Who is Kent Jones? His IMDB page detailed an impressive and unusual collection of credits. From Daily Show writer to programmer of the New York Film Festival to documentary filmmaker, it seemed like Jones would have a lot to say about his career trajectory.
However, when I asked him to talk about his time on The Daily Show, he replied gruffly, “That’s the wrong Kent Jones.” Apparently this keeps happening to Kent Jones. Editors at IMDB and Wikipedia continue to confuse his digital identify with that of the former Daily Show writer for some reason. Presumably the other Kent Jones runs into similar problems. Perhaps on the same day as this interview took place, a different reporter asked the other Kent Jones to talk about his new documentary. “That’s the wrong Kent Jones!” maybe he cried. Or maybe he laughed and rolled with it – after all, he is a comedy writer. But this Kent Jones really wants it to stop.
So, who is Kent Jones? He is the director of Hitchcock/Truffaut, an award winning, TIFF selected documentary inspired by the legendary film book of the same name (read our review here). The book, first published in 1966, was based on a series of interviews carried out by director Francois Truffaut. Thirty years old at the time, Truffaut contacted his hero, himself sixty-three, and asked Hitchcock to consent to an examination of his entire career one film at a time. The week-long session was recoded at Universal Studios and then adapted into one of the most important books ever made on filmmaking.
Jones’ film is part history and part commentary. It includes new interviews with some of the world’s biggest directors: David Fincher, Wes Anderson, James Gray, Paul Schrader, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Arnaud Desplechin, and Richard Linklater. They provide their insights into Hitchcock’s craft and explain how Hitchcock/Truffaut influenced them in a way that no other book did.
Dork Shelf: You said you had your own copy of this book when you were thirteen. How did you come across it?
Kent Jones: Well, it is Hitchcock. If you were interested in movies as I was already deeply, you are going to come into contact with Hitchcock sooner or later. I did for the first time not through his movies but through a documentary series that profiled a series of directors of roughly the same age and he was he was one of them. That captivated me and started me on the road to understand there was such thing as a director. I don’t remember if I bought the book or if someone gave it to me but I was about twelve years old.
DS: In your film Wes Anderson says that his copy of Hitchcock/Truffaut is now just a stack of papers being held together with rubber bands. Kurusawa describes the book as a bible for him. When did you discover that the book was not just important to you but to filmmakers everywhere?
KJ: I don’t know that I discovered it. It’s a very special book. It’s unlike any other book about movies. First of all, it’s not a critic interviewing a director, it’s a director interviewing a director. That’s a very important distinction. It’s a director saying to an older director ‘I’m showing people why you’re my master and I don’t want to do it through just making extravagant statements. I want to do it through discussion of your work so that we’re approaching it through the practice rather than some grand proclamation.’ Which is different.
The second part of what makes it so special is that it’s a visual experience as much as it is a historical, informational, pedagogical experience. It’s breezy but not breezy in a way that a lot of other books are. It’s breezy in the way that a film is. It feels very much like a Truffaut film.
How do you see your film in the context of the book? Do you consider it an adaptation of the book? Would you consider it a compendium? Is it a commentary of its own?
KJ: That is for you to say to me, I think. All I wanted to do was prolong the conversation, extend it into the present. It was a discussion between two filmmakers and I decided to make a film with only filmmakers participating as opposed to experts or historians or family members. That was the film I wanted to make. But as far as the question you’re asking that’s for somebody else to answer.
How did you select these particular directors?
KJ: I wanted people who I had some relationship with. In some cases I know these people very well – some of them are very close friends of mine – others I know a little bit. But I know them well enough that they will be able to answer on the spot and think through their answer about how films are made, about Hitchcock, about the craft of moviemaking. Obviously it goes without saying that I wanted people whose work I admire. So that was the criteria.
Did you know all of these directors were big Hitchcock fans? Was there anyone you were surprised to find out was a fan given their personal style?
