INTERVIEW: Programmer Extraodinaire; Richard Peña Ushers in Another Decade in Arthouse Film
by Mark Holcomb
(indieWIRE/ 01.07.02) -- Trying to recall the New York film scene before the arrival of the Walter Reade Theater is no easy task, yet amazingly the Film Society of Lincoln Center's beloved venue marked its mere tenth anniversary on December 9 of last year. How could this single-screen, 268-seat theater have become so indispensable in so short a time? The WRT's celebratory series, which runs from January 2 through 10 and features such favorites as Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Goodbye South, Goodbye" and Youssef Chahine's "Destiny" may provide a clue.
FSLC program director Richard Peña is inclined to characterize WRT programming as "very much geared toward the New York metropolitan area reality," and refers to it as "site-specific." But the theater's specialization in foreign films is arguably what clinches its reputation among Gotham's famously fussy cinephiles, and extends that reputation far beyond the city limits. With annual series like Spanish Cinema Now! and Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, and one-shot crowd-pleasers like 1999's A Rising Tide: Norway's New Wave and New Argentine Cinema from 2001, the Walter Reade has consistently hosted the best in international film.
His modesty notwithstanding, Peña has much to do with the WRT's polyglot predilections. As programmer, critic, educator, chairman of the New York Film Festival selection committee, TV host (the Sundance Channel's monthly "Conversations in World Cinema"), and no less than an Officer of France's l'Orde des Artes et des Lettres, Peña's dedication to international cinema has helped shape the Walter Reade into a landmark institution. indieWIRE talked with Peña about the WRT's first ten years, his aspirations for its next ten, and the health of foreign films in the United States.
indieWIRE: Did you have a vision for the Walter Reade as a venue for "world cinema" back in 1991?
Richard Peña: I don't think I could have articulated it in those terms precisely at that moment. Programming is site-specific; you have to look around and see what the needs are. Especially at the moment [the Walter Reade] came in, you already had Film Forum doing such a spectacular job with American repertory programming that it seemed there was this other space that was open, which was for world cinema, and I was already inclined in that direction. So we went that way and it's what our audiences responded to and we've continued to mine it.
iW: What personally draws you to international cinema?
Peña: The sheer possibility of it. The idea that suddenly one can talk about Chinese cinema of the 1930s and have a body of work to which people can refer. Or a director like Youssef Chahine, or new trends in filmmaking in Argentina. I think it's also in a sense become reflective of the sort of nation the U.S. has increasingly become, which is a sort of "new-immigrant" nation with many more kinds of cultures represented.
iW: How has the programming at the Walter Reade influenced international film distribution over the years?
Peña: Well, that's a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument in a way. I think there are direct cases of films that we've shown that then got picked up for distribution, there's no doubt about that. But I like to think that we helped create a general atmosphere of interest. Look at, say, the Spanish program we've been doing every year since '92 [Spanish Film Now!]. I get phone calls from filmmakers from Spain delighted that someone called them from a certain company wanting to discuss a possible deal. [The program] has become a good bridge between this particular national cinema and the U.S. art market.
iW: Do you think the FSLC has had any influence on filmmakers and the kinds of movies being made?
Peña: When I first began teaching there in the late '80s there was a general lack of interest, sometimes to the point of aggression, to international cinema. People just didn't want to know about it. Over the years, partially, I think through the efforts of places like the Walter Reade Theater, a new generation of film students is very interested in at least a few foreign filmmakers. Wong Kar-wai or Olivier Assayas are really considered the people to model yourself after. That's been something I've seen in the last ten or twelve years happening [at Columbia], a sort of shift where it's okay to be interested in international cinema. I do think [the FSLC and Walter Reade] had something to do with that, but again, it's not a one-to-one relationship; it's not like we showed this and that happened. We helped create an atmosphere where in fact films like this were seen as something that would be relevant to the education and interest of young filmmakers.
iW: Does it concern you that popular films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or "Amelie" may be shaping what American audiences expect from foreign films?
