New York Film Festival Director and Selection Committee Chair Kent Jones. Photo by Godlis
For the second year, Kent Jones has presided over programming the New York Film Festival. Along with Dennis Lim, FSLC Director of Programming, Marian Masone, FSLC Senior Programming Advisor, Gavin Smith, Editor-in-Chief, Film Comment, and Amy Taubin, Contributing Editor, Film Comment and Sight & Sound, Jones assembled 30 features for this year's Main Slate, representing a cross section of the latest anticipated work from filmmakers around the globe that will screen as the 52nd edition of NYFF, which gets underway September 26.
Newcomers, relative newcomers, and veterans alike such as Lisandro Alonso, Asia Argento, Olivier Assayas, Nick Broomfield, Pedro Costa, David Cronenberg, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Abel Ferrara, Jean-Luc Godard, Hong Sang-soo, Mike Leigh, Mia Hansen-Løve, Bennett Miller, Oren Moverman, Alex Ross Perry, Alain Resnais, Alice Rohrwacher, and Josh & Benny Safdie are just some of the filmmakers that will come to the Film Society for this year's festival. Following the announcement by the Film Society of Lincoln Center of this year's Main Slate last week, FilmLinc hunted down some available space in a very busy office to speak with Jones about this year's lineup. During the conversation, Jones hails new work from American filmmakers, while also noting a youthfulness that's present across boundaries among some of this year's crop of titles.
Jones gives insight into this year's Opening, Centerpiece, and Closing Night films Gone Girl, Inherent Vice, and Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance and shares his impressions of Jean-Luc Godard's latest Goodbye to Language and his turn at using 3-D. Fellow Cannes feature Clouds of Sils Maria by NYFF vet Olivier Assayas made a big impression in France for both the filmmaker and his actors Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, who won praise from the other side of the Atlantic as well as from Jones who suggests here that the latter actress has long deserved to come out from under the Twilight shadow. He also pays tribute to the late Alain Resnais whose final film, Life of Riley, joins this year's roster. But before delving into some of the particulars the Main Slate, FilmLinc asked Jones how it all comes together.
FilmLinc: We'll start off with a general logistical question. What is the modus operandi that guides you and the selection committee when programming the New York Film Festival? There are ebbs and flows across genre, regions, etc. in terms of international cinema, so what are the parameters when everyone is together and coming up with the lineup?
Kent Jones: Everybody brings things to the table. We all have different areas, different friends, sometimes we have the same friends that come to us. There’s a small number of films. We don’t have any other criteria than “Do we like it enough to make it one of the 28 movies,” Opening, Closing, and Centerpiece set aside. I think that when you get into other considerations, you're immediately losing the thread. I really feel this way. If you start thinking, “We don’t have any films from this particular country” or “that particular corner of the globe,” then you’ve lost the thread. Because then you’re going and looking for something and then [considerations other than quality] become suddenly [paramount]. So it’s sort of adjusting the grades, and I remember in school… we had a grading curve. That’s not a good way to go.
And then every year somebody asks me about themes. But the thing about themes is that there are always themes, but that doesn’t have anything to do with us. Often, it doesn’t have much to do with the filmmakers but what it has to do with the time. Obviously, when people are all making movies at the same time, it’s inevitable that some of them are going to be responding to similar events, occurrences, tracing feelings of fears, ideas of joy, what's happening on the horizon… That’s what happens, you get movies that talk to each other and that’s always great. But by the same token you can’t pick movies simply because of common themes.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
FL: With that said, and bearing in mind that threads were not requirements, did you nevertheless see some particularly interesting commonality among this year’s selection when it was all said and done?
KJ: I saw that there were a lot of good movies from American filmmakers. First of all, three great New York movies: Time Out of Mind, Heaven Knows What, and Whiplash. Then there’s Birdman, which is another kind of great New York movie, and a great Broadway movie by the way and a beautiful movie about theater. And then there's Gone Girl and Inherent Vice. Gone Girl is this panoramic, phantasmagorical, acid trip of a movie that keeps shifting gears for an amazing cinematic ride. Inherent Vice is also, in a completely different way. It’s like being in a time machine, going back to the time of mutton chops and Neil Young.
