BIFF and Pittsfield Honor Native Kent Jones
This weekend, June 2 through June 5, the Sixth Annual Berkshire International Film Festival (BIFF), will host screenings in theaters in Great Barrington and Pittsfield. In addition to some 70 independent feature films, documentaries and shorts from 15 countries, the festival includes Q&A sessions and panel discussions with filmmakers. Awards for the Next Great Filmmaker will be presented, and there will be Juried Prizes for narrative and documentary films.
This year, BIFF also honors area resident and Special F/X wizard Douglas Trumbull, a tribute that will include an exclusive screening of Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s latest film, which recently won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Trumbull, a board member of the Berkshire Film and Media Commission, served as Visual Effects Advisor on the 2011 film, which stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain.
On Saturday, June 4, at 1:30 p.m., Pittsfield native Kent Jones (right), a renowned film critic and preservationist, will screen and discuss his latest film collaboration with Martin Scorsese, A Letter to Elia. Past editor of Film Comment and former programmer of Manhattan’s Lincoln Center Film Society and the Walter Reade Theater, Jones is Executive Director of the World Cinema Foundation, as well as the author of several collections of film criticism, including Physical Evidence.
A Letter to Elia explores Scorsese’s relationship to the work of controversial director Elia Kazan, who made such seminal films as On the Waterfront, East of Eden, and A Streetcar Named Desire, and who became notorious for naming names during the McCarthy era’s House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings. Jones will screen the hour-long documentary on June 4 at 1:30 p.m. at the Beacon Cinema. It will be followed by a Q&A and a screening of Kazan’s 1960 film, Wild River.
Kent Jones spoke to RI correspondent Robyn Perry by phone this Memorial Day weekend, just after learning that Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto will present him with the key to the city in a ceremony on June 3, at the Beacon Theatre.
R.P.: In the introduction to your book, Physical Evidence, you mention that you began your career at five cinemas in Pittsfield.
K.J.: People went to movies more than they do now. There were no multiplexes; there were five theaters up and down North Street. My mom was interested in newer movies—Midnight Cowboy, Five Easy Pieces.
When I got to be twelve, thirteen, there was a window that opened, between 1967 and about 1983, when a lot of very adventurous work was possible. To me the movie that was the death knell for that period was Ghostbusters. Everyone talks about Star Wars and Rocky, but when Ghostbusters came along…it’s a really funny movie, but it was a formula that people stuck to, and they’ve been milking it dry for the last thirty years. Movies became disposable, so now it doesn’t really matter what people think of The Hangover, Part II. It doesn’t matter what anybody writes about it.
Cabaret was a movie that made a huge impression on me. I remember seeing A Woman Under the Influence by Cassavetes on North Street. Truffaut, Casanova by Fellini, Marty [Scorsese]’s movies – I saw Mean Streets at the Paris Cinema. Hangover Part II was as unthinkable then as Chinatown is now.
RP: Was there a lot of discourse around the movies? Was everybody talking about them, or were you alone among your peers?
K.J.: There certainly weren’t a lot of people who were interested in Bogart movies; a few had fathers who were young when Bogart was new. Bogart was very important in those days for two different reasons. First, there was the nostalgia factor, as in the Woody Allen movie Play It Again, Sam, and second, Bogart was a counter-culture hero on college campuses. The scene in Casablanca when Ingrid Bergman walks back in, when his face seems to crumble—that kind of privately-held pain—it was something that was true of my father. That’s why cinema’s important, because in cinema you read peoples’ body language; you read what they’re not speaking.
RP Do you think you were looking for your father in movies? [The late Dana Jones, was WBRK radio’s “Voice of the Berkshires.”]
KJ: Oh yeah. I mean, I saw them with him, but yes, I was. Early thirties movies, to me, it’s like getting a glimpse of my grandparents.
RP How did you meet Scorsese?
KJ: A friend of mine’s girlfriend’s roommate—that’s how tentative it was—was working in his office, and they needed help with the video archive. Back in those days, Scorsese would tape everything on TV, buy everything that was available commercially on tape, and turn it into DVDs. When I went through the TV Guide, I knew exactly what he would and wouldn’t want, so I was able to cut through a lot. I knew film history; we had the same references.
RP How is your work in film restoration related to Letter to Elia, which you co-directed with Scorsese?
KJ: They’re not really related except for a powerful connection to the idea of film history. This is not a movie for film scholars, but for 16 year-olds living in Akron, Ohio, who have extremely limited access to movies, but an inkling of interest. Both of us would be really pleased if people saw it and thought, Gee, I’d like to see East of Eden and Wild River.
R.P. It’s surprising to see the list of Kazan’s accomplishments.
K.J. People get sidetracked by the milestones, and the HUAC testimony, and somehow lose track of “Oh, yeah, he’s the guy who changed American acting and invented The Actor’s Studio.” Staggering, when you think about it.
Our film is basically a back-and-forth between Scorsese and Kazan, through the way it’s edited; it’s Scorsese’s way of telling Kazan, after he’s gone, how much he and his films meant to him. Over a clip of Wild River, Scorsese says that there’s work you see that becomes your standard, and it’s not even conscious. I was interviewing Woody Allen the other day, and for him it was Ingmar Bergman. It depends on what you see and when. I’m sure Allen saw The Seventh Seal when it came out, in 1955.
R.P.: You believe artistic influence is about timing?
K.J.: I think it’s very much about timing, and that’s why it’s sad to think…although, anybody who gets a glimmer of interest in cinema is not going to content themselves with watching Hangover Part II, they’ll seek out stuff. It’s great that Netflix exists…it’s great that there’s a film festival in the Berkshires now, because that’s what’s needed to keep cinema alive: a film festival allows you to have a sense of community.
RP: What are plans for Letter to Elia beyond the Berkshire International Film Festival?
KJ: The film premiered at The Venice International Film Festival and at Telluride, where I was with it. It was on American Masters, and it actually won a Peabody. I was at the ceremony last week. Marty couldn’t go because he was getting a degree at Yale! And it’s part of a big box set of Kazan’s work that Fox put out. We didn’t make the film for American Masters or for the Fox set, we just made it, and we made it just the running time we wanted it to be, an hour, almost on the dot. —Robyn Perry