Rajendra Roy seizes a dream opportunity to curate MoMA’s legendary film department in New York.
Thursday, March 22, 2012
For Rajendra “Raj” Roy, guiding the nation’s pre-eminent museum film department has been more a hallowed mission than a career.
The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film was founded in 1935 and contains a treasure chest of four million film stills and 22,000 films. They range from the foundational (George Méliès’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon) to the pioneering (Robert Flaherty’s 1922 documentary Nanook of the North), the forward-thinking (Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) to the slyly nostalgic (Clint Eastwood’s 1992 The Unforgiven), and all manner of cinematic art and entertainment in between.
In 2007 Roy, who graduated from Seaside High School in 1990, went through a gauntlet of 15 interviews before landing the post he today occupies: the Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of MoMA’s Department of Film. He leads a staff of 25 through the museum’s screenings, acquisitions, research and preservation efforts.
“To be honest, I think my biggest concern coming here was not to mess it up,” Roy says from his MoMA office, the day before flying to the Paris opening of MoMA’s hit Tim Burton retrospective at Paris’ La Cinematheque.
“[MoMA’s film department] is the gold standard of film in a museum context. But I understood I was chosen to bring a new perspective. My predecessor [Mary Lea Bandy] was here 30 years and had a legendary run. My generation, nurtured by independent cinema, is critical.”
Roy came with an unconventional set of skills. Instead of academic film world references, he brought degrees in political science and French literature from UC San Diego. He studied art history and French literature at Paris’ Sorbonne Nouvelle, and learned film and management by doing rather than studying.
He had been executive director of MIX: The New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival, and film program manager at the Guggenheim Museum. When MoMA tapped him on the shoulder, he was the artistic director of the Hamptons International Film Festival and a programmer of Germany’s Berlinale.
The selection of Roy for the coveted post – tracked by The New York Times in a big story about young leaders in the arts – signaled a shift in the direction of the museum’s film department toward a more youthful, indie, diverse and tech-savvy future.
His focus, and thus the focus of MoMA’s influential film department, has been toward a broader swath of the filmmaking world. His first major retrospective at MoMA, he says, was for Mike Nichols, director of The Graduate, Silkwood, Postcards from the Edge and Angels in America.
“Getting to know Mike,” Roy says, “watching all his films with him here, was like… you can’t believe your life.”
Roy’s also championed filmmakers who haven’t gotten the spotlight he thinks they deserve.
“At this point, you have to look internationally – Latin America, Asia – to know anything about film,” he says. “Witness the Academy Awards. [People] thought The Artist was American, but it was a French production. And [men] may be the dominant force [in Hollywood] by numbers, but no one serious can talk about film, going forward, without talking about women directors.”
MoMA screens about 700 films a year in its four theaters, including its New Director/New Film Series that breaks new talents, and a two-week documentary festival that just wrapped. Though the film vaults – located in Hamlin, Penn. – and acquisitions dive deep into the historical and artistic spectrum, Roy says the museum has, from the beginning, cherished the entertainment value of the medium, too: “The most popular to the esoteric.”
“MoMA is a non-multiplex situation; the mindset is different,” he says. “[There’s] an openness to expect something different. We don’t have traditional concessions, or popcorn on the floor. It’s not meant to make people feel uncomfortable. A great part of cinema is watching and enjoying a great film with other people.”
The museum recently screened Bridesmaids in front of 400 people “laughing their heads off,” along with writer and actress Kristen Wiig.
Roy traces this heady and coveted position to his upbringing in Seaside, where he and his fashion designer phenom sister, Rachel, grew up. Their father, a first-generation Indian immigrant and believer in the American Dream, still lives there.
“We really didn’t go to the cinema very much,” he says. “It was a special treat. So maybe it was a little forbidden. Like Rachel: She didn’t have ready access to fancy clothes, makeup or jewelry, so I think we gravitated toward those things dreamers gravitate to. I’d like to say [our success] was the result of the nutritious food at Seaside High School’s cafeteria, but I don’t think so. I think it’s because our parents encouraged our crazy dreams.”
He also extracts other lessons from Seaside.
“The amazing thing growing up on Peninsula, at the time, was the incredible diversity, especially in Seaside,” he says. “The influx of [Fort Ord] kids from around the world was a huge asset for the school. There are always the moments, growing up in small community, you wish for escape, and it is absolutely possible. But [the diversity] gave you more of a world view.”