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Seeing the World: An Interview with Richard Peña

By Kent Jones

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How Richard Peña transformed The New York Film Festival without changing it

Richard Peña and Rose Kuo

How has film culture changed since you took over at the festival, in your eyes?
There has been a much wider acceptance of what we used to call “Third World film,” films from non-traditional places. I arrived in 1988, when the Chinese thing was cresting. We closed that year’s festival with Red Sorghum, and that was sort of an announcement that this was a major cinema. The festival had already shown Hou Hsiao-hsien, but it was in the late Eighties that Chinese cinema became a big deal. A couple of years later there was Iran, and then Argentina, South Korea… You could say that world cinema finally became just that: increasingly broad. To show a film or two from Kazakhstan was no longer considered so outrageous. People just thought, “Yeah, they make films there, too.”

It happened in relation to French cinema too. Truffaut died in 1984, but for years it was as if he and Godard were still fighting and the New Wave was still new. People were still talking about New German Cinema long after it ran out of steam. And then, when Hou started to become known, he was thought of as the new Ozu, Kiarostami was the new Rossellini, and so on.
I think that for marketing and other reasons, people tried to place filmmakers in certain traditions. John Powers spoke about his exhaustion with people coming up to him and asking: “Why don’t they make films like Jules and Jim anymore?” His answer was, “They do, they just don’t make them the way they used to make them.”

That was a problem for younger French filmmakers in the Nineties.
Right. In a way, that’s what Irma Vep is about: what happens when film history becomes this burden. There was a sense of liberation with the New Wave regarding film history, which everyone began to understand as a kind of historical dialogue. They saw what people had done and they were going to move it a little further. But then at a certain moment, it became a weight to carry.

So one could say that your inaugural year, 1988, was a kind of dividing line. The sense of film history had become clogged, and then at about that time it opened up.
Yeah, I think so. The Eighties were a down time for all kinds of reasons. There was a sense that that great generation of art cinema was over. Fassbinder died, Truffaut died, many others were either infirm or not working anymore; and there was also kind of a triumphalist feeling that the mainstream film industry had won, that these artists had not been able to fundamentally change cinema, that in fact Hollywood had come back stronger than ever, thanks to home video. So the question was: “Can we restart art cinema?” Maybe it’s symbolic—not that I was thinking in these terms—that we opened the festival that year with Almodóvar and we closed with Zhang Yimou, two of the new leading figures in art cinema.

I started going regularly to the festival about six years before you arrived, and the audiences were frightening—openly hostile. I remember watching L’Argent and people screaming and hollering. The same thing happened with Class Relations by the Straubs, or that screening of the Ericka Beckman movie before Godard’s Passion.
You the Better. I was at that screening—people went nuts. There were screenings in the late Eighties and early Nineties that still had some of that, but people had became a little more open or just more polite. Maybe they figured, “Well, it’ll be over soon.” But I do remember some of those Eighties screenings as being unbelievably vicious. And it was kind of traumatic for some filmmakers. I know a couple of people who went through that who had a really hard time making another film.

My sense is that by the Nineties it was finished.
I do think that as the festival opened up and began to have a wider range of films from more countries, we brought in new audiences. That’s also sort of indicative of New York as a city. New York was changing so there were new… call them “ethnic” or “interest” groups, wanting to be represented. There was a famous New York Film Festival survey in the early Eighties, in which they asked, “What is your primary means of transportation to get here?” Sixty-some-odd percent answered: “Walking.” It had really been more like a local festival, and I like to think that as we began to show more Iranian or Korean films or films from other places, the local diaspora communities, most of which were not that close to the Upper West Side, began to come to the festival as well. I think it did spread out in that sense.

Was the Roud controversy a problem for you in the beginning?
I felt a certain amount of hostility from some people. A few filmmakers who told me they would never let me show their work, stuff like that… What can you say? You live through it. I was not that unknown to a lot of people—I had been around New York a fair amount and had already been going to Cannes for a number of years, so I think it was a little bit of a wait-and-see attitude. After Richard died, obviously people were stuck with me. There were still a few people who were cool when they met me.

Did it hinder anything you wanted to do in the festival?
Certainly not. If anything there was a mandate: “What’s going to be different about this festival?” The early editions in particular were very closely scrutinized. I respected and, indeed, loved the festival so much before I began working for it that there wasn’t really that much I wanted to change. There were things that I felt needed to be addressed. I felt that Asian cinema had not been properly welcomed into the festival, but essentially I thought the form and the structure were just fine. I didn’t really think that they needed fixing.

