Hitchcock/Truffaut•Kent Jones

In 1961, film critic and director Francois Truffaut wrote about Hitchcock, saying, “He’s the greatest, the most complete, the most illuminating, the most beautiful, the most powerful, the most experimental and the luckiest; he’s been touched by a kind of grace” (as quoted by Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell). In 1962, Truffaut spent a week interviewing Hitchcock. The interview covered every film Hitchcock had made and filled up fifty hours of tape. In 1966, Truffaut published the heavily edited interview as the book Hitchcock Truffaut. Not only did it become the definitive look at Hitchcock’s work but it also served as a defense of Hitchcock as an artist, not merely a popular entertainer. Director Kent Jones now brings us Hitchcock Truffaut the film, a scintillating revisitation of Truffaut’s book and that seminal, weeklong tete-a-tete. Using sound and images from the Truffaut/Hitchcock interview, clips from Hitchcock’s films, and interviews with contemporary directors Martin Scorsese, Olivier Assayas, and others, Jones enables us to simultaneously understand and indulge in our love of cinema Availability: Opens New York City December 2, Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema, with national rollout to follow.  To find a theater near you, click here.  Hitchcock/Truffaut was a highlight of DOC NYC 2015. Thanks to Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview. 

 

DT:  In the book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Truffaut said something that mirrored my thoughts as I watched your film. He said, “I knew all of these movies by heart, but upon seeing the excerpts isolated from their contexts, I was struck by the sincerity and the savagery of Hitchcock’s work.” I wouldn’t use the words sincerity and savagery, but seeing the excerpts out of context really makes you see what an extraordinary filmmaker Hitchcock was. Here’s the problem: Hitchcock was very proud of generating emotions in his audience, but I wonder if his ability to conjure up emotions ironically got in the way of people perceiving him as a master filmmaker.

KJ:  If you were to amend that statement by adding “within the suspense form,” then I would agree with you, because I think that’s what did it—it’s the one-two punch of the fact that his films were sold as a great night out at the movies, which they were. That’s the thing:  He was a great, great, great, great popular entertainer, but some great popular entertainers deliver the goods, the way Michael Curtiz did. For other great popular entertainers it means something else: It’s that dialogue with the audience, the relationship with the audience. It takes them to another ground.

When I was growing up, the whole idea of connecting with the audience was frowned upon. It was laughed at. These days I don’t think the question even arises—people don’t care much about questions like that—but it was absolutely frowned upon by everybody. Then I started to meet the actual filmmakers, and to a person they were all interested in connecting with the audience. It’s like there was some theoretical idea floating around out there that was certainly part of the rhetoric of the critical establishment: If somebody could connect with the audience that much, the reflexive idea was that just by default they couldn’t be a great artist.

DT:  That was certainly post Cahiers.

KJ:  Sure. Post Cahiers. Post Ingmar Bergman. Post Fellini.

 

DT:  Let’s go back to what Truffaut said about seeing Hitchcock’s images in isolation. With each Hitchcock clip in your film, I kept thinking, “Oh my God, that’s great.”  But at the end of his life, Hitchcock seemed unsatisfied with his work. That felt really tragic to me. Do you see it that way?

KJ:  I see it that way in the sense that I put it in the movie. It was on his mind, but the things that are happy are always transitory, while the things that are tragic are just as transitory. As you’re having triumphs, you know that the conditions making the triumph are going to come to an end. As Hitchcock was doing that interview, did he know he was at the end of his career?  Maybe not, but he probably got the vibe pretty quickly. He was a brilliant man. But that’s life. It’s certainly life in the film business. It’s sad in the sense that he was asking himself, Should I have done this? Should I have done that?  But life is a process, and because it’s a process it’s a never-ending activity. You’re never going to get to a point where you think, I’ve accomplished exactly what I set out to do, so now I’m going to stay at home and have a good time.

At the end of his life Hitchcock realized he wasn’t going to make any more movies, but he wanted to, right up to the bitter end. That’s a tough thing for guys of that generation working within that framework. The one who actually did make the transition was King Vidor. Solomon and Sheba was in ’59. Then he said, “Well, I heard that Andrew Wyeth loves my movies, so I’m going to pick up a camera and interview him and make a movie out of it.” And he did. Or “I’m a Christian Scientist, so I’m going to make a movie about that.” You can debate how good those movies are, but the point is that he loved cinema so much that he was able to say, “OK, I don’t need the trucks and the lights. I’m going to do it differently.” It’s hard for people to give that up.

 

DT:  I was also referring to the fact that at the end of his life, Hitchcock was asking himself why he hadn’t tried working in other genres. Given the fact that it was too late for him to try, it felt tragic, because it was insurmountable.

