Mick McAloon: At what stage did you realise you wanted to be a writer?
Kent Jones: That’s funny that you should ask me that because I resisted the idea. Because I had people telling me you’re a wonderful writer. And of course when you’re young—at least that was the fashion when I was young, but that still seems to be the case because I see it in my son—but when you’re young and people tell you, “You’re great at this, and you should do this…” the response is: check: I’m not doing that. That’s off the list. Nobody gets to define me but myself. You all get to do it in public. I get to do it in private. Here’s what I’m doing. But, of course, that’s just telling yourself something. So I started writing when I was very young. And then I kept writing…
KJ: I’ve loved films since I was a little kid. But writing was separate, I think, in the sense that it was separated in the way that people talked about it. People never linked writing and film: they were two different kind of things, two different enterprises, two different worlds. For me cinema started as the faces of actors, movies on TV, and starting to see them in the theatre. But writing—I really liked just to write. It’s like Robert Creeley says: it’s not what you write; it’s the act of writing. I don’t know. I really liked writing stories, I liked writing plays. When I was a little bit older I got into writing criticism. And then I got into criticism and was hired as a critic when I was 19.
MM: You must have been a great reader as well as a watcher of movies.
KJ: Yeah. I suppose that I was. And again it was sort of like, why don’t you read more? OK I’m not going to read more. But, of course, I guess I did. I really loved Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler when I was kid.
MM: In Physical Evidence you write of discovering or being given Andrew Sarris’s “The American Cinema” and Manny Farber’s “Negative Space”. Both make for sophisticated reading, especially for one so young. Was the impact immediate or was it felt later?
KJ: With Andrew the impact was immediate. But it wasn’t just Andrew’s writing; it was the categories, the hierarchies. As a writer, Andrew stayed within a very circumscribed territory. Even though I enjoyed reading his writing, it didn’t inspire me as writing. It was Andrew’s hierarchies and categories that got me, and they were connected with Richard Schickel’s TV show, ‘The Men Who Made the Movies’. Because the whole idea what is a director—that’s interesting, you know. What does that mean, that there’s a director? And then Manny, that’s something else. I saw the book. It had this cool cover. I bought it. And for years I would crack it open every once in a while and look at it. I had no idea what the fuck this guy was talking about. But I am intrigued. And that’s the way that it should be. If you read something and you don’t understand it, that’s fine.
MM: I didn’t discover Farber until the reprint of Negative Space in 1998. And one of my first thoughts on reading him was: Who is this guy? Then there seemed to be a lot of activity: Chris Petit made a film…
KJ: Yes, Negative Space.
MM: …You wrote about Farber in Film Comment. He received a citation for his contribution to film criticism (1999). There was the NYFF poster 2001. Did your intrigue lead to look back and look for more? Because he wasn’t writing then…
KJ: He was teaching, in California. I lived in Massachusetts. I wasn’t going to hitchhike across the country to meet Manny Farber. But I did look for some of his stuff. I didn’t see his lecture in New York. [Farber gave a lecture at MoMA in the 1980s] But I did look for some of his pieces in Film Comment. But that’s much later. I bought that book when I was 15. At a certain point it clicked. And again you’re dealing with the issue of understanding something. So I would read…. I would look at it on the page and [see] that’s a very attractive rhythm. That’s the thing: if you read and you try to understand absolutely everything then you’re not reading it. If you understand that writing is a matter of rhythm, and that a writer is engaged in rhythm and not just the translation of thoughts into language then you’re dealing with writing. With Manny as opposed to 90% of other critics—Pauline Kael being an exception—you’re thrust into the deep-end of rhythm right away. I related to him much more than Pauline Kael.
MM: He also had the capacity to describe movies in a tremendous visual way. Do you think that was because he was a painter?
KJ: Well, that question comes up a lot. It came up a lot for him, and he would always answer it in his combative, recalcitrant, barbing way. I think when he would say “well the two things were interchangeable”, I tend to agree with him.
