limitations of activism, and what power structures are going to do. I'll be the first to admit that I have sort of misguided tendency to superimpose an engagé context on some films...It's an old, question and it's probably never gonna get answered: what do you see as the possibilities and limits of engagé cinema and what examples from your career can you cite, where you've seen make an impact -- and what are the ultimate limits of a film?
Well I mean, again, a complicated question. Obviously I don't think anyone will tell you that it's A + B = C: it's not like, you know, social problem plus activist films equals solution, that just doesn't happen...I think that in a way my job here is often consciousness raising. I think we do that by trying to show what the rest of the world might think, might look like or might react to things. Again, let me give you a little anecdote: a few years ago - must be two or three years now already. When we were at one of our cyclical moments of confrontation with Iran, I was talking to one of my students at Columbia and we were just talking about things and this came up and he said 'Yeah, it's really horrible, this thing -- I mean they talk about bombing Tehran; I keep thinking to myself oh my God, does that mean that they're going to bomb Kiarostami?
And I was touched by the fact that this young American was really concerned by somehow, that if the US launched a bombing raid on Tehran, that one of the victims could be Abbas Kiarostami. And it made me feel that through our work here and the work of other programmers who've supported Kiarostami and Iranian cinema, we've created an awareness of the humanity of those people, their achievements and their visions, so that this young American in a way cared about this guy; his work meant something to him; and so the idea of bombing Tehran was no longer some abstract notion that we're just gonna drop a bunch of bombs on something that we'll see from an aerial view, it actually meant you're going to be killing people!
I'm a little bit more optimistic on that point [about the limits and impact of engagé cinema] than I should be -- you've obviously got more experience. Looking at it from the other side, though, you're the guy who in '88 or '89 -- it was my first New York Film Festival -- you brought in Roger and Me, and I'm not expressing an opinion here, but whatever you wanna say about his manipulation of subjects, he went on to be one of the pre-eminent documentarians -- at least on a larger scale - and he did go on to have an impact.
I should say that part of my own background is I went to graduate school at MIT and one of my closest friends still is Ross Mckelvey, and the whole sort of MIT-slash-Boston school of documentary filmmaking is something I grew up in and something I still have a great, great deal of respect for -- you know, the whole school there. And in a way, something like Michael Moore's film I saw as the logical descendant of that tradition, which is already something I supported very heavily.
Michael and I were laughing about it when he was here a couple of weeks ago. I often feel if only I'd had a spare five thousand dollars at that point I probably could have bought, you know, world rights for the film -- I mean he was really desperate and just broke; he was obviously so sweet and earnest, and made this film which all of us felt was an important statement abut something that was happening.
Since then, Michael's gone on to be an enormously important force in American filmmaking in general. I think that he represented an attitude that there are far more people that want to see films like this than we normally thought; that it expands beyond Berkeley and the upper west side of Manhattan and three or four places around the country; that these films can, in fact, find larger audiences -- and he went out there and proved it. So for that, everybody in the field owes Michael Moore an enormous debt of gratitude, because he really showed that with proper marketing and, of course, a certain kind of welcoming, accessible style, you could actually discuss very serious issues and reach hundreds of thousands of people, which in fact, his films have.
But there are other, uh, sort of small intelligentsias that are watching. I'd read that the Vatican had screened 2001: A Space Odyssey and they told Kubrick "You're an agnostic that got it right." So there are institutions that are watching very closely, because they know of its impact. In selecting some of these films that you've chosen, have you ever had pushback from a government - and, on the other side, have you ever had a government saying, well, you know, we're really trying to get this trade agreement can you show this - how do you deal with this? Because you know, they know, the impact films can have -- even if its debatable to some extent in a larger audience. Have you ever dealt with established intelligentsias, groups, and governments of other countries?
