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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Hitchcock (But Were Afraid to Ask Truffaut): A Conversation with Kent Jones

Discussing the new documentary "Hitchcock/Truffaut" with director Kent Jones.
Hitchcock/Truffaut is a documentary film by Kent Jones, the Director of the New York Film Festival and editor-at-large of Film Comment magazine, focusing on the 1967 book that Truffaut compiled of his conversations with the British director. As Jones makes clear, what emerges out of these conversations is the idiosyncratic vision that these filmmakers—each from a different era—had formed about cinema. Hitchcock/Truffaut also explores the formative influence that these conversations have had on the directors of our own era, many of whom appear in Jones’ film as they assess this impact.
For the following conversation with Jones I was deeply and influentially assisted by Mahmood Khoshchereh.

NOTEBOOK: I’m curious as to why you picked film directors and not critics or film historians to discuss Hitchcock's films and Truffaut’s relationship with him.
KENT JONES: I only wanted to have filmmakers. I wasn’t interested inmaking a documentary. That is why I didn’t want to have experts with contrary opinions or other points of view. At the same time, I didn’t want to have the people whom I knew; rather, I wanted the people who were interested in Hitchcock’s films, who loved his work, and who knew the book Truffaut had published on Hitchcock. The conversation between Truffaut and Hitchcock is between two filmmakers; therefore, I wanted to have filmmakers talk about Hitchcock and Truffaut. In other words, I relied wholly on conversation between filmmakers in order to widen the scope of the conversation between Truffaut and Hitchcock. I also wanted good filmmakers. I didn’t choose Kiyoshi Kurosawa just because he was Japanese; I chose him because he was a great filmmaker.
NOTEBOOK: You start your film with a scene from Hitchcock’s Sabotage, in which a combination of different framings and camera movements are used, and in which the gaze of actors become crucial signifiers. Why did you open your film with this scene?
JONES: I felt it was really important to start the movie with a Hitchcock film and not with a photograph, archival image, or a narration. To me, it was important to start with the images that Hitchcock himself had constructed. Hitchcock is a powerful artist and his images tend to overwhelm everything else around them; nothing can compete with them. I just wanted to stress the relationship between images, on the one hand, and emotions and ideas expressed by filmmakers, on the other hand. This scene is all about montage and how all elements are held in balance; in fact, it shows how the tension generated between various elements holds them together. That’s what I wanted to emphasize: something that would hold these images together. I didn’t want to turn my film into an anthology of greatest moments from Hitchcock’s movies. Hence, I wanted to start with something that was tremendously potent, very mysterious and wordless. Perhaps not mysterious, but wordless, an idea which was communicated to you purely through images.
NOTEBOOK: Don’t you think that the gaze of the characters is the element which creates relations in space in this scene? In your film, James Gray also talks about the significance of Scottie’s gaze in Vertigo, where it is fixed on the pinned stiff curl at the back of Madeleine’s head.
JONES: What you are talking about is central to Hitchcock. In the scene you refer to, you don’t see Madeleine’s face, and yet you are mesmerized by the point of view in the shot. If you had seen Madeleine’s face or heard her talk, that would have dissipated the impact of the scene, the sense of the mystery and dream it intends to evoke. James [Gray] says the same thing about the shot in Psycho. That’s what Hitchcock’s filmmaking is about; relationships are held together through what is seen and what people are seeing.
NOTEBOOK: In your film, Martin Scorsese suggests that Hitchcock has radicalized his, Scorsese’s, generation. What do you think he means?
JONES: I think he means that Hitchcock empowered us, he freed us. What Marty is saying is actually very close to the whole enterprise of Truffaut’s book about Hitchcock. Hitchcock asked important questions: should I experiment more? Should I have gone in a more character-based direction? And he always asked whether he should step outside accepted forms and, perhaps, not to worry much about the audience. Marty and some other filmmakers of his generation didn’t necessarily want to become Hollywood filmmakers. They didn’t want to be independent filmmakers either, because they wished to have access to the technology and equipment that Hollywood offered. Nonetheless, they wanted to hold on to their creative freedom. Truffaut’s book, which revealed many dimensions of Hitchcock, gave Marty’s generation the signal to drop all the mystification, to drop all the worries, and just make movies.
NOTEBOOK: While Truffaut was a major figure of the French New Wave, which gave primacy to the creative vision and independence of filmmakers, Hitchcock worked in the studio system. Wasn't that a source of potential conflict in terms of how they perceived cinema?
