Pena on a mission to represent 'cinema'

It gets more tempting every year to say that the New York Film Festival has reneged on its mission to represent what programmer Richard Pena has called “the state of the cinema.”

The word cinema usually suggests arty-ness. This is the Lincoln Center gathering, after all, that in 1970 (before Pena’s time) welcomed Rosa von Praunheim’s “Anita: Dances of Vice.” Audiences at one press screening, walked out en masse apparently disappointed in the German director’s followup to “It’s Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, Rather the Situation in Which He Lives.”

One thing is clear: In combing the global festival circuit and trolling dark alleys for a worthwhile lineup, the fest has broadened the definition of cinema in recent years to include selections with enough gloss or star power to command media attention. After all, the august Upper West Siders now face competition from the deep-pocketed Tribeca Film Festival, as well as year-round programs by the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of the Moving Image.

The 45th edition of the NYFF deftly shrugged off any suggestion of sellout, though, despite opening Sept. 28 with Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited” — not exactly a fringy artpic — and giving some of its coveted 28 feature slots to Brian DePalma, Sidney Lumet and a doc about Don Rickles directed by John Landis.

This year’s fest turned out to be another shrewdly arrayed tray of amuses bouche, with rapt audiences and media types framing the discussion of films.

Broadway and 65th Street remains, however, a long way from Park City or the Croisette — and that’s a huge relief. Everything is geographically focused. There are a few parties, but all of them worthwhile and all of them involving formalwear or substantive conversation — and sometimes both. The sheer New York-ness of a film — witness this year’s “I’m Not There,” Todd Haynes’ daringly conceived Bob Dylan biopic — can sometimes carry the day. (Ditto Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and Abel Ferrara’s “Go-Go Tales.”)

Films do not so much premiere in New York as arrive — last year, it was “The Queen,” the year before “Good Night, and Good Luck” — and the Dylan pic had already prompted latenight conversations in Telluride and Venice. But when it unspooled in New York, especially at a press screening at the restored Walter Reade Theater, there was something about the notion of Jim Hoberman, longtime Village Voice critic, engaging the Brown-educated Haynes on the matter of multiple identities and Dylan’s music that made for a memorable sit.

The audience clearly agreed, groaning when a woman posed a featherweight question akin to something heard backstage at the Golden Globes: “Could you share an amusing anecdote from the making of the film?”

“I was high-fiving my guys because the room was packed with critics, but it seemed like they mostly were with the film and stayed for the press conference,” says Steve Bunnell, distribution chief at the Weinstein Co. “That’s how New York is different from other festivals, because you get an immediate sense of the traditional media reaction.”

Pena, who has programmed the fest for 20 years, says the fest’s rigid focus is the key. “There’s so much hype and so much noise now around every film that comes out that we hope the festival is even more vital now than it was 45 years ago.”

Those trekking to Lincoln Center this year noticed one distinctly different aspect: The “campus” of the Film Society is undergoing a massive renovation — as is the rest of the august, middle-aged institution.

A $37 million facelift will result in two new screening rooms to go with the 268-seat Walter Reade, plus an amphitheater, a rooftop garden, a cafe and “zippers” — those electronic outdoor news tickers that could be used to convey showtimes or even haikus to passersby. “We’re going to offer the zippers to artists,” Pena pledges.

On Broadway, in between the powerhouse-grossing Lincoln Plaza art multiplex and mainstream Lincoln Square, there is an opportunity to boost the Film Society’s profile.

“We wanted to be more front and center,” says Claudia Bonn, exec director of the Film Society. “The Walter Reade is our home, but it’s kind of hidden, back near Amsterdam Avenue.”

A 40th anni gala for New Line on Oct. 5 was the first event to raise money expressly for the project. It generated $2 million, and the Elinor Bunin-Munroe Film Center is expected to open in February 2010.

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