The Director of Programming at the New York Film Festival has made his third movie about the movies. Kent Jones offers personal memories about growing up with Truffaut and Hitchcock as his guides. Pam Grady then interviews the maker of Hitchcock/Truffaut.
Following the two articles are bonus links and videos for you to explore the worlds of these two giants of cinema. Filmmaker Roger Leatherwood and Truffaut’s daughter, Laura, write affectionately about the source book, which her father called “Hitchbook.” And as dessert, dip into a great collection of Hitchcock trailers in this week’s Eat My Shorts.
Hitchcock/Truffaut Official Website with trailers and clips.
The Films in My Life
by Kent Jones
The other day, I went to Film Forum here in New York to see a film called Chandu the Magician, which my friend Bruce Goldstein had programmed in his William Cameron Menzies series, occasioned by the publication of James Curtis’s excellent new biography of Menzies.
Chandu, based on a very popular radio serial of the early 30s, was a mainstay of television programming from the ‘60s through the ‘90s, and the source was one (or many) of the worst 16mm prints known to man. For this show, Bruce found a 16mm of similar vintage — there is nothing better at the moment.
A Conversation Between Filmmakers: Kent Jones on His New Documentary: HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT
by Pam Grady
New Wave director François Truffaut’s 1962 series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, dissecting the Master of Suspense’s work, became Hitchcock/Truffaut, a seminal book on filmmaking. Now, with his documentary of the same name, writer and filmmaker (and director of the New York Film Festival) Kent Jones, expands the discussion employing the original interviews, film clips, and commentary from 10 contemporary directors, including Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, and David Fincher.
The Films in My Life
The other day, I went to Film Forum here in New York to see a film called Chandu the Magician, which my friend Bruce Goldstein had programmed in his William Cameron Menzies series, occasioned by the publication of James Curtis’s excellent new biography of Menzies. Chandu, based on a very popular radio serial of the early 30s, was a mainstay of television programming from the ‘60s through the ‘90s, and the source was one (or many) of the worst 16mm prints known to man. For this show, Bruce found a 16mm of similar vintage — there is nothing better at the moment. Given that our eyes have long been attuned to crystalline HD clarity, the condition of the print came as a shock.
But for me, the shock wore off quickly, because there was a time when this was par for the course. We were used to seeing scratchy, noisy, spliced, rickety 16mm prints on television and, quite often, in revival houses. That was just the way things were. For instance, in the late spring of 1973, I asked my mother to take me and my friends to a repertory theatre in Lenox, Massachusetts, on the grounds of an old estate called Wheatleigh, to see a double bill of The 39 Steps and Psycho. Today, Wheatleigh is a luxury hotel. Forty years ago, it was privately owned by Phil and Stephanie Barber, who turned it into a sprawling arts campus with a hippie vibe that featured a cabaret, rock concerts all summer long, and a ramshackle movie theater with uncomfortable asymmetrically placed seats and miserable sightlines. None of which mattered in the slightest.
This was not my first exposure to Alfred Hitchcock. The first Hitchcock film I ever saw was Dial ‘M’ for Murder in 2D in a basement. Dial ‘M’ for Murder in 2D is not Dial ‘M’ for Murder in 3D — the first is very good (if, as a first exposure to Hitchcock, a little deflating) but the second is an awe-inspiring experience that I had to wait many years to see. However, I felt as if I’d entered Hitchcock’s universe already. Or, rather, I’d been guided to the portal by Richard Schickel with the Hitchcock episode of his television series The Men Who Made the Movies, and by François Truffaut and Hitchcock himself with the book that we knew as Hitchcock Truffaut.’ It was a book that I had either been given or had bought for myself when I was 12, and that I quickly came to know by heart. By that, I mean the visual experience of the book, which was, as I now realize, very much like the experience of watching one of Truffaut’s films: fleet, breathless, concise, endlessly surprising.
