By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Kent Jones Talks HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT

One of the outstanding entries in this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was Hitchcock/Truffaut, a documentary for movie fans of all stripes, from the veteran filmgoer to the cinema-curious newbie. A fascinating chronicle of the 1962 interview sessions between Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut (which were greatly facilitated by translator Helen G. Scott), the film not only revisits the resulting seminal book, Truffaut’s “Hitchcock;” it also reexamines the men’s careers, and their relationship with each other. More than a tale of mutual admiration between two world-class directors, it’s a cerebral yet playful mash note to the movies (not just theirs), and given added heft by rarely seen archival footage, as well as by the amicable on-camera participation of contemporary filmmakers Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Arnaud Desplechin, David Fincher, Kiyoshi Kurasawa, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader, and Martin Scorsese.

Hitchcock/Truffaut knows movies inside out. Co-writer Serge Toubiana, a former editor-in-chief of the French film magazine Cahiers du cinema, has been director of the Cinémathèque Française since 2003 (a post he’s soon departing). Director and co-writer Kent Jones, a prolific author and contributor to “Film Comment,” is one of America’s most respected film critics. Through his longtime association with Martin Scorsese, Jones segued into making films himself in 2007, writing and directing the documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, which Scorsese narrated and produced. Jones followed that up by co-writing and co-directing with Scorsese the Peabody Award-winning A Letter to Elia (2010).

Jones currently serves as artistic director of the World Cinema Foundation, as well as as director of the New York Film Festival. On the heels of another successful season for NYFF, he jetted to Chicago’s festival to appear at screenings of Hitchcock/Truffaut, a Cohen Media Group release that begins its platform commercial run this week. I met him at the offices of Music Box Films, one of the many new businesses that have transformed the formerly industrial Morgan Street neighborhood into a part hipster/part grunge enclave that resembles areas of New York City. Jones looked very much in his element. Tall and energetic, once seated he was attentive and soft-spoken, focused yet relaxed, and even a little soulful as we talked about Hitchcock and Truffaut, film criticism, and the future of the movie industry.

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT filmmaker Kent Jones.  Courtesy of GODLIS.

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT filmmaker Kent Jones.      Courtesy of GODLIS.

Andrea Gronvall: For many moviegoers, this book, Truffaut’s “Hitchcock,” was one of their “ah-ha” moments, when they realized they were deeply in love with film. What were your ah-ha moments?

Kent Jones: I mentioned to a very close friend whom I had known since I was 14 that I had found all my old baseball cards when I was cleaning out the house where I grew up. He said, it’s interesting, because it leads to the whole way that you get engaged with movies. What he meant was that there are the faces of the baseball players on the cards, and then there are the faces of actors. There’s a different kind of relationship now with actors, I think, than there was then. And I’m talking about the faces of older actors, and in particular Bogart, who was very, very important to me when I was a kid.

Bogart was my dad’s generation. The way that he moved, the way that he expressed himself, and the way that he spoke, was in line with my dad, with my experience of him and his generation, the people around him, the people who came out of World War II. Although Bogart was older [than them]; he was in World War I. That’s how his lip was damaged, allegedly. But Bogart, Gable, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, and so on, these were the faces I connected with in books about movies when I was a kid.

And of course the idea of the universe of movies was very different then; it was connected to an older time. Bogart was the link, because he was a countercultural favorite, beloved by younger people. His films played forever on college campuses in the early ‘70s.

AG: Is that where you saw most of these films?

KJ: I saw a lot of them on TV, but then in the early ‘70s I left the country for the first time with my parents, for England, and we saw Casablanca in a packed theatre in London and that was an ah-ha moment for sure, particularly the close-up of Bogart when he sees Ingrid Bergman again for the first time. It’s an absolutely remarkable scene. I got into movies that way, but then when Richard Schickel’s documentary series “The Men Who Made the Movies” was aired, that was certainly an “ah-ha” moment in the sense that I understood that, oh, there’s such a thing as a director. And Hitchcock was one of those people, [as well as] Hawks, Minnelli, Wellman, Capra. Pointedly not John Ford, who Dick Schickel never liked.

AG: I’m not that crazy about Ford, either, but that’s neither here nor there.

KJ: I think I saw that series before I saw a film by Hitchcock. I saw Dial M for Murder in the basement of my headmaster’s house with the school crew that won whatever that semester. We saw it in 2-D, obviously, and on a 16mm print. But there was also a little place where I grew up in the Berkshires, a very interesting place. During the summer it showed movies, and I went there with some friends of mine, and with my mom, this was when I was like 12 or 13, and saw Psycho and The 39 Steps, and that was absolutely a revelatory experience. And the book, I think I got like when I was 12 or 13, like Fincher did.

