Kent Jones, a respected film critic and programmer in New York, isn’t well served by the design of Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism, his first collection of previously published articles. In the author photo he looks like a bohemian savant in some Jean Eustache movie, thoughtfully stroking his chin as he aims a brooding gaze at something below camera range; this is a man who communes with his inner self, the picture tells us, and that pensive demeanor is the physical evidence of his contact with wavelengths the rest of us can sense only by reading his prose. And then there’s the blurb on the back of the book—nobody expects those things to be impartial, but isn’t there some limit on the number of laudatory adjectives per inch?
These trimmings are hilarious because Jones is precisely not the kind of Cinemah Brahmin they make him out to be. He’s a smart, savvy, and humane writer who cares enormously about the films, filmmakers, trends, tendencies, movements, and historical moments he chooses to write about. The book’s subjects give a sense of his catholic tastes: directors as different as John Carpenter, Wong Kar-wai, Jia Zhangke, and John Cassavetes; movies ranging from Magnolia and A History of Violence to Flowers of Shanghai and The Wind Will Carry Us; older critics (Andrew Sarris, Manny Farber) who influenced him; and such miscellaneous topics as digital cinema, the blue-collar aesthetics of William Friedkin, and the dubious notion that political movies “matter” more than other kinds. The book tilts toward the intellectual—when Jones isn’t dealing with art films, he’s treating commercial films as art—but it’s rarely precious or self-absorbed. Unlike the author photo.
At his best, Jones is extremely good. He’s made me eager to re-view pictures I haven’t seen for years, and which few critics have taken the trouble to think about with care. One is Friedkin’s visually potent Sorcerer, an all-but-forgotten film even though it belongs to the rare breed of thrillers that are actually thrilling; another is The Driver, a Walter Hill melodrama with Ryan O’Neal, of all people, as the eponymous getaway motorist; and over on the art-film side is Olivier Assayas’s boldly textured Une Nouvelle vie, despite my feeling that Jones overrates Assayas as much as run-of-the-mill critics underrate him. But then, Jones and Assayas are friends, and that may amplify their sympathetic vibes.
Most good critics (and plenty of bad ones) get friendly with artists they write about. I’ve been known to do it myself. Jones is upfront about these matters, acknowledging many film-world people who have encouraged and enlightened him. Not to be outdone, I’ll mention that I myself know Kent, and have long valued our personal and professional get-togethers, especially when he’s brought along some alcohol. I’ll also mention that, like all film critics everywhere throughout history, Kent and I disagree as often as we agree. In his book, I wince when he praises Carpenter’s work for “moral clarity”—hardly a phrase to conjure with, incidentally, now that George W. Bush has given it a whole new meaning.
I share Jones’s admiration for Claire Denis’s films, but movies by other directors about “men enjoying one another’s company” aren’t nearly as rare as he suggests. I can’t get as excited about Wes Anderson as Jones does, nor does Samuel Fuller’s war picture The Big Red One turn me on the way The Thin Red Line and Full Metal Jacket do. Jones misses the point of Lars von Trier’s momentous Dogville and Manderlay, treating them as sociology rather than the explosively fresh works of art they are. He snipes at straw men occasionally, dissing nebulous targets like “current film culture,” and careless mistakes creep in, as when he mentions the “long takes” of Yasujiro Ozu, a director whose style went in exactly the opposite direction.
What matters isn’t whether you or I agree with Jones, of course, but whether his writing offers new insights into the films and directors at hand. In this all-important regard he’s most effective when he’s most moved by his subject, positively or negatively or both, and lets his intuitions glimmer through his prose. Positive: He loves Richard Linklater’s films because of their “devotion to a particular strain of American experience—the act of talking one’s way to nirvana ... in a voice that carries the ring of hesitation, doubt, and humility.” Negative: When frogs rain from the sky of Magnolia like squishy green hailstones, “there’s no moral, psychological, or thematic resonance to one of the most whacked out episodes in recent American cinema.” Mixed: The films of Joel and Ethan Coen are “a puzzle and at the same time ... alternately thrilling, annoying, provocative, grating, excitingly unclassifiable, boringly predictable, fresh, and poised to shut down the cinema as we’ve known and loved it.” That statement is also a bit of a puzzle, but it’s more fun to read than O Brother, Where Art Thou? is to watch.
Given his gift for perceptive film-critical thought, I wish Jones would now address himself to a problem that few critics (including me) have tackled with the care, energy, and resourcefulness that it demands: the predisposition of nearly all film critics to approach their subject(s) in terms that value the emotional over the intellectual and the descriptive over the intuitive. Good movies touch our feelings, of course, but that isn’t the only thing that makes them good; and while Jones knows this—hence his high praise for masters of film-thought like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abbas Kiarostami, for instance—he too falls into the commonplace pattern of privileging the feelings that good films give him, and signaling his reactions in telegraphic ways that won’t mean much to people who aren’t equally familiar with the film or filmmaker in question.
What’s needed today is a new paradigm of readily accessible yet rigorously thoughtful prose combining theoretical analysis with intuitive ideas about cinema and the aesthetic world it creates. Jones is one of the few writers who might actually be able to work out an innovative model along these lines. Start down the road, Kent, and you’ll be surprised how many will join you on the path.