Probably the biggest example of that in my time I think was in 1995, when we decided we were going to open the festival with Shanghai Triad, the Zhang Yimou film. And everything was fine, everyone was really happy, you know, all was well. And then there was a documentary submitted to us -- by Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton, two well-known documentarists whose work focuses on China -- called The Gate of Heavenly Peace. And this was a film about Tiananmen Square and the after - a lot of the things that went on.
And everything was good until one morning, I got a phone call from somebody I knew at the Chinese Consulate here in New York, saying 'By the way, we understand you're showing a film in the New York Film Festival' -- at this point we hadn't even invited it, it had just been submitted to us -- 'called The Gate of Heavenly Peace, and we wanna tell you that you shouldn't show this film, this film was made by people who are ignorant of what went on, they weren't there, and we think it's a very harmful film, and uh, you shouldn't show it because its not a work of art, and you're a festival that shows art films', or something like that.
So you know, I kind of, I think at the time I didn't say anything, or whatever. But, you know, we did decide to show the film, and at that point, the Chinese government told Zhang Yimou: 'We think it's best that you don't go to the New York film festival. And it became an international incident. I was photographed for Newsweek; I was in magazines all over the world about this kind of explosion between the two of us. Of course, nobody in the Chinese consulate, or indeed, nobody in China had seen the film -- the film was being edited up in Boston!
And actually, if they'd seen the film, they would have found that the film was a fairly judicious account of what went on. It wasn't - I mean, obviously it was pro the democracy movement, but actually detailed many of the mistakes that the pro-democracy movement made, in terms of antagonizing the government. But that was one where we lost our opening night guest because of that. Nothing ever came of it subsequently, I've been to China a number of times and I've always been very welcomed.
But you know, here was a case where people were saying 'You can't show that film because that film is inaccurate, it really doesn't know what happened'. And you know, with that, all you can say is 'thanks but no thanks', and take it from there. That's about the only time I think that's happened.
Fast-forwarding from '95 on to Kiarostami in 2001 [when the Bush administration denied Kiarostami admission into the U.S.] right into the present-day with Asghar Farhadi [whose Oscar-winning A Separation screened last year at the 49th NYFF] - he went back to Iran and they cancelled his official reception, and all that. Do you ever feel that sometimes you do something for the right reason and it nets a bad result? Do you know what the update is; did they ever give a reason?
Oh, they don't have to give reasons they're completely illogical and you know it's gotten rather dull in a way. They're not [pausing] what can you say? They're just not very sharp people, and they don't have any ready answers -- you know, if you're too popular in the west that must mean there's something suspicious about your work, you know, you're not dealing with people who have, I think, a very clear set of, you know, what would you say -- outlooks on the world; everything is reactive.
So, if you do well, that must mean this; if you do badly that must mean that -- and uh, what can you say. I'm glad he's there, he's with his family, and I know he has projects both in Iran and outside of Iran. I think he's looking forward to an immensely rich career and we're looking forward to what he'll produce. But I think you can't really try and second-guess Iranian officials; it's all pretty arbitrary.
Can you talk about your curatorial supervision over the past twenty-five years: what are some of the aesthetic currents that you've dealt with during your tenure?
Gosh, I guess you would talk about it in terms of a few national waves or whatever. I certainly came in sort of at the crest in a way, the upward trend on Chinese cinema, Chinese understood as Taiwanese, PRC and Hong Kong. The first New York Film Festival I worked on, which was 1988, I believe we had two Chinese films: we had Daughter of The Nile by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and we closed with Red Sorghum by Zhang Yimou. And then after that, for the next number of years, you know, Chinese cinema was a continuous presence. I think there've been one or two of the twenty-four festivals I've done so far that haven't had a Chinese film. But that was certainly a major presence, but that kind of, again, that began in the mid-80s and by the mid-90s, like any movement, it's not so much that it disappeared, it's just that, you know, to see another good film from Taiwan was no longer a surprise; it was par for the course.
