Meet Kent Jones, part 1

The New York Film Festival Director of Programming and Selection Committee Chair speaks.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Kent Jones and Anne-Katrin Titze look towards the future of the New York Film Festival.
Kent Jones and Anne-Katrin Titze look towards the future of the New York Film Festival. Photo: John Wildman

New York Film Festival Director of Programming and Selection Committee Chair Kent Jones and I spoke about his first year at the helm the week before the 51st edition kicks off on September 27. Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass with Tom Hanks will be the opening night film, Ben Stiller's The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is its centerpiece gala, and the festival will close with Spike Jonze's Her on October 13. Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes will be feted this year with gala tributes.

In Part One of our conversation we discuss class distinctions in Like Father, Like Son and La Vie D’Adèle, getting personal with agnès b, and the pacifism of Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises as compared to Kubrick's Paths Of Glory. Thomas Mann, Paul Valéry, James Thurber, William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and Pierre de Marivaux continue to influence filmmakers, as do Danny Kaye and Jean-Luc Godard.

Kent Jones on Abdellatif Kechiche's film
Kent Jones on Abdellatif Kechiche's film "I'm very fond of La Vie D’Adèle."

Anne-Katrin Titze: You have been on many selection committees for the New York Film Festival. What is the biggest difference between being on the committee and heading one?

Kent Jones: Well, first of all the composition of every committee changed, not quite from year to year, but almost.

AKT: How many were you on before this year?

KJ: Seven. So this is eight. Whenever the composition changes, it changes the emotional composition between the people. It can change the choices sometimes in ways that are completely unconscious and unarticulated. I think this particular group of people - that's Gavin Smith, the Editor of Film Comment, Marian Masone who is Associate Director of Programming at the Film Society, Dennis Lim who is the Director of year-round Programming, and Amy Taubin, [Contributing Editor, Film Comment and Sight and Sound] - is really a great combination. I really enjoyed our discussions, you know. I've been in other iterations of the committee where that was not the case.

AKT: I did notice some interesting parallels in the way table manners function in three of the films I have seen so far. The juxtaposition of table manners to show social structures. In Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is The Warmest Colour (La Vie D’Adèle) there is great emphasis on how the families eat. Similarly, in Hirokazu Kore-eda's Like Father, Like Son, the little boy has to learn how to hold his chopsticks correctly. And then Jim Broadbent's character in Roger Michell's Le Week-end who talks incessantly with his mouth full.

Kent Jones sees
Kent Jones sees "the fullness of vision in Miyazaki's work and the delicacy."

KJ: Interesting. Well, those three films are very consumed with class distinctions. In the case of Le Week-end the distinction is not of class but of wealth, which of course adds up to class. It's interesting, Like Father, Like Son and La Vie D’Adèle they do share that in common.

AKT: Both films I loved.

KJ: Me too. I'm very fond of La Vie D’Adèle and it was an interesting experience in Cannes because it was one of the rare times when I felt like the movie that I saw and the movie that other people saw were two completely different films. As you probably know, there were a lot of people who didn't like it here. Not so much in France. And that just wasn't the film I saw. I thought it was something that was very beautifully modulated, like he shot a lot until he got exactly what he wanted.

AKT: I like Kechiche's films very much. The first film of his I saw was L'Esquive (Games Of Love And Chance) in 2003 at MoMA in New Directors/New Films. Vénus Noire (Black Venus, 2010) is still one of the strongest films about human cruelty and disconnect I know.

KJ: La Graine Et Le Mulet (The Secret Of The Grain, 2007) is nothing to sneeze at either.

AKT: You mentioned at the Jacob Burns Center [see New York Film Festival at 50 feature] that Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises opened your healing eyes.

KJ: Yes, my healing eyes. That was such a strange experience. Well, strange… I had to have cataract surgery. It was an amazing experience actually. And the first film I saw was the Miyazaki film and my son was with us. When he was a child we showed him My Neighbor Totoro. Well, the fullness of vision in Miyazaki's work and the delicacy. It's bold and delicate at the same time, I guess you could say in the way he uses color, especially in this film which is kind of an evocation of impressionist paintings in the textures. Which is not strictly true of the other films. They have a slightly different look. Every film of his does. The way his dreams of flight mingle with his waking life and the way that each has the same level of importance and the way the film moves through time. It was such a rush of an experience.

AKT: You said Miyazaki's father was an aviator?

KJ: His father worked in the aviation industry. Aviation was a great hobby of his. No, not hobby, it was an abiding obsession. The thing about the film that I really marvel at is that it's a film about the man who invented the Zero Fighter. Amy Taubin and I were having a conversation about this last night. I said I thought it was a pacifist film. Amy said "I"m not sure about that". It's not a film that says peace - war is bad. What it says is that if you're alive and if you're pursuing your best self, what you do is you follow what you love. So, the character follows what he loves, even though he knows that it's going to be used for destruction and he has no choice, because it's what he loves. He understands the contradiction. For him the destruction is on a whole other plane, it's amplified. But then I was also fascinated by the fact that the character seizes every calamity as an opportunity to go forward. He doesn't react to it by being scared but by…

Naoko in Miyazaki's The Wind Rises -
Naoko in Miyazaki's The Wind Rises - "…kind of an evocation of impressionist paintings in the textures."