FL: Maybe you can give a bit more of your impressions or a tease about Inherent Vice…
KJ: Wild movie. You know, it’s the first [Thomas] Pynchon film adaptation, and it really catches his tone. It really catches the antic nature of him: the crazy names of characters, the nutty behavior, and then also the emotional undertone. It has the flavor of Pynchon. It has this Big Lebowski element to one side of it, but the emotional undertone, the desperation, the paranoia, and the yearning in the film… [Paul Thomas Anderson's] an absolutely amazing filmmaker and it’s incredible to see him responding to someone else’s creation and then building his own creation out of it. He sort of did that with There Will Be Blood, but not really. It’s his own movie, inspired by the novel Oil!
I was born in 1960, but I certainly remember 1971 very well and I gotta say, from the minute the movie started to the minute it ended, I was back—way back—to the point where I was thinking “Gee, my son was born in the ’90s.” So it’s a different kind of relationship that he would have. It’s an amazing piece of work, and at this point Joaquin Phoenix and Paul have something so rare between them as an actor and director, and Sam Waterston’s daughter, Katherine, is in it, and she’s riveting every minute she’s on screen. It’s quite a film.
FL: New York has often not only served as a backdrop but also a character in movies and movies have frequently held up a mirror to New York, reflecting the time. The city is present in a number of films as you mentioned. How do they reflect the city today in perhaps a socioeconomic way?
KJ: Well there certainly is a socioeconomic factor because Time Out of Mind and Heaven Knows What are both about dispossessed people, for completely different reasons. Heaven Knows What is about junkies, young people. Time Out of Mind is about an old man who wakes up one day and realizes, one step at a time, that he’s homeless.
Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language
FL: France gets credit for having been a cinematic mainstay at NYFF over the years…
KJ: Yeah, although I must say that Eden, Mia Hansen-Løve’s movie, which is amazing and Matías Piñeiro’s movie, The Princess of France, are both incredible films about youth. It's really rare to have movies that function on youthful energy.
FL: Why do you think that's the case?
KJ: I think that most young people have a tendency to want to appear older than they are. Citizen Kane is a perfect example, a movie made by a guy who was 25 years old but is about aging and forgetting. In a way, you could say the same thing is true of Mia’s earlier movies. When I think of The 400 Blows, for instance, I see it’s a movie about childhood, but it’s a film that’s not made from the perspective of childhood. It’s looking closely at childhood from the perspective of wisdom. Breathless, on the other hand, is a movie from the perspective of youthful energy. That’s what it is, and then at the same time, [Godard's] Goodbye to Language is made from an old man’s energy. It feels very youthful.
FL: Good segue… I wanted to ask you about Godard's latest, which premiered at Cannes. When I first heard that the film was in 3-D I was surprised…
KJ: Hans Hurch, the director of the Viennale also said that. He saw Jean-Marie Straub two years ago, I think, and Straub was in Rolle, Switzerland, which is where Godard lives. He visited Godard, who was ill for the first two weeks he was there, and saw some of what he was working on and was flabbergasted. He was very doubtful. He is a guy who’s not known to embrace everything. He said it was like watching some new form of montage.
Last year in Cannes, there was an omnibus film with three 3-D films and one of them was by Godard. It was something he had been working on that was related to the feature and he had crafted a short out of it. I could not see it because I needed a cataract operation in my right eye, but it looked great from what I could tell. Everybody anticipated Goodbye to Language last year and it wasn’t done, and we did the Godard retrospective last year and that would have been great, but it just wasn’t ready.
