Spirit of democracy jousts with pundits at fest

Somebody’s always got a complaint with the New York Film Festival selection. Sometimes it’s a member of the New York Film Festival selection committee.

“How can it be that I’m in the group,” one member said a few years ago, “and there are six films in the festival that I hate?” But there’s always the consoling thought that you’re part of a democracy. Sort of.

“It’s not completely democratic,” says Vogue critic John Powers, who has served several tenures on the committee under NYFF director Richard Pena. “I always found that if there was something I desperately wanted, and I could find one or two others who wanted it, too, we could find a way of getting it in.”

Democracy can have its weird side: At the Sarajevo Film Festival five years ago, this writer, who served on the NYFF committee from 2000-03, found himself at a dinner opposite the often-intimidating director Mike Leigh, who was waxing unhappily about having “All or Nothing” turned down by the NYFF.

“They turned you down??” piped up an indignant Joan DuPont of the International Herald Tribune, oblivious to the fact I was on the committee. While Leigh enumerated his case against the NYFF, I kept my head down, trying to concentrate on my dish of cevapcicci. Did Leigh know I was on the committee? Was he baiting me? I was frozen, because to make matters worse, I hadn’t even seen the film — all four other members had rejected it already, so there was no reason for me to see it pre-festival.

I couldn’t mount a defense, or even take Leigh’s side. And to say I hadn’t seen the film would have seemed like an indictment of the whole system. I just kept eating.

When Pena assumed the directorship of the NYFF in 1988, he continued with the process he inherited from his predecessor Richard Roud: in addition to two permanent members from inside the Film Society of Lincoln Center (Pena and, currently, associate programmer Kent Jones), full-time film critics would usually assume the three remaining positions, and pick the 25 or so films the festival presents. There had been, and have been, notable exceptions: Under Roud, Susan Sontag was on the panel for 12 years; writer Geoffrey O’Brien, who edits the Library of America, was a Pena committeeman for one. But unlike most festivals — or even juries at those festivals — New York is a critic-driven phenomenon.

“Critics come with an awareness of films,” Pena says in the Film Society offices, several stories above the Alice Tully Hall construction that is displacing much of the festival this year. “They’ll say, ‘Have you heard about this?’ John Powers saw an early sneak of ‘Rushmore’ and as I remember the people at Disney had no idea what to do with it. There was some talk of it going straight to video. John called and said, ‘I saw this film, it’s really terrific, can you do anything about it?’ And so I called up Disney and, to make a long story short, by inviting the film, I think we (staged) an intervention in its future.”

Liza Schwarzbaum of Enterainment Weekly, one of the few women who has served on a Pena panel, says programming diversity is not an issue, nor is the presence in Manhattan of the Tribeca Film Festival, whose influence on the NYFF has been the object of speculation.

“Tribeca quickly became ‘prominent,’ whatever that means,” says Schwarzbaum, “but I still don’t think it has gained critical traction. Money and publicity outstrip taste and focus. So I’ve never felt any message from anyone to make the NYFF selections more populist.”

Schwarzbaum adds, however, that Pena “is sensitive to furthering the inclusivity” of the NYFF.

A position on the committee is a prime gig; it means a paid trip to Cannes, and the prestige of working with a festival that embraces the charge that it is elitist and eclectic (“Yeah, I guess we are,” says Pena. “I couldn’t deny it.”) So it’s no surprise Pena gets resumes in the mail.

What disqualifies a critic? Pena says it’s a matter of respect. “I need people on the committee whose opinions I’m going to listen to in a serious way,” he says. “There are people who are very nice and dedicated to the medium, but for whatever reason, I just don’t really think of them as being a first-rate film mind. You want people there who, when they speak, you listen.”

By most accounts, he does listen — and, when necessary, concedes defeat. Although the NYFF programming is more a verbal process than Roud-ish balloting, Pena has often found himself on the losing end of a three-two vote. “I’ve lost some four-one votes,” he says, smiling.

The NYFF process also involves two weeks of morning-to-evening screenings of the 80 or so films Pena has pre-selected for the panel.

“It was a lot more exhausting than I expected,” says current selector Scott Foundas, film editor and critic at LA Weekly. “But it was very democratic. I found Richard to be a very trustworthy commander-in-chief, a fearless leader, warm, fatherly — all of those things.

“He’s very opinionated but he’s receptive to what others have to say, very open to debate and he doesn’t hold onto certain films to the point you think he won’t move come hell or high water. He sponsors an atmosphere in which people feel free to say what they feel.”

Foundas says this year’s NYFF menu, in which only about half the films have distribution, was “a conscious decision.”

“Whenever it came down to the wire, that was the tipping point,” he says. “If it was a choice between a film that was going to come out in a few weeks, or one that needed help, we favored the one without distribution. Because that’s part of the purpose of a film festival.”

It also shows, he adds, that “we weren’t trying to appease any specialized distributors, or trying to lure in ticket buyers.”

One of the frequent complaints about the NYFF roster is that the festival has a catalog of favorite directors and shows their work from festival to festival. Pena denies favoritism. “It’s a blank slate every year.”

Schwarzbaum offers a slightly altered view: “It’s true that if a movie arrives with the name (Manuel) de Oliviera on it (or Olivier Assayas or Aleksandr Sokurov), it gets, let’s say, expedited handling,” she says. “Then again, we’ve passed on some recent Assayas and Oliviera, and have gone happily (and, I’d say, rightfully) for ‘The Queen,’ ignoring purist grumbles that (Stephen) Frears is ‘no auteur.’ “

Powers has a more pragmatic answer: “When you’re in the peak of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s career, he should have a lot of movies in there,” he says. “And I would bet that with Hou Hsiao-Hsein, who’s had more movies in there than anybody, the number of five-nothing votes that got him through would be overwhelming. I voted against Hou once and felt giddy because there was a vote against him. And I lost four-to-one.”

Although no one inside the committee would deny that Pena exercises the lion’s share of influence over what appears in the NYFF, the consensus is satisfaction.

“I think everyone got in the things they really wanted, which is important” says J. Hoberman, the longtime Village Voice critic and a current NYFF member. “And there were a few things Richard wanted that didn’t get in.”

“It wouldn’t make sense to me to have a committee made up of smart, interesting people, and then run roughshod over them,” Pena says. “If I felt I had to do that, I’d try to get rid of the committee. But as along as you have a committee, you want to use it. Sometimes we agree to disagree, and sometimes I think, ‘OK, maybe there not as much to this film as I think there is.'”

NYFF TIP SHEET

Dates: Sep. 28-Oct. 14

Venues: Rose Theater,

Avery Fisher Hall,

Walter Reade Theater &

Stanley H. Kaplan Playhouse

Prizes: Noncompetitive

Preems: 28

Films: 28 new films; three music docs; showcases on Brazilian helmer Pedro de Andrade and Hong Kong’s Cathay Studios

Opening night: Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited”

Centerpiece: Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men”

Closing night: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s “Persepolis”

Panels: HBO Films Directors Dialogues with Wes Anderson, Todd Haynes, Sidney Lumet and Julian Schnabel; The Future Is Now: “Blade Runner” at 25

Retrospectives: The “definitive cut” of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”; Josef von Sternberg’s “Underworld” (1927) with a new score by the Alloy Orchestra; John Ford’s “The Iron Horse” (1924), among other offerings

Special events: New Line Cinema Gala, celebrating the company’s 40 years by honoring co-CEOs Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne. (Oct. 5 at Frederick P. Rose Hall)

Topper: Richard Pena, chairman of the New York Film Festival selection committee

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