photo by Barbara Anastacio
Kent Jones is an esteemed writer, filmmaker, and programmer. He has been the director of the New York Film Festival since 2012, and served on the selection committee for many years before that. His new film, Hitchcock/Truffaut, is both adaptation and homage to Francois Truffaut’s essential book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock, first published in 1966. The film includes interviews with Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Olivier Assayas, and more, compiled with clips from the films and excerpts from the original interview tapes, adding up to a fascinating and inspiring study of Hitchcock’s work. It’s a must-see for both cinephiles and filmmakers.
I met Jones at the Film Society of Lincoln Center offices above the Walter Reade Theater, where he arrived wearing Velcro biking gloves and a backpack. We ducked into a vacant office overlooking the Lincoln Center campus to discuss Hitchcock, film criticism, and upper-middle-class savagery.
When did you first come into contact with the book?
I think I was about 12 years old. There was this TV series that Richard Schickel did called The Men Who Made the Movies that was on PBS. I was [already] interested in movies but that was the first time I became aware that there was a director. So that introduced me to Wellman, Hawks, Capra, Minelli, and Hitchcock. Not John Ford, he hated John Ford. Anyway, that really captivated my imagination, but, trying to remember the exact sequence of events from when you were young is tough. Marty [Scorsese] is good at that. All I know is I saw that, I was already into movies—the gateway being faces, Bogart—that was the gateway for me. After Mary Poppins or whatever. Then I saw Dial M for Murder in a basement in my headmaster’s house with other kids that I was on a cleaning crew with. Then, not that much later, I saw Psycho and The 39 Steps together on beat-up 16mm prints. That was an eye-opening experience for me. The book was in the midst of that, and my experience of the book was the same as Fincher’s in my movie.
Were there other film books in your house already?
Somebody gave me a copy of “The American Cinema” and that was a big deal for me. Between that and Schickel…looking out for for the movies as they came on TV and puzzling out exactly what it was. It was little by little, I realized, ‘Oh, that’s what editing is…that’s what kinetic movement is.’
Do you think the book excited you [initially] about the idea of making films or thinking critically about films?
[long pause] You know, I don’t know, it excited me about what a film was. My own ambivalence about answering the question has to do with my own make-up, which is always to arrive at the door and then tremble before opening it and stepping in. I guess that’s a personal thing. In the end, both, and then at the same time, around that time I found a copy of Manny’s [Farber’s] book, and I found a copy of Godard’s book of criticism. Godard’s book of criticism is an illuminating experience in the sense that it’s criticism that is specifically written by someone who is already making films in his head. I don’t really agree with the idea that he was still a critic when he was making films, that doesn’t really make sense to me. I think it was the reverse. He was making films…as criticism, as he was writing.
That’s one of the things Truffaut is dealing with in this book. On the one hand there was the American thing he was contesting and trying to counteract. On the other hand, there was the French thing, which would be, from his perspective, a tendency to drive films that are being praised into a kind of description that abstracts them from their actual conditions. I think that’s true, and I think he’s specifically talking about Godard and Rohmer there. I don’t think it’s unjust, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in that criticism. It’s more of an artistic manifesto, the collected Cahier criticism of that period, than it is an example of practice. Manny [on the other hand], that’s more of an example of practice.
This project was brought to you, correct?
Yes, Charles Cohen called me and asked me if I was interested in making a film based on the tapes. There was a project that preceded me, that was going to be made by a filmmaker named Gail Levin who actually passed away. She was planning on making a very different kind of movie.
What was your process of finding your angle?
Nuts and bolts, just going back to the book, reading it through. Finding what it was that excited me, but that seemed that it could also be a movie. Then going through the tapes. All 27 hours of them. And, you know, just listening to them, and finding what it was that was an emotional exchange.
Can you talk about how Truffaut’s motives for writing the book relate to your own motives for writing criticism? I’m thinking of a piece you wrote for Film Comment about Michael Bay (“Bay Watch” July/August ’01), in which you look seriously at a filmmaker many people don’t take seriously at all. Not to compare Michael Bay to Hitchcock, but it seems to me that your approach to that piece is in line with Truffaut’s approach to the book, which came out at a time when Hitchcock wasn’t taken seriously.