So, as that receded, I think the Iranians took over. And that was just when I was beginning; the first Iranian film we had in the festival was 1992, uh, and Life Goes On by Abbas Kiarostami and then after that, just about very year 'til about 2000, I would say we had at least one Iranian film. Following that, I would say with waves from South Korea, Argentina, Israel - these were a little bit more consecutive in a way, and I think those have been some of the countries that have continued to really offer really exciting films from, again, some places that had significant film traditions, others that were just kind of creating their traditions in a way. So, those would be some of the waves.
If anything though, I think that cinema's less suited to that now, because there's just so much of it. So I mean, you don't need a national cinema anymore to become an important figure in and of yourself -- you can have two or three really fine filmmakers in Chile; a couple of really fine filmmakers in Egypt; a number of West African filmmakers that are not really dependent on a national movement.
I noticed that in your own programming -- even though the New York film festival is considered the vanguard of global arthouse cinema or whatever terms you want to use -- you seem to have a pretty wide approach; there have been some petty commercial selections you've made along the way. Is this always reflecting a sort of wide ranging taste of yours or is it reflecting currents changing and you're working with what's available [amidst increasingly limited quality selections]. You seem to have always brought in accessible film, plus some of the rarer stuff that no one's going to see but for your efforts. Again, have you seen cinema change in the past twenty-five years, arthouse cinema becoming more accessible, is it rarer, has it changed, are you just making the best of what's available [because it's lessened]? What informs your sort of wide ranging selections?
There are two ways of answering that. First, I have always thought, or I hoped, I had fairly eclectic taste and have enjoyed a wide range of films. I should also add [that] you can't discount the great importance of my selection committees, very often who were people who impressed upon me, and often convinced me [of] how important, especially some more commercial films might be. So that's, you know, in a way, it's a kind of a team effort in that. But I think they felt similarly to me, that if there was a big Hollywood film that we truly believed in, why not show it? If it was something that we could very much get behind, we shouldn't penalize a film because it comes from a studio.
Uh, second part of that, has arthouse cinema changed. I think arthouse audiences have changed. Arthouse audiences have become quite conservative. I mean, I think that, you take a look at the early 1960s: let's look at L'Aventura, L'eclisse, Muriel, Two Or Three Things I know About Her -- just go down the list of, you know, great arthouse films of that time - none of those films would get an opening today; I mean no one would open those films; they're far too complicated and people would say [in mocking voice]: 'I don't understand what's going on', and that would be it.
So I think in the 1960s, you had audiences that were up for the challenge, that went to see films even if they didn't understand them, they thought: 'Okay, let me think about it. Let me talk to my friends or my wife or my boyfriend or my girlfriend or whatever about it and see if I can make some sense out of it' they liked that sense of adventure. Not anymore; I think people are extremely hard and fast [to decide]: 'This makes no sense' -- Boom! And that's it -- they want everything to follow a Hollywood model, or what I think of as Art-Cinema-Lite [Author's note: I am waltzing around the room in agreement with a hater's glee, as he says this] which is essentially a Hollywood film with a couple of, you know, foreign shadings, you know? I think that's what people like most and think of as foreign cinema nowadays. So what's really changed I think has been the audience, which has become a very, very conservative audience.
In talking about an audience changing, I daresay it's quite possible that it'll only get worse - the promise of every title in existence [being made] universally available hasn't come to pass. It's sort of a chicken-and-egg thing -- is it possible to re-cultivate a sort of longer attention spans and curiosity, specifically by making films more available...I feel like a city without a revival house isn't a city. Do you think the days of having a revival house are over in New York City?
I think there are a couple of things. I don't think film audiences are immune form the larger social and political changes. The greatest time for art movies in the United States was really the 1960s. And, of course, these were, that's the era of Kennedy and Johnson -- and for all the problems we can point to their administrations, this was time when you could get money to go to college and study a foreign language. Uh, there was a kind of openness; there was a much greater sense of openness, curiosity, of newness, let's you know, find something new, you know? Let alone the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Movement, the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement, Environmentalism -- all of these things, which came out of the Sixties. It's no accident that this was a great time, I think, for Art. All of that kind of resulted in a kind of openness and willingness of people to experiment to open themselves up to new forms.
