The Man in the Shadows

by robbiefreeling
March 12, 2009 8:02 AM
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The news of Kent Jones's resignation from Film Society of Lincoln Center yesterday has already inspired a lot of consternation and hand-wringing within the online film community. Of course, with instantaneous reactions the order of the day and Jones an affable, widely liked figure of the New York film world, this is entirely expected. But along with the appreciative, worthily effusive praise of Jones's decade-plus work as a programmer at Lincoln Center and his invaluable tenure as editor-at-large at Film Comment, the Film Society's official publication, and as a New York Film Festival selection-committee member, there's also been a somewhat preemptive memorializing of an organization that's been going through some drastic internal transformation. Much electronic ink has been spilled on the allegedly corporate-like machinations of new executive director Mara Manus, whose closed-door behavior has turned a once family-like atmosphere into an environment that has been tagged in articles and blogs (and by friends of mine who work or worked under her), as, variously, "cruel," "miserable," and "a nightmare." Naturally, discussion of Jones's departure (as well as those of Joanna Ney, Nancy Kelly, Will McCord, Sayre Maxfield, Sharon Bahus, and others) has gone hand in hand with enraged glances at Manus, and resulted in some people's assumption that the programming at the Film Society, now with Richard Peña solely at the helm, will devolve into a smattering of middlebrow junk aimed at the Upper West Siders who always perhaps felt alienated by the abundance of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and Lucrecia Martel.

Of course, this is all hyperbole and guess-work, and only time will tell to see what sort of organization Manus is whipping together (although it's fair to assume that she's gunning for something more accessible and financially "stable"), and certainly there's no official evidence that Jones left only as a direct result of the latest developments at Film Society.

The best response, for me, is to offer glowing support to Kent Jones, and not to eulogize—it's hard to imagine he won't be a fixture of New York film culture in one way or another for a good, long while, and he'll certainly keep contributing his marvelous essays to Film Comment, Cinemascope, and the Criterion Collection, all of which have inspired more young film writers I know than any other critic writing today. Seriously, can anyone even imagine grappling with the cinema of Hou or Assayas without having read Jones's eloquent, surprising pieces on them? Everyone who cares at all about film writing should do themselves a favor and pick up a copy of his superlative collection, Physical Evidence, and anyone who's even had a passing fascination with Cat People or I Walked with a Zombie ought to stick Jones's captivating documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows on the top of their Netflix queue tout de suite: it's like reading one of Jones's essays (with their searching, fluent combination of history and criticism), while simultaneously visually descending into the somber surreality of the movies at hand. It's film writing made lush, sensual, and enveloping. (For further evidence of Jones's insight, passion, and loyalty, check out the interview he did with Reverse Shot upon the occasion of the retrospective he threw for Manny Farber, whom he was determined never to let film culture forget.)

I must add that I consider Kent Jones a good friend, and his support of my writing and work through the years has been truly life-changing. So consider this a tribute to a career that's just getting started: the last thing we need now is another grim head-shaking about the death of film culture. With Jones around, that's simply impossible.

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