MM: You recently wrote an essay about actors and film criticism which, among other things, looks at how Pauline Kael’s love of actors was central to her criticism. It also chimes with what you were talking about earlier. As actors become more career-oriented, so famous from such a young age, are the faces with experience coming through?
KJ: Every time is different, and every time has its own configuration. Those configurations are changing so quickly that people can’t always adequately describe them as they’re happening. For my generation, when we were growing up…My father was in World War II. Most people that I knew, their father was in either WWII or Korea. The faces that we identified with, the people that we identified with, Bogart in particular, whose work was very beloved on college campuses and by younger people at the time—you would see those movies in theatres playing for little runs here and there. Those were the faces that we identified with and the films that we identified with. And that was part of the idea of the world of movies—the past. Those movies were on TV all of the time. There were posters all over the place of those guys, particularly Bogart, Cagney. And then you would have the actresses like Rita Hayworth, and things like that. And that was very present: Classic Hollywood, the Golden Age of Hollywood. There was the nostalgia industry. The people from WWII were getting older. And it seemed like that was always going to be there. And of course, when you’re young you think everything is going to be there forever. And then of course as you get older you realise that things that seem like they’ll be forever won’t—may not be; some things that seemed like they were going away come back in another form. All different kinds of things, you know, it’s the way you apprehend life. And so you had the memory—for me—I have the memory of those faces and the way that I related to them. And of course, part of it is that I’m older so I don’t relate to the face of Jake Gyllenhaal or Paul Dano the way that I do Bogart and Cagney.
KJ: That’s true. You’re right. This is me personally: when I think of Joaquin Phoenix, I don’t think of his face. I think of his body in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. I like him in other people’s movies. But in his movies, they’ve worked out something between them that I find very moving in and of itself in addition to the movie around them.
MM: In the introduction to Physical Evidence you write: “The good films in our midst--Rushmore, The Departed, Café Lumiere, Zodiac, A Scanner Darkly—are made by people who don’t so much transcend their moment as bypass its clichés, its institutionalised inhibitions and prohibitions. They fight their way through the movie, past their own certainties, preconceptions, and tricks, until they arrive in territory that is unchartered, for them and for their audience as well…” That sounds like There Will Be Blood.
KJ: I agree with you.
KJ: It’s astonishing. Well, in that book there was a piece I wrote about Magnolia that’s reflective of a certain time, and things that were floating round at a certain time. I felt the same way about David Fincher’s movies. I liked Fight Club—but Zodiac was a real shock to me. I went to see it because people were saying, “Hey, this movie is really different.” I had this experience that people like Schrader talks about having with Faces by Cassavetes …He said, you know, I thought I hated this and then I realized I don’t hate this at all. I think this is amazing. I remember feeling exactly the same way. With PTA it’s a little bit different in the sense that I was armed with all this cinephilic stuff. He’s copying Marty, bla bla bla. I really liked Punch Drunk Love. I thought it was a really beautiful film. There Will Be Blood I thought—as you say—I thought it astonishing. I wasn’t convinced by the ending. I now am. I thought it was an amazing film, but I did I have that reservation. But when I saw The Master I didn’t have any reservations. And have I spoken to him? Yes.
MM: Did he read your piece?
KJ: He read my piece and he talked about it, in an interview with Cahiers Du Cinema, I think. I wrote to him and I thanked him for mentioning it.
MM: Was this the piece on The Master?
KJ: Yes. And he and I started corresponding. People have talked to me about that piece and said, “Well, you know, that’s your response to the movie. All I know is that wasn’t the movie that I saw.” Wait a minute, it wasn’t the movie that I saw either. It’s the world that the movie lived in. That’s very clear to me. All of those things that I was talking about in that piece are very much present behind the action of that movie.
MM: When I read your piece on The Master, and the way you foregrounded the film’s action, it reminded me of Greil Marcus and Invisible Republic and his writing on Dylan and The Band, particularly on the origins of The Basement Tapes. You talk about this in “Physical Evidence” where you say “the intention is to simply describe the movie itself or enlarge that description by including the circumstances under which it was made or exhibited; in other words, to describe the territory of and around and within and without the movie.” I also liked the insight that frames the relationship of the two men in the context of Lee Strasberg and Marilyn Monroe. Which comes back to acting.
