Breaking down the barriers between filmmaker and critic
Starting July 7, TIFF begins Hitchcock/Truffaut: Magnificent Obsessions, a double retrospective of one Master of Suspense and one worshipful fan from the French New Wave. Often making staggering side-by-side comparisons to their work (a screening of Shoot the Piano Player is followed by The 39 Steps, for instance), the series holds a mirror to the two auteurs, asking where François Truffaut begins and Alfred Hitchcock leaves off.
Of course, this cinematic relationship, seen in Truffaut’s Hitch-indebted works like The Bride Wore Black, Mississippi Mermaid and The Soft Skin, was sparked by a historic conversation between the two filmmakers, immortalized in a week-long interview conducted in 1962 and published in a 1966 tome Hitchcock/Truffaut. Truffaut, already an established director in his own right, wanted to legitmize Hitchcock, who was seen as a mere entertainer instead of a respected artist at the time. Now, that invaluable discussion, which touched on editing, performance and one great James Stewart boner joke, has been transformed into a new documentary by acclaimed critic, filmmaker and New York Film Festival director Kent Jones that is a must-watch for any serious-minded film lover.
Teasing out audio excerpts and stills with scene analysis and candid interviews from a whole new generation of Hitchcock fans (amongst them, Olivier Assayas, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater and Martin Scorsese), the film puts Alfred Hitchcock in his rightful place — not just as a master of suspense, but a master filmmaker. It’s also an extremely enjoyable viewing for any armchair critic, capturing a crucial moment when film criticism was an art form unto itself.
To kick off our series, we asked Hitchcock/Truffaut director Kent Jones a few questions about the state of modern film criticism, parallels between the two auteur’s work and the common misconception that critics can’t be filmmakers (or vice-versa). This weekend at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Jones will be on hand to introduce screenings of Francois Truffaut’s Day For Night (July 8), Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (July 9) and his own film, Hitchcock/Truffaut on July 9th.
HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT WAS SUCH AN INFLUENTIAL INTERVIEW, NOT ONLY FOR THE CULTURE OF CINEMA, BUT FOR THE STATE OF FILM CRITICISM AT THAT TIME. WHO WOULD YOU LIKE TO NOMINATE AS 2016'S "HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT," AND WHY?
The thing to remember is that it was relatively unprecedented at the time. That is, a book-length interview of a filmmaker, not by a critic but by another younger filmmaker, with the goal of giving the older filmmaker his rightful place in the history of cinema and, in the process, of elevating the art of cinema itself. The conditions of that moment no longer hold.
On the one hand, we’ve had more than a few lengthy interviews of one filmmaker by another — Olivier Assayas and Ingmar Bergman, Steven Soderbergh and Richard Lester, Cameron Crowe and Billy Wilder. On the other hand, the idea of Hitchcock as a great artist is now widely accepted. Of course, the cinema is even more maligned and degraded as it’s always been and it’s now in danger of being marginalized, but that’s another matter.
Anyway, personally speaking, I would put David Fincher in a room with Olivier Assayas. I think that would make for a good book.
WITH NOAH BAUMBACH AND JAKE PALTROW'S NEW DOCUMENTARY DE PALMA, WE ARE STARTING TO SEE THE INFLUENCE THAT FILMMAKERS FROM THE ‘70S AND ‘80S HAD ON ‘90S FILMMAKERS... AND BEYOND. HOW CAN FILM CRITICISM RE-CONTEXTUALIZE A FILMMAKER, THE WAY TRUFFAUT'S INTERVIEW DID FOR HITCHCOCK?
Well… re-contextualization is the job of writing, correct? It can be done by paying attention and doing the work, as opposed to rendering judgments or checking off standard responses.
But you’re framing Noah and Jake’s movie and, implicitly, my movie as works of criticism. Which I get, particularly in my case since I’ve written a lot of film criticism. But in both cases, we’re making movies. Movies that are to a certain extent immersed in the territory of film culture and criticism, but movies nonetheless. Meaning: neither Noah, nor Jake, nor I are interested in advancing a critical argument in audio-visual form, but in taking the audience through an experience that is enriching, revealing, mysterious, funny, complex, entertaining. That’s the goal, and it’s up to other people to tell us whether or not we succeeded. So there’s a distinction there, I think.
Another way of looking at it is: who would think that Noah and Jake would be interested in Brian’s work, and who would put Arnaud Desplechin or James Gray together with Alfred Hitchcock? It’s not that great a leap, but it might be surprising to some people. I think there’s a tendency to consider the question of “influence” in a lazy way. Lots of conversation = the influence of Eric Rohmer, improvisation = Cassavetes, and so on.
I remember reading an interview with Sergio Leone — it’s in the book by Noël Simsolo — where he’s asked about what young American directors he admires. He names a bunch of people and then cites Cassavetes as the most original American filmmaker. I believe that Akira Kurosawa shared that opinion. That gave me an idea of the wide divergence between the way that filmmakers think of movies and the way that critics think of them.