So in Cannes this year, that was one of the most heavily trafficked screenings of the entire festival. I got there really early and I have a pretty good pass, and I was up in the balcony—on the side. I wrote about this in my Film Comment coverage—in the middle of the movie there’s a shot in which two 3-D perspectives—both sides of the 3-D image are used, are separate and then they converge. I don’t know how he did it. I would have to see the movie a couple more times to figure it out, but it got a round of applause in the middle of the movie, it was just fantastic. It’s not a surprise that he did 3-D. He said that one of the reasons he was drawn to do it was because there were no rules.
FL: Another favorite during the festival was Olivier Assayas’s film, Clouds of Sils Maria. I heard that people in Cannes were going on about how great it was, Kristen Stewart in particular. And how she and Juliette Binoche had a really great on-screen dynamic.
KJ: The majority of the movie is Binoche and Stewart working together in a house in the middle of a very isolated spot in the Alps. I have to say I’m a little bit puzzled by why people are so surprised that Kristen Stewart can act.
Olivier Assayas's Clouds of Sils Maria
FL: Maybe they thought of it as such an unlikely combination…
KJ: I guess that those are people that are thinking that Kristen Stewart is the person who did the Twilight movies. Adventureland or The Runaways… they’re really good. And if you've seen them you wouldn’t be surprised that she’s a really good actress. I’ve always liked her, and I think she’s amazing in this. She plays the part of Juliette Binoche’s personal assistant.
I took another look at Clean and there’s something that Olivier [Assayas] can do that very few people in the history of movies can do, that he builds a sense of visual space that corresponds to the spiritual space that a character is in. If you remember Clean, it starts off with Hamilton [Canada], and there’s a long shot of the skyline at night and it’s just industrial waste pumping into the atmosphere, polluting the skyline, and the very last shot of the movie, the very last scene of the movie where Maggie Cheung has kicked heroin and she’s reporting and gets a cappuccino from a machine, she looks down at the white of the cappuccino and breaks down and starts crying, because that’s a reminder of what her life had been and then goes outside and the sky is clear over San Francisco.
It takes my breath away every time I see it, even when I think about it. In this movie, let's just say that again, he does something that’s absolutely remarkable, in terms of finding a visual correspondence to spiritual change in a character. That film, by the way, is by a French filmmaker but it’s like 93 percent in English. Godard’s film is technically a Swiss film, and then the Dardennes are not French, they’re Belgian. Eden takes place largely in France….
FL: Alain Resnais… we’re showing his final film here…
KJ: We’re showing his first feature, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and his last film, Life of Riley.
FL: And in 2009 he opened the festival with Wild Grass. He of course passed away earlier this year and wasn't well enough to travel to the Berlin International Film Festival for the world premiere of Life of Riley. Maybe talk a bit about the legacy he leaves behind, and this film in particular…
KJ: [The film stars] Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Vuillermoz, Sabine Azéma, who was married to Resnais, and André Dussollier, who are all regulars. He’s been working with the same group of actors for a while—really skilled, theatrically trained actors. In his last film, and in his last few films, he does not use Mathieu Amalric, but he had used him, he’s in Wild Grass and in You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet with Hippolyte Girardot. He opened himself up. He was a really beautiful man, I met him once. He was very shy, extremely elegant with an aristocratic bearing and an incredible generosity of spirit—very funny, and he loved musicals.
Alain Resnais's Life of Riley
He made the musical a few years ago Not on the Lips, and you could say he made other musicals. On Same Old Song he was really attracted to actors with theatrical training and to the sounds of actors’ voices. It’s beautiful when he’s talking about how magical he found Jack Benny’s voice. This film is the third film that he made that’s based on an Alan Ayckbourn farce. Fourth if you count Smoking/No Smoking as two separate films, and then he made Coeurs [aka Private Fears in Public Places]. which was in the New York Film Festival [in 2006]. Smoking and No Smoking were not. This is the last one, and Life of Riley is based on Ayckbourn’s first farce I believe.
