Sharing the Stage: Interview with Columbia University Professor Richard Pena
Posted 02/22/2019 10:47AM

Recently,Keystone’s Education Salon invited Columbia University Professor Richard Pena to campus. Mr. Pena, a prominent cinema historian and Professor of Professional Practice in Film in the Faculty of the Arts at Columbia University, gave a highly detailed lecture on the origins of cinema and the influence that this art form has had on the world. Mr. Pena spoke with Keystone’s Marketing and Communications Department and the Office of College Counseling in an exclusive interview prior to the start of the event. In addition, Mr. Pena spoke with a Keystone student on the stage in the Multi-Purpose Hall about the future of cinema.




Richard Peña

      Cinema historian, Professor from Columbia University


Cinema historian, Professor Richard Pena from Columbia University visited Keystone Academy last week and gave a university level lecture to the community. Art, in all its forms, can be extraordinary tools for reflecting on society, including the most challenging issues we face in modern times. Film, in particular, deepens our understanding of modern life and the world we live in. Mr. Pena’s lecture touched on the value of cinema today, the courage of bourgeoning artists who decide to tackle this fast-changing medium, and what students can do now to craft a life in the arts.  




Read below for an excerpt of the interview as Mr. Pena talks about the merits of Liberal Arts education and the profound effects that cinema has on the modern world.


Q: At Columbia University, there is a strong emphasis on art itself. In order to prepare your students for the rigors of university life, even for film students, it is imperative for students to learn a range of subjects from psychology to art history. Traditional art schools focus on the practical and technical aspects of Cinema. Columbia focuses heavily on art theory. Could you please let us know why?

A: I think that’s been to me the genius of the American education system is to really introduce students to the broadest range of possible subjects. During the course of their academic studies, students will discover that they are interested in things that they never thought they would be interested in. We don’t have an undergraduate filmmaking program at Columbia but instead encourage undergraduates who want to study the history, theory and criticism of film to take our art classes. And, of course, we encourage them to take classes in other areas as well – for example literature and philosophy and art history, because all of that will help them with their study of film.



Q: As a professor who teaches undergraduate students, do you see any difference, for example, from students who have gone through the undergraduate filmmaking programs or someone who actually just came straight from a liberal arts education?


A: People who come through liberal arts programs have done a lot of what you might think of as ‘self-education’ in cinema. There are people who have seen thousands of films and read everything even though they weren’t focusing on that particular area in their studies. Sometimes there are people who haven’t had the chance to see many films because perhaps they’re from a certain part of the country or from another country. They’ve never had the access to those things. So, we try and provide that for them. For graduate students who come from good undergraduate programs, it means that we can start on a higher level with them and move on from there.


Q: For your presentation for tonight you’re going to discuss the impact of different fields of science and also studies on creation. How do you think that advancements in these fields will impact filmmaking today?

A: When you’re interested in film you can study history, you can study literature, you can study philosophy, you can study fine art because all of these subjects have impacted film. Film was an extraordinary crossroads, not only for the other arts, but many, many different disciplines. That’s why we have so many different people who have become interested in film. The history of cinema has always been about the interaction of cinema with technology, with science, with philosophy and other subjects. As time goes on, some of our ideas about film change as some of the developments in these areas change. Certainly, for example, we are now living in the age of digital cinema. Digital technology has literally changed every aspect of the medium. Now, we’re still really trying to figure out what those changes have been, how long lasting, how different, but there’s no doubt in my mind that cinema after, say, 1990 is quite different than, say, cinema before 1990, due to the introduction of digital technology.


Q: I don’t think anyone would disagree with me that you are the authority in film teaching and film studies at Columbia, so from your point of view, what is the most important element in teaching film at its core?

A: The most important thing for a film teacher is to try and make sure that his or her students are as open as possible because we live in a culture where there is this enormously powerful and enormously dominant entity which we could call Hollywood or we could just call the commercial cinema, that really informs so much of what we think about what film is or how film functions. Hollywood has made many fantastic films but that’s not the only way to make films. There are a lot of different alternatives and other ways of thinking about film.


I think all of us have to try and really open people up to the many different forms that films can take. I gave that quote before which I always love by the great British art critic E.H. Gombrich which is “there is no correct reason to like a work of art, but there are incorrect reasons to dislike a work of art”. 


Q: I’d like to shift the focus from filmmaking to college applications, which is also a dialogue. It’s a dialogue or conversation between the applicant with the admissions officer. Now in college applications, all students need to tell a story about themselves, and to make themselves appealing to the school that they want to enter. Many students find it demanding to write a story. As a film expert who is telling stories in films, do you have any advice to high school students about storytelling and what we can do to actually prepare them to be better storytellers?

A: It’s a good and a difficult question. I think it just comes down to honesty. I would say, just tell people to be as honest as they can. Before you can write such an essay, ask yourself ‘Why do I want to go to that school? Is it just because it’s a famous school? Or is there something about that particular school that I really want to go to?’ I think students have to really choose colleges a bit defensively – what do I really want? Students have to get away from the name of a school, and ask themselves, what’s really best for me?




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