We sat down that night in 1973 on our battered old horsehair-stuffed theater seats with springs clanging. The lights dimmed. I had come with the expectation that I would be transformed, I think. I was. “Obviously they’re going to sit there and say, ‘Show me,’ ” says Hitchcock in my movie, based on the tapes that formed the basis of Truffaut’s book. He is speaking of his audience, a member of which I became that night. “And they expect to anticipate — ‘I know what’s coming next.’ And I have to say: ‘Do you?’ ”
In my film, Marty Scorsese discusses the cut to the high angle on Martin Balsam as he arrives at the top of the stairs and Anthony Perkins stabs him. “You just know he’s gonna get it,’’ Scorsese says, “but you don’t expect that high angle.’’ Quite right. I didn’t expect it then, and I still don’t. Does that mean that the cut carries some mysterious power to wipe away the memory of all previous viewings? In one sense, yes: like all good filmmakers, Hitchcock is adept at drawing you into the action. But the shift to the high angle is something else again. It’s a matter of framing and composition, of course. It’s a matter of spatial economy. It’s a matter of the slowness of Balsam’s movement suddenly contrasted with the quickness of Perkins’. It’s Bernard Herrmann’s score, quieting down to a gradual ascent on a single violin. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s a matter of the timing of the cut. Another point of view is suddenly revealed to us at a moment when our growing dread and our investment in the progress of the story are prompting us to direct our perceptual energies elsewhere. That point of view belongs to no one. It is mysterious, it is omnipresent, it is possibly omnipotent. To call it “God’s point of view” isn’t quite right. It is, simply, there, disembodied and undefined, neither malignant nor benign.
Again and again, Hitchcock deepens our sense of experience in just this way. We are shifted into another register, into the uncanny, never identified as such as it would be in a ghost story. Our sense of everyday experience is opened up, and we become attuned to multiple planes of perception. His films are endlessly revelatory, just like Henry IV or Leaves of Grass or Sons and Lovers or William Carlos Williams’ The Wedge.’’ As I said, I opened the door to his universe that night, by way of two crummy 16mm prints. In certain cases, as with the films that Menzies designed, it is crucial that they be seen under optimum conditions in the best possible prints. In the case of Hitchcock’s films, of course they should be seen under the best conditions, but their power is so great that they blast through every layer of damage and degradation.
It was through the book Hitchcock Truffaut that I came to know Truffaut as well. For a young film lover in the ‘70s, Truffaut was a guiding spirit. He was a boy, it seemed, eternally youthful. And his films seemed to come out in an endlessly abundant stream. In those days, foreign movies were commonly released outside of the major cities in dubbed versions, and I can still remember the American voice not quite originating from Truffaut’s mouth in Day for Night instructing his assistant to “liberate” a hotel lamp for a scene in his movie “Je vous présente Pamela.” But what I remember most vividly from that film is the director’s dream of himself as a boy reaching behind the fence and stealing the images from Citizen Kane.
The first Truffaut film I saw, on television, was Fahrenheit 451, which I loved instantly then and love even more today. As the years have gone by, all of his films have deepened and become richer and much, much stranger than they appeared at the time. When he was alive and working, Truffaut was cast in a Lennon-McCartney scenario with Jean-Luc Godard, which now seems wholly absurd.
One might liken Godard to Ezra Pound, but I am hard-pressed to think of another artist in any medium with whom I would compare Truffaut. One can certainly detect traces of Henry James, Sacha Guitry, Jean Cocteau and, of course, Hitchcock in Truffaut’s films (but not so much Renoir, I think, his admiration for him aside), but he was in every way his own man.
And then there was Truffaut’s persona, as a writer, as an actor, and as himself in television appearances and interviews. He was winning, he was exacting, he was utterly merciless when it came to cinema, and he was unfailingly deferential an helpful to the artists he named as his masters, Hitchcock above all. And there was, I think, a shadow, a sadness about his presence, in his eyes and in his quick delivery. One might even call it a pessimism. It seems to me that he was an honestly pessimistic artist. Thus, we get a film like The Woman Next Door, a uniquely unsettling experience. It’s this mix of ebullience and darkness that makes him so unique.