KJ:  But it wasn’t insurmountable, because it was just a feeling. Here he was, confronted with all these guys telling him he was a great artist. He was also thinking about the public, and he was also thinking about the amount of money that his movies made. So he was probably kind of bouncing around within those three pillars. Ben Hecht, near the end of his life, said, “I wasn’t involved with that many really great movies. Only about three or four. Notorious wasn’t one of them.” Notorious is easily one of the greatest things he ever put his name to! I wanted to get into Vertigo, because Hitchcock merely says, “Vertigo was good. I enjoyed it.” That movie is a monument!

When Hitchcock was younger, he wanted to produce a film where he’d give John Van Druten unlimited access and just improvise something on camera. Hitchcock had a sense of these things. It’s just that for him, he had a framework that he understood. He worked within that framework and asked himself these questions. It is sad, for sure, but then at the same time he was participating in this enterprise that gave him a different answer.

 

DT:  In your film it was either Truffaut or somebody else who said Hitchcock used technical mastery to conceal deep emotions.

KJ: That sounds like something Truffaut would say.

DT:  Do you agree?

KJ: Oh, yeah. Not to conceal them, though. We’re all subject to using language and expressing things in a way that’s contingent on the time in which we live. At that point in history, Bergman and Antonioni and Fellini would be the three pillars of that moment—I guess Kurosawa, too—but you’re talking about people who were creating stories in order to express the emotional and existential states of certain characters who were personal to the filmmakers, which is not what Hitchcock was doing. He was doing something different. He winds up doing that…he gets there the way that Howard Hawks did; not by default, but he just takes a different road there. But within that moment Truffaut was being very precise about what he was battling, so I guess I can see arriving at that choice of words. It makes a certain kind of sense, but what Hitchcock was really doing was using it to express emotion. Emotion is an interesting thing. In my film, David Fincher says, “I don’t really think of Hitchcock’s movies as emotional,” but that language is always provisional anyway—“emotional,” “exciting.”

 

DT:  Let’s turn the focus on Truffaut for a moment. As a basis for their interview, he asked Hitchcock to talk about four things for each film: circumstances attending the inception of the film; preparation and structure of the screenplay; directorial problems; and Hitchcock’s assessment of results in relation to his initial expectations. Do you think Truffaut was thinking more like a critic than as a film director, and if so, do you think that influenced the nature of their discussions?

KJ:  I think he was planning out this book. When we interviewed Rick Linklater, he said something that we wound up not putting in the finished film but that’s absolutely on target. He said, “I can’t think of another director [besides Truffaut] who would have done this.” At that moment in their career?  Linklater continued, “Truffaut didn’t just put in enough time. It’s not the energy of one film that he put into this book; it’s two.” He did the interviews, he prepared by watching all those films, making all those notes, editing all those transcriptions…it’s just astonishing what he did. And then going back and interviewing Hitchcock after Marnie, and then going back and interviewing him after Torn Curtain. Then there was the editing of the book.

Where Truffaut kind of winds up as a critic is the Catholicism question [to what extent were Hitchcock’s films influenced by his Catholicism?], but I don’t think that’s really criticism as much as it’s observation. Truffaut was just a very careful observer, and it was very porous between criticism and filmmaking in the circumstances in which he became a filmmaker. It’s different here.

I think that where Truffaut gets into something like a critical frame of mind is when he’s talking about British cinema and when he’s talking about documentary, specifically in relation to The Wrong Man. Truffaut is saying to Hitchcock, I don’t think this film is good because it’s documentary and doesn’t suit you, and it’s antithetical to what’s best in your work; it’s brilliantly directed but it would have been a better movie if it had been directed by somebody who wasn’t as talented as you, and so on and so forth.

When I was going through the tapes, I realized just how different they are from the book, because whenever they get to moments where they disagree, Hitchcock just kind of clams up. I think he thinks that it’s unseemly to disagree. He just doesn’t do it. He does not want conflict. So when Truffaut is going on and on about The Wrong Man, Hitchcock just says, “Yes, well, maybe that one…”

The other moment is when Truffaut says the same thing as Godard, when Godard critiques Woman in a Dressing Gown in Histoire(s) du Cinema: “British cinema produced what?  Nothing.” You’re listening to Truffaut on the tapes and thinking, Oh God, here we go again. Truffaut goes on and on for what must be ten minutes. It’s a tirade about British cinema, and Hitchcock answers him by saying, “Back in the twenties there was a group of intellectuals who were interested in silent cinema from the Soviets and they were interested in the theory of film,” and he just describes. That’s it. On the other hand, he’s not very forthcoming with praise for his fellow filmmakers.

