Wednesday, November 4, 2015

An Interview with Kent Jones

I couldn't make the New York Film Festival this year. Reading this year's reactions reminded me of a favorite NYFF experience: my interview with critic, filmmaker, and festival director Kent Jones. Part One was published on FilmLinc at the time, but somehow Part Two fell through the cracks. Until now. 

FilmLinc: I recently picked up a book of Stanley Kubrick interviews. The first one, written in 1959, opens up with a diatribe about how hard it is for artists to make films, versus the generic [stuff] that Hollywood churns out. Maybe in some sense that’s eternal.

Kent: [Kubrick is] a model. You have to have nerves of steel. Take somebody like Wes Anderson, for instance. He looks like a devil may care dandy who dresses in cool suits, et cetera. When it comes to his movies--to getting his films made exactly the way he wants to make them, and having them be marketed exactly the way he wants to market them, and seen exactly the way he wants them to be seen--he’s as tough as Kubrick. He’s as exacting of an artist. That’s always necessary. You know, it’s not polite!

I remember I was talking to a French actress named Nathalie Ruchard, who was in Irma Vep [directed by Olivier Assayas]. I was interviewing her for the Voice, and I asked, “What filmmakers would you like to work with?” She said Maurice Pialat. He was still alive [at the time]. I said to her afterwards that I’ve always heard he’s a monster to work with. She said, “Who cares, when you’re making films that good? He can’t be a monster. He’s a human being.” She’s right.

To get back to Kubrick. People talk about what a horrible, horrible experience [The Shining] was for Shelly Duval. And yes, it looks like it was. But guess what: in the interviews she said that it was horrible…and that she wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.

I’m not saying that artists should get to go around and do whatever they want, that they’re the chosen people, and bla bla bla. On the other hand, it isn’t about politeness and everybody liking you. If that’s what you think it is, then you’re not going to last. You’re not going to get much done.

FilmLinc: Yes, and Tom Cruise said the same thing about Eyes Wide Shut. Whiplash seems very relevant to what you’re talking about. Damien Chazelle has talked about musicians who’ve seen J.K. Simmons’ character and said, “Oh yeah, that’s what it takes. If anything, maybe his character was too light.” That shocks people.

Kent: Well, there are different kinds of teachers. In music, you have to be one with your instrument. And you can’t be one with your instrument by just walking up to it and saying, “Wow, I think I’ll play this!”

In cinema, I think a lot of critics labor under the delusion (I know I did when I was younger) that filmmaking is about the director just walking onto the set and making magic. That’s because there’s an auterist lore, [like] Douglas Sirk taking Rock Hudson movies and making these films out of them. That’s not the way it works!

First of all, the director has to work intensely with the writer. They don’t just get handed a script and show up on the set and weave a tapestry. They’re interested in the writing, they’re interested in character. A lot of people think that [casting] doesn’t matter. It certainly matters to every director I’ve ever met! It’s news to them when they hear a critic say actors don’t matter. That happens a lot.

I’m not saying you, by the way. [Laughs].

FilmLinc: Good! I’m trying to think of who…

Kent: Well, it’s a very common thing. It’s unusual to read someone who writes perceptively about acting. Just to finish this thought [about Whiplash] —you have to be tough on yourself. In film, odds are that you’re not going to have that kind of teacher. You have to develop that kind of discipline yourself, and figure out your own discipline, the way Kubrick did, the way Von Stroheim did, the way Lubitsch did. The way Hitchcock did, for example.

FilmLinc: I was struck by your comment, because it does seem that we—not just critics, but people in general, that we don’t know how to talk about acting. I know this about my own writing. How many times have we seen a performance described as “bold”, or “fantastic”…

Kent: “Gutsy…”

FilmLinc: Right.

Kent: There’s a really strong essentialist bias in a lot of film criticism. Meaning, let’s get to the bottom of cinema and the essentials of cinema. The essence of cinema has nothing to do with acting, that’s theater. It has nothing to do with sets, that’s theater too. It has nothing to do with plot, that’s novels. Well, of course that’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous in the sense that if a movie has actors and a story, you have to deal with acting and narrative. You have to.

A lot of people do feel extremely uncomfortable talking about acting in movies, for a lot of reasons. One is that they feel it detracts from focusing on the filmmaking, which is the essentialist question. Then there’s the question, “How do you talk about acting?” A lot of people do it by not talking about acting, but talking about iconography. So they talk about the mystique of Bogart, they talk about Tom Cruise as a Scientologist--everything but acting. People have a million ways of talking around acting.
Then you get someone like Pauline Kael, who knew a lot about acting but who would talk as if acting were over here and the rest of the movie were over there. In film, you can’t isolate the art of acting. [Perhaps] if you’re talking about Laurence Olivier in Othello, because that’s what it is, a record of his performance.  But if you’re talking about Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria, or Jacques Dutronc in [Maurice Pialat’s] Van Gogh, or Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl—if you’re just talking about acting, then you’re missing it. You’re missing the interaction between the presence of the actor, as grasped by the director and interpreted through the editing, within the grammar of the entire movie.

