click to buy “Physical Evidence” at Amazon.comThe critic must have two things: personality and an ax to grind.

– Eric Bentley, critic and playwright (1)

In his review of Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007) in The Nation – an American magazine of political commentary that has been stirring up its readers since 1865 – Kent Jones blasts off. Jones never writes about just the movies; he draws buckets of insight from deep wells of cultural, social and cinematic history, directs his gaze with surgical precision and bewitches the reader with revelations that whet the appetite. Instead of creating distance between us and him – and between us and the topic at hand – he reels us in. We’re giddily hooked, lined and sinkered, even if we disagree and want to pull him into the pond by the same line whose hook is lodged neatly in our cheek.

Here’s what’s at the business end of Jones’ rod and reel in The Nation piece, which begins:

Reinvention of the self is an all-American subject, but you would never know it from our movies. Despite the fact that Hollywood was developed largely by Easterners who refashioned themselves as cowboys (the directors) and Jews who comported themselves like WASPs (studio heads), American cinema, not unlike American politics, has been plagued with the anxieties of authenticity and verification. Impostors and dissemblers are perpetually being rooted out, inner beauty and truth are forever being divined under the cover of surface disingenuousness. Such themes are as present in studio products like Wedding Crashers [David Dobkin, 2005] (the fiancé versus Owen Wilson) as they are in the contrasting narratives of Larry Craig, the recently disgraced senator from Idaho, and, at least for his first few years in office, our forty-third President. When great American filmmakers dip into the pool, the tone is often playful (a great deal of Ernst Lubitsch’s work, Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve [1941]) or filled with dread (Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon [1975], Roman Polanski’s Chinatown [1974]). And when reinvention is posited as a byproduct of the “artistic” temperament, we wind up with a template based on either the life of Christ or the fable of Icarus.(2)

As an editor of mine once said, “Now that’s a lead” (“lede” in newspaper lingo). We want to call a time-out so we can catch up with Jones and check our favourite resources on Hollywood studio history, recent American politics, maybe a film or two we haven’t seen or a director whose name we recall from that film course that wasn’t all that good, so this might be a good time to do our own sniffing around, and what’s that about Christ and Icarus? Make that two time-outs, a Hail Mary and a whiff of oxygen for good measure.

Welcome to the world of Kent Jones, film critic, thinker, asker of questions and taker of a film culture’s temperature and blood pressure. He’s a Maddinesque mad scientist keenly watching the film world’s double helixes twist in the breeze and richly reporting on the meaning of every nucleotide of cinematic DNA. Jones is editor-at-large at Film Comment, published bimonthly by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where he is also associate director of programming and a permanent member of the selection committee for the New York Film Festival. The dust jacket on his first book, Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism, tells us that he is also at work on a film about Elia Kazan with a director whose name you might have seen: Martin Scorsese. Jones’ documentary, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007), premiered in December at the Film Society and was released by Warner Home Video DVD on 29 January (3). That cable television haven for all things cinematic, Turner Classic Movies, aired it on 14 January.

Jones’ book is divided into five parts: “Directors”, “Films”, “‘Think Pieces’”, “Out of the Fog”, and “Two Critics”. In the last, he pays tribute to two veterans of film writing: Andrew Sarris (b. 1928), film critic for The New York Observer, whom Jones calls the Jonathan Edwards of film criticism (p. 198), and Manny Farber (b. 1917), who wrote for The New Republic, Time, The Nation and many other publications. These strongly-felt pieces convey Jones’ deep sense of gratitude to the masters but lack the strongest and most entertaining arrow in his writing quiver: his lists. They’re everywhere. Long ones, short ones, lists of words, phrases, concepts and observations. They occur within sentences and form sentences within paragraphs. They have sweep one moment and the jolt of a jackhammer the next. They help give Jones’ writing its texture and arm his critical thinking with the heft born of a life at the movies. With the care that comes when you’re not writing against the daily deadlines of newspaper movie reviewing, and a ferocious sense of clarity, Jones helps us see how movies and directors work.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s phantasmagoric Magnolia (1999) may be the film that best fits this felicitous list-making. Here are Jones’ Polaroids on the film’s characters, whose personalities Anderson reveals in dribs and drabs:

