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Solidarity of Cinema: Kent Jones on "Hitchcock/Truffaut"

Kent Jones’ enthralling documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut” excavates a landmark in the history of film culture as he tackles with verve and visual élan the eight days in 1962 when the prodigiously gifted former film critic Francois Truffaut interviewed his idol, the great British-born Hollywood stylist Alfred Hitchcock.

The resulting book-length interview collaboration, “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” published in English four years later, was a watershed for its charged exploration about the practice and art of filmmaking. The most polemically gifted of the former critics who constituted the French New Wave, Truffaut crystallized the dominant role of the director. He helped alter Hitchcock’s reputation from that of a skilled maker of popular entertainment to one viewed more sympathetically as a profound and singular artist.

The book also proved a revered text for the emerging generations of filmmakers who pored over its contents with near forensic devotion. "Hitchcock/Truffaut" is closer to the essay film or memoir than straight documentary. Jones intertwines audio extracts from the interviews with a range of annotated clips and images, sometimes mixing in striking black-and-white images of the two artists' meeting shot by the great French photographer Philippe Halsman. 

The marvel of the film is the fresh material as Jones brings together 10 major contemporary filmmakers who ponder the meaning, importance and enduring legacy of the book, the films and the two filmmakers. The multiplicity of voices is exhilarating—ranging from scholarly directors such as Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader (a former film critic) with younger generation insurgents such as David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater and James Gray. The great French directors Olivier Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin provide trenchant commentary about the New Wave and the birth of movie modernism. Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa testifies to Hitchcock’s cultural reach and his impact in the East.

Jones is a singular film critic, curator and festival programmer. His 2007 book, "Physical Evidence," demonstrated exemplary range and an authoritative personality. The book culled his pieces from Film Comment, Cahiers du cinema, Village Voice and The New York Times. He has worked for nearly three decades with Scorsese as an archivist, curator, screenwriter and collaborator. Jones also helped write Scorsese’s extraordinary work on Italian cinema, “My Voyage to Italy.”

This is his third film as a director, having previously made a film about the great producer Val Lewton, “The Man in the Shadows,” and “Letter to Elia,” an examination of Scorsese’s deep and rhapsodic connection to the films of Elia Kazan. Jones wrote the script for “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” with Serge Toubiana, the former editor of Cahiers du cinema and the current director of La Cinémathèque française. Everything connects. Even the movie’s narrator, the excellent actor and filmmaker Bob Balaban, was connected to Truffaut, having worked with him and his de facto translator on the set of Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

After previous stints as a member of the festival selection committee and working for Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, Jones is currently the director of the New York Film Festival. “Hitchcock/Truffaut” premiered in the Cannes Classics sidebar in May and has played festivals in Telluride, Toronto and Chicago. On the eve of its theatrical release, Jones talked about movies and art, criticism and the astounding body of work of Alfred Hitchcock.

I was curious about your own original personal connection to the material. When did it first seep into your consciousness, and what kind of impact did it have on you? 

I got interested in movies ... I guess like a lot of people, through the faces of stars like Humphrey Bogart. I related it to my father and people of that generation. Richard Schickel’s television series, “The Men Who Made the Movies,” really meant a lot to me. The “Hitchcock/Truffaut” book really opened my eyes. I don’t remember if somebody gave me the book, or maybe I sought it out when I was 12 years old. There’s a thing that [David] Fincher says at the beginning of the movie about just poring over it and looking at the layouts of the cutting patterns over and over, or reading sections over and over again. It really imparted knowledge of what directing is. It meant a lot to me. The book was with me all the time. I went through several copies, like a lot of people. It was a big thing for me. I’ve been living with Hitchcock’s movies my whole life.

Did you see the book as dialectic between the Hitchcock and Truffaut, or a variation of the dual narrative format that Hitchcock used in movies like “Shadow of a Doubt” to “Psycho”?