You gave more strength to the selection committee process.
Perhaps. When I’ve talked about it with people who were on Richard’s committees, I’ve gotten the feeling that it was a little more cut-and-dried, like: “Let’s vote and finish it,” and, “This one has six, that one has five—the six gets in and the five doesn’t.” As you know, I like long and laborious conversations about movies because they’re good for me. I learn a lot. The whole process of people trying to express their thoughts and make them clearer to themselves, possibly gave us a somewhat broader selection. The problem with voting is that sometimes you get a mean—you’re cutting out the passion, and you wind up with a middle range of work. If you or John Powers or somebody was really passionate about a film that I didn’t care for, I became intrigued and I wanted to find out why.

Amos Vogel and Richard Pena

Amos Vogel and Richard Peña

I remember I once brought up something that Hubert Bals had said: “My job isn’t to find films for audiences, my job is to find audiences for films.” You disagreed, and said that there were different audiences for different films.
I would still say that, and part of our challenge is to combat snap judgments like “I don’t really like films like that.” If you can get people to rethink responses like that, it will help in some way. I like to think that for every film that we show there is actually a bigger audience than the one we attract, that people haven’t come because it hasn’t been properly explained to them. There are some films that are very hard to market, with no group of whom you can say, “Oh, they’re really gonna like this one!” But you hope that audiences will find them.

I suppose it would be the case for movies that came in over the transom, like Love and Diane.
Yeah, although that fit into a tradition of cinema verité and social documentary. In terms of French cinema, when we first showed Olivier Assayas with Cold Water, what do you say? “Great new film by a great new French director…”

I do have the impression that audiences got more used to alternate styles of storytelling over the years.
It’s cyclical. You think of some of the things that opened commercially in the Sixties like L’avventura and L’eclisse… Who would distribute them now? Those films would never open commercially now. That period of relative openness and welcoming of alternative styles ended. Audiences became more conservative. And then in the Nineties we opened up again, there was a little more room. We might think now that Pulp Fiction is finally not such a big thing, but people were intrigued by Tarantino’s experiments, which opened them up to other things that were going on. Sadly, I think we’ve become conservative again.

It’s interesting to look back at watershed films like Pulp Fiction or Irma Vep, and remember the feeling that they had set templates, that you were going to see more films in the same spirit.
When Kiarostami first broke and had a certain style and look to his films, that was suddenly seen as the “Iranian style.” Which, obviously, it really wasn’t—it was his style and other filmmakers worked in other ways.

Do you see the Walter Reade as a way of augmenting the festival’s programming?
Part of my own work as a film historian has always run along these lines: if you sense something is going on, if you see films from Turkey by Nuri Bilge Ceylan or Zeki Demirkubuz, then you go, “Jeez, where do these guys come from?” And that leads to my wanting to look at the historical context. A lot of my programming has been around those types of issues. It’s a way of looking at film history in order to explain the present—how we got from there to here. I always say that I’m in the film history business, and that the New York Film Festival represents a way of providing a snapshot, or a look at what I and the committee feels is happening in cinema that year. Obviously there are exceptions—we can’t have access to everything—but it’s what we think are the major trends, ideas, authors, styles, happening at that moment. The Walter Reade allows us to go in depth, whether it’s with a national film week or a retrospective that allows us to revisit the past, or to revive an auteur.

Which is also dramatically different from the way things were in the Sixties and Seventies, when it was just about this or that auteur, with less of a sense of the culture they came out of.
The festival grew up at the height of auteurism, and the general idea was that auteurs were almost inimical to historical context. They were imagined as these solitary figures who were, in fact, against the flow of history, who stood out from history, so there was less of a desire to understand them as part of a continuum. As time has gone on, we’ve been able to see their accomplishments within a larger framework.

Richard Rorty used to say that “Every solution creates a new problem.” Now, when people who have been previously ignored are re-discovered, they’re often overvalued. I’m thinking of Uchida, for instance, who struck me as a Japanese Michael Curtiz, which is just fine. But it wasn’t like stumbling on a forgotten master.
This has always gone on with auteurism. Bazin warned against it. People are looking for discoveries and making claims for filmmakers who simply don’t deserve it. In the preface to The American Cinema Sarris writes that eventually we’ll have to go back and look at everything again, and that’s kind of true. We do have to go back and see if these things hold up, or see if things that we neglected should be re-considered.

I wanted to talk about opening nights a bit.
[chuckles] My favorite subject.

It’s hard to explain how difficult it is to find the right movie.
Yeah, because we want it to be something that we would be proud to have in the festival, and it has to play to a very particular audience, an audience composed, to a large extent, of our donors and supporters. Many of whom, while they express their love for the Film Society and the Film Festival, aren’t necessarily cinephiles who want to be challenged, they’re just looking for a quality movie. And to have that requirement, not to mention having a big party right after the movie is over, just makes it an impossible task. I mean, of the 24 I’ve done I’d say about six or seven were pretty successful, another six or seven were moderately successful, and then the rest were… [laughs] We did the best we could!