MM: Is there a sense also when you wear multiple hats does the programming and criticism all feed in—that you’re programming the audience in a way to come out to bat for a film? A way of saying: somebody is making valuable work here that needs to be seen, without necessarily being a salesman on its behalf.
KJ: It’s important to keep them distinct. You know, in my case there are three hats.
MM: You’re making films…
MM: How do you balance the demands of all three activities? Or is it a case of—I came across this great Susan Sontag quote—“the day has pockets.”?
KJ: You know, I don’t believe in …what’s the line in The Age of Innocence? “How are you going to spend your day?” “I thought I’d save the day rather than spend it.” I could quote that. I could quote the Buddha saying that you have to live your life like your hair is on fire. I remember I was with Olivier Assayas and we were in Minnesota a few years ago, and we were just kind of touring around. And we saw a neighbourhood that people tend to retire to. And he said: Can you imagine anything worse than retiring? It’s like Shangri-La by the Kinks: you’re stuck in your rocking chair. I mean, the idea of retiring is of course part of an idea of life and what it is and what it is to live life that I just have no relationship with whatsoever. So the idea that work is distinct from life is something that is not just part of my being. I share it with my children. I share it with the woman I live with. She and I both work in film. We spend a lot of time talking about movies, writing about them. But more to the point: there is no distinction between work and life. So for me, to be able to move back and forth from one thing to another, focus on multiple things, multiple projects, multiple strands—is just the way that I live. I guess for other people it’s different. They need to focus on one thing.
MM: Has making films changed your criticism?
KJ: Making films has changed my criticism in the sense that—and I really started to think this a long time ago, and my opinion has only grown stronger as the years have gone by—that 90% of film criticism is just divorced from the actual practice of making movies. It just is. When you talk to a filmmaker about what a movie is, they’re talking about one thing. When you talk to a critic about what a movie is, you’re actively talking about something completely different. And when I say critic, what I mean is a particular stripe of critic. And this again is contingent on the time question: what era are you from. There’s the era of cinephilia—you know the lineage of it just as well as I do. And so you wind up with something that’s kind of like its own world, distinct from actual movies. It’s crossing paths with movies. But when you read a description of it, this has nothing to do with what a filmmaker is hoping for, working toward, trying to achieve, the way that they’re thinking. Now when somebody says Jacques Tourneur has a marvellous sense of space, I know what they’re talking about. And to a certain extent I agree. But then it only goes so far. And that’s not very far at all. And then it’s not useful anymore.
MM: What is it you like about Geoffrey O’Brien? Does he bring another kind of eye to it?
KJ: Geoffrey has got a completely different orientation than me. He’s very involved in the ghostly kind of after-image. He writes so movingly about that. He generates a real excitement. He does it with movies and with literature and with music.
MM: Towards the end of your essay on actors and film criticism, you write: “Film criticism skews in the direction of predictability and control and multiple conflicting fantasies of ultimate order, while film-making has been skewering over the last 40 years in the opposite direction, reaching a series of peaks with Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Jackie Brown and Paul Thomas Anderson’s last three films.” Take me through some of these peaks and what is it that these films have, particularly with regard to the acting?
KJ: Well, I have to do something immodest and talk about my film. But I’m talking about it because in my film—about Hitchcock and Truffaut—the question of acting comes up. Because of course that conversation started in 1962, and they had a little bit more of it later. You know, Hitchcock tells a very famous story about working with Montgomery Clift. “Please look up at the hotel sign.” “Well, I don’t know if my character would be looking up at the hotel sign.” “What do you mean? You don’t know if your character would be looking up at the hotel sign. You need to. And the reason you need to is that because I need to establish for the audience that the hotel is across the street, cause that’s where the rest of the movie is taking place. So please do so.” So that was Hitchcock’s first exposure to that. I know that things never work in a straight line dramatically that way.