For me, if there’s dialectic or dual narrative at work, it is past and present. I wanted only people who were really affected by the book, with one exception, and that’s Richard Linklater. He is there because of his connection to Truffaut and he’s also connected to Hitchcock, just not in the same way. In every other case, we talked with people who had a relationship with that book.

You’re talking about the issues that are coming up in the book but bringing them into the present through their own experience. Something that’s a huge change and also something that started to affect Hitchcock, which was acting. It’s a very important thing, and something that connects to this issue that comes up in the film, this worry of his that he was not sufficiently adventurous enough. The fact that it plagued him is interesting.

I was also curious about some of Truffaut’s earlier criticism about Hitchcock, and what if any influence that had, for instance, on his piece on Hitchcock's “The Wrong Man” that compared it with Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped"?

It really didn’t. I felt my way through it. I didn’t do that. It’s interesting you say that. That was a big argument between them, about “The Wrong Man,” [the word] argument I put in quotations, because with Hitchcock, if you listen to the tapes, you realize he doesn’t argue. He just goes quiet. Truffaut’s just ranting minutes on end. For me, it was just a matter of where is the energy between the two of them, but also the energy among the people who were speaking. I had a lot of other stuff. There was a section about “Rope” that was very interesting. Fincher, Marty [Scorsese] and Arnaud Desplechin talked about “Notorious.” At a certain point of the movie, the rhythm of the movie demands that you lose things you’re fond of. That’s just something that happens. [The “Rope”] stuff was great, but it interrupted the rhythm.

It brings up a great point. Hitchcock made 53 films and he worked from the 1920s to the 1970s. How difficult was it to compress such an astounding body of work into such a tight time frame?

The thing is, there really isn’t another body of work like that in the sense that is massive in which every single film is good. I’m sorry, but I just think that is true. You can argue about the relative merits of “The Paradine Case.” Every single film that the man made is special. Are they all masterpieces? Of course not, but that would be some kind of miracle. I look at “The Paradine Case” and that’s the one that tilts in the [producer David] Selznick direction but it’s still a formidable piece of work. The same with “Jamaica Inn.” You can’t say that about John Ford. As much as I love John Ford, he made movies like “Four Men and a Prayer,” stuff that’s not that good. There aren’t that many of them. Almost everything [Ford made] is good but there are some things [that] are a little bit negligible. The same [is true] with Howard Hawks. Hitchcock doesn’t really have that “A Song is Born.”

I can pick anything from any era and use it. The body of work is so coherent, and there are so many moments that are so powerful throughout his career that choosing and compressing becomes relatively simple because one thing could stand in for a lot of other things. A close-up of [“Blackmail” star] Anny Ondra speaks directly to a close-up of Ingrid Bergman.

One thing you don’t do is interview actors like Kim Novak or Bruce Dern who worked with Hitchcock. Then, it becomes a different film.

It is a different kind of film than the one I wanted to make, to be quite honest. There were suggestions: interview Tippi Hedren, interview Kim Novak or interview Bruce Dern. The problem with that is you get into people editing themselves, and personalities. If you’re going to get into personalities, you’re going to get into Truffaut’s personality as well. Then you’re no longer in the book. The book is like reading a novel, and it’s a novel about two guys digging into what is it to make a movie. That’s the action of it. Not many film books have that action. What I thought was the way to go about it was to extend that by having other filmmakers and bringing them into the conversation.

Brian De Palma is the one conspicuous absence among the group of contemporary directors. Did he not want to participate in the film?

For a very specific reason, because Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow just did a movie about him. They worked on that film for about four years. I asked [De Palma] and he said he wanted to save what he thought about Hitchcock for their movie. We just showed the documentary ["De Palma"] at the New York Film Festival. Noah and I are pretty good friends, and we kind of exchanged movies at a certain point and we both were amazed at how much they just talked to each other. That’s what their movie is, just Brian and nobody else. He’s talking about his craft, and he’s talking a lot about “Vertigo.” In fact, the movie begins with a clip from “Vertigo.” That seemed like a very compelling reason for [De Palma] to not be in [this] film.