JONES: Hitchcock was coming from a generation where calling oneself an artist guaranteed that you were going to be scrutinized, and, perhaps, it was brutal. If a director tried to call himself an artist by transgressing the limits of the studio system, Daryl Zanuck and Jack Warner were there to remind him that he was just an employee. The attitude was: do this and then you get your next assignment. So, if you spent a lot of time saying you were an artist, the studio bosses would say: fine, go and find work somewhere else. For this reason, people like Max Ophüls didn't last in Hollywood. Such filmmakers had a certain way of doing things, which was not acceptable to Hollywood. So filmmakers avoided getting into trouble. Have you ever read an interview in which John Ford would call himself an artist? Howard Hawks, for instance, always said he was just trying to tell a story. The way they made films was like what William Carlos Williams says, that the poet thinks with the poem; the poet doesn’t think or write down notes in order to write the poem. That was also the case with Hawks, Ford, and Hitchcock. So, when shooting the scene in The Birds, in which an explosion engulfs part of the city, Hitchcock would not probably have said, “okay, I cut to a high angle because I want to express, or give voice, to a mission, a sense of danger that would come from the sky at any moment and inflict apocalyptic fire down on the earth.” He’s just not going to do it—because he makes the movie. So, I think that is basically what differentiates Hitchcock and Truffaut.
NOTEBOOK: Do you see this difference in terms of an oedipal conflict? For example, when Hitchcock talks to Truffaut about a specific scene in 400 Blows, when Antoine catches his mother kissing another man, Hitchcock suggests that he wouldn't have filmed it that way.
JONES: That’s not so much a conflict as they were two different artists. Their relationship is that of master and disciple. They are two different artists with two completely different orientations and frames of references. At the time, when Truffaut engaged Hitchcock in these conversations, he had already made two films. He had changed a lot and worked his way up very slowly and had very particular ideas about cinema. There’s this whole thing when he goes on about how he thinks The Wrong Man is not a good movie, and a less talent could have directed it. And in those moments, Hitchcock says nothing, because he doesn’t want to argue, he just drops out. Or when Truffaut goes into one of his harangues about British cinema, Hitchcock doesn’t argue, he turns and deflects the whole thing. He just doesn't want to argue. And, that's interesting. But in terms of the point that I think you’re getting at, there was a difference between the way Truffaut and Hitchcock made movies. That is not to say Hitchcock did not like avant-garde films or the films that Truffaut’s generation made. Hitchcock was really struck by Antonioni’s Blow Up. He thought it was really a leap forward. I think that he really loved Godard’s Masculine Feminine. In fact, he watched everything. He kept wanting to think about other possibilities. However, in discussions with Truffaut, as he puts it, he’s just like the old lady with the boy scout.
NOTEBOOK: In his conversation with Truffaut, Hitchcock refuses to speak about the Catholic streak that seems to inform The Wrong Man. Do you think Catholicism was a shaping force in Hitchcock’s films?
JONES:When Truffaut asks Hitchcock if he considers himself a Catholic filmmaker, Hitchcock says, turn off the tape recorder. In the recorded tape, when he discusses The Wrong Man, Hitchcock attributes the Catholicism in the film to Manny’s Italian roots. I think it’s too limiting to call Hitchcock a Catholic filmmaker. Of course, he does have a Catholic upbringing; after all, he was brought up by the Jesuits. There is an acute sense of guilt and redemption in Manny’s story that certainly strikes us as Catholic. Catholicism informs Hitchcock’s films, it sparks something into him, but I don’t view him as a Catholic filmmaker.
NOTEBOOK: The idea of “original sin” comes up in your film. Truffaut says that in Hitchcock’s films, everyone is guilty and there’s this transference of guilt form one person to another.
JONES: I think it’s just Truffaut’s personal view. It’s not that I disagree with him; he’s putting things in a very neat way, and then Hitchcock answers that he’s just trying to show the acute capacity of human beings to feel guilt. You are accused of a crime, and then you say: “Wait a minute. I know I didn’t commit any crime, but maybe I did! And I don’t remember it, or something like that. That’s really interesting.
NOTEBOOK: Which of the filmmakers in your film has come most forcefully under Hitchcock’s influence. Wes Anderson, for example, suggests, that Hitchcock has influenced “us all.”
JONES: Well, it’s like Shakespeare’s influence. In other words, Hitchcock’s influence is too large. I think the question of influence in relation to Hitchcock is very complex, it is a big question. Look at Brian De Plama. De Palma has definitely seen Vertigo more than once, and the grammar of his films is very much in the manner of Hitchcock. On the other hand, there’s no ambiguity that it is a choice De Palma has made as opposed to an homage. In other words, he is saying “oh, that way of making movies is really powerful.” I could look at Marty’s work and point to different things that he does when he’s following the pattern of something that Hitchcock has done, but he’s just trying to make a network of references. Other people do the same, but Marty’s just aware of it.

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