You know, we followed that with years of, you know, mainly Republican and whatever rule, which I think has really closed down the American mind. I think now people are suspicious of the foreign; they're scared of it, uh, people have turned even more inward in the United States.
I had hoped that someone like President Obama, who of course, lived abroad, studied abroad and things like that would bring a change, but I think that for his own survival, he's really downplayed that. So I think in way we're living in a time when Americans are totally discouraged to embrace foreign anything. So, because of that we're more and more closed in on ourselves, more and more closed in on our own models, more and more convinced of our own superiority at the box office and things like that
I really enjoyed last year's extra-festival programming -- it was like from the mind of Richard Peña, here's a whole mini-campus. I didn't get to attend much, but the schedule looked great -- are you going to do this again?
That was exactly the idea: that between here and Tully and across the street there would be this constant circulation of people -- and you know that's great. In a way one can say I always hoped we could do that at the New York film festival; the reality was that for the first twenty-three years I worked on the festival, we didn't really have the means to do that.
After 1992, we had the Walter Reade and we could interact and interface with the Walter Reade. And then after last year, we had for the first time, the film center. So over the years it's been a gradual process and some of it was convincing ourselves that we could do it. And I think we're very pleased with the kind of campus flow that went on last year.
Any titles that got away?
My very first year at the festival in 1988, I remember I really wanted to show Dead Ringers, the Cronenberg film, and we were told by Fox that this was a commercial film and not an art film, and that, you know, it had no place in the New York Film Festival. Eh, you know, we were really shocked, and we tried to convince them, and whatever, but they, you know, went their own way.
Unfortunately, the film didn't do very well and actually later someone from Fox admitted to me [that] we couldn't have hurt the film by putting it in the New York Film Festival. So that was one I learned. I was a little shocked that we couldn't include Dead Ringers, which is still a film I love very much.
Uhm, a few years back we were extremely interested in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and unfortunately there was like some stipulation? From the Roald Dahl estate? That the film had to have its world premiere in London, and because of that, since the London Film Festival was after us, we couldn't go ahead of it. So we were unable to show that, so that seemed to me a real loss. Again, these are things out of our hands, you know, there really is nothing we can do.
What are some of your greatest triumphs? I'm not asking you to toot your own horn, but [is there] a film that you thought: I like this film and I want it to do particularly well -- and that you're proud of having made the selection.
I mean, a film that I love very much, still, which again, had a disastrous screening a Cannes and we nonetheless backed it -- and I think we did the right thing -- was a film like Sweetie, by Jane Campion, which I think is an incredible film, but it had -- really, I remember, I was there -- it had an absolutely disastrous screening at Cannes, and I think Jane was very, very grateful that we backed the film and we, you know, pushed it into the fame and glory it eventually got.
I was very pleased that we showed for example, Satoshi Kon's Paprika a few years ago. I think Satoshi, who unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago, uh, was a great, great artist and I think we raised the level of, kind of, people's awareness of Anime with that, you know, we showed that, you know, there are Anime films out there that were absolutely the equal of the most complex narrative that, you know, anybody was making. So you know, films like that, that we're really pleased that we do at a certain moment. Uhm, I was pleased that we showed Beauty and The Beast, you know? At the time I got raked over the coals somewhat, but I, I still love Beauty and The Beast and I think it was a great, it was a brilliant stroke on the part of Disney to offer it to us as a work-in-progress, and that was a magical evening.
As a family man and as a film curator all this time are you just the family curmudgeon as far as watching film - can no one sit down with you and watch a movie, or do you just drop all your views and watch stuff? Is there such a thing as, like, movie night in the Peña household?