I designed my movie to have no narration, but at a certain point Rachel Reichman, my editor and co-producer, and I decided that we needed a little narration to connect the dots, as Scorsese says of the purely expositional scenes at the beginning of Psycho. That’s the way that I wrote it. The only exception is the moment when we acknowledge Truffaut’s death at the age of 52. It seemed unthinkable in 1984, and it still does. And it meant a great deal to me to have those very words spoken by Bob Balaban, himself a gentle soul who has made his own films (I wanted nothing but filmmakers in my movie, since it was based on a conversation between two filmmakers) and who was a good friend of Truffaut’s.
I remember the wet autumn day in 1984 when I came home from a visit to some friends on Long Island, turned on the radio and heard the words, ‘’French director François Truffaut died today.’’ I had just turned 24 years old and I’d had no idea that Truffaut was even ill. The great cataclysm of my generation was the murder of John Lennon, but for me Truffaut’s death carried the deeper shock: quieter, but deeper and longer lasting. I can still feel it today, I think. This man, who was all about energy and vitality, had suddenly become a shadow, one of the dead whose memory must now be kept alive, like the beloved dead in his film The Green Room. Or by other means. Most of all, by means of making films. I suppose it’s part of the reason I made my film, Hitchcock-Truffaut, based on one of his grandest gestures, his book of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock.
Kent Jones’ writing on film has been published throughout the world in numerous magazines, newspapers, catalogues, websites and journals. He was Editor-at-Large for Film Comment magazine. His books include a 2007 a collection of his writings, Physical Evidence, L’Argent, and he recently edited the first English-language volume of writings on Olivier Assayas. He is a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow. Jones has collaborated for many years on documentaries with Martin Scorsese, beginning with My Voyage to Italy (2001) on which he served as co-writer. He and Scorsese co-wrote and co-directed A Letter to Elia (2010), an Emmy-nominated and Peabody Award-winning film about the director Elia Kazan. Scorsese was the producer and narrator of Jones’ 2007 documentary about Val Lewton, The Man in the Shadows. He co-wrote the screenplay for a narrative feature, Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian.
Jones began in programming with Bruce Goldstein at Film Forum, and served as the American representative for the Rotterdam International Film Festival from 1996 to 1998. From 1998 to 2009, he was Associate Director of Programming at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, and from 2002 to 2009 he served on the New York Film Festival selection committee. He has also served on juries at film festivals around the world, including Rotterdam, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Venice and Cannes. In 2009, he was named Executive Director of The World Cinema Foundation. In 2013 he became Director of Programming at the New York Film Festival and has expanded the scope of the annual event.
50 Rare Backstage Photos from the making of Psycho.
Director Kent Jones talks about his documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut that deals with the making of the world’s most famous film book of all time: Hitchcock/Truffaut. (2:37min)
Director Kent Jones joined fellow filmmaker Noah Baumbach on stage to discuss his love of movies.(25 min)
Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones talk about Hitchcock. (14 min]
Alfred Hitchcock accepts the 7th AFI Life Achievement Award (1979). (7:07min)
by Pam Grady
New Wave director François Truffaut’s 1962 series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, dissecting the Master of Suspense’s work, became Hitchcock/Truffaut, a seminal book on filmmaking. Now, with his documentary of the same name, writer and filmmaker (and director of the New York Film Festival) Kent Jones, expands the discussion employing the original interviews, film clips, and commentary from 10 contemporary directors, including Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, and David Fincher. At the Toronto International Film Festival where Hitchcock/Truffaut screened, Jones talked about his own association with the book, his approach to the documentary, and choosing between films when it comes to the work of Hitchcock and Truffaut.
Pam Grady for EDF: How old were you when you first stumbled upon the book?
The first Hitchcock movie I saw was Dial M for Murder in 2D, sitting in a basement, projected in 16mm. But the thing about Hitchcock is that when you’re young, the choices are very clear. Howard Hawks was more mysterious to me. Hitchcock was mysterious and clear at the same time, and wondrous. You can keep looking at them. You spend a lifetime with them.
