Kent Jones

Kent Jones has worn many hats: an archivist (for Martin Scorsese’s Cappa Productions), programmer (for New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center) and critic. He began writing for Film Comment in 1996, quickly becoming a strong presence within the magazine. Since becoming editor-at-large, he’s played a large role in opening the magazine up to a more cosmopolitan perspective. As a critic, he’s always maintained this perspective himself – he’s written extensively in English on French cinema and on American cinema for Cahiers du cinéma. This interview took place in March ’03.

– SE

* * *

Steve Erickson: When you were a child and teenager, were you interested in early ’70s American films as they were coming out?

Kent Jones: My mother took me to see Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973) when I was 13. She was very adventurous. I remember her going to see Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols, 1971) and Last Tango In Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1973). She hated them both, but the fact that she went to see them at all was interesting. I think I saw A Woman Under The Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974). I had been watching films since I was a child, but the Richard Schickel PBS [American TV network – SE] series The Man Who Make The Movies made a big impact on me. It helped me to understand what direction was. At around the same time, someone gave me a copy of The American Cinema, which was a terrific object – all those lists!

SE: Were you able to see any foreign films?

KJ: I grew up in Western Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, and even though my hometown was a factory town, the Berkshires is a summer haven for the arts – the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for instance, plays there all summer long, and there’s a lot of very good theater. But that was also a very different time for film distribution. This was before the multiplexes. The theater owners were mostly independent. Distributors didn’t think that every film had to gross $150 million out of the box. They were more satisfied with the kind of grosses you would normally get with a foreign film. Usually they were dubbed. That’s the way I saw Day For Night (François Truffaut, 1973), Casanova (Federico Fellini, 1976), Scenes From A Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1973). When you’re young, you don’t really pay attention to things like dubbing – in fact, I didn’t really pay attention to Casanova at all because I saw it on my first date with my girlfriend. The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975) was in English, but it was an MGM film. Imagine that getting released today.

SE: I’m about 10 years younger than you and grew up in Southeastern Connecticut. I had very few chances to see foreign films. When Blockbuster Video came to my hometown, they actually had a better selection than any other video store around. Oddly, they had five Rohmer films but nothing by Godard or Truffaut. The only Fellini films they had were Satyricon (1970) and City Of Women (1981)!

Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Borsalino (Jacques Deray, 1970)

KJ: Well, Rohmer still has a regular following. He’s become a more domesticated figure than he was back when he was making the Moral Tales. His films have become specialty items for people who are enamored of all things French. I don’t want to be cynical, but I remember what it was like working in a video store. I did perceive a change in the way people looked at movies. Why not?

SE: In Serge Daney’s essay “Surviving The New Wave”, he mentions that Belmondo and Delon were huge stars in France but nowhere else and that by the early ’80s, Americans’ idea of ‘Frenchness’ was Rohmer rather than Belmondo.

KJ: And Yves Robert. Cultural misapprehension is a fact of life. Thank God for it, because without it, there would never have been a French New Wave. That issue has been central to the articles that the Nicholas Ray series [took place at MOMA in March and April ’03 –SE] has prompted, including the Sunday NY Times article by David Thomson. Which was terrible.

SE: He seems so unenthusiastic about film that you wonder why he keeps writing about it.

KJ: To make money, I suppose. It strikes me that he has a pretty marketable attitude. People want to read about movies, but they don’t really want to read about them. They want to read about them from a point of view that allows them to not take them too seriously. His view of film has nothing to do with the rest of the world. It’s all-America, Britain on a good day. But then, why single him out? It’s a pervasive thing. It’s funny. I think people would be outraged if they found that attitude in art or literary criticism. That’s the reason Dave Kehr is marginalized. The notion is that movies deserve to be looked at but not too seriously: if you look too hard, they fall apart. Thomson articulates that whole position with terrific eloquence. He’s an immensely talented writer and he always has been. Now he’s devoted to being embarrassed about once taking movies so seriously. It’s sad.

SE: To turn to the flipside of anti-intellectualism, did you take Cinema Studies in college?