My wife and I like to watch movies together. But I would say my kids, not too much; they're also older now and off doing their own things. There was a very funny [time] I remember an afternoon a few years ago, I guess my daughter must have been about, maybe about ten or so, and we're sitting at home and we had on the film by Val Lewton called The Seventh Victim, a wonderful film from 1945, which I like very, very much. And we were watching it, and for some reason, I don't know why, but at a certain moment I said 'Now you see this, this shot here?' You see how those lines there, with the window and the door -- and I start sort of dissecting the shot for her, and you know, she was like 'Oh yeah, really great'. And then later on, when my wife came home, I remember she said 'Oh Mommy, Daddy was showing us this film, there are all these lines in it'. So I always thought that was kind of, you know, the end of my, uh, tutoring of my children at that point.
I take for granted that you have this whole other career as a professor at Columbia...could you tell me, after the New York Film Festival, do you want to direct, do you want to write a book? What are some of the things you plan on doing?
Well, first of all, I will very much continue working at Columbia; I will in fact, I think, devote more time to the university. It's been great that I've been able to do both things. I don't like to think I've short-changed the university, but I would like to get more involved in things and I think the university is at a moment when it's trying to expand its international profile? And I think I'd be potentially a good person to help them do that in different ways.
So, I mean, there are various opportunities in things that I'm looking forward to doing at Columbia. Uhm, direct, write [a script]? No, I don't have an artistic bone in my body, so I have no danger of inflicting the world with anything like that. Yes, I'd like to write a lot more, I've never had the chance to do as much writing as I would like to, because of all the writing I have to do for the film society -- so hopefully, I'll be able to do some of that - writing and translating.
I should have seen the foreshadowing when Mr. Peña joked to me on the bench at Walter Reade Theatre after the NYFF press screening of The Turin Horse: "For a career in my next life, I wanna be Bela Tarr's prop master" About a week later, I awakened to an email apprising me that next year at the conclusion of the 50th NYFF Mr. Peña would be moving on to other endeavors.
Mr. Peña's comments on the "closing of the American mind" serve perhaps as a (albeit unintentional) counterpoint to a perspective on art and attention span, as it were, recently outlined in a NY Times article, which likened some cinema with eating one's "cultural vegetables" and "aspirational viewing" -- a point which, though fully understandable, perhaps foregoes the more basic consideration that for some there is value in a fluid art and philosophy of art, and that what the NY Times writer dubbed "aspirational viewing" is a starting point, like, say, Mick Kelly's first radio moments with classical music, or the kid in Breaking Away speaking Italiano. It is not a dead-end of sycophantic unquestioning servitude to capital "C" Culture. So perhaps, rather than quoth the old "emperor has no clothes" appraisal, one might instead consider the notion that from under cinema's keenest yearnings, originates understanding. With this in mind, I find myself disappointed over the selections made by Cinema Thirteen on PBS -- it seems all we get these days are perhaps too-classic American classics and very tired sleepers -- lest we risk becoming what the times article described in is title ("cultural vegetables"), I reckon PBS and Cinema Thirteen might go back to more open-minded programming, despite a reactionary government funding source. I guarantee you that in the boroughs and the sticks there are individuals to whom this programming speaks directly, and in a singular way -- I know how grateful this New York kid was to catch foreign flicks on late night TV and on PBS.
Though I still disagree about The Social Network, I have re-screened The Fantastic Mr. Fox -- which I didn't like at the time of its release -- and found a tear streaming down my cheek when they meet the wolf.
File under: life imitating art: During the Olympics telecast, one on-air commentator noted in response to a shot of actor Jesse Eisenberg, that he was astounded at how many CEOs were attending the Olympics.
TV Party: A few years ago, as I worked on a piece about the value of Public Access TV and more importantly, citizen broadcasting (which, even in the age of the internet I still believe to be an underappreciated public resource) I spoke with the late Dirk Konning of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center. When I asked about individuals in his area who went on to larger audiences, he mentioned Michael Moore as someone who did not broadcast but who Konning had appreciated, and he was convinced then that Moore would go on to larger audiences. Given the challenges and promise Detroit faces presently, I reckon it will be incredibly interesting to watch how its citizens make use of their local TV facilities. Apparently in January of this year, the mayor sued the City Council about public access TV's use.