Fincher’s experience of the book is very close to my own; we’re roughly the same age. The idea of poring over the book, this is something that he talks about in Hitchcock/Truffaut, that’s something that I absolutely did when I was young, especially those photo layouts. Of course, in a funny way those montages are inaccurate because Truffaut didn’t have anything to check them with, other than the notes he took in screening rooms. But it doesn’t matter. The point is that he’s giving you a sense of what cutting is, what the layout of the scene is. That was an eye-opener.

AG: For me, your film is this totally immersive experience, and expands the experience of reading the book. Recently, after a local colleague and I had just seen your film, he wanted to know what I thought of it, and I said I loved it. He said that he felt that you relied on a bunch of talking heads, which we see a lot in documentaries. And I said, but that’s absolutely pivotal to what you’re doing, because you’re mirroring Truffaut’s experience of speaking to Hitchcock, in that you’re a film critic turned filmmaker, talking to these other directors. Were you aware of this parallel while you were filming?

KJ: No, I would put it differently. Yes, the movie is made up of a lot of different elements that are very, very common in documentaries.

AG: Well, there aren’t too many other ways to do documentaries.

KJ: Yeah, that’s true, but of course, it’s what you do with them that ultimately counts. I mean, there are talking heads, and there are talking heads. If I made a movie where I had a bunch of people sitting around talking to the camera and saying, Alfred Hitchcock was great and here’s why, that would have been talking heads, in the sense that your colleague was describing.

AG: Like almost anything on American Masters.

KF: Exactly. But I didn’t want to do that. And the thing is that somehow, what you have to create is some kind of space. Like, Noah Baumbach. I asked Brian De Palma to be in this film, obviously, and he declined for a very good reason, because Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow were making this movie about him. Brian said, I have to save my thoughts about Hitchcock for Noah and Jake’s movie. And their movie De Palma is great. The thing about it is that it’s only Brian; he’s the only person [interviewed] in the movie. Along with the clips and photographs, somehow a space is created, So, that’s what I wanted to do, was to create a space between the filmmakers, a kind of a common space where people are extending the conversation. It’s sort of what you were talking about, [but] I’m looking at it from the different end of the telescope, so what you’re describing is maybe like the meta factor.

AG: Although they don’t interact with each other, the directors you interview come across as fraternal, and willing to suspend their own egos. They are totally into talking about Hitchcock. I would love to see that kind of enthusiasm catch on with the public. As your film shows, Hitchcock agreed to do the book because he was promoting a new appreciation and critical reassessment of his reputation. Hitchcock/Truffaut comes at a key time because so many younger viewers have never seen anything by Hitchcock, even though today there are so many ways to see films, largely thanks to digital. Yet, as my longtime colleague Dave Kehr says, in some ways older films are more in danger than ever. Do you think we are at, I don’t want to say a crisis, but some kind of tipping point in terms of film criticism, where, because there’s such a glut of stuff out there, and because of the triumph of studio marketing, people are in danger of overlooking the movies they shouldn’t miss?

KJ: That’s a very complicated question, and a good one. I started working in Marty’s office in ’91, when things were just constantly happening; everybody was participating. We all had a love of cinema. The Film Foundation was becoming successful; it had already achieved its first goal, which was to establish some kind of a bridge between the archives and the studios. There was a consciousness of film preservation in the ‘90s. American Movie Classics was still an actual channel that people wanted to watch in those days for movies, as opposed to Mad Men, and didn’t have commercials, and was kind of like what Turner Classic Movies is now. It had all those RKO movies, for example. And I felt like, well, the lines are long at Film Forum, Bruce [Goldstein] is doing great business, etc. I did my first program with Bruce with films of the ‘70s; it went really well.

So, I thought, yeah, mission accomplished, but of course that’s always an illusion. Because I started to understand, hey, wait a minute! You have to maintain it, it’s a practice, you have to constantly be reminding, guarding, protecting. By the same token, everyone kept talking about the digital revolution: it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming. When it came, it came at such a rate of speed that people didn’t even recognize it. A couple of years ago, Amy Taubin and I were at a side-by-side DCP comparison [with the original film] of Dr. Strangelove that Grover Crisp did, and Amy said, oh my God, we have to do something about this. But, too late; I mean, this [restoration] was done.

So, then you realize the problem becomes, who’s going to guard these movies? Well, the studios aren’t going to do it, as they’ve proven. Now, Jim Gianopulos [Chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment] loves movies, he really loves movies. He came to the New York Film Festival for [the restoration of Ernst Lubitsch’s] Heaven Can Wait, threw a dinner for Marty, and he and Marty and I did a conversation. But that’s not the case with other studios. You wonder, what’s going to happen to all that stuff, as the value decreases, as the generations of younger people make less and less of a connection? The people of my generation, who have fathers who were in World War—that’s a big part of what we call cinephilia that’s gone.

I remember I gave a talk at a class that a friend of mine teaches, and I asked the kids if they’d ever seen a silent film, and one kid said, yeah, I saw one once on YouTube. And what he meant was, he saw 20 minutes on YouTube.