KJ: I started off in filmmaking. I switched to Cinema Studies. Neither really happened for me, and I dropped out.

SE: Were those the days of ‘unpleasure’?

KJ: Isn’t it still like that? In those days, there was this strange, utopian merger of Marx and Freud. People were also and probably continue to be deeply enamored of Jacques Lacan. There was a big effort to take Barthes’ writing and trying to apply it to Cinema Studies. Some of the professors were good, some of the students were good, but most of the time, it was kind of depressing. I remember someone saying ‘a shot equals a sentence’ with great certainty. I immediately thought: why? Why does it have to? Olivier [Assayas] and I were talking a few months ago, and he said the problem with film theory is that it’s so disconnected from practice. Unless you’re looking at those terrible movies that Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen made during that period, or Sally Potter in her pre-tango days. There was this period of the ‘new talkies’ in British cinema and a soul-numbing effort to make films based on theoretical ideas. Even Hollis Frampton at his most theoretically driven was never so doctrinaire.

Noël Carroll was a great teacher, and a breath of fresh air. He worked from a different model, something based on cognitive psychology rather than an essentialist idea of cinema. I’ve always been more interested in criticism than theory myself, but I also think that essentialism goes nowhere. You can’t say that at the heart of cinema, there’s this and everything else is impure. It doesn’t work in any art form. It can’t.

SE: How long were you in college?

KJ: Two years. My problem has always been a lack of discipline. Back in those days, I would get interested in what I was interested in and not pay attention to anything else. That’s not a good way to work. I had the chance to write about Kubrick in college and wrote 30 pages on The Shining (1981). But when I had to do more theoretically driven exercises, I was lost. Noël was a very good teacher because he was a good communicator and very nuts-and-bolts. I had done my freshman year at McGill in Canada, then took a year off. I came to NYU, with romantic hopes of studying with Nick Ray. He died before I got there, but even if he was still alive, I never would have gotten within five feet of him. Taking a class with Noël was a very heartening experience. The first thing he asked us was “What’s the major fallacy about film criticism?” We all looked around and didn’t know how to respond. He said “That film critics are scientists. They can predict a reader’s reactions.” That’s stuck with me. He wrote a piece called “Towards An Institutional Theory of Film” that I liked very much. He was saying that there’s no such thing as an essential aesthetic of cinema: it can be impure, incorporating theatre and literature. Which is a valuable point. At the time, I remember that people were very harsh on Noël because he would take the theories of others, demolish them and, allegedly, not formulate anything of his own. He thought everything Stephen Heath and other theorists working in a similar vein were doing was worthless. Going over (Fellini, 1963) and Touch Of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958) frame by frame wasn’t related to anything real, or terribly interesting.

SE: Had you discovered Manny Farber at that point?

KJ: I bought Negative Space as a teenager. At first, I just liked the prose, but when I was an adult, I realized what a great thinker he was – Patricia too. I missed them at NYU. They gave a lecture on Laurel and Hardy and the Straubs or something like that.

SE: You also worked at one of New York’s first video stores. What was that like?

KJ: I was this kid from Western Mass. who had led a sheltered life and met people who were renting porno and trading cocaine for rentals. It was cool because it was new and not everyone had VCRs. They would come to us as if we were therapists. ‘What can you give me today? I’m in the mood for a dark comedy.’ The people who ran it were very smart and hired NYU students who knew film. Our big fallback movie was The Silent Partner (Daryl Duke, 1978), with Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer. Whenever we were out of Sophie’s Choice (Alan J. Pakula, 1982), we recommended it as a sleeper. It became a favorite. It’s a good, solid genre movie.

SE: When I worked at a video store, it always amazed me that someone would ask a total stranger for recommendations. About half the time, people hated them. When people asked me for something weird, I’d usually recommend The Holy Mountain (Alejandro Jodorowksy, 1973) or The Color Of Pomegranates (Sergei Paradjanov, 1968).

