In this weekend's Sunday Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times, the paper's top film critics offer some sharp words for one of the city's venerated film institutions in the guise of constructive criticism. In an unprecedented degree of scrutiny leveled at the Film Society of Lincoln Center divided across three articles — with the alarmist headline "Prescriptions for a Cinema Refuge" — the Times analyzes the institution's future through the lens of its difficult past with a dire tone.
In an overview introducing think pieces from chief film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, Adam Kepler sets the stage for difficult times at the city's oldest haven for international cinema, home for the New York Film Festival for over 50 years and epicenter for countless retrospectives and screening series throughout the year. Under the subhead "How Should the Film Society of Lincoln Center Proceed?," Kepler points out that "While the annual festival has thrived, the fortunes of this nonprofit society have ebbed and flowed." Fair enough — that's life for any nonprofit.
Then Kepler goes one step further, singling out the "interim period" between executive directors at the Film Society, noting that it has endured its second leadership change in three years without naming names. That gap creates the impression of a Film Society devoid of vision, largely due to the cold instruction of a faceless entity ignorant of the Film Society's contemporary needs.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Recently departed executive director Rose Kuo inherited the role from Mara Manus in 2011, when the institution was largely regarded as falling into the outmoded status that the Times outlines here. Since then, Kuo has pushed the Film Society in much wider directions, launching a crossmedia "Convergence" section at the New York Film Festival, broadening digital initiatives, incorporating television and video games into its programming and exploring the possibilities of further growth — all while strengthening the Film Society's programming team with respected names from the international film community, defending the ongoing publication of its venerated magazine Film Comment and showing face around town as much as possible. If you hung out at movie events in the city, chances are strong that you probably saw Kuo there, hanging out by the bar and brainstorming with some cohort or another late into the night. You still can.
Kuo may have had her quirks — I don't think she ever sleeps, and god help anyone who picks a fight with her — but under her tenure, there was a genuine sense of old and new coming together: The New York Film Festival remained a haven for the best international cinema, while New Directors/New Films offered the promise of its label, and funkier series like Film Comment Selects and various retrospectives gave diehard cinephiles something to chew on year-round. Others flocked to the flashy Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center for a "Breaking Bad" marathon, only to discover sneak previews for new releases that would otherwise never land on their radars at all.
There was no doubt that the institution was working through the same challenges faced by every exhibitor: How do you "eventize" your space so an increasingly distracted public makes the effort to show up? If anything, Kuo's Film Society looked like it was just getting started when her contract negotiations fell apart late last year.
But without mentioning Kuo once by name — though Dargis makes some passing references to a handful of Kuo's interactive initiatives aimed at younger audiences from last year — the Times effectively writes her out of the picture, and criticizes the shortcomings of a Film Society from the past.