8/12/2020 12:00:00 PM

Watching movies with children is a clarifying experience. You can see and feel immediately what resonates and what doesn’t. You’re watching them watching the movie, and you’re seeing it afresh through their eyes. A couple of posts back I mentioned watching Hitchcock films with my sons. They loved the clarity and the emotional complexity, and, of course, the beauty and the showmanship. They’re both in their 20s now and Hitchcock has remained a constant. For my younger son, now 22, so has John Ford. Not all of Ford, but there are certain titles he’s gone back to time and time again. How Green Was My Valley is one of them. He saw it for the first time when he was a teenager, and I was moved to see how deeply it affected him. A couple of years later we were out in LA for the TCM Film Festival. How Green Was My Valley was playing at the El Capitan, and Maureen O’Hara was there for a conversation with Robert Osborne. We had recently seen the film again, but he was very eager to go. It was a great experience—to sit in the balcony of that beautiful old movie palace on Hollywood Boulevard, to see the audience greeting every utterance from O’Hara with laughter and applause, and most of all to watch the film again with my son.

I hear the word “community” used so often now—used and misused. How often does one read about an effort to “create” a community? How many forums for the sharing of poisonous grievances are euphemistically referred to as “online communities?” Ford was an enormously complex 20th century American artist whose films embody and transmit many different and sometimes contradictory aspects of the culture, and I expect they will always be debated. But if there are two core elements of his artistry that make him an essential figure—for me, for my son, for filmmakers as various as Bergman and Godard, Welles and Kazan, Straub & Huillet and John Gianvito—they are his dynamism, a direct creative response to the cinema itself near its very beginning as an art form, and his aching desire and formidable ability to incarnate and dramatize both the power and the fragility of human fellowship, how it can endure and how it can fray and come undone with rancor, intolerance and the sadness of aging and loss. These elements are embodied in every single frame of How Green Was My Valley, painstakingly restored by the Academy and UCLA with the help of The Film Foundation.

- Kent Jones

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8/5/2020 11:00:00 AM

I met Agnès Varda in 1998. She was in New York for the Miramax re-release of Demy’s Young Girls of Rochefort, and I was invited to a breakfast by her publicist. I told her how much I loved her film about Demy, Jacquot de Nantes, and she scoffed—“Have you seen the new one, L’Univers de Jacques Demy?” Her son Mathieu sat silently by her side. “I’m having my son stay at the YMCA,” she told us. “It’s good for his character.”

We crossed paths quite often on the film festival trail, and she got in the habit of calling me whenever she was in New York. Agnès loved to stay on top of things—to be where everything was happening.

When I saw Faces Places, her 2017 collaboration with JR, I was stunned. She had chosen a younger collaborator whose temperament complimented and harmonized with her own, and it was as if she had been re-energized and re-oriented for a final artistic flowering. At the Q&A after the first screening at the New York Film Festival, the first question was about the encounter that never happens with her old friend Jean-Luc Godard near the end of the film. “Excuse me,” she said, “but this is how I know I’m in New York: the first question is about Godard.”

Agnès never had a fallow period as an artist—one might take issue with a title or two, but from La Pointe courte to Varda par Agnès her work is vitally alive. You can feel it so sharply in her editing, which is quite unlike anyone else’s. There is a breathlessness that runs throughout French art, an imperative to catch the lightning of existence in a bottle. It manifests in Agnès’s films in an extremely unusual way, as a reflection of something like satisfaction and confidence at meeting life head on, just as it is. I’m thinking of the moment when she stands before Cartier-Bresson’s touchingly modest gravesite and remarks to JR, “Actually, I’m looking forward to death.”

The last time I saw Agnès was in Marrakech in late 2018. Her daughter Rosalie had told me that her mother was ill, and I expected to find her infirmed, but it was quite the opposite. She conducted a master class with young Moroccan students, and if I hadn’t known she was dying I never would have guessed it.

The Film Foundation has worked with the Cineteca di Bologna and L’Immagine Ritrovata on the restorations of the four films that Agnès made in California. My favorite, Uncle Yanco, is a joyful hymn to color, light and fellow feeling. And it is completely and fundamentally a film that could have been made by only one human being on the planet.

I won’t pretend that I knew Agnès well, but I often think of my good fortune in knowing her even a little.