KJ: And then they’d come back and club you over the head, I’m sure? Bleecker Bob (owner of a record store of the same name) was one of my most frequent customers. He’d come in and ask me for something ‘noir’. There’s not an endless supply of film noirs. I’d recommend The Conformist (Bertolucci, 1970), saying it had some noir-ish elements, and he’d come back a few hours later saying ‘This isn’t noir. Take this shit back’. Noir was all he wanted to watch for three years. Videos would become a mood enhancer. I remember an interview that Marty [Scorsese] gave around the time he made The King Of Comedy (1983). He said that he turned on different TVs and VCRs in different parts of his house and walked from one room to another with music on and sound off. Most of us in New York only have one bedroom and one TV, but you can still create a mood.

SE: Did you start writing about film relatively late? The first thing I remember reading by you was a piece on Abel Ferrara from 1994 or 1995.

KJ: I started when I was a teenager. I was a theater critic for a while because there was a lot of good summer theater where I grew up. I worked with retarded adults and autistic children for a long time. Then in about 1990, I started writing for a magazine in Boston called Visions. It doesn’t exist anymore. I wrote a few things for them. I did an interview with Claire Denis when she made No Fear, No Die (1992). I wrote a piece on The Silence Of The Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) that they were very fond of. I wrote that article on Ferrara for a literary magazine called Limbo. The first piece I ever wrote for Film Comment was on Olivier, in 1996. Then I started writing for Cahiers du cinéma and Trafic.

Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf

SE: How did you hook up with the French magazines?

KJ: I got interested in French cinema in the early ’90s. I went there and saw Van Gogh (Maurice Pialat, 1991), J’embrasse Pas (Techiné, 1991), Paris At Dawn (Assayas, 1991) and Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf (Léos Carax, 1991). I was working for Marty at that point and made sure he saw that movie, because I thought he’d be excited about it. At that point, the American view of modern French cinema was limited to say the least. Olivier remembers coming here when he showed Disorder (Assayas, 1986) and seeing a marquee that said “Yves Robert is the glory of French cinema.” In those days, that’s what it was like. In everyone’s minds, French cinema was Truffaut, even though he’d been dead for six years, still fighting with Godard. That’s why Maurice Pialat was never popular here. Waves just come and go. Once they come, there’s a lot invested in keeping it new, especially for people who lived through them. I’m sure you’ve had conversations with people who say ‘it will never be the same as it was in the ’60s or ’70s’. Well, they’re right, it won’t. I’m sorry. I wish it could be. I wish we weren’t all getting older. Things are never going to be the same. It’s unfortunate that all the people who came after weren’t swept along by this wave. If André Téchiné had been born ten years earlier and started making movies in 1960, it would have been a different story. Dare I say that he or Claire Denis are better directors than Claude Chabrol?

SE: Well, Pialat always seemed rather bitter about missing the wave.

KJ: He was bitter about getting up in the morning. He would have missed the Wave even if he’d been part of it. He was such a combative person.

SE: At the same time, whenever I read pieces like Philip Lopate’s about discovering the French New Wave and other films in the ’60s, I’m reminded of what it was like for me circa 1994-6, especially when I started seeing Asian films. For me, that was the New Wave, although it certainly wasn’t a unified movement. But I feel like I went through the same emotions and excitement that someone like Lopate or David Denby has described. ‘Death of cinema/cinephilia’ essays seem to have died down at this point, but I was really furious about them because they denied my pleasure.

KJ: You shouldn’t even feel compelled to say it. You feel compelled because of those pieces. You’re saying that because all those people are saying ‘Younger people want movies to be exciting, but there’s nothing to be excited about, so they’re inventing something. Fuck them. That’s not a justifiable position. Is life just a matter of surfing on new waves? I grew up during the allegedly golden moment of American cinema in the ’70s. I don’t actually remember it that way. For every movie like A Woman Under The Influence, there were ten like March Or Die (Dick Richards, 1977) or Harry And Walter Go To New York (Mark Rydell, 1976). It was only when it was over, in the ’80s, that I realized how special it was. For me, the ’80s were rock bottom in American cinema. 1984 was the absolute nadir. Supposedly, it was the birth of independent filmmaking, but really there was just Jim Jarmusch and Alex Cox. After movies like Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980) and True Confessions (Ulu Grosbard, 1981) weren’t being made anymore, we felt their absence. You can create your own sense of excitement, but it’s not counterfeit because there’s no New Wave to buoy it up. It is true that in the ’60s, filmmakers were breaking barriers that are now obvious. I can’t really say that about a film like Bullet In The Head (John Woo, 1990) or Une Nouvelle Vie (Assayas, 1993). They’re working smaller territory, but that doesn’t mean that they’re less exciting. The medium is no less exciting, nor was it all a mirage to begin with. It’s a funny trap to fall into.