Mr. Peña's comment about 8 million New Yorkers conjured thoughts of a larger audience from the boroughs coming to see some of the year-round series: what if John Jay students and Occupy co-sponsored a screening of Italian cinema selection Diaz: Don't Clean Up This Blood as a cautionary case study? Or what would one of the African street vendors on Canal St. would think of say, La Bas or Terra Firma?.
File under: random musings: Did the set designers for Beasts of The Southern Wild get inspiration from the Volkswagon boat-conversion in 2010 Latinbeat selection Acorazado? Would the glue-sniffer in Marimbas From Hell and the girl who plays the title character in The Enigma of Kasper Hauser be an interesting, hyper-charismatic pairing?
By way of noting the impact film has, it's always interesting to note the various lists of banned films which include Clockwork Orange and Battle of Algiers alongside countless other films. When they Skype press conference with the director of of Israeli feature Policeman during last year's festival was cancelled after a few only a few questions because of repeated high-pitched tech-squelches, Film Comment contributing editor Nico Baumbach and I (half-)joked about The Mossad blocking transmission. A short list of banned films can be found HERE
Marathon, man: As I noted last year in appreciation of recent NYFF/FSLC screenings of longer films and serials including A Brighter Tomorrow, Carlos, Dreileben, Mysteries of Lisbon, Satantango, there is something inherently and incredibly comforting about a five-hour-plus screening of anything, and once again, the NYFF is delivering a worthwhile bit of marathon cinema with Lawrence of Arabia (four hours) and Heaven's Gate (three and half hours).
My opinions on music selections at the NYFF may be biased. During my post-adolescence, as an intern at a management company for Depeche Mode and several other acts, I suggested to Nick Cave's "product manager" -- and evidently, the bewilderment of the NYFF selection committee circa '91 -- the submission of a rockumentary on Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, The Road To God Knows Where by Uli Schüppel. When I wrote: "The Road To God Knows Where is exactly that", in the press release, I meant it; I thought it was a fun -- and honest -- road doc, unlike the long-form promos which pass for music docs these days. This is around the time of Cave version 3.0, as he was still coming into his own, easing into the adult alternative market, thanks dually to his having recently been cast [as himself] in Wings of Desire and his emerging emphasis on the croonier side of his repertoire. Thankfully, Ralph at Anthology Film Archives [who subsequently went on to work at MOMA] showed it at Anthology.
A trailer to the Nick Cave film I submitted to NYFF from an artist management company where I was the worst intern ever, more concerned with filming the Chinatown location with my pixelvision camera
At the NYFF over the past few years it's been hit and miss for concert films. One of my favorites, the aptly-titled Music According to Tom Jobim (NYFF 2011), is a simple, ingenuous compilation of live clips of countless Jobim-penned songs, sung by countless artists, arriving at a transcendent archival effect by simply letting the music do all the talking. Despite utilizing a format which is essentially the same as an exquisite youtube playlist -- with attendant varying quality issues, which, depending on your age will emerge as beautiful reminders of pre-HD times, or simply annoy -- this was none the less, very moving in the large theater, and I will never forget this screening.
A music documentary -- in this case one on Chick Corea -- is a fantastic way to start this year's press screenings; certainly the subject makes for very, very nice surprise and constitutes a very smart bit of curatorial recognition. I am, of course, curious about Punk In Africa, which I hope (though one is often disappointed with such films) will constitute a worthy chapter in the overall examination of the global adaptations and manifestations of Punk, as it were.