- Kent Jones

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7/29/2020 12:00:00 PM

In 2014, I was offered the chance to make a film based on the taped conversations between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut that became the basis of Truffaut’s indispensable book about Hitchcock, and I jumped at it. I transcribed all 27 hours of their conversations myself, which was thrilling. As for the films, I’d been deep into Hitchcock’s work since I was 13. So were my sons. When they were children, they loved North By Northwest so much that we re-enacted set-ups in a series of Polaroids we took around the Plaza Hotel and the UN. A little later, my older son figured out where Manny Balastrero lived in Queens and guided the three of us out there.

As luck would have it, my friend Bruce Goldstein—the world’s greatest film programmer—showed the complete works of Hitchcock and Truffaut at Film Forum here in New York right around the time I was researching. I’d seen pretty much everything but had saved a few titles—The Manxman, for instance, which is now my favorite of his silents. I also revisited a lot of films, including Hitchcock’s first sound film and the first one made in England, Blackmail, which I hadn’t seen in years—it’s one of seven Hitchcock titles that The Film Foundation has helped to restore. The Czech actress Anny Ondra starred in both The Manxman and Blackmail, made back to back, and she mouthed all of her dialogue as the actress Joan Barry spoke it into a microphone just off-camera—live dubbing! The use of voices and sound effects as rhythmic stops or counterpoints to enhance the emotions between the characters is absolutely stunning.

In reference to Blackmail, Hitchcock told Truffaut that there was “only one thing missing in the silent pictures, and that was sound coming out of the people’s mouths and sound coming from the streets. But it didn’t warrant the big change that sound brought in… there was no need to abandon the technique of the pure motion picture the way it was abandoned when sound came in.” And he added: “So many of the films made today are photographs of people talking.” The final remark is crucial, because his creativity with sound is as true of Notorious or Rear Window or Frenzy as it is of Blackmail. Truffaut recognized this understanding of the art form as the very secret of cinema, practiced by the directors who began during the silent era and passed on by example to future generations. There are many reasons that so many of Hitchcock’s films seem, as Bob Dylan said of the first Carter Family recording of “Wildwood Flower,” as fresh as a daisy. His consideration of sound as an ever-dynamic and expressive element, as opposed to a delivery system, is one of the most important.

- Kent Jones

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7/22/2020 12:00:00 PM

When I was very young, the role of the film director seemed mysterious to me. I remember seeing and reading interviews with great directors and coming away with awe and admiration but very little clarity about what they actually did. At that time, you still routinely heard people claiming that cinema wasn’t a real art form because it involved so many people doing so many different things—this was predicated on the insanely ignorant assumption that everyone in every different job made their own decisions in a vacuum. It always struck me as nonsense, because the contrary evidence was right there in the films themselves (the new nonsense: that artistic ambition is beside the point). Take five titles on the list of over 800 films restored with the participation of The Film Foundation: Heaven Can Wait (1943), All About Eve (1950), Tunes of Glory (1960), America America (1963) and The King of Comedy (1982). Five great movies, each made at a different moment in film history under different conditions, but they share one thing: a fertile core that grows organically into a living presence, a being, with its own unique properties and mysteries. Artists have to strike a balance between holding on and letting go, tending the seed of the original sparking obsession and then letting it flower. That’s true of the entire process, and the old auteurist idea that the best film directors controlled and dictated absolutely everything and were capable of making a great movie out of the phone book is also pure nonsense. The reality is that a film director has to respond from morning to night to absolutely everything and everyone.

No good film director has ever chosen to work with anyone because they’re subservient. On the contrary, they want people on their team—Production Designer, Costume Designer, DP, Actors, Producer—who respond in turn, creatively and passionately, and who love what they do madly. Of course that goes for editors. Editing is one of the most wondrous aspects of moviemaking. The films I mentioned above were edited by Dorothy Spencer (Heaven Can Wait), Barbara McLean (All About Eve), Anne V. Coates (Tunes of Glory), Dede Allen (America America) and my friend of 30 years, Thelma Schoonmaker (The King of Comedy). These are all extraordinary artists. The appearance of more and more woman artists behind the camera is one of the greatest developments of the last 50 years in cinema. It’s also important to remember that women have played crucial roles in moviemaking from the very beginning. The combined credits of these five women will make your jaw drop, and the history of the cinema truly wouldn’t be what it is without them.

- Kent Jones

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