SE: I think that one reason mainstream critics have been resistant to directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien is that they’ve had to be sold as ‘great geniuses’ in order to get distribution in the U.S. at all. Therefore, someone like Denby or Ebert feels pressure to call a Kiarostami film a masterpiece.

KJ: I think that’s one side to it. The other is comparisons. ‘Kiarostami is the new Bresson’, or ‘Hou is the new Ozu’. Everyone’s going to lose that way. I plead guilty to being polemically driven around issues like that. When I’ve written about Hou I’ve minimized the Ozu connection to the point where I’ve pretended it doesn’t exist. Obviously it does. But in quite significant ways, he’s five million miles away from Ozu. Kiarostami’s off in his own universe. These comparisons don’t have anything to do with history. As Manny said, if you’re writing about film, you’ve got to link it to what’s going in the world and in other arts. Sometimes I get into corny comparisons with techno music, but you can’t pretend film exists in a vacuum where it only relates back to Hitchcock and Murnau. I’m interested in a director like Roland Emmerich. In Independence Day (1996), he thinks ‘I’ve got to make a movie for everybody. I’ve got to have in-jokes for the sophisticated people, I’ve got to have flag-waving for the patriots, anti-governmental sentiments for liberals, gratuitous violence, something for everyone’. And he did. That’s interesting because it’s a new attitude in moviemaking. It reflects the way CEOs think. They’ve got to be adaptable all the time in order to keep selling their products. In the past, there have been a lot of movies made in the spirit of conforming to a certain audience or lifestyle. American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) satisfies people’s need to critique American culture and also satisfies their desire to think they’ve got all these great passions burning under the surface. That’s where you can draw parallels: the way people think, the way they approach the object that is the movie, the way they approach marketing. It’s a very delicate web that you have to outline.

SE: You wrote a piece talking about connections between blockbusters and films like Assayas, Egoyan’s or Wong’s. Do you still see that connection?

KJ: All the time. If you look at Philippe Grandieux’s movies, you can see the same urge towards abstraction of action. It’s a series of disconnected colors, gestures and movements, and it moves towards stasis. I don’t think Michael Bay thinks he does, but he gets into this weird vertiginous space too. It’s a common impulse in the arts, and it’s there in techno music. These things are real, not imagined. I’m not being cheeky or provocative. But you can’t get it mixed up with aesthetic value. Very commonly with criticism, people get value mixed up with novelty, novelty mixed up with provocation.

SE: You wrote a book on André Téchiné?

La Promesse

KJ: Right.

SE: Has the Téchiné book been published in France?

KJ: Only in Spain. There’s a Spanish film festival, which does tributes to directors and publishes books to go along with them. I had a really good time there. I remember a woman standing up at the press conference and saying “Mr. Téchiné, I’d just like to say I like your work a lot”. He said thanks and then she said “I’m especially fond of La Promesse (the Dardenne brothers, 1997)”. She just kept going on and on. André got very nervous and said “Thank you for your compliments. If I ever meet the Dardenne brothers, I’ll be sure to let them know how much you liked their movie”.

SE: I was reading Movie Mutations [a series of letters between Jonathan Rosenbaum, Jones, Adrian Martin, Alexander Horwath, Nicole Brenez and Raymond Bellour, printed in several publications and languages; in English by Film QuarterlySE] earlier before coming over, and as provocative as it is, it also comes off a bit cliquish. Do you think the similarities in taste you have are generational? The general rising estimation of Cassavetes and Hellman over the past ten years probably is, but what about Ferrara and Garrel?

