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NYFF Chief Kent Jones Talks Comedy, Dark Imagery & the 51st Fest


NYFF Director of Programming Kent Jones. Photo: Godlis

The Film Society of Lincoln Center unveiled its Main Slate of 35 films that will screen at the upcoming 51st New York Film Festival and the first program presided over by NYFF's Director of Programming and Selection Committee Chair, Kent Jones. Long-time NYFF attendees will see some familiar filmmakers at the 17-day festival, including new work from Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, Jim Jarmusch, Claude Lanzmann, Alexander Payne, Hong Sang-soo and others. There are also familiar names who are not as readily identified with the director's chair showing their new work at the festival that has long been a standard-bearer for the most anticipated cinema from the international arena.

Ahead of today's announcement, Jones offered insight on this year's lineup. The mood appears to run the gamut, with a good dose of comedy in store, but also some dark and angry imagery. Typically a constant source of exciting cinema, France makes a strong showing again this year. Jones gives kudos to the European country's state support for film, noting that everyone "who cares about movies should thank the stars that French cinema exists."

FilmLinc Daily: How did you tackle this year's program in terms of strategy? The main slate is more expansive in terms of number of films and range.

Kent Jones: No real strategy, just figuring out how things sat together amidst a lot of good movies that came our way. I think that the tendency is to look at common elements among a set of films within the selection of any given year, or perhaps at contrasts, and then imagine that it was strategic. This year, for instance, there are a lot of British movies, a lot of comedies, a couple of movies that include hardcore sex and/or deeply disturbing imagery associated with sexually aberrant behavior, and a lot of varying approaches to cinema. But there’s no strategy.

On the one hand, it has to do with what’s been made and offered—in any given year, it stands to reason that you’re going to find common subject matters, ideas, preoccupations. On the other hand, it’s much more mysterious: a mixture of taste (my own and those of the members of the selection committee), inclination, individual relationships to cinema, and sense of what films harmonize with what other films, things that can only be articulated through the act of programming.


James Franco's Child of God

FD: What might long-time NYFF attendees notice that's different this year and what might they see as familiar?

KJ: I don’t know, maybe more comedies? But again, that has to do with the year. Of course, it’s inevitable that it will feel different from previous years – different selection committee, and Richard and I are different people with different sensibilities. But that’s not for me to comment on. That’s for other people to determine if they want to do so.

FD: There are some well-known people who have taken up the director mantle this year who aren't as readily identified by audiences as directors—though, of course, some have done this before. James Franco, Ralph Fiennes and Agnès B. come to mind here. Give a sense of what attracted you to their films and filmmaking and how they're evolving their self-expression.

KJ: The Franco film, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Child of God, is quite daring, but then a lot of what Franco has done in the last few years has been daring—playing Ginsberg in Howl and Hart Crane in The Broken Tower, making Interior. Leather Bar. and As I Lay Dying, and he’s just finished a film about Bukowski. I love his deep connection with American literature, and I also love the fact that he’s gone in this general direction—continuing to act in big budget stuff like Oz, the Great and Powerful and in comedies like This Is the End, but using his resources and his clout to do what he wants to do.

Ralph Fiennes is making his second film as a director—again, you have the attachment to the literature of his own country—and I have to marvel at what he did with The Invisible Woman. I love the way he and Abi Morgan, the screenwriter, lay out the relationships between Charles Dickens and his wife, with the Ternan family, and with Nelly Ternan in particular. In The Invisible Woman, you don’t have what has become a modern cliché in movies, i.e.—a focus on the husbands and wives and servants and cousins of venerated literary or historical figures, who make their artistic freedom possible and, by implication, are the hidden co-creators of their novels/plays/historical achievements. You do have a rich, nuanced portrait of Dickens and of Nelly, and you get a sense of Dickens’ self-centered single-mindedness and drive as well as his charm, his compassion and his genius, and a sense as well of the effect it all has on others. But I think he also achieves something rare, which is a wonderful sense of daily life in late 19th century England.

One of the biggest pitfalls in period movies lies in this area—how do people speak or walk across the room, how do they wear their clothes or look at themselves in a mirror. There’s no sense of 21st century actors pretending to be 19th century people—nor do you wind up musing about the crew members just out of camera range. The feeling of being alive in Victorian England is so beautifully realized.