There’s something very moving about him working with these actors, working in that idiom that he loved, it’s in Mélo, that he made back in the '80s, which is about the production of a play. He was really in love with movies, with other people’s movies, and he watched films by younger filmmakers and was particularly taken with Arnaud Desplechin’s movies, so he wound up working with a lot of his actors, like Mathieu [Amalric] and Hippolyte Girardot, people like that. And then [Desplechin] has just made a new movie based on a play by a Russian playwright Aleksandr Ostrovskiy called La Forêt where he uses Michel Vuillermoz and they got to know each other before Resnais passed away. He went out in a grand way, in a really serene way, and it’s great to be able to show this film and Hiroshima Mon Amour in the same festival in this really beautiful restoration, from Rialto, run by Bruce Goldstein, Eric Di Bernardo, and Adrienne Halpern.
FL: In addition to people we've been talking about in some depth here, there are a lot of people veteran NYFF audiences are familiar with who are returning: Hong Sang-soo, David Cronenberg, Mike Leigh, Abel Ferrara, among others. Do you want to give some attention to people who are perhaps “new” and I do put that in quotes—so I mean maybe “earlier” in their careers.
KJ: Yeah, there's the Safdies [Heaven Knows What], [this year's Filmmaker in Residence] Lisandro Alonso [Jauja], Damien Chazelle [Whiplash]… It's a great thing to see so many young filmmakers. You could even say that Pedro Costa [Horse Money] is closer to the beginning of his career. He just made this incredible film…
FL: What are some of the ideas, concepts, or art that they’re bringing to cinema?
KJ: They’re all very different. Matías Piñeiro’s film [The Princess of France] is very beautiful. It has a lightness to it that’s rare. He has this very profound connection to Shakespeare, but I would say that what his movies really are is that there are Shakespearean themes but he takes the response to actors who are working on Shakespeare, and then through those responses, finds a reflection on Shakespeare and on the themes. That makes the film sound more academic than it is, and it really isn’t at all. It’s a movie that’s so playful and so complex in a very light way. And when I say '”light,” I don’t mean “L-I-T-E”—I mean he finds a “lightness”…
Not to compare, but there’s another film we’re showing, La Sapienza by Eugène Green, who’s not young but makes films that feel like the works of a young man, and he’s got a very deep connection to baroque music and architecture, and this particular film is about baroque architecture. It’s about an architect who goes back to revisit the work of Francesco Borromini and there’s a similar lightness that Matías finds. You could say that Matías’s movie feels a little closer to Mozart than to baroque music. There’s a similarity, a shared tone, that I really love.
Josh & Benny Safdie's Heaven Knows What. Credit: ICONOCLAST/ELARA PICTURES
The Safdie Brothers, with the close collaboration of our own Ronnie Bronstein, projectionist who co-edited the film and co-wrote it, are interested in going as far out on a limb as they can. They were from the start, The Pleasure of Being Robbed, making movies that feel that they’re just on the edge of falling apart and they don’t, like they’ve been grabbed from the swirl of reality, and I was amazed by this movie. They’re working with people, young actors, I haven’t talked about it with them at length, but with people, some of whom who’ve had mixed experiences. The film is based on the memoir by the woman who plays the lead, so she’s had the experience that you see in the film, and young actors are mixed with people who probably do lead that kind of marginal existence. You’re just deep, deep, deep into the world of what it is to be a junkie. All that you think about is dope: getting it, getting the money for it, how much you’re gonna get, how much you need for tomorrow, what time you need to wake up so you can go find the money to spend on more dope, where are you going to find where you’re going to shoot up, etc. It’s actually a really magical film.
Basic descriptions of film, where’d you say “An unrelenting film about junkies” or something like that—file under depressing. I firmly believe that Stanley Kubrick was right when he said, “There is no such thing as depressing great art.” It just doesn’t exist. Shoah is not a depressing film, it’s a magical film. It’s about something utterly horrifying. This is not a depressing film either, it’s a film that is touched by magic and it’s about things that are incredibly serious. You owe it to yourself to watch it. It’s not like you owe it to junkies of New York to do justice to them. It illuminates an experience that isn’t touched on very often.
[Alexander Hunter contributed to this article.]