“We live in a world where every single person is a filmmaker,” says Richard Peña, the Program Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and head of the Selection Committee for the New York Film Festival. Frankly, we couldn’t agree more. In fact, it’s this increasing democratization of film that makes Peña’s enduring contribution to film art and visibility that more crucial. Films are conceived, shot, edited, submitted and screened every day, for the benefit of festival audiences whose response, in large part, decides what the public at large gets to see. But even before that point, But who is it that decides what you see? Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but when it comes to the film industry, quality is in the eye of a select group of people whose tastes and predilections can be as diverse (or myopic) as can be–a group to which Peña has long remained an influential member. After 25 years of shaping the creative vision of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the New York Film Festival, Peña is stepping down from his posts to focus exclusively on his teaching career at Columbia University. On the eve of his retirement, Bullett sat down with him to discuss the shifting tides of media trends, art films and their audience, and the future of film art and activism.
Bullett: How do you define art film as opposed to commercial film, and how do you see the two things merging?
Peña: I think it’s really tough to parse the difference between an art film and a commercial film. What’s happened over the years is that different circuits were set up within the vast majority of movie theaters were dedicated to showing commercial work, and that generally meant work that was produced by, in the case of the United States, the large film studios or related kind of companies. Whereas the art cinema, the art houses, were dedicated largely to foreign language films, and then increasingly to American independent films. So they’re almost two different production models. Art shouldn’t necessarily mean artistic, in other words you could certainly have a lot of part commercial films that have a great artistry to them and a lot of so called art films that are really dull and just not interesting at all as works of art or anything else. But the distinction, I think, exists in people’s minds, and to claim a certain artistic imprimatur has been a strategy of marketing going back to 1920 when The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was marketed as an art film in the United States.
You’d said in an earlier interview that we’ve become more conservative in our current response to film. How do you see this reflected?
Well, if you look back to the 1960’s and you think of so many of the great films that were released back then, whether it be 8 ½ or Hiroshima Mon Amour or the Antonioni films you really wonder, where would these films be released today? What movie theater would show them? The art houses that we have now play fairly mainstream stuff. I wonder if any of those films would have a commercial release in New York, I’m sure they would wind up, in our present configuration, at Film Forum, or BAM or perhaps at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center but it’s different than the kind of commercial circuit that these films used to play in. There was a time when more than just a few art houses showed foreign language subtitled films, it was many other cinemas as well. Some of those films turned out to be considerable hits. That was a time when people were interested in finding something new in art, something new in cinemas especially, so because of that there was a tremendous openness to form and to experiment that pretty much lasted throughout the sixties. At some point, and we can all point our fingers at different dates, I think the tide turned and people became much more conservative in their taste and much less excepting of that kind of experimentation. You know there are occasional things like Pulp Fiction which fooled around a bit with narrative and people got excited about that but it didn’t really lead to much, I think. Unfortunately even the so-called art house audience nowadays is a very conservative audience, especially when it comes to film form.
Why do you think that shift occurred?
I tend to blame most things I don’t like on Reagan or Bush, so I’ll just say that they were the ones. But why did that happen? I think at a certain moment I think there was, along with a rejection with anything related to the sixties, that idea of open experimentation and I think we come from a culture where essentially you’re told again and again that any kind of work of art that demands to much of you is–that there’s something wrong with it, and that all should be for enjoyment and for relaxation, and that’s sad. And a generation that really wanted to look for another kind of cinema is actually now in their sixties. Its no accident that when we do many of our series’ the audiences are older because those are the people who back in the sixties were watching these films in college and it kept a certain kind of fidelity to them. But frankly I don’t really find, say, among my students at Columbia, or young people in general, that same kind of hunger for a new cinema. They seem much more content with what’s out there.
Do you think in order to return to a more liberal state of mind in terms of art, we’d need a political shift to happen?