KJ: Fincher is not a big Hitchcock fan per se, he’s more of an admirer. But I was surprised by the fact that he knew the book so well. Because when I asked him I expected him to say ‘No, I never really read the book’. I don’t really have any memories of him talking about older movies in my conversations with him the way that Marty and James Gray and Arnaud Desplechin have.
In David’s case, it’s generally films from the 70s or late 50s, the time when he was a kid. He speaks of films like Chinatown and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Bob Fosse movies. He doesn’t speak about older films so much. So I was really prepared for him to say ‘I don’t have anything to say’ instead he said ‘I read that book a couple hundred times when I was young so I’d be happy to do it.’
It was interesting to hear Fincher say that there were cinema rules before Hitchcock. Then he came along and threw a grenade into the conference room and destroyed them all.
KJ: Specifically in reference to Psycho.
What do you think are some of the rules that Hitchcock changed.
KJ: He’s speaking very specifically about Psycho. He’s not speaking of any other movie. I think it’s just the one thing, killing the heroine forty minutes into the movie. That’s a big rule to break.
Bogdanovich says that movie and that scene was the first time going to movies in dangerous.
I feel like the film is making an argument that films today have lost that emotional connection a little bit. That some directors are not as concerned with it or not able to achieve that reaction from their audiences. Would that be fair to say?
KJ: I don’t think that’s quite correct as I see it. I think that, on the other hand, there is a sense of sameness to a lot of the films at the multiplexes. They are financed by the big studios which are no longer really studios but funding entities beholding to stockholders. A lot of the work that one sees is, as Marty says, too fast, has a climax every three seconds. It’s more akin to an amusement park ride than a narrative. I don’t think that’s incorrect.
And with that, you have a greater emphasis on the visual, I want to say, the shiny aspect of filmmaking rather than the calibration of the narrative and the calculation of the degree to which an audience is drawn in emotionally. I guess I agree with you in that sense. But I don’t think that the sense of director shocking an audience is a loss. It’s one time event. It’s unrepeatable.
Do you think that Truffaut succeeded in his goal? It’s said that Truffaut felt freed as an artist by Hitchock and that he wanted to return the favour by elevating Hitchcock above the label of light entertainer. Did he succeed?
KJ: It certainly goes a long way toward doing that. I don’t think that Hitchcock is seen in quite the same light as he was in 1962. Some of that has to do with the fact that time has gone by and the circumstances of those days has dissolved. I also think that as the landscape of moviemaking and movie appreciation changed, his work was so solid, so magical, so endlessly revelatory. You go back to it and it becomes more powerful as years go by. As much as there was any work outside of the work of the films that solidified that, yeah, I would say he did do that.
He created a situation, as Marty does also, he took the weight off the shoulders of people who wanted to make ambitious films by saying what you’re doing is valid and valuable.
I wonder if Hitchcock didn’t benefit from the book in the way that Truffaut would have liked. Because at the end of the film it says that Hitchock worried that he had been too boxed in, that he was a prisoner by his own form.
KJ: That’s a human thing. There’d been so many years of condescending reviews, so many years of lesser movies winning Oscars and accolades. How could he not entertain that sense of doubt? That’s very human.
As far as the book alleviating that, the book wasn’t for him, the book was for other people to read. But on the other hand, it certainly meant something very special to him and that is the emotional core of my movie. Throughout the conversation, the undercurrent is him asking ‘Was I good enough?’ and Truffaut answering ‘Yes, not only were you good enough but you were foundational for me and for all of my fellow artists in cinema.’
The site is called Dork Shelf and we like to ask our guests about theirs. It’s a place – doesn’t have to be a shelf – where you store things that have meaning to you. Maybe you collect something. It could be anything. It’s different for every person. So, Kent, what is on your Dork Shelf?
KJ: While I’m uncomfortable using the word ‘dork shelf’ I guess I will anyway because it’s your show and I’ll say that. I do have several rows of books that I would never want to part with and I would strongly consider rescuing if my house ever caught fire.
What’s in that collection?
KJ: A lot of poetry. A few films books but a lot of poetry. I have a pretty sizable collection of William Carlos Williams.