NYFF’s Leading Man (Part 1 of 2)
Written by Bwog Staff
To kick off a week of New York Film Festival coverage, Bwog cinema correspondent Christian Kamongi sits down for a two-part interview with Richard Peña, head of the NYFF and Columbia film professor.
Christian Kamongi: How do you think the lineup for this year’s 45th New York Film Festival reflects any particular positive trends in international cinema at the present moment?
Richard Peña: Well, the New York Film Festival was founded in 1963 and this was really the high moment of two movements in film: one was auteurism and the other modernism. In a sense, auteurism has really adhered to a film style to with a lot of personal vision, when you get something like a Sidney Lumet or Bela Tarr, these are filmmakers who are really going for broke, and you really feel that, even if you don’t like their passion, you appreciate their ambition. So much stuff we see feels like it just came off the assembly line and is totally uncommitted, so to see a series of strongly engaged films is really invigorating. Obviously I like all of them. Even the individuals who have problems with them won’t doubt for a moment that what they’re seeing is a highly personal vision.
In the case of Modernism what you’re seeing is interesting, rethinking of all kinds of way of making films and telling stories on film. There’s an interesting way in which a lot of films here play with genre, its been one of my complaints that not enough people experiment with genre and I think theirs plenty of that creativity at this festival. Even though it’s our 45th year, it’s fuelled by some of the concerns at the original festival and that’s a really great feeling to have
CK: Are there any particular directors who immediately get a pass to join the film festival. Hou-Hsiao Hsien and Lars von Trier seem to be recurrent guests, with all their most recent work at least in this decade being featured at the festival
RP: Well in the case of Hou one wasn’t [Millennium Mambo]. You know, that’s a very frequent question and all I can say is that no one gets a free pass and every year it’s a blank slate, there’s nothing scarier for me to see a film by a director I love and having to consider it for the New York Film Festival. I give you a case of Hou someone who I think the world revolves around, an absolute master. When I heard that Hou was going to France to work with Juliette Binoche in French, my first reaction was, “Please don’t do it!” I was just sure this was a recipe for disaster, he didn’t speak a word of French, he doesn’t travel, all kinds of different reasons. Well I was at Cannes, and I went to see it…Wow! What a genius, he doesn’t know the language and he still gets it, what do you say? Oh ye of little faith, this was one were I went through a lot of trepidation. I’m not sure that Flight of the Red Balloon is the greatest Hou-Hsiao Hsien film, but its definitely one of his finest work. What’s most extraordinary is that he gets a performance out of Binoche that no one’s got of her for decades.
Then you see a film by certain filmmakers and its just not up to the standard you hoped it would be at, take the case of the dubious distinction of turning down films by Godard who I consider the most important filmmaker on the planet since 1945. Most of the work that we rejected was his work from the late ’90s that seem interesting now as works that led up to the great output he’s had in this decade. And, you know, its hard to tell someone you admire that you’re not going to show his films. Luckily, though, for us he’s usually a pretty good sport about it.
CK: Do you actually get to talk to him on the phone and reject him?
RP: Yeah with someone like him who I know personally, nonetheless though it seems nicer than sending him a letter.
CK: This all brings to mind a work like Lars von Trier’s Manderlay which was in the festival lineup to the chagrin of many with the exception of myself, as I seem to be the only person on the planet who enjoyed it. Does there have to be universal consensus among the selection committee about a choice?
RP: No, I mean were five people we all have very different taste. When we have our discussion, one of the things that counts a lot is passion, and I think if someone’s very passionate about a work, that will often sway that other members of the selection committee. Actually, Manderlay was a work that didn’t necessarily garner a lot of negative criticism but a lot of passionate criticism.
CK: Is this J. Hoberman’s [Village Voice] and Scott Foundas’s [L.A Weekly] first year working on the selection committee?
RP: Well, Jim was on from 1982 to 1984 then left, and this is Scott’s first year
CK: With their titles as “alternative critics,” how do you think that changed this year’s lineup?
RP: Well I don’t think it altered it, what was great was that two joined right in and were very much part of the spirit from the first day. Neither of them came into it with any fixed agendas, they were very open and polite to everyone.
CK: Have their ever been any moments in the past were members made the situation difficult for their colleagues? What happens when one member feels particularly strong about a film with a lack of shared enthusiasm?
RP: Yeah, occasionally the latter happens but I don’t think there’s ever been anyone who’s been difficult. There have been a few people who, it’s taken longer for them to get used to it and join in, but I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had really great people. Its never been like, “How am I gonna get rid of this person?” You know, I think people understand that this is part of a tradition that’s larger than they are. So it’s usually a smooth process.
CK: Now, two of your favorite features at this year’s Cannes Film festival were Silent Light and Secret Sunshine. How do these features reflect your own personal views on the flourishing contemporary cinemas of Latin America and Korea?
RP: Well Silent Light was really a film that I loved very much. It was kind of like for me a film that give me a great deal of pleasure because aside from the picture, I’ve always had a strange love-hate relationship with Carlos Reygadas. I remember when I was at Cannes and saw his first film Japon; I remember thinking this guy is really talented, and I wanted to showcase it in our New Directors series that year but I think it went to premiere at Film Forum instead. I just thought he was really talented and he was going to make some really great work and the next film came out, Battle in Heaven, and I just have to say I just wasn’t a fan. I thought it was just mean, there was a real ugliness that put me off. And then he made this film, it was a film that was sensitive, spiritual, able to elicit some incredible performances from non-professional actors, it’s unusual, it’s this sort of lovely homage to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, basically does everything I would want. I was very pleased to see someone who from the beginning I thought was going to be really able to achieve a real promise and also its nice to see young Latin filmmakers who are spreading into directions no one could have predicted.
In terms of Secret Sunshine, Lee Chang-dong is a director whose work I’ve previously admired [also a former South Korean Culture Minister], I was really hoping that Secret Sunshine would live up to his previous work and it more than succeeded. He’s not only a filmmaker but he’s also a well-known novelist and it’s a type of rare film that’s literary in the best sense of the word. It has a depth of a great novel, you get to know characters and situations with an extraordinary amount of detail and it’s a film that I think will get positive reception.
CK: I’ve also noticed the youth of the directors whose work is being showcased in this year’s festival. Of course, there are the obvious cases of Carlos Reygadas and Cristian Mungiu (his second feature, the Palme D’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) but also Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, Carmen Castillo, Juan Antonio Bayona and many others. What do you think that says about the upcoming generation of filmmakers and how has your experience teaching graduate film students at Columbia affected your view?
RP: I’m not sure it really has, I’m not particularly more optimistic, sadly art isn’t democratic. It tends to be much more elite and I do think there are some wonderful filmmakers out there but unfortunately the number of films that have been made have gotten larger and larger and that hasn’t necessarily led to a significant increase in quality. Someone once remarked on how at one point there were 50 independent films made [yearly] in America and five were good and now there’s 500 made and ten of them are what you would qualify as “good” and I think that’s about right.
The sad truth of the matter is that most people who make films have zero talent. I mean that shouldn’t be a surprise that same rule applies to most people who paint paintings or write novels. There are so many films out there that it makes it incredibly difficult to great through all the trash and the fact of the matter is that a lot of these people shouldn’t be making films and of course I’m not saying we should stop anybody. Which is why the functioning of the New York Film Festival is so important because finally in a way we feel that we can possibly clear through the noise.