A political-cultural shift. I mean, again, I joke about Reagan and Bush but I think that whole era, whether it was the defeat in Vietnam, or Watergate, led to a certain change in the American mentality, a kind of closing of the American mind to a certain extent. I think you see that tremendous split in our country right now. It’s very hard to have dialogue, I think, for those folks to have dialogue with me and for me to have it with them. I don’t what to say to anybody who believed that Adam and Eve rode around on dinosaurs. I just don’t know what to say. I don’t how I can disagree with them, and I’m sure they’d find my opinions equally outrageous. So in a way we’ve reached a sort of impasse culturally. The fortunate thing, one would say, is that the United States is more than big enough that you can have many streams of opinion and culture and art, and you can live in New York City and have an incredibly rich diet of cinema every week. I think only Paris is a better film city than New York right now. Amazing numbers of great things that are shown here, but once you cross the Hudson, it becomes a very different country. So a lot of us content ourselves with staying here and having that experience and leave the rest of them to go the way that they want to go. I don’t think so much anymore about the process of conversion, I think there are far more people who would enjoy our programs that can enjoy them now and I think some of it has to do with location and accessibility. One of the things I think the Film Society should certainly explore in the upcoming years is something like a VOD outlet. There are many films that we show that could be enjoyed by a much greater number of people that just don’t live within striking distance of Lincoln Center. Or they can come in once, but they can’t come in every day, or something like that, so I think there is more ways that we have to make our work accessible. But in the end I think there are a lot of people out there who have no interest in what we do and never will.
Do you think film has changed ever since television has started to be recognized as a more serious format?
I don’t know that films have changed, but certainly the interest of film students have changed. For example if you speak to a lot of my students at Columbia, many of their references are televisual. They’re references to “Mad Men”, to “The Sopranos”, that’s been their background. It’s no longer to the French New Wave or to great Italian, or Latin American films or something like that, a few of them yes, but not many. Most of them tremendously admire that kind of television. I’m not home very much at night so I don’t watch a lot of TV but what I’ve seen of those shows I think a lot of the stuff is great. It’s extremely well written, it’s well acted, and production values are first rate, what’s the downside? Also I think they work in a forum that allows for real character development, real plot development, the idea of being able to have a show run over many weeks. There are a lot of things that are very attractive about that format and it seems that many of our most creative image-makers in the states are gravitating towards television because it’s a very fertile place for them to work.
Have you ever either had a response that was radically different than what you’d expected, to the point where you wondered why you included a certain film in the festival?
A couple of years ago we had a film in the festival–there are five of us on the selection committee and while I’ve had the great luck of working with wonderful people with whom I have great relations, it’s not that often that all five of us feel really strongly about a film–but this was a film that all five of us really were behind we really thought it was a terrific film and it just didn’t get the response that we wanted. I thought a lot of the criticisms of it were a little small minded, I don’t think they understood it in a larger context. It was a film we were so excited about and yet when the audience saw it and even people I know and respect, it just didn’t seem to really have the impact we hoped. So you know this occasionally happens and all you can say is “they missed it” or “They’ll catch up eventually” or something like that. Occasionally that does happen. My third year at the festival we opened with the Cohen Brothers film Miller’s Crossing, a film I love, and that Friday a critic from the New York Times, Vincent Canby, wrote a pretty scathing review of the film he ended it saying “We have to feel sorry for the festival, opening night is when all these rich people come and they don’t know anything about cinema so you have to show them something like this, that’s easy that they can understand”. So he not only insulted the festival, but he insulted the audience. So you can see what a good mood these people were in. Literally from twenty minutes into the film people were streaming out, and it was sheer hell to sit there and watch all this happening. The good news is I think many people now consider Miller’s Crossing one of the very best Cohen Brothers films and one of the ‘great films of the nineties’. Over the years I used to even keep little collections of critics who would write a rejoinder saying ‘I really didn’t like the film when I first saw it, but I saw it a second time and realized how good it was’. In the end I think truth will out.
As we move further into (or away from) the Occupy movement, do you think we’ll see films more and more influenced by that aesthetic?
I think it already is. Really we live in a world where every single person is a filmmaker, there is no longer a distinction. When I was growing up there was such a mystique about filmmaking. It was enormously complicated, very technical, you had to have lots of training and there was just really something about it that put it out of reach. But then time went on and things got easier and easier and literally now almost any adult that we know could make his/her own, and in fact most of them are making their own films. The Occupy movement in a way is the kind of political expression of that kind of democratization and certainly there’s a kind of of interesting interplay between the films that come out of the Occupy movement and the ethos of the movement, the kind of non-hierarchical nature and the sense of ‘just do it’ and ‘just go out there and make it’ and all those things I think are very much intertwined and it’s been fascinating to see the impact of all the media, all the sort of upheavals of the recent years. It’s obviously not been facilitated greatly by the fact that people could communicate in a way that they never could before.