Richard Peña has been enthralled with film for as long as he can remember. As a 9-year-old perusing the shelves of the 96th Street branch of the New York Public Library in Manhattan, the young Peña gravitated towards the section on cinema. “It seemed odd to me that there were books on film. I just never imagined that such a thing existed,” he said. Peña checked out a book called \"The Liveliest Art,\" a history of cinema that is still widely used as a college textbook. “I became very interested in seeing the films it spoke about, and from that point on I became an avid viewer and seeker of information about film,” he said.
Since then, Peña has become an influential promoter of new talent as well as a highly respected professor of film. He began teaching world cinema-focused film studies at Columbia in 1989, the year after he became program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. As head of its New York Film Festival selection committee for the past 25 years, he has helped introduce international cinema to a U.S. audience and championed directors such as Pedro Almódovar, Lars Von Trier and Yasujiro Ozu.
This October, as the festival celebrates its 50th year, he is preparing to step down from his role at the Film Society and will be honored at a gala celebration. Peña will turn his attention to the new film studies Ph.D. program at the School of the Arts, Columbia’s opportunities for teaching abroad and private curatorial projects in cinema. On leaving Lincoln Center, he muses, “After 25 years of working two jobs, I think it’ll be nice to only have one.”
Q. You began studying film at a very young age. Was there a movie that stands out at the start of the path that led you to where you are today?
My epiphany was when I was 12 years old, and I went to the New York Film Festival to see a silent film called \"The Wedding March\" because it was directed by Erich von Stroheim and I had read a lot about him. I was able to convince my parents to let me go, and one of my aunts was kind enough to go with me. Growing up in New York was the ideal place for someone with my interest. It was an astonishingly rich city for film. I think it still does pretty well, but back then there were so many repertory houses, film societies and cinemas that showed alternative offerings. The New York Film Festival would show its load of films, and then over the next year those films would receive theatrical distribution and then after that be repeated by the repertory houses. You could really see a lot of great cinema all year.
Q. How did your study of film become more formalized?
I became a conscious and conscientious viewer of film. I began keeping lists. There were directors whose work I liked, and I wanted to make sure that I saw all the films by Luis Buñuel or all the films by Howard Hawks. One could look every week in \"The Village Voice\" or other publications and chart what your week was going to be like in terms of school and the movies you wanted to catch. This continued through high school and into college. When I got to college, it was really before the great wave of academic film study. In most places it was still in its infancy. I took a couple of film classes, and in my junior year I had a class with Vlada Petric. He was the real deal, a serious film scholar and academic. He showed me that there were people who really did devote their life to the study of film. I studied with him and when I graduated I became his teaching assistant and taught film at different places and in 1980 got the job as the curator of film at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Q. How did you end up in your dual roles at the Film Society and Columbia?
I moved from Chicago to New York in 1988 to take up my position at the Film Society and prior to that I wrote to my friend and now colleague and office mate, Annette Insdorf, and asked if there was any chance for me to do some part-time teaching at Columbia. Most of the time while I was in Chicago I was also teaching at the School of the Art Institute and other places, so I wanted to just keep my hand in. Annette very graciously wrote back and said, “Yes, I would love to have you teach.” In the spring of 1989 I offered my first course, a class on what we used to call third world cinema, and I’ve been teaching at Columbia every semester since.
Q. What are the critical elements of the Columbia film program?
Well, for me there are a couple of different things. I think Columbia has few peers in terms of the education that it gives people coming to study directing, producing and screenwriting. Teaching film studies within such a program, you’re aware of the fact that you’re teaching practitioners, not necessarily scholars, critics, people who are going to be on the academic side of film study. I think all of us who teach film studies in our heart of hearts hope that what we do affects practitioners and the way that films will be made. But for the past six or seven years we’ve also had an M.A. in film studies. So now we have students who come into the graduate program who are primarily interested in film study and become professors, critics, curators. For them, I think the goal is to make sure they have a solid film education—the latest thinking about film, the latest writing about film, the new areas of interest—so they walk out ready to enter into the field at the highest level. Finally, we have undergraduate film education. No filmmaking, just film studies. For them, the challenge is to provide a solid education in film study—history, theory and criticism—so they walk out with a level of competence that they could apply to a graduate school or do something with that knowledge.
Q. How has digital technology affected how film is taught and made?
When I teach a class on Chinese cinema, I can now show students clips from films from the 1930s or from the 1940s or very recent films. That would have been almost impossible when you were restricted to celluloid, unless you were working or teaching in a film archive and had access to those films, and even then, the mechanics of it might have been very, very complicated. But now I can just say, “Let’s look at this,” and show five minutes from a film and then continue my lecture. It’s infinitely enriched the experience of students because hopefully it’s not only illustrated what you’re talking about, but also whetted their appetite to see more of these films. I think one can say that at this point the technology has become easy enough that almost anyone could actually make a film. Whether or not they’re going to make a good film, and how you’re going to judge that, that’s a whole other issue. The mysticism around film when I was growing up, how you did it and how difficult it was and how skilled you had to be, that’s all gone. Nowadays people make films on their camera and make films on their telephones. That has changed our relationship to image-making. But there are other questions we can ask. One can say that having film in an academic institution helps filmmakers, when assessing their own or other people’s work, to ask not only “How?” but also “Why?”
Q. You’re stepping down from your role at the Film Society. What’s next for you at Columbia?
We’re now beginning a Ph.D. program in film studies and I think that will require more of my time. I’m looking to some of the opportunities that Columbia has, and will have even more of, for teaching abroad. As you know, one of the mandates of Columbia seems to be to really make it a global university, an international university. I think I’m well positioned to be part of that and I would like to become more involved in that effort.
Q. Are there films that you recommend that film students, both practitioners and scholars, should see?
There are so many films that people should see. The (British Film Institute’s) Sight & Sound poll, which just came out, named the 10 greatest films of all time, according to more than 800 international critics. I guess what I would tell them is to see a lot. If there’s any tendency that worries me about contemporary film students, it’s how little they see and how little curiosity they have about both classic cinema and contemporary cinema. I think that’s partially because everything’s a little too much in reach, it’s too easy, and you say, “Oh, if I don’t catch it, I’ll get it on Netflix,” which isn’t always the same thing (as seeing it on a big screen) and which isn’t always true. My hope is that anyone who’s interested in either filmmaking or film study develops a voracious appetite for cinema and sees all kinds of cinema from all parts of the world and all genres.
Q. Is there a film that you personally could watch over and over again?
There are a few of them. No matter how many times I see Luis Buñuel’s \"Los Olvidados,\" I’m always transported and challenged. It’s amazing to see how incredibly affected the students are after watching it. Sixty-two years after the film was made, it continues to pack a very powerful punch. There are very few works you can say that about. Every time I see the film it brings me back to the reasons why I got involved in film in the first place.
—Interview by Nick Obourn