By William Wolf


Film festival galas are generally reserved for renowned stars, but on October 10, 2012, during the 50th anniversary run of the present New York Film Festival, a huge audience turned out to salute Richard Peña, retiring as Program Director and Selection Committee Chair of the New York Film Society of Lincoln Center after 25 years of service. He has become a star of another kind, a visionary administrator who, to hear those who paid tribute to him, has had a profound effect on cinema in this country and abroad, here because of international films chosen for screening and reaching the public, and abroad because of the many directors who during his tenure were given a shot at the American market, and as a result, greater attention in their home countries. That’s truly an achievement to honor, and it was a pleasure to attend the tribute.

It is a measure of the man who, according to the impression I have, has not pursued glory, but has found his glory in doing his job. Or jobs, you must say, for the Film Society has hired two people to fill his shoes. While being interviewed on the Alice Tully Hall stage by Michael Moore, he impressed me by saying. “I would not be here if it were not for Richard Roud." Instead of taking all the credit, he went out of his way to pay tribute to Roud as co-founder of the Festival, along with Amos Vogel, whom Peña also cited. And therein lies a story.

Roud, who first held the post Peña assumed, was let go after the Festival had already made its mark as an important cultural event on the New York film scene. There was an aftermath of concern, as I remember it. Jump the years to the speech at the event honoring Peña, when Joanne Koch, former Executive Director of the Film Society, remarked that she used to think that she would be noted in her obituary “for firing Richard Roud.” Now she hoped that she would noted “for hiring Richard Peña.”

The early builders of a festival tend to be forgotten as the years roll by, but here’s to Richard for trying to give them their due on a night when he was justifiably reaping the heaps of praise for what he had done during his tenure. And to judge by those who came to praise him it has been plenty, including the extensive growth and broadening of the Film Society’s year-round activity as well as the Festival itself.

Film clips were shown of a string of notables talking about Peña’s contributions to film and colleagues who described the impact of working with him. The portrait that emerged is one of a genial, dedicated taskmaster and visionary who has reached out to focus on new sources of film world-wide.

A lively side of the evening came with the decision to have Michael Moore as chair, graciously introduced by Executive Director Rose Kuo, and also interview Peña. Sitting on chairs facing each other but tilted toward the audience, the scene was a reversal of the usual, with Peña being the one questioned instead of his doing the questioning, as he had with the many directors, writers and stars that have been Festival guests. Moore made a major point about how the Festival helped him when he was invited to show his “Roger and Me.”

After Peña traced his early interest in film, in response to Moore’s effort to fill in the honoree’s background, the two settled into a provocative discussion on how viewing of film is changing, and not for the better. Peña may seek out the best of cinema from around the world, having opened up new interest in films from Korea, China, Africa, the Mid-East and Latin America. But increasingly the movies are being looked at by a new generation, not in theaters, but on the hand held gadgetry that is proliferating or on computer screens. The theater-going experience is being diminished by technology and both Peña and Moore expressed worry about it.

Otherwise, there was considerable levity in the banter between host and honoree. It all ended with another long, standing ovation like the one when Peña was first introduced, but not before the honoree got in a thank you to colleagues and students at Columbia University, where he continues to teach. The man’s range is wide. He undoubtedly has earned all the kudos he has received, and his mark has been indelibly left on the New Yorr Film Society of Lincoln Center's course of history. Posted October 11th, 2012.


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