[William H.] Macy’s rubbery skittishness, [Julianne] Moore’s glacial sublimations, [Tom] Cruise’s ugly slickness, [Melora] Walters’s blanketing bathos, [Jeremy] Blackman’s compliant repression, [Philip Baker] Hall’s suggestion of physical and mental decomposition, [John C.] Reilly’s near-pathological humility, [Philip Seymour] Hoffman’s repressive nice-guy veneer. (p. 81)

Each snapshot is vivid and sharply rendered. Someone who hasn’t seen the film might want to brave its three-hour duration on the basis of these capsules of psychoanalysis alone. If not, just sentences later in the same paragraph, Jones offers another seductive list, this time of the “confined, static situations” that shackle Anderson’s “creatures”:

Phil’s [Hoffman] death watch over Earl [Jason Robards], Frank [Cruise] enduring a painful investigative interview, Donnie [Macy] sitting on a barstool trying to explain himself and his impossible love for the hunky bartender, Officer Jim [Reilly] making nice with Claudia [Walters], the game show nightmare. (p. 81)

Jones is first a keen observer, accustomed to looking at films through both ends of the binoculars, a microscope if needed, and with his own eyes from the highest vantage point. His critical lens tracks, zooms, pans and freezes the frame with the eye of a cinematographer.

Another evocative list within a paragraph appears in Jones’ essay “Airtight”, about the Coen brothers. Their “gallery of motor-mouthed grotesques” consists of:

the agent and the studio head in Barton Fink [1991], Jon Polito’s good-hearted mob kingpin and John Turturro’s spineless stoolie in Miller’s Crossing [1990], Harve Presnell’s overpowering father-in-law and [Steve] Buscemi’s hapless kidnapper in Fargo [1996], and [John] Goodman’s cheerful con artist in O Brother, Where Art Thou? [2000] (p. 30)

Jones deftly sizes his lists to the film. In his essay about Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), we get this staccato, almost claustrophobic example: “The film gets directly at the feeling of always putting up a good front, of being on guard against disappointing people by isolating small physical events in corridors, tiny rooms, restaurants, offices, and street corners.” (p. 62) In his appreciation of John Carpenter, “the last genre filmmaker in America” (p. 47), Jones declares from the pulpit in one of his rare grand gestures:

Forget the frequently adolescent sensibility, which finds its outlet in Big Trouble in Little China [1986], Escape from L.A. [1996] and Vampires [1998]. Forget the occasionally clunky orchestration of parallel events. Forget the variable success of the special effects – for every Starman [1984] or The Thing [1982], there’s an Escape from L.A., with its computer game landscapes, a Prince of Darkness [1987] with its zombies trundling down the street, or an In the Mouth of Madness [1995] with its rubber monsters (although in that film the cheesiness of the monsters is part of the subject and is almost overcome by the tautness of the conception). Forget the frequently monotonal characters and acting. (p. 54)

As a former speechwriter, I marvel at the sense of rhythm, parallelism and sheer musicality of this passage. But there’s more than music and pleasing rhythms here. Jones’ writing, lists included, embraces as much knowledge, wisdom and wit as it imparts. We see the movies with him. His insights range from the sprawling to the tidy.

Jones’ rapture at the movies is evident in his prose, which has the fullness of a ripe piece of fruit. It’s heavy in the hand, as your greengrocer might say. But we shouldn’t think that his fervent approach to film writing (and, I imagine, film watching), doesn’t mean he ignores shortcomings when he sees them. He points out a few of Terrence Malick’s “disturbing traits” (p. 102), among them “his willingness to cut corners with human affairs, matched by his steadfast refusal to do so in matters of landscape and light.” (p. 102) Though he tucks this next complaint in a parenthetical phrase, he is direct in explaining why

[John] Sayles will never be a great director. […] (perhaps Sayles’s biggest shortcoming as a filmmaker is his temperamental inability to let his actors breathe the backstories into their characters – he always feels driven to construct personal dilemmas that underscore the overarching social dilemma.) (p. 86)