On the subject of docs on regional manifestations of a global cultural phenomenon, I wonder if the stone-cold classic New York doc Style Wars might be a worthy candidate, espesh for a 50th NYFF, and also given Lincoln Center's support of that moment in culture through their hosting of a breakdance battle way back, when -- and by way of a make-good along the lines of Canby post-Miller's Crossing, it would remedy the cancelling of Style Wars screenings on PBS in the early 80s by a PBS exec, who was disgusted with the graffiti he saw everywhere, and also fearful of some activation of untold mobs. Of course, the Graffiti, DJing and Poetry covered in that film have become the global lingua franca, and one of our city's greatest exports, and screening a crucial documentary such as Style Wars seems a proper chest-thumping for our city, during this festival's 50th anniversary, but that's just my opinion. I do know -- from a series of interviews I have been conducting with Henry Chalfant -- that he is available and has a perfect copy at the ready, having also raised just over the required amount for the restoration of the film and the outtakes. Again, I am biased here, this is just my crummy two cents' worth.
File under: Butterfly Effect: Pena's support of Campion after the "disastrous" screening of Sweetie at Cannes, may have led to her work with Nicole Kidmann for a role which was not unimportant for Kidman. Jane Campion's daughter Alice Englert makes her acting debut at this year's festival in Ginger & Rosa, and Ms. Kidman will be honored at this year's NYFF, alongside Mr. Peña.
File under: Attendance Check: Although Team Bush 2 denied him entry when his film was selected for the 2001 New York Film festival, Abbas Kiaostami's attendance this year makes for another lovely coda to Mr. Peña's tenure. I was hoping that Alain Resnais would visit the NYFF, and hopefully he will change his mind -- New York would love to meet you, Monsieur Resnais. The news that Liv Ulmann would be attending for the screening of Liv and Ingmar has added a monumental importance to this year's festival for this writer. I have often noted in these pages that Persona remains my all-time favorite film -- "all-time-favorite" an inherently limiting and at times meaningles's concept, yes, but also elemental during those moments when only cinema offers solace. Very cool that Pablo Larrain will be here, you can watch his his Skype interview including my skype Q&A from NYFF 2010, which for me is a standout year, HERE.
By way of some cross-pop irrelevance, I (and likely only I) always thought that Persona's poster (which I have framed) inspired Peter Saville's album cover design for Electronic's debut, which happens to be the only album I own pre-recorded versions of in the CD, cassette and vinyl format.
For those who might like or need a little music on a day like today, here's some distant memory -- the full orchestra's arrival at the 3:05 mark, and the solo notes from the oboe, half a minute later at 3:35 are simply devastating. Listen HERE
By way of another power pairing and a truncated hi-lite of docs at this year's NYFF: One of the films I am most looking forward to seeing -- in any category -- is Leviathan, from Véréna Paravel, whose Foreign Parts was one of the most memorable docs, a stone cold New York -- and by extension, all-American classic, and co-director Lucien Castaing-Taylor whose stone-cold western classic -- and by extension all-American classic, Sweetgrass I reviewed HERE.
Having distributed CDs by Nam Jun Paik, Marcel Duchamp James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Tristan Tzara, to the Gotham Book Mart. St. Mark's Bookshop, et., al., I will be curious to see the Nam June Paik documentary, Nam June Paik: Open Your Eyes
By way of humorously examining the weird bloodlust spoken of in this interview, I am also reminded of the different camps in cinema, and the recent quips by Film Comment editor Gavin Smith about FSLC seeing fit to screen Bela Tarr's filming of a game of Sodoku as a justifiable basis for his choosing for to screen, during one of the magazine's monthly nights at the Walter Reade, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre; associate programming director Scott Foundas noting that if Mumblecore or Argentine cinema can be considered a new movement, so can the work of Serge Bozon, et., al.; and this sort of camp representation reminds me of the Simpsons episode wherein the kids take over the school and Sci-Fi literature becomes mandatory and one kid says of Asimov after declaring Bradbury pre-equisite reading: "I'm aware of his work". By way of adding my own crummy two cents, I couldn't possibly care less about The Princess Bride or Little Shop of Horrors, and I re-screened the former recently. I mean it's not possible for me to care less about these films, though I respect that this is someone else's nostalgia, to which they are fully entitled, and I know this will be a popular selection reflecting an expanding festival.
Information on the 50th New York Film Festival can be found HERE
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