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‘Diane’ Director Kent Jones on How He Pulled Off the Perilous Transition from Film Critic to Filmmaker

One of the world's most revered film critics and programmers, Kent Jones discusses why he finally had to make a movie of his own.

Diane Mary Kay Place

“Diane”

Was that hard to keep in mind on “Diane?” Mary Kay Place is such a dynamic actress — and she gives the performance of her life in this film — but so much of what she does here is confined to hangdog close-ups of her face as she processes her guilt and/or takes stock of the horrors around her. 

Yeah, that gets into a very important point, which is that, I think, there are a lot of movies that wind up leaning too far in the direction of milking. It’s like the director spots something that’s attractive and starts milking it with an actor.

Name names.

I’m afraid to say that the film that just won the Oscar for Best Picture does that. I like the Farrelly Brothers’ movies and I was surprised by that, but it’s a real temptation on set.

NYFF Director and Selection Committee Chair Kent Jones

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Maybe the most striking thing about “Diane” is how gracefully it speaks to the myopia of human existence; it’s one thing to know that we’re all going to die, but it’s another to internalize that intellectual understanding in a way that has a meaningful impact on our lives.

Some movies have the power to clarify our place in the universe, but the gift of revelation only lasts for so long; it’s only a matter of time until we’re preoccupied by the same routines and petty resentments we had before. You can watch “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 70mm and have your mind blown open about the wonders of the Milky Way, and then act like it’s the end of the world when you pop a tire on the drive home. As an artist, what’s the point of trying to expand someone’s horizon if they always shrink back to a more comfortable view?

I don’t want to start with a fascist, but I’ll start with a fascist: Ezra Pound and his poem, “In a Station of the Metro.” It’s just two lines:

“The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.”

It’s an instant of seeing people coming out of the metro in Paris, but in that moment of illumination the world is made vertical. In other words, it’s over in an instant but it opens a sense. and that’s illuminated and in the process of illumination, made vertical. It’s like the [Buddhist monk] Thich Nhat Hanh saying: “What is meditative practice? Small moments, many times.” Everybody’s habituated. We all know how we’re habituated and how we react accordingly. Particularly, now. For instance, yesterday. The Mueller Report. Oh my god, what’s gonna happen now? It’s more fuel for the fire — what’s the next thing?

But, the truth is all those things come flowing constantly in a river, and along the way you have those moments of clarity. They don’t go away — they’re like lamps that light the way. They can help you catch yourself from doing certain things, or from having certain reactions, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s interesting what you’re saying about “2001,” because, originally, I wanted Diane’s death to occur in a museum that turned out to be a very particular museum in the town where I grew up, and I realized it kind of came from memories of “2001” and where Bowman is at the end of that movie.

The shots of Diane driving along the road as the trees are reflected in the windshield reminded me of the starlight bouncing off Bowman’s helmet. “Diane” is as much a trip through aging as “2001” is a trip through the galaxy.

But “2001” is also a trip through aging. With the driving that she does, it’s like sometimes life feels like it’s going faster than the living of it. But things occur along the way. The trick was to include them in this movie and give them the weight that they needed without making them feel like turning points towards some kind of ultimate understanding, because that’s not the idea.

Charles Weldon, who plays Tom, was a wonderful actor who passed away in December. And in the scene in the soup kitchen where he tells Diane, “I feel sanctified when you serve me,” it’s a moment of illumination that’s meant to be nice for her. She can kind of hear it and kind of not. When her sons says, “I have this revelation and I’m here to tell you,” he’s obviously making amends as part of his AA recovery. Does she hear it? Sorta. But then, he’s careful to say to her: “But, I’m not gonna feel this way forever, I’m sure.”

It’s never about what we think. It’s more about how we absorb and change. A friend of mine saw the movie and she said: “Well, the thing about the ending is that’s the way it is. You’re always feeling like, ‘Oh my god there’s something left behind and there’s something else to do and there’s one more thing and I gotta put it all together and maybe this is the one thing that could do it.’”

There’s no moment of realization where you reach some kind of permanent understanding or contentment.

Yeah, and that’s a sadness that’s promised by gurus and it’s promised by churches and it’s promised by religions. I mean, it’s a damaging thing to promise people that there’s such a thing as this perfect state. A nirvana, heaven, or whatever. Because it posits something … it takes something that does exist — but only in these vertical moments — and distorts it. And what I wanted to do with Diane is show that, without her knowing it, she’s able to be with herself a little bit more comfortably than she had been.

And that never fades away?

Right. [Film and theatre director] Peter Brook said something that I think is fundamentally true: Art can illuminate when it’s good and when it’s made with attention, but it’s not a replacement for whatever it’s meant to illuminate. So it can get very tricky when you see art as a substitute for something in the world, because it can then become a kind of safe space with ice cream and donuts and cuddly toys. That’s really dangerous.

I’m not sure of the purpose of art, but it’s certainly not to do what many people think it is to do now, which is to create positive images of the constituency. I mean, that’s terrific and everything but that’s not the purpose of art. The purpose of art is to do what you’re talking about. If there’s one thing that I came to feel very limiting in the world it’s cinephilia to me, it was the moralizing.

The idea that art can change lives? You hear that stuff in slogans for film festivals. And it’s like, yeah, but there’ve been some examples in movie history of truly terribly movies that have changed lives. “The China Syndrome” was just not a great movie. Right? But it happened to come out right at the time of the Three Mile Island disaster. “Midnight Express” is not my idea of a good movie, but it really drew attention to the dire situations in Turkish prisons.

Where does your burgeoning filmmaking career leave you in regards to your own film festival, or your criticism?

Obviously this changes things in my life in different ways. It’s been a while since I’ve written. I write stuff occasionally, and I don’t know? It’s not that I don’t want to write anymore, I just… have to let time pass.

IFC Films will release “Diane” in theaters on Friday, March 29.

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