He points out that Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) “feels a little too cozily self-contained, comfortable resting on its downy array of sophisticated strategies and eye-filling landscapes.” (p. 75) And while he leavens his comment a moment later, Jones takes Wong to task in In the Mood for Love, “which probably would have found a more fitting resolution with a staccato move, a sudden rupture.” (p. 65) But he’s fair: “On the other hand, why complain? This is as intoxicating, as exquisitely nuanced, and as luxuriously sad as movies get.” (p. 65)

Jones’ unique ability to combine a Brobdingnagian film knowledge with his delicious writing reveals an innate sense of how to resolve his essays, how to lead the reader to their inevitable conclusions. He has the sense of his endings. They often contain Jones’ sound pronouncements (about the subject at hand and the state of movies today), but are never preachy or didactic. In his appreciation of the Coen brothers, he concludes:

I know of no other filmmakers whose work is such a puzzle and at the same time so alternately thrilling, annoying, provocative, grating, excitingly unclassifiable, boringly predictable, fresh and posed to shut down the cinema as we’ve known and loved it. (p. 35)

Note the wonderful list.

He wraps up one of his “‘Think Pieces’”, “Walking the Line”, about the hybridisation of documentary and fiction, this way:

At its sharpest, this strain in contemporary moviemaking addresses one of those moments in history when the comfort of established order (culturally, societally) has given way, however briefly, to the mass acceptance of a fairly terrifying idea: the realization of permanent change. Interestingly, the moment was foreshadowed years ago, during a very different time, by earlier hybrid-builders like Jean-Pierre Gorin, Yvonne Rainer, early Chantal Ackerman, the Jean Eustache of Un sale histoire [A Dirty Story, 1977], and the [Alain] Resnais of Mon oncle d’Amerique [My American Uncle, 1980]. These were the first artists to address what has now become a burning question: in a world that has neither the time nor the inclination to see us, how should we see ourselves? (p. 130)

In “The Betrayed”, from the section on older films called “Out of the Fog”, an appreciation of Orson Welles that pivots on two recent Welles biographies, Jones offers this ending:

This is the great modern malady, and Welles suffered from it so powerfully that it animates almost every frame he ever shot and makes his greatest protagonists (Charles Foster Kane, George Amberson Minafer and Falstaff) into immobilized Quixotes, too stunned by the force of time to pick up their lances and fight. Welles’s obsessive preoccupation with betrayal may have cost him dearly, but it gave life to some of the most durable moments in twentieth-century art. (p. 160)

In his introduction to Physical Evidence, Jones laments the grabbed-by-the-throat-mentality, the “yes or no” (p. xii), up or down thinking in much of the reaction to movies in the last ten years – the period in which most of the essays were written. What Jones argues for is a sensibility that is alert enough to be won, not bowled over; to be seduced, not raped; and convinced, not bullied, by filmmakers and their work that may rub us the wrong way. “Claire Denis once said that a filmmaker, and by extension, any artist, must always be fighting against something.” (p. xvi) This is Jones’ mantra as well.

Jones ends his book with the source material for his own cinematic and critical DNA, Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber. He cherishes Farber’s “ecstatically engaged, bracingly immediate history of the cinema.” (p. 212) He embraces Sarris’ “disarming honesty and his complete lack of concern with being hip.” (p. 202) These characteristics illuminate Jones’ own writing, and personify a film critic who is refreshing in his directness; he actually says he “likes” John Huston and William Wellman more than Sarris does (p. 206). Jones is not afraid to get as close to a film or a director as Cary Grant was to Ingrid Bergman in the balcony scene near the beginning of Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946) and he knows when to pull his lens far enough away to get the biggest, widest shot (think Terrence Malick in Days of Heaven [1978]). Few American critics writing today help us see so clearly the movies that enchant us, the directors who make them, the actors who enspirit them, and how the movies stir an uncertain, demanding audience.

Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism, by Kent Jones, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2007.

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  1. Quoted by Jason Zinoman in The New York Times, 6 October 2006
  2. Kent Jones, “Chaos, Clocks, Juxtapositions”, The Nation, 24 December 2007.
  3. The full title of the DVD release of Jones’ documentary is Martin Scorsese Presents Val Lewton – The Man in the Shadows.