Richard Peña to leave Film Society

What's up down on 65th street?

Richard Peña will be stepping down from his post as programmer-in-chief at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, it was recently announced. The Society’s executive director, Rose Kuo, has said, “Richard has been a shining light for more than two decades at the Film Society, guiding us in the discovery of artists like Pedro Almodovar, Mike Leigh, Lars Von Trier, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Hong Sang Soo and many more.”

Well, O.K–but what happened?

Peña, who’s characterized by a reticent sort of bonhomie is a hardy, enthusiastic sixty-something with the enviable position of programming the country’s most venerable film festival. Why leave? And who could possibly fill his shoes? Leonard Maltin? Do give me a break–please.

When you speak with Peña you get the feeling that he holds back–professionalism or prudence? Or just too many stories to tell?

I first heard of Richard Peña at Columbia University (he’s been teaching there since 1989). I signed up for his course on Latin American cinema.

I was in a big hurry to start the course. I’d heard of Peña’s encyclopedic knowledge of movies and his passion for the art form from a historical as well as a directorial perspective; here’s a guy who literally stepped inside a movie theatre as a kid and never came out of it (for those of you who live in New York, that theatre was the Elgin, located on 8th avenue. It is now a modern-dance theatre called The Joyce).

Being Latino himself, Peña regaled us with personal anecdotes about the filmmakers whose work we absorbed, like Luis Buñuel and Raúl Ruiz.

We saw 1967’s Terra Em Transe (Entranced earth), among others, as well as the mesmeric La hora de los hornos (The hour of the furnaces; 1970) by Fernando Solanas—in hindsight, what an incredible thing it was to see La hora de los hornos in Richard Peña’s class.

In 2010 the Spanish Ministry of Culture granted Peña the award in July to honor his contributions to Spanish culture.

All told, Peña will have led the Society through twenty-five years of retrospectives, revivals and festivals. He will relinquish his duties at the close of next year’s festival–its fiftieth edition.

What an awesome legacy he leaves behind.

There’s been so many changes at the Society in the last few years that I’ve stopped trying to keep track of them. Mara Manus was hired to much fanfare and then she was gone. Rose Kuo became the society’s Executive Director and Indiewire’s Eugene Fernandez came on board as well, adding to the Society’s crowded masthead.

With federal funding on the one hand and the Lincoln Center board of directors on the other, the divergent priorities and an American cultural landscape in utter disrepair thanks to Republicans, my guess is that the Society has become ungovernable.

All we should hope for now is that Peña write a memoir about his distinguished career in the film arts–and regale us with some memorable war stories.

(gallery: Peña with Michelle Williams, Nathalie Baye and Julie Andrews / Getty Images)