KJ: Yeah, it’s cliquish. It’s a funny group of people. Amongst the five of us, Alex is the person I feel closest to in terms of taste. We’re very close friends. Jonathan has continued the idea of letter writing in the book. It was done for a very specific purpose, which was to counter the idea that movies ended in the ’70s and younger people didn’t really care much about them. When I first wrote about Abel Ferrara and Monte Hellman, he said “I couldn’t think of two words to write about them”. He started to think about people like Garrel. For Jonathan, it was a family situation.

I haven’t read them in a long time. I’m happy with what I wrote. I was very fond of what Raymond Bellour wrote in response to everyone’s letters. The point he made about Cassavetes and Oliveira stuck with me. He understood why we liked Cassavetes but he prefers Manoel de Oliveira because he believes in the idea of civilization. That’s no small point. Does it transcend the cliquishness? I suppose that’s the question. It probably doesn’t, but it’s just a bunch of letters!

SE: How much hands-on work do you do as ‘editor-at-large’ for Film Comment?

KJ: There are four of us at the magazine. We talk a lot, read a lot, edit a lot. I do some.

SE: You wrote a rather bizarre footnote to your Farrelly brothers article in the second issue that Gavin Smith edited.

KJ: The guy in Time Out NY singled that out as unbearably condescending. Well, it was meant in the spirit of the subject at hand. If I was writing a piece on the Dardenne brothers, I certainly wouldn’t have done it. Before Gavin took it over, the magazine did not reach out to the public. With Film Comment under the previous editor, it was a magazine for people who already knew about the movies. That’s fine, but what about people who don’t but would like to? Or don’t even know they would like to, but might decide they want to see a film by Alain Resnais because they’ve picked up the magazine? We felt first of all that the magazine had fallen out of touch with modern cinema. It was too involved with an idea of auteurism based in the ’70s, too many rehashes of older ideas and celebrations of movies that everyone already knew. We also felt that if there wasn’t enough of a connection to modern cinema – meaning Beau Travail (Denis, 2000) or Hou Hsiao-hsien – there wasn’t enough coverage of films like Me, Myself & Irene (the Farrelly brothers, 2000), Bring It On (Peyton Reed, 2000) or Charlie’s Angels (McG, 2000). Then there are the added considerations of the magazine’s survival. It needed to sell more copies and be in touch with what the Film Society was doing.

SE: Are those goals conflicted? To me, the magazine often seems split between trying to reach a wider audience and promoting the Film Society’s programming.

KJ: Covering it. It’s not always promoting it. Very often, the coverage of the New York Film Festival is negative.

SE: The Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) issue pissed off a fair number of people I know. Do you think people who picked it up because Yoda was on the cover went on to read about Serge Daney, Jacques Tourneur or Bruce Conner?

KJ: I don’t know. Maybe. We have to sell magazines. If we don’t, it dies. That’s a brutal reality. Are these conflicting goals? I don’t think so. It depends what you want out of a film magazine.

SE: Do you think the magazine can encourage people who are familiar with Jacques Tourneur to take Star Wars or the Farrelly brothers more seriously?

KJ: It should all be taken seriously. Look, if we had put Star Wars on the cover and the inside had been a visit to the Skywalker Ranch, a tour of the library and interviews with the kid who played Anakin, I would say we would have gone off the deep end. But we did something else. Yes, we did a Jacques Tourneur series and published a piece on him, but he deserves one. If someone had it in their head to do the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger or some fluffy, stupid program, maybe that would be different. But I don’t think it’s a slippery slope, and I don’t think it’s conflicted. Our programming is pretty solid, for the most part. I don’t program things I dislike or do them just to make money. The Jacques Tourneur series reminded me of Brian Eno’s comment that only 5,000 people bought the first Velvet Underground album but every one of them went out and formed a band. The Tourneur series drew few people but every one of them was very excited about it.

SE: How did the L’argent (Robert Bresson, 1983) book come about?