I have complicated feelings about that because, first of all, the thing about Michael Bay—and I do feel this way still—people talk about speed but in fact it’s the reverse. I don’t experience those films as fast, I experience them as a gestalt. It’s almost like the drive to create an automatic mechanism for speed winds up producing the reverse. Mad Max [Fury Road] is also like that. Part of it has to do with this thing that Brian De Palma talks about in Noah and Jake’s movie (the forthcoming De Palma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow). He says, ‘If you’re doing an action sequence, you have to know where everybody is.’ And, in Mad Max, I had the same feeling I have while watching other modern action movies, I guess I would call them spectacle movies, for lack of a better term. I never knew who had been killed, and who was still alive, who had been injured, who had been maimed. People would keep coming back and I’d be like, I thought that that guy died. He sprayed himself in the face with silver, what happened? And that’s something that started to happen in the late 80’s.
But, you know, that’s something different. Michael Bay is not…he’s a very sophisticated purveyor of something. Maybe less sophisticated now than he once was, and he’s efficient at it. I think, though, that there’s a problem in criticism, which is taking the model of thinking from one era and transposing it onto another. And I have to say that I think there’s a reverse problem now—and I don’t mean this generally—among the community of film culture and cinephilia that you and I share. I think that there’s this—I hesitate to use the word ‘addiction’—but there’s a feeling of resorting again and again to moralizing. You can do that in any number of ways. One is [to say], anything that costs over a certain amount of money is immediately suspect; anything that has a certain amount of violence, or deals with the police in any way that is not critical is immediately suspect; anything that has a certain patina of the Officially Blessed and Sanctioned is suspect.
The other thing that I think is over valorized – just because of the nature of what it is in relation to everything else – is spareness, slowness. As if spareness and slowness always equal patience, and as if spareness and slowness were a guarantee of purity. I find it, for instance, in the rhetoric around Abel Ferrara. You can find it in the rhetoric around the films of Pedro Costa. I was trying to deal with that when I was writing about Pedro, about Horse Money (“The Turning of the Earth” in July/August 2015 issue of Film Comment). On the other hand, you can feel it in the rejection or marginalization of films that are more generally recognized by the greater culture. So, I’ve had the experience a few times of going back and looking at things and saying, “I was just wrong.” And I was wrong for that reason. There are things I wrote about the Coen Brothers in that piece that’s in my book that are okay, but then there are things I wrote that I go back and read them and am like, “No, I was just plain wrong.” And I was wrong because I was thinking about it from this perspective…
This kind of automatic allegiance to something slow or…?
…An automatic allegiance to what’s oppositional and pure. An example is I still think Philip Garrel is just as great as when I first saw his movies, but I also think that David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers are great too, you know? Same thing with Magnolia. I watched it again with my kids and it was like a light bulb going on. It was just like, “Okay, I missed it.” I’m not ashamed to say that I missed it, you know, no big deal. Same thing with the Coen brothers. I go back and look at Fargo and I’m like, that’s a pretty formidable film, and the reasons that I remember people coming up with for not liking it seem to me extremely suspect or cooked up. It’s interesting. I think we’re at a moment when things that are sort of made for fun but that can be taken more seriously…there’s not a lot of that. The one thing that I would point to would be the romantic comedies from England that Richard Curtis wrote (Love Actually, Bridget Jones’s Diary). I get into arguments all the time with people who are like, “You like that?” and I’m like, “Yeah, I really do” without apology. But I think that that’s the exception to the rule. I don’t think that there’s a lot of that.
I see people going out of their way to make something of somebody like Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil) or John McTiernan (Die Hard). Whatever you’re into, but I think that’s kind of like taking the parameters and learned practice of an earlier time and applying it to the conditions of a period in which is no longer applies. The conditions of now.