KJ: That’s one of the great films made by anybody anywhere. And you know, it’s so funny that it’s his best film and whenever he talks about it he speaks of it in disparaging terms, and it’s because I’m sure that he knows…
MM: I’ve seen him take issue with other critics who’ve said that to him. It’s a tremendous film.
KJ: It’s staggering. Actually, we were talking about Paul [Thomas Anderson] before. He and I did a thing here [at the NYFF] last year, a conversation. We have directors who come show scenes from other people’s movies that have affected them. And so he showed clips from other stuff. But he showed a clip from Jackie Brown. Any given moment in that movie is staggering. I enjoyed Pulp Fiction, but it was too much of a movie lovers’ grab bag for me. It was aimed too much at me. He wasn’t doing that consciously, it was just his thing. I might like it more now. I don’t know. I enjoyed it. But Jackie Brown I wasn’t excited to see it, but when I saw it, holy shit. But Robert Forster really excited me. Looking at it again, the whole movie excites me. It’s the same kind of thing as Raging Bull.
KJ: Well, when you stop and realise that almost every actor, if you think about the seventies, and you think about DeNiro, Gene Hackman, Robert Duval, James Caan, James Coburn. You think about all those names and then you realize that every single one of them went through went through one of four, maybe five, acting teachers. I’m talking about Strasberg, Adler, Sanford Meisner, Sandra Seacat, and Jeff Corey in California. Jeff Corey: every single God-damn actor in Roger Corman’s…
MM: Nicholson, Robert Towne?
KJ: Nicholson. Robert Towne, yes, was very much involved. Jeff Corey was an actor who was blacklisted so in order to make money he gave acting classes and the Hollywood studios that were blacklisting him were sending people to his classes. I don’t think Bruce Dern went to him, I think he went to the Studio. They weren’t all adepts the way Paul Newman was. I think DeNiro went from place to place. It’s like Kazan said: they all had something to offer but don’t think that any of them was the way. But really, Meisner, Strasberg, Adler, Corey and Sandra Seacat—that’s where most of the energy was. That’s why that movie In the Spirit—I don’t know if you know that film, but it’s a little film with Peter Falk and Elaine May, and Elaine May actually directed it but for some reason I think she took two years in the cutting room with it but for some reason it’s credited to Sandra Seacat. But it’s all part of that world. So when you realize that, that’s pretty staggering. Then you think to yourself, then that’s something that must be paid attention to. It just hasn’t. (He laughs.)
MM: I just want to end with a quote from Randall Jarrell from an essay called The Age of Criticism:
“Remember that you can never be more than the staircase to the monument, the guide to the gallery, the telescope through which the children see the stars. At your best you make people see what they might never have seen without you; but they must always forget you in what they see.”
KJ: I think that that’s generally true though. I think it’s true of criticism in a very particular way, and he’s right. When the critic becomes the central event, they’re not writing criticism any more. When they become the central event because of what they’re doing as opposed to the way they’re positioning themselves, that’s different. So Manny—and I’ve quoted this many times—but he said the idea is to get yourself out of it so that the object itself takes on religious awe. And he was talking about painting, but same thing with the writing. I think it’s absolutely true. It also rhymes with Bazin—prolonging the original shock of the work of art. But then at the same time, one of the things that Andrew Sarris just spent so much time promoting and a lot of people spent time promoting—I understand why it happened. We all understand why it happened in relation to the history of cinema. But along with certain pieces of terminology, one thing that I don’t think is of much use anymore is the idea of expressing your personality. Howard Hawks’ movies aren’t interesting because he expresses his personality. The expression of his personality is incidental to what is great about his great films. John Ford too. John Ford’s personality—who cares? John Ford himself probably didn’t care about his personality. Nobody does. You don’t want people to come away from a movie thinking wow what a great guy, I’d really like to meet that director. What you want them to come away from the movie is to forget that you’re there.
*A Letter to Elia (2010) – Directed by Martin Scorsese
Mick McAloon is a writer and film programmer, and General Manager of Curzon Bloomsbury