THE CAHIERS DU CINEMA WAS OBVIOUSLY HUGELY INFLUENTIAL, FOR BOTH FILM AND CRITICISM. I'M ALSO INTERESTED IN THAT IDEA OF A FILM CRITIC THAT WAS ALSO A FILMMAKER, LIKE ROHMER, TRUFFAUT (BOTH PLAYING IN TIFF SERIES THIS SUMMER) AND GODARD. THERE'S ALWAYS BEEN SUCH A DIVIDE BETWEEN CRITICS AND FILMMAKERS, EVEN THOUGH WE'VE SEEN PEOPLE LIKE PAUL SCHRADER PULL IT OFF. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THIS MENTALITY THAT FILM CRITICS CAN'T OR SHOULDN'T MAKE MOVIES?
It depends on the culture. Over here, there have been many critics who have become writers: Frank Nugent, James Agee, Stephen Schiff. I’ve written some movies. Paul started as a writer. What happened in France is, again, tied to a particular set of circumstances. Cahiers was founded by Bazin, Doniol-Valcroze and Lo Duca as a beacon for a certain approach to cinema, and the young people who wrote for it in the ‘50s were quickly making shorts. They were writing a particular kind of criticism that amounted to one vast artistic manifesto, a prelude to making a new kind of cinema whose inspirations — Cocteau, Renoir, Bresson, Rossellini, Hawks, Mizoguchi, Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, etc. — they were proclaiming and celebrating. That was the beginning of a long, proud tradition, more or less unique to that magazine. But it’s over now.
But to return to North America, there’s an odd dividing line. It has to do with something that Fincher and I talked about during the interview, which is the mystique built up around moviemaking during the studio era. It was a publicity campaign that was intended to enhance the value of movies, and I suppose that it helped to create the gulf between critics and actual filmmaking. The two rare exceptions — Otis Ferguson, who went to Hollywood and saw it all for himself (if he hadn’t been killed in WWII, I have a feeling that he would have become either a moviemaker or a novelist), and his successor Manny Farber, who was trained as a painter — had little interest in that stuff: they both wanted to look under the hood and see what made it all run.
But many critics transferred their awe from the “Magic of Movies” to the director, and they came at movies in this extremely impressionistic manner. When Pauline Kael went to Hollywood, she didn’t have such a terrific time, and I think it’s because, political stuff aside, she just didn’t have a clear understanding of how to put a movie together. It’s nothing against her. If she’d been younger, she probably would have stuck it out. But there’s a great divergence there, and it just doesn’t exist in other art forms.
SINCE THE ERA OF PRINT MEDIA HAS SHIFTED, THE ROLE THAT A CRITIC LIKE ROGER EBERT, PAULINE KAEL OR J. HOBERMAN HAD ON SHAPING CINEMATIC CULTURE HAS CHANGED DRAMATICALLY. TODAY, CRITICS ARE FINDING THEIR VOICE THROUGH ONLINE MEDIUMS LIKE THE AV CLUB. BUT THE MODERN STATE OF FILM CRITICISM IS LARGELY ON DISPLAY, TODAY, ON TWITTER — AND IT DOESN'T SEEM TO MATTER AS MUCH, WHAT A CRITIC THINKS ABOUT A MOVIE, BUT WHAT YOUR FRIENDS ON THE INTERNET ARE SAYING. HOW ARE PEOPLE NOW ENGAGING WITH A FILM WHEN FILM CRITICISM DOESN'T EXIST?
Look, I’m not mourning the demise of the critic as the Voice of Authority. But the “democratization of film criticism” that allegedly came about with the demise of print criticism and the ascendancy of forums, blogs and Twitter feeds — it’s a fantasy, it doesn’t exist. Criticism is writing, and writing means rewriting. It’s hard work. It’s not the rendering of an opinion.
A few years back, I contributed a lot to a particular forum, and I was fascinated by the fact that no one was reading anyone else very carefully. There was a lot of half-reading and then responding with a fresh opinion. And then another. And another. I found it very frustrating, until I finally realized that I was the one with the unreal expectations. Then I started contributing to another forum and it was more of the same. And that was it for me. Now, many of those people were passionate, devoted film lovers, people that knew their film history, and most of them were very intelligent. But it wasn’t criticism that was happening there.
DO YOU SEE PARALLELS TO HITCHCOCK IN TRUFFAUT'S WORK? WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT BOTH FILMMAKER'S WORK?
I don’t see parallels. There are echoes. Certain cutting patterns here and there. Certain ideas for how to approach a scene — I can really feel it there.
For instance, in The Woman Next Door, a telegraph comes for the character of Madame Jouve. It’s a kid in a uniform and his pants are too small for him, they come up over his ankles. He asks one person and they send him in one direction, then someone else sends him in another direction, and you get this poignant zig-zag back and forth until he finally finds Madame Jouve. That’s something that Hitchcock would have done, I think — in fact, there is something similar in Topaz, when Frederick Stafford watches Roscoe Lee Browne talk his way into the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. It’s all shot from Stafford’s point of view with a long lens, and you follow Browne’s progress as he goes from the guy at the door to the front desk to the staircase and so on.