Kent Jones: I was asked. [Producer] Charles Cohen called me and asked me if I was interested in making a movie out of the tapes. I just immediately said yes. There had been a project in the works with Gail Levin. The film is dedicated to her, because Gail passed away from cancer. So there was an idea of a film — Gail had a very different kind of film in mind.
I went through the book and before I listened to the tapes, 27 hours of them, I said, ‘So what I want to do, I want to make a film about filmmaking, just fill it up with filmmakers, not experts or disgruntled girlfriends or people with alternate interpretations or something.’ I just wanted to fill it up with filmmakers, because it’s a conversation between filmmakers. I just wanted to make it a bigger conversation between filmmakers. [The producers] agreed to that, so that was cool.
EDF: It’s a great approach, particularly when you think about how much influence those two filmmakers have had and, in Truffaut’s case, not just as a filmmaker, but as a critic and theorist, as well.
Kent Jones: That’s right. People tend to talk about influence in general in a very localized kind of way, like ‘There’s a camera movement from Sunrise’ or ‘There’s a shot pattern from North by Northwest’ or something. But that’s a very small moment in film history. It’s like Michel Piccoli wearing a hat in the bathtub [in Contempt] like Dean Martin in Some Came Running. They’re very, very specific things and they’re not what they seem. That’s not where influence happens. Influence happens in the absorption of the work. It comes out and you can feel it. When you watch movies by Marty Scorsese, you know that he knows Hitchcock, but you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, there’s a clear sign of—it’s the shot from Strangers on a Train.” It just doesn’t happen that way.
So, I think like with Truffaut, when Marty made Goodfellas, he was thinking about the first three minutes of Jules and Jim, bup, bup, bup! Stuff like that. When I was making this movie, I said to the editor, ‘I really want you to think about the whole web site-building, cross-cutting back-and-forth thing in The Social Network.’ Not to be pretentious about it, it’s just that for me, I wanted it have that kind of everything so carefully linked together and held in tension. Of course, in the final outcome, nobody would ever think that and that’s not the point. The point is you see something and there’s a model for it. Marty sees Hitchcock or David Fincher sees something, you’ve absorbed it and you respond. It becomes a part of you, after you’ve seen something.
EDF: There are some filmmakers in the film that seem obvious for the project, but others are less so. How did you decide who you wanted to involve?
Kent Jones: There were some people that I asked that didn’t do it for one reason or another. Nobody refused vehemently. They just refused for various reasons. Brian De Palma had a very specific reason, because he was making this movie [De Palma] with [Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow] and in the movie he made with Noah, he actually begins with a clip from Vertigo. He said, ‘I need to save my thoughts about Hitchcock for Noah and Jake’s movie.’
The question has arisen about why there are no women in the film. I did ask three women filmmakers. One of them said, ‘I’m sorry, I just don’t have anything to say about Alfred Hitchcock.’ Another one said, ‘I’m a little bit shy about things like that, let me think about it,’ and then she kind of let it drop. Another one was going into pre-production.
The people that I went to are people who I know pretty well, that’s one thing. So they are people with whom I have personal relationships and people who I knew were going to respond to the idea of filmmaking, to the idea of Hitchcock and Truffaut , and who weren’t going to just sit there and say, ‘Hitchcock was great, here’s why.’ I didn’t want that at all. I can’t stand movies like that, when you have a bunch of people, ‘Here’s why X is the most important filmmaker.’ I’d rather take a long nap.
Wes Anderson, in his case, he’s got a funny — there’s a scene in Grand Budapest Hotel, for instance. Then Marty, this is an ongoing conversation. Arnaud Desplechin and I have been talking about Hitchcock for years. There’s a scene in Jimmy P. that he actually referred to as the Dial M for Murder scene. Hitchcock is very, very present in his thinking a lot.
Fincher, I just didn’t know, I was prepared for him to say, ‘I don’t have much to say about that,’ but he said, ‘That book, I only read it a couple of hundred times.’