I want to shift to the [New York Film] festival. You took over as director from Richard Peña in 2012. Do you have a sense of how your different backgrounds influence your programming? He’s an academic, you aren’t…
I think that when Richard came aboard in the late 80’s…I mean, [Richard] Roud had already programmed films by Hou Hsiao-Hsien…I can’t remember if he had shown a Kiarostami film. But, Richard recognized that film culture was opening up in the United States, and the sense of what film culture was or could be. His programming signified that, I guess I would say. Obviously he wanted to distinguish himself as everybody does. He was younger, considerably younger than I was when I did this. Richard was the one who brought me here in ’98.
And you were at the Film Society for how long?
11 years. And I was on the committee for seven of those years.
I mean, the conditions changed so much that it’s hard to talk about…some things are very personal. The festival got bigger because the film center got built, and that happened in Richard’s last year. And then Rose Kua (former Executive Director) wanted to have world premieres in all three big slots, so that was the case for Richard’s last two years. I did it my first year, and then I said I really don’t want to have all three. I want to have an escape valve for either the Centerpiece or the Closing Night. I got the value of doing a world premiere in those slots. It makes for something kind of fun and exciting in a different way. The movies have to be good. Aside from that, I’m all for it. It makes things a little tough. But it’s worth doing, it’s a certain kind of excitement that you can’t get any other way, being the first people to see a movie.
Other than that, I guess I would say Richard…there were things we disagreed on, there were many things we agreed on. We run the committees differently, it’s a different approach. I think maybe I’m more into comedy. I think also maybe Richard did have, he didn’t want to repeat, he didn’t want to just say, “Oh, there’s a new film from Hou Hsiao-Hsien…” I personally don’t care, whatever somebody thinks…you know, recently somebody said that it’s been said the New York Film Festival is an “Auteurist” film festival. Would I agree? I don’t know, if it’s films made by human beings, then yes, I agree. But that’s basically what they’re saying. And yes, every year that I’ve been back we’ve shown a Hong Sang-Soo movie, and guess what, if they’re all that good, there will be another one next year. I just sort of feel like there are very few great filmmakers…it’s a relatively small festival. It’s not Toronto, it’s a different kind of experience. So, that’s not a problem for me.
I also think that he thought a lot about global representation. Again, you’re talking about different conditions at different times. Romanian cinema for a few years was very robust. At the moment? I don’t know, I can’t really say. Same with Argentinian cinema, Mexican cinema to a certain extent…it’s very sad that the conditions have changed to a certain degree but they have.
Do you see the role of a film festival, this one in particular, changing or shifting with the VOD movement, etc?
I don’t know. That’s really hard to quantify. I mean I do think that…a certain kind of filmmaking, some people would call it “auteur” filmmaking, I would just call it cinema, is becoming harder and harder to make. It’s hard for Martin Scorsese to make movies, it’s hard for Paul Thomas Anderson to make movies, it’s hard for Alexander Payne to make movies—it’s taken him a year just to get financing for Downsized. I think that means, when those films are made, they’re seen by marketing departments as occupying a specialty position within the marketplace, and they’re marketed as such. That’s to our benefit at this festival. I would point to Bridge of Spies as a case in point. Inherent Vice…Fincher kind of straddles both sides of the fence…but I think that that’s absolutely the case.
People obviously spend a lot of time pointing to different moments in cinema and thinking of them as golden ages…you know, the 70’s produced a lot of great movies, but I also remember a lot of garbage. It’s just that the garbage was better than it is now. Maybe not even better, it was closer to the ground, there was less anxiety about just representing the ordinary polis. People get all worked up about that stuff and it was different. They didn’t have to be spectacular, or have a grabber of an idea, or be pegged to something conceptual. And in general they were made with a certain amount of care. I’m kind of shocked when I look at some films and see how they’re put together. On Christmas day, my kids and I and my girlfriend and my friend, Pete, sat down and we decided we’d watch The Interview. And it was like 10 minutes was way too much, I mean really. To say that that film is really not directed is to put it charitably.
I would agree.
So we wound up turning it off and watching American Sniper, which was all for the best. Great movie.