Having said that, other than those two areas, I think Truffaut is talking to Hitchcock from the standpoint of someone who’s made films, who knows what it is to make films, who knows what it is to care about the audience, to work in dialogue with the audience, which Truffaut did too in his own way.

 

DT:  In the book, Truffaut defines an auteur as “someone who is motivated by the need to introduce his own ideas on life, on people, on money and love into his work.” Obviously he thought Hitchcock was an auteur, but does this contradict Hitchcock’s concealing his emotions in his films? Or does that make it more powerful by subverting the personal?

KJ:  Again you’re getting back to this word conceal. I think that in those days people were engaged in an enterprise where they felt obliged to explain why someone was an auteur who was not able to or inclined to identify themselves as an auteur. In other words, you’re talking about Douglas Sirk, you’re talking about John Ford. John Ford was highly regarded as an artist. He won a whole slew of Oscars and made a lot of movies that were justifiably lauded, but that’s not the same thing. When I think about it now, I think that a lot of the rhetoric at that time is bound to that time. It’s not that Douglas Sirk wasn’t a great artist. He was. But the idea that he was a guy who developed his themes from film to film… He developed certain practices from film to film and certain points of obsession. With All That Heaven Allows and Magnificent Obsession there’s no problem with the stories he’s dealing with, while with other movies he finds the stories just as ridiculous as the audience probably does, but then people find these rhetorical ways of jumping over the fence. With Hitchcock, people were primed to get into a mechanism whereby somebody is hiding something but if you look at it in the right way—like in They Live, where you put on the glasses—you can see through the façade of the thriller or the romantic comedy to the profundity beneath. If you look at Only Angels Have Wings now, there’s no special route you have to take to get to what it is that makes it such a moving film. Same with The Big Sleep. If you look at Hitchcock’s films now, it’s not like you need any kind of special apparatus to understand what’s so powerful about Suspicion. It’s just that what he’s talking about is something bound to the time, which is these ironclad conventions. I think this goes back to that same question you were asking before, when you were using the word conceal.

 

DT:  Hitchcock paid great attention to the size of the image. In my opinion, that attention is lacking in contemporary cinema. I wanted to know if you agreed or not.

KJ:  Yeah. It’s in my movie. I’m not editorializing about it in the movie—I’m letting the filmmakers say it. A lot of different people say the same thing. James Gray says, “I’ll bet he didn’t shoot her from the front. Me, I would have done it, but that’s because I come from a generation that doesn’t have as much trust in the image.” And then Marty [Scorsese] is talking about films being so fast. David Fincher talks about it in a different way.

I had asked Brian De Palma to be in this movie, and he said, “I can’t, because I have to save my thoughts about Hitchcock for Noah and Jake’s movie about me” [De Palma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow]. When I saw their movie, I was glad that he did, because it’s integral to the film and to him explaining himself as a filmmaker. In their movie, De Palma is talking about how you set up a sequence, referring to the subway scene in Dressed to Kill, where the guy is in between the cars. De Palma says, “If you’re doing an action sequence, you have to know where everybody is all the time.”

In American movies, I would date it as 198— When did John Woo come here?  1984? If you look at the difference between his Hong Kong movies and his American movies, you can see that he’s forced to get into a kind of action editing that blurs understanding and shatters geography. That just became a thing, and it’s been a thing for thirty years now. On the one hand movies move really quickly—what Marty says is true—but on the other hand it kind of slows everything down into this gestalt, like you’re looking at a painting. Speed is not the operative word for me, because in order for the question of the size of the image to work, you have to know where everybody is. It’s complicated a little bit, though, by a question I felt was very important to bring up in the movie, which is the question of actors and the relationship to actors. In Fincher’s movies, there’s a very, very clear sense of the size of the image at all times. All times. But he has a different kind of relationship with actors. Actually he’s accused of the same kind of thing as Hitchcock was.

 

DT:  I loved the clips of Hitchcock with his daughter Patricia riding on his back, and I was wondering what material you didn’t include in the film. Were there outtakes you felt bad about not including?

KJ: I don’t feel bad about not including anything. You have to do that when you’re making a movie, because the rhythm of the movie has to work. There was a whole section on Rope that we cut, even though it was fascinating. Olivier Assayas is talking about what a work of genius it is, while David Fincher is saying, “It’s just not cinema.” David Fincher, Arnaud [Desplechin], and Marty [Scorsese] all went on at great length about Notorious, but it was just a bunch of people talking about how great Notorious is. When we were dealing with Psycho or Vertigo, [we could include] a lot of things at the same time, as well as the contrast between the two of them. There were a lot of other letters that were interesting, and a lot of production materials that were interesting, but I don’t regret leaving out anything. I made the film I wanted to.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

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