The agnès b. film is something else again. First of all, I know that she’s always been a film lover—she’s produced many movies, made shorts, and distributed films as well, and she named her film company after John Cassavetes’ Love Streams. So in My Name Is Hmm…, which is her first feature, you’re in that register, which is to say: a close attention to behavior, a breaking of the barrier between actor and human being. But the film is also autobiographical, intimately so. You can feel it right from the start, and in the end she signs the film “Agnès Troublé”—making the film must have been an extremely painful process. But in the end, it’s an extremely delicate piece of work, magical not despite but because of the close ties between the traumatic and the lyrical. It’s quite an unusual movie.


Arnaud Desplechin's Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian

FD: Cannes has long been a major source of NYFF films. That is true again this year?

KJ: Yeah, there are 12 titles from Cannes. The reason is simple: that’s the film festival that everyone is aiming for. I suppose that at this point I should add that I’m credited as a co-writer on one of the films that we took from Cannes, Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. Of course, I had to recuse myself in that case and let the committee decide. Arnaud is a major filmmaker and it’s his movie—I just helped.

FD: You alluded to the presence of British films earlier. I believe there are five as well as eight French films. Are these countries producing particularly innovative work lately? And what other regions are producing films you're excited about?

KJ: Yes, there are a lot of British films. Why? Who knows? I just know that we liked them. As for the question of regions of the world, that doesn’t strike me as so germane at the moment, for a variety of reasons. There have been a series of moments in film history, almost all of which are a collective cinematic response to a national trauma or massive shift, sometimes delayed by several years – I’m thinking of Italian neorealism in the '40s and '50s, the French New Wave in the '50s and '60s, Taiwan and Iran in the '80s and '90s, Kazakhstan in the early '90s, Romania in the last decade.

This kind of thing may not be possible anymore—it’s getting increasingly difficult to make films at a certain level, and the kind of filmmaking that isn’t so difficult to finance is made so independently that I don’t think it’s resulted in that kind of shared response, at least not yet. Some might argue that Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, Alex Ross Perry, Matthew Porterfield Aaron Katz and others represent something like that over here. I’m not so sure about that. At any rate, French cinema is a constant. Why? Simple: it’s a culture that believes in cinema. I find all the arguments against state funding of cinema in France to be specious. Anyone who cares about movies should thank the stars that French cinema exists.


Claire Denis' Bastards

FD: There are filmmakers who are making their return to NYFF. I'm thinking the Coens, Desplechin, Payne, Denis etc. These are people who have made the festival a home of sorts. Give a sense of how their latest work continues to give what audiences expect from them OR how their latest work may challenge what their audiences expect from them...

KJ: The filmmakers whose work has been shown regularly at the NYFF are Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, Claude Lanzmann, Alexander Payne, Hong Sang-soo and Jia Zhangke. With the Coens, it’s been less frequent. The Denis movie is extremely tough, extremely fragmented, very disturbing and very, very angry. The Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal is obviously a dark, looming inspiration behind the movie, specifically the terrible toll such behavior takes on the women involved. You could say that I Can’t Sleep, Trouble Every Day and The Intruder inhabit similarly dark territory, but then every movie is different and pretty much its own unique territory with its own ecology.

The Desplechin I won’t comment on—you can see for yourself. The Lanzmann is a towering work. Like A Visitor from the Living, Sobibor 14 October 1943 4pm and The Karski Report, it is structured around an interview he shot for Shoah and chose to leave out (in the case of The Karski Report, he included some but not all of the interviews in Shoah). Unlike those films, this one is massive in length (three and a half hours) and scope and it is made from a wholly different perspective—in Lanzmann’s life (he will be 88 in November), in his approach to filmmaking, and in the life of the memory of the Shoah itself. The Alexander Payne is remarkable to me—with every new movie, he becomes more and more refined as an artist, and the comic and the melancholy, the tragic, and the elegiacal just flow into one another.

The Hong Sang-soo, on the other hand, is remarkable in a different way: I can’t think of any other filmmaker outside of the avant-garde who has created a body of work like this, in which each film builds from the preceding film, echoes and refracts it, and in the process subtly reorients his focus and his concerns. The Jia Zhangke is, I believe, something new. The point of view is still intimately tied to ongoing reality—the action and the characters, as always, seem to be as close to everyday life at the moment of filming as teeth are to lips. But the template is bigger, almost epic, and each of the four interrelated stories ends in terrible violence, which Jia films in a way that is quite unusual in relation to his earlier work. At first I found it jarring, but on reflection it seemed provocative and, in fact, very exciting.

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