Anyway, the point being, the level of stuff has gotten to the point that it’s pure spectacle or it’s servicing what’s known to be successful. That leaves a very small window. I shudder to think what would happen if something terrible happened to Scott Rudin and Megan Ellison. I thank God that Jim Gianopulos is there at Fox, he’s the guy who actually loves movies, it’s unheard of but it’s true. And Steve Gilula, the guy who runs Fox Searchlight, is another one who loves movies. But, you know, most of the specialty divisions have been decimated, Searchlight is the ringing exception. I don’t think VOD really has put a dent in things. It might in the future.
At this point it affects everything in terms of what’s being made, which in turn affects what comes here…
Yeah, that’s right, you know, Junun went on VOD (on Mubi.com) the day after we showed it here. On the other hand, watching it on Mubi and listening to it on Mubi is a diminished experienced to watching it here. But not every movie’s Junun.
I want to go into your background a little bit more. So, you dropped out of NYU. Can you paint a picture of what your life was like back then? Did you drop out with the plan to be a filmmaker? A critic? Were you already a critic?
No…well, I don’t know. I did my freshman year at McGill, then I took a year off, then I went to NYU, and then I kind of like…part of it had to do with the fact that my parents were both laid off at the same time. They kept saying, “Don’t be worried, don’t be worried,” but I was. That was one thing. It was a bigger part of it than I remembered. I think I also, more to the point. Robert Creeley was giving an interview and they were asking him about Black Mountain [College]. He was there in the last days of Black Mountain when Charles Olson was the director. Creeley was talking about the experience of the place, and you he said that Olson’s idea of the place was that you wanted people to just engage with one another as opposed to stand up in front of a blackboard, and repeat with some kind of an engaging tone, what it is that they learned, as opposed to engaging with them while they were actually practicing what they did.
The teachers all had a stake in the school, there were [only] a handful of students, maybe 35, maybe not even. Creeley said, “I think that the problem is a college shouldn’t be a place, you can’t place a college, a college is a spontaneous occasion that happens between people when there’s a discussion of the determination of value and the place of one’s practice in terms of what one wants to do in life.” I guess my answer would be that I found the whole experience kind of…at the time, I thought, “Ooo scary,” but really I found the whole experience kind of alienating. There were teachers that I had who I liked. Most important of all to me was Noel Carroll. We became friends and still are. I was also pretty taken with P. Adams Sitney, I took a course with him. I took a course with Peter Wollen…it was okay. But P. Adams Sitney was a very interesting teacher. And that was a different kind of experience, and Noel was a different kind of experience. Then Noel split because they wouldn’t give him tenure. I really felt like, they’re not going to give a guy like that tenure? What am I doing here?
What was it about Noel?
Well, the first class that I ever took with him he said, “What’s the major fallacy about film critics?” (laughs) That was the first thing he asked when we walked into the class. He said, “The major fallacy about film critics is that they’re like overvalued meteorologists who can determine, you know, what the weather’s going to be and whether you’re going to like something or not. It’s a fallacy. And I was like, well that’s interesting. He was 100% on the nose, I’m all for that. It didn’t matter what kind of approach his students had, he would speak to them with respect. He wasn’t alone in that sense, there were other teachers who did too. But then Noel was also very unsentimental…he wouldn’t teach a class unless he felt like there was something he could learn himself, which is always the best attitude you can take as a teacher. He was very very thoughtful when he was grading papers. The first movie he showed us was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that seems unsurprising now, but believe me, in 1980 it was shocking.
He also taught a class at Millennium on narrative, and I can’t even tell you how unheard of that was. The word “narrative” was a dirty word. He also wrote a piece called “Towards an Institutional Theory of Film,” and what he’s saying in the piece is, “stop lunging at essentialism, don’t think that there’s an essential cinematic property that’s going to make one film more cinematic that another. If a film contains music, scenarios…any element a film contains, you have to deal with it, don’t treat it as extraneous.” That I thought was very important too. He had a protracted engagement with Stephen Yeath, who was involved with the whole semiotic Marx meets Freud meets Lacan. Noel took it apart so deftly that it almost took your breath away.
