New York City was very cold and very snowy when I met Richard Peña. We warmed our hands in our hot drinks — a small black coffee for Peña, a large black tea for me — and talked about the cinephilia that led to his amazing career in film. Peña has worked as the Film Society of Lincoln Center program director, the New York Film Festival director and as a professor at institutions such as Princeton and Columbia. Spanish words appeared continuously during our conversations and we said goodbye a la española — a kiss on each cheek.
AR: How did your relationship with cinema start?
RP: I have always loved movies. When I was about 10 years old, I saw a book called The Liveliest Art by Arthur Knight. It was a history of the movies, and I became very fascinated by it. I never had thought that movies had a history: for me, they just were, in some existential way. I read that book and started to learn names of people and films, and I really started checking out what was playing in New York, which, in the 60s, was very much a cinephile town.
I was 12 when I went, for the first time, to the New York Film Festival and that was a very transcendent moment. It was just wonderful: I saw The Wedding March (Erich von Stroheim, 1928), Henri Langlois was there… and I thought it was all fantastic and unbelievable. It made me feel that cinema was a place where I really wanted to be.
AR: 12 is such a young age! Any other films that made a big impact on you at that age?
RP: I was about 14 the first time I say Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) and it had a huge impact on me. The discovery of Luis Buñuel was also very important. My mother’s family is Spanish, and I was very close to that side of my family. Spain, back then, was like a black hole — and here was this incredible Spanish director, with a very distinctive body of work that I instantly associated myself with it. I felt that it spoke to me in a way that few other films did.
I remember that, after my freshmen year in high school, around 1968, the Elgin Cinema did a Buñuel retrospective, and I saw almost everything. New York had a lot of really good repertory movie houses back then. There was the Elgin, there was the Carnegie, there was the Bleecker… and then there were other film programs that were around, like film clubs. There was a healthier system back then. For instance, if the New York Film Festival would screen a movie, it would then be screened around the city and, finally, all these repertory houses would also pick them up. If you missed a film in one place, you could see it somewhere else.
Also around the summer of ’68, the Metropolitan Museum did something on surrealism and they screened L’Age d’Or (Luís Buñuel, 1930). I went to see it with a friend, and I was very knocked out by the film. I especially remember the moment when the man is dragging the priest, and the carcasses. And I just remember thinking about the brilliance and the boldness of that, it was just on another level and it shook me up in lots of ways. I became aware of the power of cinema and of what cinema can do; suddenly you feel yourself lifted into something else, in a kind of ecstasy of an aesthetic level that is hard to describe or translate. It just hits you that this is amazing. And, for two high school catholic boys, that was fantastic.
AR: How does working hand in hand with cinema as a programmer and a teacher transform your cinephilia?
RP: Things were much more chaotic back then. By the time I came along to Lincoln Center, the idea of an “art film” was very well established: the Bergmans, the Fellinis and the Antonionis were recognized in a certain category. The bigger argument was American auteurism, whether or not you could actually take Hitchcock as seriously as you took Bergman or Ford as seriously as you took Kurosawa.
Obviously, my relation has changed over time. When I was working for Lincoln Center, I had a certain professional duty to see absolutely as much as humanly possible. I don’t have to do that nowadays, so I have really cut down my commercial film-going, although I am still very interested in watching many other things. For instance, I think I have become more and more interested in the fringes, in the things that are off the beaten track, that people don’t know about. It has been fun for me to be able to devote more of my time to that.
AR: It is interesting how you bring up the fringes, as I feel that much of your work has been able to cultivate a fringe — cinephilia in others. For example, with your international programming work at Lincoln Center, you’ve helped audiences discover Iranian cinema or Chinese cinema — or with the very diverse syllabus that you teach.
RP: To be honest, at Lincoln Center, I also had far more access to international work than my predecessor. The difference of what you could see in 1985 and what you could see in 1995 was enormous! You could really see 30 or 40 Iranian films that year if you just sat there and watched the VHS’s, which would have been much harder in 1985.
When teaching, my basic feeling is that if you really want to write film history, you really have to see it first… and I think that too many people don’t see enough and they stay with the same set of films and make all their hypothesis and theories based on that. But there is a lot more out there, and very easy ways to watch it nowadays as technology helps us see almost whatever we want.
AR: Do you think cinephilia changes with the wide availability of cinema thanks to technology?
RP: The thing about cinephilia is that it has lost its drive. When I was in college, I saw that the Japan Society in New York was showing An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujirō Ozu, 1962). I was just discovering Ozu, and I really wanted to see that screening, so I hitchhiked from Boston to New York, saw the movie and hitchhiked back! I was absolutely convinced that it was the last time in my life to see this film. That kind of drive doesn’t exist anymore because everybody knows that they can see it again on Netflix, YouTube or somewhere else. I think we miss that kind of cinephilia.
However, the scope of cinephilia has become very wide. If the older type of cinephilia was based on old Hollywood or French classics, now cinephilia is much more challenging because we have much more access to everything. So, it just depends on where you stop. But, if we saw an end point, it wouldn’t be half as fun. We are always trying to learn more and there is so much more to learn.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Alejandra Rosenberg (@alejarosenberg) thinks and writes on moving images, philosophy, feminism and poetry.