EDF: What was it like listening to the tapes of the interviews?
Kent Jones: I was really absorbed by those. I was listening to them on the plane over to France a year ago. I was staying at Arnaud’s place and kind of staying up late at night, transcribing. I transcribed most of it… It’s absolutely fascinating. It’s very different from the book. The tone is really different from the book. Hitchcock is much more spontaneous and funny, kind of gregarious. He actually speaks French. He does it really badly, but he speaks French. The byplay between the two of them and then the three of them [including translator Helen Scott] is really fascinating, the tensions between them, the way they have these moments where Truffaut’s trying to make a point, and then sometimes he’s trying to prove to Hitchcock that he made the wrong decision about something, and Hitchcock just doesn’t ever, ever want to argue. He just shuts up. There are a lot of different variances and mood and complexity and everything, but it’s very moving.
And the fact that it’s these two guys, they’re both working filmmakers. Hitchcock was in the process of, I think, mixing The Birds and Truffaut was an internationally renowned filmmaker who was just taking — as Rick Linklater put it to me—the equivalent of two movies to put this book together. It was just astonishing.
EDF: The friendship that arose from that is incredibly moving.
Kent Jones: It is moving. Their letters are very moving. And that telegram that Hitchcock sends him where he’s talking about Mondrian and Cezanne, when I saw that, I was really startled. We think, of course, one’s gut reaction is, ‘Why should Alfred Hitchcock have to worry about whether or not he was taken seriously by posterity?’ But that’s what’s so moving in their relationship. It’s this younger filmmaker saying, ‘I want to sit down and talk to you to prove, in so doing, you’re the greatest filmmaker.’
EDF: Are you able to name favorites among Truffaut or Hitchcock films?
Kent Jones: When I was young, Truffaut, he was making movies every five minutes — ‘Oh, another Truffaut film’ — Truffaut now seems like a much more troubled and troubling and really unusual filmmaker than he did when he was alive. We take people for granted when they’re around and see them in a different light later, although I do remember seeing The Woman Next Door when it came out, and going ‘Whoa! What’s that?’ And Two English Girls, going back looking at that, and The Green Room, I can’t imagine another filmmaker on earth wanting to make The Green Room, let alone play the lead. One is tempted to think he had intimations of his own death, because death is so much a part of his work, right from the start. Maybe, maybe not.
I was actually thinking for a while of using a little bit of — somebody interviewed him really close to the end. He might have been two weeks away from death. There are these tapes and they are really painful to listen to, because he’s still trying to hold it together and he kind of can’t. He’s talking about filmmaking and he’s having trouble breathing and he says, ‘Filmmaking is like working in a fugue state.’ It wasn’t the right thing to do, it wasn’t the right place.
We were also going to use a TV interview with him, because the last television appearance he ever made, he was talking about the book, but it just didn’t work.
So, I don’t know — The Wild Child is a formidable film. The last time I saw Jules and Jim, I was blown away by it.
Hitchcock, that’s something deeper and I just go back to his films constantly. I don’t really think I’ve ever seen a bad film by him. I think some of them are a little less good than others, Champagne, Paradine Case, and I guess Number 17, the one that starts out as a haunted house movie. But even those are beautiful. The last time I had to do the Sight and Sound poll, I put Notorious on there, but I could just as well have put Rear Window or Vertigo or Psycho or The Wrong Man. I don’t know. It’s astonishing. You could say that after Notorious, from I Confess on through Psycho, that’s just some kind of unbroken series of astonishments. It’s impossible to say.
Pam Grady is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, Keyframe, and other publications. She is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
BOOKS AND MOVIES
The revised edition of Truffaut/Hitchcock can be ordered from your local bookstore or through Amazon.
We highly recommend Truffaut’s The Films in My Life.
The films and books of Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut are available at Amazon.
Hitchcock movies via Amazon.
Truffaut movies via Amazon.
Truffaut and Hitchcock are the only movie directors with books dedicated to the posters for their films.