AKT: Action. Yes. I am still not exactly clear how that amounts to pacifism, though.

KJ: It's pacifist in the grand sense. It's not pacifist in the sense of, like, say, Paths Of Glory [Kubrick, 1957] or something like that. What it posits is someone who is saying that one has no choice but to pursue one's dreams. The reality of his waking life under these particular circumstances is that those dreams are going to be used for destructive ends. And that happens. The tragedies of the world, I don't know whether they're inevitable, but they're almost out of the control of the dreams of people. It's a very very subtle tricky intricate thing that he is doing.

AKT: Definitely. The whole Thomas Mann excursion he makes into The Magic Mountain.

KJ: It's incredible.

AKT: Even one of my favorite scenes from the novel, which is the obsession about the camel-hair blankets being wrapped around you just right, found its way into the movie. [In a witty way, because his animation gives the patients a slight hint of camel shape] The movie kept coming back in my thoughts throughout the days.

KJ: Yes and taking the Valéry poem and making that the cornerstone of the film. Just to cap my thought of what I mean about pacifism: When you think about the film, what you come away with is the sense of peace. You come away with the sense of the futility, the absolute ridiculousness of war fervor. It's something he accomplishes in a very interesting way.

AKT: There is a lot of flexibility in length this year. Many very long films. Do you know what the times are of the longest and the shortest films in your program?

KJ: I think it's a toss-up between Claude Lanzmann's The Last Of The Unjust (Le Dernier Des Injustices) because that's about four hours [218min]. Fred Wiseman's film At Berkeley is perhaps a little bit longer [244min]. Lav Diaz's film North, The End Of History (Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan) is very long [250min].

AKT: Even Kechiche's Blue Is The Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle).

KJ: La Vie D’Adèle is three hours long [179min]. The shortest film outside of the festival but part of the Godard retrospective that we're showing is Je Vous Salue, Sarajevo - that's two minutes.

AKT: You have the perfect centerpiece for the centenary of Danny Kaye this year. I haven't seen the film yet. Is it a tribute to Danny Kaye?

Masaharu Fukuyama with  Hirokazu Kore-eda on the set of Like Father, Like Son.
Masaharu Fukuyama with Hirokazu Kore-eda on the set of Like Father, Like Son.

KJ: No. James Thurber's story is like a wisp, perhaps four to seven pages, I can't remember the exact length. The story is a taking off point for both films. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty with Danny Kaye gives Danny Kaye an opportunity to do his virtuosic thing. The Ben Stiller movie is something else. It's a very sweet, very lyrical movie, somewhat like the Miyazaki movie in that it's about recognizing your best self. It's also a New York movie.

AKT: The first feature directed by agnès b My Name Is Hmmm… (Je m’appelle Hmmm…) is a film I am really curious about. She has been so active in many other areas of cinema and provided for me and many others the uniform of our teenage years. This isn't the world premiere?

KJ: No. It was in Venice. It's a film that came to my attention through Amy Taubin. She was in touch with agnès and she sent her the film. You know, whenever a celebrity decides that they're going to make a movie…

AKT: The first name that came to my head when you were going in this direction was Anthony Hopkins… [I was referring to the "experimental" Slipstream, 2007]

KJ: Right. There are three films in the festival. There's the James Franco film [Child Of God] and there's the Ralph Fiennes film [The Invisible Woman]. agnès b's film is different in the sense that it's extremely, challengingly personal for her. It's also made personally so that you get the impression that she made it a little bit at a time. She made it with her friends. You get the impression of a family atmosphere behind the film. But you also get the powerful impression, for me at least, of someone who not only loves cinema, but who has watched it so closely, that she has absorbed some kind of way of approaching the problem of making a film that thrives with her own personal life and desire. We can re-visit the class issue. Her film has a very keen sense of class in the family scenes. Part of it has to do with the acting. Jacques Bonnaffé is an actor I've always liked very much. He is great in Prénom Carmen (First Name: Carmen,1983) by Godard. He is great in a completely different way in Va Savoir (Who Knows? 2001) by Rivette. [Recently, Bonnaffé acted in Guy Maddin's ongoing international Spiritismes project at the Centre Pompidou of resurrecting the ghosts of lost movies] In this film he is an abusive father. He is magnificent. Then so is Douglas Gordon, the visual artist, who did 24 Hour Psycho [his 1993 art installation that slowed down Hitchcock's Psycho to approximately two frames per second], who plays a Scottish truck driver. So the film has a magical lyrical side to it married to an undertone of real terror.

Douglas Gordon in My Name Is Hmmm… directed by agnès b
Douglas Gordon in My Name Is Hmmm… directed by agnès b

More on terror and violence with Kent Jones in Part Two including Claire Denis, James Franco, Catherine Breillat, Jia Zhangke, Lav Diaz, Agnieszka Holland, and the Coen Brothers. Plus a New York Film Festival Sidebar excursion.

If you liked this interview, take a look at these features:

Meet Kent Jones, Part 2

New York Film Festival at 50

Danny Kaye Sandwich joins 'The Woody Allen' on Carnegie Deli’s menu

Guy Maddin's Séances or Spiritismes project

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