I was interested in the relationship between your films as a director and a critic. Godard had that famous line after he started directing: “Instead of writing criticism, I now film it.” The three films you have directed are about directors and filmmaking. Is this a form of criticism by other means?

I don’t think I agree with Godard. I’ve heard some people say that. It’s a nice thing to say. I just don’t think it’s true. His criticism is one thing and his films are another. I could answer that in different ways. There’s a fiction film I want to make. I’ve worked on other people’s fictions films and I’ve made a few small things here and there that aren’t movie related.

You’re right, of course, it’s related in some way. It’s related to my work as a critic. The movie is about film history, and it’s about my relationship with film history. If I were making another kind of movie, interviewing actresses and interviewing experts, then it would be a different kind of question. I haven’t made that many because I kind of only want to make movies I’m drawn to. It’s more than just an audiovisual translation of printed history. The people come alive as characters in a way without treating or signifying that. With Val Lewton, it really felt that way with him as a person and the way he hid himself, and the fact he was so modest. The whole thing with Kazan was different because it was made from Marty’s point of view. The interaction between Marty and Kazan’s films and between the two of them, that’s the emotion there. With this one, the emotion is between Hitchcock and Truffaut and also between Hitchcock and cinema.

One of the directors you include is Arnaud Desplechin. Just before this film, you collaborated with him on his script for “Jimmy P.” I was interested in how that experience colored this film.

Arnaud and I talk about a lot about Hitchcock in general. As well as Truffaut. When Arnaud’s writing, he thinks about the way that Truffaut writes. Arnaud was just at the New York Film Festival to show his new film, “My Golden Days.” I asked him about Truffaut. Arnaud said, “There’s a story about Truffaut. He was working with [screenwriter] Jean Gruault. Truffaut said, ‘I’m not Antonioni. I don’t want one idea for every four minutes. I want four ideas for every one minute.’ In other words, keep it lively, keep it moving, and keep the audience on their toes.” It got a big laugh from the audience. That’s Arnaud’s approach to writing scenes. "What’s the action?" instead of "How does the dialogue sound?" By the same token, when we were writing “Jimmy P.,” we talked a lot about Hitchcock. The scene where Jimmy is being interviewed for his exit, Arnaud had a very specific idea of how he wanted to shoot it. It didn’t come out that way, but it was called the “Dial M for Murder” scene, because he wanted to shoot it like Grace Kelly on the witness stand with the colors behind her.

Do you think your personal and professional relationship with Scorsese is at all analogous to that of Hitchcock and Truffaut?

I don’t know. At this point we have known each other for 28 years. I started working for him as his archivist. First I was his video archivist and then his film archivist. Then, I started writing. We have a closeness. Part of the thing about this movie that is so special is that almost everybody in this movie is a friend. Olivier [Assayas] and I have known each other for 20 years; Arnaud I’ve known for about 15 years or so. Fincher and I have known each other for eight years. I’m really fond of him. We’re friends because we share this thing—the cinema. They’re all people whose films I love. We’ve always spent this time talking about cinema. There’s a conference. This film is a reflection of that, a solidarity because they feel it between Hitchcock and Truffaut. They were very alike in certain ways but very different in certain ways but they had that common bond. That’s the thing that is so moving about the book.

You straddle a lot of lines, film critic, curator, filmmaker and film festival director. How do you mediate all of that?

I don’t really think of them as jobs. I think of them as what I have found and what I’ve worked on and practiced. They’re all related, but they’re distinct. Each of them are finite but they interact. Life and work are when everything is balanced and just. You have your work habits that allow greater concentration. To be always attending to something is something that I like. It’s just the rhythm of my life.

Patrick Z. McGavin

Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago-based writer and critic. His film writing has appeared in the British magazine Empire, Stop Smiling, Time Out Chicago, Cineaste and LA Weekly. He also maintains the film blog,

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