KJ: That was another polemical horse I wanted to beat.

SE: You wrote a very good piece on late Bresson in the Cinémathèque Ontario book (edited by James Quandt to accompany a North American travelling retrospective.)

KJ: When people write about Bresson, you can hear the monk chanting in the background. I wanted to dispel that. On the other hand, I also don’t agree with Jonathan in claiming that there’s nothing spiritual about his films. Paul Schrader’s book is cogent and well-written, but it’s written about a specific set of movies. I defy anyone to watch Diary Of A Country Priest (1951) and Pickpocket (1959) and come out of them without the idea that they’re about grace. Diary Of A Country Priest ends with a cross on the screen! It’s partially influenced by Bresson’s own writings and the mythology he created around himself. Just as all artists do when they talk about art, they prescribe their own techniques for everybody. It’s not difficult to imagine how or why it happens. I’d always loved his films, but I was looking for new ways of dealing with them. My conversations with Olivier were very important, because he was obsessed with the idea that Bresson’s films had the same impact on him as punk rock or John Carpenter’s films.

SE: The first time I saw The Devil, Probably (1977) was shortly after Kurt Cobain died, and I felt that connection pretty strongly.

KJ: When Olivier first saw that one, he laughed at it, but when he saw it years later, he thought ‘Oh my God, this is just what we were all like’. You get a more severe version of it in River’s Edge (Tim Hunter, 1987) but it’s too editorialized. Columbine happened right after I wrote the book. Although I’m glad Gus van Sant is doing a film about it, who else could have really dealt with that subject except Bresson?

Irma Vep

SE: You have a certain amount of choice about what films you can write about, do you think there’s a danger in claiming a certain director or national cinema as your private turf?

KJ: Turf is something that critics shouldn’t have. No one should say ‘Oh, that’s my territory’. You get it all too often with Asian cinema. Stephen Teo nailed it in his essay, “The Lawrence Syndrome”. We all know who these people are and what turf they claim. It’s ridiculous and meaningless. I don’t think it accomplishes anything. When I first started to write a lot, I was afraid my turf would be new French cinema. When other people started writing about Claire Denis and Olivier after Irma Vep came out, I realized that was the whole point. If you’re introducing something, you have to be prepared for it to become popular and be owned by everybody. That’s the nature of things, and it should be. The notion that something is worthwhile only if a small group of people know about it makes me squeamish.

SE: The ironic thing about claiming turf is that the louder you champion a national cinema, eventually an institution like the New York Times will start paying attention. Iranian films have become pretty hip by this point.

KJ: Some Westerners who’ve become immersed in Iranian culture think a film like The Circle is great because it deals with the plight of Iranian women in a way that other films haven’t. Wait a minute! Is that the reason it’s a good film, or is it a good film that deals with those issues? There are plenty of rotten American films that had a great political impact. Midnight Express (Alan Parker, 1980) supposedly helped reform the treatment of foreigners in Turkish prisons. The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1978) really raised awareness of the dangers of nuclear power plants, because it coincided with Three Mile Island. But those are terrible movies.

SE: Can you envision yourself writing for a weekly or daily?

KJ: I wouldn’t even begin to know how to do what Manohla [Dargis] does. It’s a grind, but she’s excellent at it. Vincent Canby was excellent at it. Jim [Hoberman] is a great critic on a weekly basis. If you’re doing what Canby did, you can make an ongoing history out of it. Jim does that in a different way. Armond [White], in his own odd way, does it. It’s true that being editor at large and writing about what I feel like, rather than having to see movies like Swimfan (John Polson, 2002), can become a danger.

For instance, I don’t own a TV set. I just have a monitor and watch DVDs. I never got around to having cable installed in my apartment and don’t miss it. Every once in a while, I think about what a large part it plays in people’s lives. I don’t have it in my life or the lives of my children. Is that a virtue? No. I don’t miss it, but I miss being able to converse with people about it. Just because the nightly news is constructed in such a monstrous fashion doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t watch it. You should if you want to know what people are reacting to and where their opinions are coming from.