Good Night, and Good Luck.
The Social Network was great. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and All About My Mother both worked well.

And then people think, “Great, just find another one like that next year…”
And they’re not made all the time. You look and see what’s out there that fills all of these requirements, and then there’s the question of availability.

Richard Peña and Jean-Luc Godard in 1990

Godard’s In Praise of Love was one Closing Night that did not go down well.
It was 9/11, and we were at a point where if anybody said anything even the least bit untoward about the U.S., they were imagined as being part of al-Qaeda. We had announced the film as Closing Night long before 9/11, but we became a target for people who wanted to vent their feelings. I still love the film, I was very happy we showed it, and I think that it would have been received differently had it not been for those terrible events.

Vincent Canby’s departure from the Times was another enormous change.
Aside from being a wise critic—he wasn’t necessarily my biggest fan but he was always very judicious—he was somebody who really thought of himself as having a bully pulpit. He thought of his job as helping to guide film culture.

His pan of Nouvelle Vague—“the party’s over”—was a very particular choice of words.  Maybe it signaled his own weariness with the job of reviewing, and dovetailed with a lot of those “end of cinema” things that were prevalent around that time.
Absolutely. But I remember when we showed The Valley of Abraham in 1993, I ran into him and he said, “You know, I really love that Oliveira film. I think I’m finally getting him.” I thought that was a lovely thing for him to say, and he wrote a very good review of it. He was a critic who didn’t just have his opinions and that was that, he was going back and trying to figure it all out.

You’ve been prudent about not waving in everything by certain filmmakers.
In the end, when someone asks me, “What do you think?” I’ve got to be able to answer. I don’t think it does anybody any good if I show a film that I don’t think is very good. I don’t think it helps the filmmaker—in most cases it probably dilutes the filmmaker’s credit and it also dilutes ours. Again, we hear that over the years: “Oh, you always show films by…” But the people who say that don’t know how many films the filmmaker might have made that were turned down. One director we were reasonably faithful to over the years was Raúl Ruiz. We all know that Raúl made tons of films and that they weren’t all great. There were even Godard films we passed on. Some people find that shameful, I’m sure. We got flak over Hou’s Millennium Mambo. And I was happy to read an interview with the late Bob Sklar, who was on the committee at the time, in which he said: “That movie got out of control for me, I just could never figure out where it was supposed to go.” There are great qualities to what you’re watching, it’s by a fantastic filmmaker, of course that’s gonna come through, but I felt that we made the right decision.

Are there filmmakers whose career the festival has followed whose development has been especially heartening for you?
I’ve known Pedro Almodóvar since the early Eighties. I had no idea that he would blossom into the kind of artist that he is today. He’s just amazing, and when I think of the way his work has deepened and ripened and matured, I just feel lucky that I, by chance, happened to be there at an early stage and have been able to follow his trajectory through the festival. I think we got on the von Trier train at the right time and we followed that pretty well. There’s Olivier Assayas. But even with him there was a certain period where I was less sure of what he was doing. Then he came back gloriously with Summer Hours. The other ones would be the Dardennes, who have become a point of reference for a way of making films. It’s wonderful to see that look and style and that very profound way that they present contemporary society.

How do you see your legacy at the festival? Or do you feel like that’s for someone else to do?
I do think that’s someone else’s task. I think I participated in the opening up of people’s ideas about cinema. I didn’t cause it, I didn’t invent it, but we were there at a crucial time to be able to say, “Hey, look at China, look at Taiwan, Iran, South Korea, Argentina…” To simply show people that there was extraordinary work happening in these places. I think the festival was founded in that spirit. I’m happy, for example, that, at least through my direction, we were able to re-create a place for the avant-garde at the New York Film Festival. When I came on, I spoke about it as a missing element in early interviews. Of course, that work has been done by Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith, who made “Views from the Avant-Garde” the premier event of its kind in the United States. It’s been a great part of the festival. Our retrospectives during the festival have revived or pointed out important artists like Leonardo Favio and Ritwik Ghatak, and last year’s Nikkatsu show which has been traveling hither and yon ever since. Last year, when for the first time we had five cinemas going at once—Tully, the Walter Reade, and the three screens in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center—I remember a moment when I was just running around checking on how everything was doing, and I thought, “We’ve got Aki Kaurismäki here, we’ve got Nelson Pereira dos Santos there, we have a Nikkatsu film over here,” and it felt like that was the way things were supposed to be, where they had been leading all along. We had found the right direction, followed it, and arrived.

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