Essays · Movies

For Once, We Are All Truffaut

By  · Published on August 9th, 2016

Celebrating movies with Kent Jones’ Hitchcock/Truffaut.

Cohen Media Group

Kent Jones’ Hitchcock/Truffaut is a really lovely piece of work, a little over 70 minutes of pure celebration of movies. It’s about Alfred Hitchcock, through the lens of Francois Truffaut, in which Jones – and in turn, the viewer – adopts the perspective of Truffaut as the observer, with Hitchcock’s work the observed. Taking as its starting point the now-legendary 1962 interview sessions in which the former film critic, and subsequent director of three extraordinary films, Francois Truffaut and his translator Helen Scott spoke with “Master of Suspense” Alfred Hitchcock, Jones’ film broadens the discussion to include a glittering array of filmmakers inspired by Hitchcock. It becomes, at that point, several layers of fans exulting in cinema, with Jones’ modulation keeping things crisp, and ending on a note so structurally perfect that to reveal it would be almost as bad as spoiling Vertigo for a newcomer.

By now Hitchcock has been revered for so long that, while still widely known, it’s still worth revisiting the reality that for a goodly portion of his career Hitchcock did not enjoy a critical reputation on par with his skills. As pointed out frequently in Hitchcock/Truffaut, while working within popular idioms he was a deeply personal filmmaker with an inimitable visual storytelling style honed on silent films. As such, he stood out from the crowd, which historically has been an almost certain path to divisive critical response. Initially, that is, until a sufficiently persuasive argument is mounted that “this filmmaker who to this point has been getting mixed or even bad reviews is #actually good.” Thereafter, the filmmaker in question is canonized, and then thirty years after they die essays are written about whether or not they’re problematic. But, that initial persuasive argument, in Hitchcock’s case, came from Truffaut and his colleagues at Cahiers du Cinema.

As obvious as this is now, and as central to the way movies are understood now as Cahiers and its critics were and are, Hitchcock/Truffaut is an important reminder that it was not ever thus. Elevating great art to universality is not inevitable, it requires attentive, knowledgeable, and passionate audiences and critics. Truffaut’s direct presence in this film is secondary to that of Hitchcock, and even tertiary during the considerable amount of time devoted to the living filmmakers interviewed – and what a group they are: David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Arnaud Desplechin, James Gray, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese – but in a more cosmic sense it’s Truffaut who made the entire enterprise possible. His passion for Hitchcock’s films, and dedication to the argument for their brilliance, contributed greatly to the perception that stretches as far back as I can remember (I was a toddler when Hitchcock died, for reference) that Hitchcock is at the very apex of film canon, his peers no less than Ford and Hawks.

It does bear pointing out, as numerous critics already have, that none of the filmmakers interviewed are women. I would posit that there is a reason for this, touched on by James Gray when discussing the scene in Vertigo when Jimmy Stewart watches Kim Novak look at the painting of Carlotta Valdes; Gray points out that Hitchcock never shows us Novak’s face but lingers on Stewart’s. If Hitchcock’s cinema is then, to a degree, about men looking at women, then it would make certain amount of textual sense for this particular film to concern itself with the way men look at it, which is not to say in any way that a woman’s perspective is irrelevant, but to say that I would eagerly watch a companion documentary that interviews all women directors and critics.

Personally, the thing about Hitchcock/Truffaut I like most is the sense it conveys that we are all Truffaut. Not in the sense of being one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live, but that we all sit in dark rooms and watch light and shadows projected on a screen, and that those of us who love the movies love them with all our heart. And why not, when they’re as good as Hitchcock? If I could, I’d quote the entirety of Hitchcock/Truffaut and let it stand as a personal manifesto, but as it is I can only turn to Kent Jones and say, “Now that was a good movie.”

Hitchcock/Truffaut is currently streaming on HBONow and HBOGo.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all