[You can even miss it when] talking about a movie like Whiplash, which is more or less two people back and forth. That’s not just a couple of actors going at it [while] the director turns the camera on and lets it happen. Nor is that the case with Heaven Knows What. [Filming acting] is capturing slices and stretches of human behavior, working with people with varying degrees of experience, and interpreting it through the editing into a whole cinematic experience.

It can be hard for actors. Fincher and I actually had a discussion about this for another project. He was saying, “When you do a take, and you say it looked great, and the actor says, ‘It didn’t feel right to me,’ well okay. But the light was right, the electric cable coming down the street looked good, the color of the bricks as the sun was hitting was just right. I’m sorry it didn’t feel right to you, but it looked like it felt right, and I’ll take that.”

Sometimes the actor feels resentful, because they feel their process is compromised. But it’s a movie. There are a lot of different moving parts. The performance is one of them, and a very important one. Only Ben Affleck can deliver that cheesy smile, and only Rosamund Pike can be that opaque with her eyes. But you have to be alive to it as a director, and weave those different moments into a whole. I think that’s why it’s hard to talk about acting. People get mixed up between acting, writing, and direction.

There’s a part of the mind that can muddle that: the part that’s uncomfortable if you’re dedicated to the idea that cinema is the product of one individual behind the camera. On the one hand, yes. It is the product of one individual behind the camera, the person who has the governing idea. If there is no governing idea, you wind up with something else.

On the other hand, it’s [only] a governing idea. All those other people have to respond to that governing idea. The director has to see what those responses are and orchestrate it. Or let things happen, like [Olivier Assayas] does. He always puts himself in situations where he’s going to be surprised. And then [there is] interpretation—not to harp away at that, but editing is interpretation, shaping, storytelling.

FilmLinc: Can we talk about Gone Girl? I’m curious to hear your reaction to the reactions. There are so many key questions—the gender elements, obviously a huge topic of conversation in parts of the press. Also, David Fincher working with “trash”, interacting with that.

Kent: The gender stuff is kind of built into the movie. I’ve had conversations with people who say, “It’s a sexist movie, how could you see it any other way?” Well, I don’t know, search me. I don’t even know what to say about that.

The trashy part of it is interesting, and it does bring me back to Benjamin Button. I still get into arguments with people about Benjamin Button. “You liked that?!” “Of course I love Fincher, but hated Benjamin Button.” Or, “It’s a remake of Forrest Gump. Can’t you see that?”

Forrest Gump: Yes. They’re both written by the same person. Yes, they’ve both got a hero that’s in the midst of all this historical stuff. Bla bla bla. [My question is] why isn’t it Forrest Gump? Forrest Gump is by one person, Benjamin Button is by another person. The Benjamin Button that people complain about is not the movie that I saw. The movie that I saw was, sure, a movie with some awkward dialogue. But I found it absolutely shattering and an incredible reflection on time. It seemed like all of a piece with Zodiac. The movie that I kept hearing about from people was the script…That happens a lot.

I’ve heard all different kinds of things [about Gone Girl]. I get the vibe that people who didn’t like it loved to be there and not like it. It’s not the same as saying they didn’t like…[Pedro Costa’s] Horse Money. In those conversations I’ve gotten the sense that it makes them feel really creepy and like they want to take a shower. Which is kind of the idea. The trashiness of it, the supermarket counter quality, is something that the people who made it are extremely aware of.

FilmLinc: You enjoyed it.

Kent: Enjoyed it? I loved it. I think that there are a few filmmakers alive right now where every time they make a movie I can count on the fact that I’ll have my eyes opened to something. When [David Fincher] makes a movie he gets specific about things and places and kinds of people and situations that nobody else would even touch. St. Louis, the discomfort of the people that comes with sophisticated New Yorkers. The boredom that [Rosamund Pike’s character] feels out there. The very uncomfortable feeling of two people who are reasonably intelligent (but maybe not all that imaginative), who after a few years realize, “This isn’t what I planned. Gee, I really liked her”…”He was great, but look at him now.”

Then it just becomes this phantasmagorical TMZ-style dream encapsulation of stuff that people are obsessed with…this moment that feels eternal but isn’t.

FilmLinc: The ending almost seemed bleakly happy to me. After all this time these two people have found a way to live with each other, however messed up.

Kent: Yeah, it certainly reflects…I don’t want to make a big deal out of this, but I don’t do social media. I don’t look at websites very often, I don’t watch television, whatever. I glance at that stuff every now and then. I don’t have a Twitter. What I know of it, what I see of it--and what I see of that really unhappy world of Bruce Jenner and the Kardashians—feels like Gone Girl feels.

The way that these people put themselves on display, and create drama out of their own lives in order to keep their viability with an audience that they reckon has the attention span of a three year old. And a lot of people limit themselves to the attention span of a three year old. A lot of people think of themselves that way, that fundamentally that’s all we boil down to, so we might as well enjoy it. That’s something that’s part of the moment that we live in.

It’s a moment that will pass, but when people look back on it, you could do worse than watch Gone Girl and see it encapsulated. 


Good times. Kent Jones is a true renaissance man.

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