AG: That’s right.

KJ: That was The Big Parade. And he said, that was interesting, yeah, it was black-and-white, And I think that’s the way things are going, is that film is becoming more and more of a specialized discipline. The idea of movies as one big, popular medium is waning. You know?

AG: Yes!

KJ: And Marty would say the same thing, like, I’m a dinosaur; people don’t make movies the way that I do anymore. You know, there’s Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, there’s Fincher, there’s a couple of other people of that generation, there’s Tarantino. Then when you get to a younger generation, you’re talking about a different kind of relationship with the film image. Film as we know it, cinema as we know it, is really going to become just an art form, as opposed to a really popular thing that’s got all kinds of stuff that’s floating around in it. That’s okay; it’s just the way things are. It’s sad for people our age who grew up when we did, but that’s just the way it is. But going to the multiplex now, most of what’s showing, I don’t really care about. I don’t care about Mad Max: Fury Road, to tell you the truth; I wanted to like it more.

AG: I haven’t seen it yet.

KJ: That’s at the high end, made at least by a guy who’s a real artist of some stature. But for all those reasons, yes, things are endangered. Dave’s always made that point, and he’s correct about that. People assume everything’s available; in fact, it’s not the case. And then, when I see things that are available, but they’re all in the same format, unless they’re Scope, and when I watch, not the 1.33:1 movies, but the 1.50:1, the 1.75:1, they all come out at 1.78:1, the size of that screen. When I walk into a bar and see an old movie made before 1950 and it’s stretched, and nobody knows how to change it, I wonder what’s going to happen to the memory of the film. So it has to become like a discipline that has to be preserved, in the same way poets preserve poetry. You know, poets aren’t in it for the money.

AG: My neighbor, who’s a poet, would certainly agree.

KJ: [American poet] Robert Creeley was not somebody who was in it because he wanted to make a killing on the market, or win awards. It’s something different, so I think that’s what cinema is going to become. I think what’ll be lost is the kind of grandeur that’s available to you when you can spend a lot of money on building sets, the production design, the visuals. But, you know, it will become more artisanal, more a specialized thing. But preserving the past? That’s a tougher one. I just really don’t know, because that’s a space matter. What are they going to do?

AG: Now that you are well along the way in your transition from film critic to filmmaker, do you feel you can perhaps appreciate the filmmakers that you like even more?

KJ: I think that in general in film criticism, there’s a big gap—and there always has been—between the way the filmmakers see cinema, and the way that critics see it. But I think that the more that I learn about making movies from the filmmakers I know, and from making the kinds of movies that I do, I’m trying to bridge that gap. And so, yes, it definitely gives me a heightened appreciation of what filmmakers do.

One Response to “The Gronvall Report: Kent Jones Talks HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT”

  1. YancySkancy says:

    Thanks for this. Great job. Intelligent questions and thoughtful answers.

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“TIFF doesn’t make attendance numbers for its Lightbox screenings publicly available, so it’s difficult to gauge exactly how many filmgoers the Lightbox is attracting (or how much money it’s bringing in). But the King Street West venue hasn’t become a significant draw for film enthusiasts. The Lightbox’s attendance has plunged – 49,000 fewer visitors last year, a drop of 27 per cent, according to figures recently reported in the Toronto Star. Its gallery space – designed to showcase the visions of cinema’s most iconic filmmakers – saw most of its exhibitions staff quietly axed this past fall. And its marketing barely escapes the Lightbox’s walls. Unless you are a TIFF member or one of the city’s most avid filmgoers, you could walk by the Lightbox and remain blissfully unaware of a single thing that goes on inside. TIFF “still has a world-class brand,” said Barry Avrich, a filmmaker and former board member, “but it’s going to take some fresh vision from retail, consumer programming and marketing experts, given how the lines have become intensely blurred when it comes to how people watch film. They will have to experiment with programming to find the right blend of function and relevance.”
~ Globe & Mail Epic On State of Toronto Int’l (paywalled)

“I’m 87 years old… I only eat so I can smoke and stay alive… The only fear I have is how long consciousness is gonna hang on after my body goes. I just hope there’s nothing. Like there was before I was born. I’m not really into religion, they’re all macrocosms of the ego. When man began to think he was a separate person with a separate soul, it created a violent situation.

“The void, the concept of nothingness, is terrifying to most people on the planet. And I get anxiety attacks myself. I know the fear of that void. You have to learn to die before you die. You give up, surrender to the void, to nothingness.

“Anybody else you’ve interviewed bring these things up? Hang on, I gotta take this call… Hey, brother. That’s great, man. Yeah, I’m being interviewed… We’re talking about nothing. I’ve got him well-steeped in nothing right now. He’s stopped asking questions.”
~ Harry Dean Stanton