As Olivier Assayas says in my movie, Truffaut got concision from Hitchcock. But the difference is that in Hitchcock’s films, the concision is bracing, purifying — in Notorious, for instance, in every given scene, as the atmosphere is being set up, it’s also being sliced through by Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant’s clarity of purpose. Whereas in Truffaut’s films, the concision almost always creates a kind of breathlessness — the rhythm of the film is a little faster than the characters.
Again, in The Woman Next Door, there are these little moments when Depardieu suddenly realizes that he’s still obsessed with Fanny Ardant. At one point, early on, it’s just a hint, a tiny freeze frame as he turns off a lamp, that prepares us for the fact that there’s something going on, something interior, that this guy is not prepared for. And then, there’s this great scene where he and his wife and her friend have come home from the movies, and they’re discussing the plot of the film they’ve just seen, he realizes that he’s gotten it all wrong and it dawns on him that he’s been thinking about Ardant throughout the film. Also, with Truffaut, there are these details that he seizes on — such as the fact that the guy has pants that are too short for him — that are local to the scene
Arnaud Desplechin likes to tell a story that Jean Gruault, I think it was, told about working with Truffaut. He gave him a scene to read, and Truffaut said, “You must have me confused with Antonioni: I don’t want one idea every four minutes, I want four ideas every one minute!” This is true of Arnaud’s films as well, as I learned first-hand when we were working on Jimmy P.
As for what I love about both of them, I wouldn’t know where to start with Hitchcock. He made the greatest body of work of that size, made under industrial conditions, of any filmmaker apart from Ozu. He never, ever made a bad film, or a film in second gear — in Hollywood, that’s true of him and no one else. In his 82nd Canto, Pound wrote: “What thou lovest well remains, / the rest is dross…” For me, this is borne out in Hitchcock’s work: he only bother with what he loved, and paid no attention to anything else. He loved the cinema and all the properties of cinema, he loved the audience and the sensation of moving them, and this drove him to go deep into emotions, to really expose himself.
In my movie, Arnaud says that what he fears and what he’s drawn to become inseparable. He’s right about that, and it’s tied to this relationship to the public. Fear and love, himself and others — it all becomes one. You could say that it all converges in those astonishing turnabouts: Louis Calhern looking at the wine bottle and realizing that Grant is in love with Bergman, or Grant realizing that Bergman is being poisoned and taking her down the stairs; Stewart seeing the necklace on Kim Novak’s throat; or, that heart-stopping moment when Grace Kelly waves the wedding ring and Raymond Burr sees it and who’s looking at it. And then, there are moments that move into something nameless, wordless.
Montgomery Clift feeling Dolly Haas’s eyes on him as he tries to eat breakfast in I Confess… that sequence in the first Man Who Knew Too Much that Arnaud describes so beautifully in my film… or the final moments of Vertigo, which never cease to leave me speechless. Also, the depth of connection between Hitchcock and some of his characters — with Joan Fontaine in Rebecca and Suspicion, with Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man, with Tippi Hedren in Marnie… this is moving to me, in and of itself.
As for Truffaut, he’s a different kind of artist. The films are very fluid — he spent many months in the editing room working on that fluidity, that speed. In fact, they’re so fast and fluid that they were easy to underrate when they came out. Getting a fresh perspective on them 30 years after Truffaut’s death, you can see just how rich and complex they are. The orientation is quite different from Hitchcock.
Truffaut is about delirium, I think — the delirium brought on by the events of life going faster than the characters, delirium that is sometimes on the verge of madness. Obviously it’s central to Day for Night. In the last interview of his life, when he was very, very ill, he talks about making movies, how it’s a kind of fugue state. That’s why Day for Night is such a special film. “Steal this lamp, we can use it for the movie…Go get two pounds of butter and put it on a plate and sculpt it so that it looks like country butter…” and then the director goes to sleep and dreams of pulling stills from Citizen Kane down from behind a locked gate in front of a movie theatre. It’s there in The Soft Skin, in Fahrenheit 451 (which I love, and always have — the first of his films that I saw), in Adèle H., in film, after film. And in The Wild Child — delirium and real love and affection are so close, actually inseparable.
There’s something uniquely disturbing and even upsetting about Truffaut’s movies. Imbalance and precariousness are always there — they’re dominant, I think. There’s joy, there’s tenderness, there’s a lovely sadness and melancholy, but they’re strokes on a canvas of conflicting emotions. You get to the final moment of Two English Girls and your head is spinning. It’s quite different from Hitchcock, where the sense of everything is so heightened, tactile, thrilling. Truffaut is quite far from that. And it’s also different from Renoir — people compare them, but to me, they’re very far apart. I will say that I agree with Renoir about the end of Fahrenheit — he said that it was one of the most beautiful things he’d ever seen and I concur. Truffaut loved literature, the printed word, and he’s entirely centered and peaceful in that scene, right alongside his characters.