NYFF’s Leading Man (Part 2 of 2)

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The thrilling conclusion of Bwogger Christian Kamongi’s interview with NYFF head and Columbia professor Richard Pena.

margotChristian Kamongi:
Speaking of American independent cinema, I’ve noticed that two of the three American comedies are in the tradition of Whit Stillman’s Mannerist comedies (The Darjeeling Limited and Margot at the Wedding [pictured, right]), and there are two features by Sidney Lumet and Brian de Palma, veterans who have lately been on the fringe of American critical opinion. Do you think the American lineup in any way reflects any positive trends in American cinema?

Richard Peña: It’s a little hard for one festival to reflect the whole course of such a large national cinema as ours, but it does display a very strong reality that there are many American filmmakers who are making powerful personal visions. We do have an unusual conjuncture of our most talented filmmakers making films in the same year; we have features from Noah Baumbach, the Coen Brothers, De Palma. It’s not like that every day and all of these directors seem to be at the top of their game.

CK: Why did the committee decide to select The Darjeeling Limited and Persepolis as the opening and closing pieces. After all, that’s an honor that’s been bestowed in the past two years on four films that went on to incredible critical acclaim: Good Night, and Good Luck; Cache; The Queen; and Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Darjeeling Limited is a film that’s represented a real improvement for Wes Anderson, I think there were things about his previous work that was a little two hermetic and precious. This film really answers to those criticisms and goes beyond that, and entered a really incredibly risky situation but it paid off. And that’s one of the reasons I thought this would be a really great feature is because we’ve all been tracking the highs and lows of his career, so it was truly exciting to see him achieve this new height. With Persepolis [pictured, left], it was something we thought was charming and wonderful, and I’ve also been interested because animation is not really my beat even though there’s been a lot of high quality work being done in that field. Very proud that last year we showcased Satoshi Kon’s animated feature Paprika, in fact were working on a Satoshi Kon retrospective for next year. And, you know, showing Persepolis is really a way of not just showing an extremely fine film but also signaling that now there is really adult animation – and I don’t mean Felix the Cat. Real animated features for thinking adults.

CK: Speaking of features that have opened up festivals and our earlier discussion about Hou-Hsiao Hsien crossing cultural boundaries, is Wong-Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights as bad as everyone says it is? [My Blueberry Nights opened the Cannes Film Festival and is the Hong Kong auteur’s first feature in English]

RP: [Laughs to himself for some time] uh I’d prefer not to talk about films that aren’t in the festival [I’ll leave the giggling up to interpretation].

CK: Now were the features at the Cannes Film Festival as impressive as everyone claims they were? I remember the lineup for the 2005 Festival was extraordinary: A History of Violence, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Election [Johnny To, not Alexander Payne], Match Point, Cache, Broken Flowers, and Three Times, but there wasn’t a significant amount of hoopla, so was this year’s festival that extraordinary?

RP: There were a number of films that personally appealed to me, but overall it was a festival that wasn’t highlighted by as many head-scratchers which left you in state of asking what exactly were those individuals thinking as there were in years before.

CK: No Brown Bunny.

RP: Exactly, I don’t think there was a single film, at least in the competition, that was unfathomably bad. Overall, the features were of generally high quality?

CK: Are there any features in previous years that joined the lineup with a certain amount of public skepticism concerning their appearance that left far more prestigiously?

RP: Oh well yeah I think this festival has done that for a lot of films [awkward silence]

CK: Well, any in particular?

RP: A film that I think we were very proud to have in the festival and that also helped launch his career is Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video. That was an extraordinary film that hadn’t done very well on the festival circuit, we showed it and it really helped establish him. There’s a wonderful film here in the selection called Calle Sante Fe that appeared at Cannes and either nobody saw it or nobody talked about it. And I was really curious about it because it’s a Chilean feature and that’s always been an area of the world that’s intrigued me. When I talked to individuals who had seen it they had mediocre opinions of it and when the selection committee and I saw it we were blown away, it’s a masterpiece. This is a feature that you could say, “Yes, it was at Cannes but that did nothing for it,” and I think our limited selection helps do something for it that many other festivals can’t [you know who you are, Toronto Film Festival, you and your 300-400 features per year]. Then there’s the case of Mystic River which got a really chilly reception at Cannes, zero awards, all the press was unimpressed, so when we invited it for our opening night, it was sort of a second life for it. Of course it’s a Clint Eastwood film, so that meant a certain amount of success but I think we really assisted in boosting it and Warner Brothers intelligently decided to wait for its reception at the festival to see how to market it. It was a good decision because it led them to give it a more enthusiastic release in Europe and the United States, doing far better then anyone expected.

CK: Is there any feature that you hope gets distributed in this lineup that you think might be at a particular risk of not getting distributed?

RP: Well, I’d like every film to get distributed.

CK: Of course, but what particular ones?

RP: Well the two previous mentioned features, Silent Light and Secret Sunshine will hopefully get distributed. In fact, in the case of Secret Sunshine, there’s a lot of interest. We sometimes try to do a little match making with studios to get distribution for features but it’s really up to them.

CK: Now this has nothing to do with the film festival itself, but as you’re aware we lost a lot of masters this year, but while Ousmane Sembene will get a retrospective at Film Forum, and Antonioni and Bergman’s oeuvres are largely available on DVD, Edward Yang, our truly most untimely loss, has very little of his work available to U.S audiences. Have you heard of any retrospectives here or elsewhere in the city for the late Yang?

RP: I honestly don’t know. I’ve been in touch with his sister, who I knew pretty well and their family is still recovering but I did mention about doing something in New York City and she told me she loved it and would be really supportive of it but I decided to give her some time. I’ve decided to return to it probably after all of the business of this year’s festival, but, you know she’s also not a film person, so she probably didn’t want to get into issues of prints and rights, etc.

CK: Well that’s it, thank you so much for this interview, we really appreciate it.

RP: It’s my pleasure.


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  1. Anonymous

    Wow, what a clever & intriguing comment...gratuitous criticism nevver gets dull...

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