Peña: "Crouching Tiger" was in the New York Film Festival, so it's not the kind of film we have anything against. On the contrary, it's a film many of us admire. You always hope that in the best of circumstances a film like "Amelie" will open the door for people to say, "Gee, I like that last French film, let me see another one." Hopefully at that point a film that you like more will come to the fore. What you're talking about is not so much direct influence or impact, but creating an atmosphere.
iW: The other venues at the Lincoln Center have been progressively dropping off in attendance. Is that the case with the Walter Reade?
Peña: No. In fact, the year 2001 was, box-office wise, our biggest year by far. My feeling is that we're doing pretty well. As always, we are very cognizant of the budget and very cognizant that we really should make as much as we can and at least break even at the Walter Reade. Fortunately, no pressure has been put on me or my colleagues in terms of what we have to do in programming. I think our situation is strong enough that we can just continue doing the kind of programming we've become known for and indeed love to do.
iW: Is there any competition between the Walter Reade and other, similar venues in New York, like the American Museum of the Moving Image or BAM Cinemateque? Have they ever programmed something you wished you'd done?
Peña: If anything, I admire when they do something that I had thought of or had thought would be a good idea. I think the competition is, happily, very friendly here in New York. I think we're all aware of the fact that there's more than enough people to go around in New York City for all of us to be very successful. In a given evening at the Walter Reade Theater I can have four- to five-hundred people; that's a very good evening for me, or a very good day. That leaves a lot of other people to go to other places.
iW: What programs and events from the past ten years stand out for you?
Peña: There are a lot different moments that just seem so remarkable in different ways. I remember the very first year, probably a month and a half or so after we opened, we did a program with Jazz at Lincoln Center featuring Wynton Marsalis talking about Louis Armstrong. We showed clips of Armstrong in film, playing or whatever, and after we'd see the clip Marsalis would show you what [Armstrong] did, how he did it, and how it was different from what other trumpeters did. And I just remember sitting there saying, "Boy, this is really living. I mean, Wynton Marsalis onstage talking about Louis Armstrong! This is where I want to be." That was great.
Having Antonioni in 1992 was enormously moving. When he walked into the theater I remember just shaking. An extraordinary man, of course, in an impaired physical condition, but still very elegant and one of the great filmmakers to my mind. Having him there was a tremendous honor.
The very first Iranian series we did back in the fall of '92 was for many of us a kind of watershed moment. Not only for the Walter Reade but -- I've been told this by several people -- an important moment for that community, because it was a community that had generally not seen or heard positive things about itself in the newspapers, and suddenly Lincoln Center was honoring it with a film series. I remember standing there and having someone point out to me, "See that person over there? Well, that person was very,
very close to the Shah and the Shah's family. See that person over there? That person was one of the students who led the revolt against the Shah. See that person over there? That person was very, very close to Khomeni." So all of a sudden you saw that all these different groups, whatever their differences, had come together around this film series. It was a very important moment for that community and obviously for us, too, to help stake out what became in the '90s one of the most essential international cinemas.
iW: What's changed over the years in terms of programming?
Peña: Hopefully it's changing all the time. I sometimes explain to my board members that in one sense you can see it a little bit like the stock market. What you're doing is trying to find a stock that you think will pay off, not in terms of profit, but in terms of prestige or the health of the field in the future.
For example, in the last two years the Film Society has done a lot with Argentine cinema. About five or six years ago I became very convinced that there was tremendous amount of talent just waiting to come through. So we've done a couple of series, both in '98 and this past year, of recent Argentine films, which have been very successful. And this year saw the release of films such as "Burnt Money," "La Cienaga" and a couple of films that are coming up, like "Nine Queens." It's good to feel that in a sense we are a little bit ahead of the curve, that we sort of alighted on this cinema and had a lot of confidence in it and, indeed, it's a cinema that's had -- who knows what will happen to it now, with everything that's going on there -- had a wonderful development over four or five years. That's good to see.
If anything, one of the things that's been nice is our ongoing effort to reach out to many different communities and constituencies in the New York area and often see how supportive they've been. Collaboration is an important part of our job, and we've found many willing partners.
[Mark Holcomb lives in Brooklyn. He reviews films for The Village Voice.]