He still thinks of those days, he says, “People still think that stuff was necessary,” and I’m just like why? It set back the cause of cinema studies possibly for good. It relegated it to a secondary consideration. It taught people a way of not recognizing their own sense of agency. I thought that was genuinely disgusting, and it was institutionally recognized as the way of approaching cinema. Of course, it wasn’t just cinema…So, I just didn’t want to have any part of that. And I had been in film production and that seemed even less…I didn’t have the wherewithal myself to make out of it what I could. People kept talking about all these rules of filmmaking, and I just thought, why? I don’t know what they’re talking about. I was also very timid, and didn’t finish a lot of what I started. So…I didn’t have a plan.
So what did you do in those years after NYU?
I worked with handicap people of varying levels of cognitive functioning. I had done that in high school too. I did that as a way of earning a living up through the early nineties and then I started working for Martin Scorsese. But I started writing around that time…publishing, I was always writing, but I started publishing around that time.
So you’ve been in New York since…
Can you describe how audiences have changed?
Well, at the beginning of my time in New York I was actually working at The Village Voice as Tom Allen’s intern and Andrew Sarris’s intern, but I had more contact with Tom. Tom was Andrew’s second in command and he was a rotund bald man who, in addition to being a film critic, was a Jesuit monk. He got another job with George Romero, he was the story editor for Tales from the Dark Side and Tales from the Crypt, and Monsters. And I would go with Tom and some of the other interns to his shoots and some of his rough cuts, and Tom edited the “Revivals in Focus” section. He basically wrote it a lot of the time. He was supposedly culling the reviews from Andrew’s old pieces, but in essence he was writing them. Once Tom went on Jesuit retreat and he had me take over the column.
I would go to all the revival houses, and there were tons of them. There was the 8th Street Playhouse, there was the Hollywood Twin Cinema, there were all these places…my favorite place to go was the Regency, I loved that. Film Forum was later, that was the mid 80’s. The Regency was a cool place to go, it was really fun. Then, one by one, as VHS started, all those places shut down. So the whole idea of repertory cinema, where you had the same 15 or 16 movies showing over and over again was over.
I do remember in the 80’s coming to the New York Film Festival and just being absolutely horrified by the behavior of the audience. I thought that they were just savages, and that was my first experience of upper-middle-class people and the savagery that they’re capable of, which is unique. That is not the case any longer. I remember going to screenings Class Relations, L’Argent, You the Better, I have never seen audiences behave like that in my life. The Cannes audiences of critics for certain screenings of The Brown Bunny, and Southland Tales…but that’s critics, that’s different. This was…they were ready to stand up and throw fruit at the screen. It was just terrifying.
Then, I remember that settling down, but the questions would still be like, “I was wondering what you thought you were accomplishing with this film and why it should be important to me.” People don’t really ask that kind of question anymore, they tend to be more deferential to the film. As far as the revival audiences go, at Film Forum, as most people know, in the 90’s, audiences would laugh uproariously at everything. Anything made before 1960 was funny. That had to do with a kind of anxiety about where we’re at now, and our sophistication versus what came before. It’s an interesting topic.
And that still happens a little bit…
A little bit, but trust me not the way that it used to. Bruce was saying—we were reminiscing about this recently—I remember once we showed a Von Stroheim movie and people laughed at the fucking MGM Lion. I mean, really. They went there to laugh. But, Bruce said something interesting, which was, “maybe they’re laughing, but they’re responding. They’re not walking out, and they keep coming back, so…”
Well, to bring it back to Hitchcock, when they did the big retrospective last year…for The Birds, there was a lot of laughing and snickering. I have some ambivalence about it because, it’s okay to laugh at some of it. But there was a lot that felt inappropriate. I know this is a larger conversation…
Yes, it is. It’s a big topic. It means opening yourself up…you and I are in the habit of opening ourselves up to forms of address, cinematic rhetoric. Looking past stiltedness in staging. Other people—let’s call them regular movie-goers—are not in that habit. They’re in the habit of thinking of things in terms of, “Well it’s dated.” And that’s okay. I’m sure there were parts of the movie they weren’t laughing at. When you get a bunch of cinephiles in a room and they treat the experience like church, sure, but a lot of the cinema that we all love was not intended to be experienced that way. It doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be. It’s just, it’s not invalid.