PITTSFIELD -- A passion for movies that began in the theaters of Pittsfield led Kent Jones to a busy and varied career in the movie industry itself. He has shared much of it with another film fanatic, Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese.
“I would rather spend less time in Cannes than more,” Jones said with a laugh in a telephone interview after a quick trip to the glamorous yet frenzied Cannes Film Festival, where “A Letter to Elia,” his latest collaboration with Scorsese, was screened. “But the response to the film was spectacular.”
“A Letter to Elia” is a biography of the great filmmaker Elia Kazan, who among other classics directed “On the Waterfront,” “A Streetcar Named Desire and “Gentleman’s Agreement.” Kazan died in 2003 at the age of 94.
Jones is taking the film to the Berkshire International Film Festival (BIFF), where it will appear at the Beacon Cinema on Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
A member for a short time of the Communist Party, Kazan “named names” when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 in the hysteria that led the blacklisting of many writers, actors and directors. Kazan’s identifying of many of his colleagues as past or current communists earned him the enmity of the artistic community, and the special Oscar he was awarded in 1999 was controversial. Scorsese, who identified Kazan as a primary influence on his career and befriended him, presented him with the award.
“Marty felt he owed it to the man to communicate what he felt about him,” Jones explained.
That admiration led Scorsese to the biography.
“He and I are close,” Jones said, “and he asked me to work on it with him.”
Jones’ journey to this point began in Pittsfield, where his roots are deep. His mother, Marcia, now of Dalton, taught at Miss Hall’s School, and Jones became the first boy to attend the school, graduating in 1978. His father, the late Dana Jones, was the much-loved “Voice of the Berkshires” on WBEC from 1947 to 1980.
Jones remembers being fascinated at a young age, perhaps 5 or 6, with a his parents’ book “The Movies,” a pictorial history of film. His father gave him an appreciation for older films, while his mother took him to see the adventurous foreign films of the 1970s.
“I have vivid memories of walking downtown and looking at the marquees to see what was coming to the Palace and the Paris,” Jones said, recalling two of the movie theaters that once graced downtown Pittsfield. “It was heartbreaking to see them all go.”
That early love of film led the New-York-City-based Jones to take up film criticism, focising particularly on the foreign films his mother taught him to love. He has written extensively for Film Comment as well as the New York Times, Village Voice and a variety of magazines. He has also programmed films for the New York Film Society.
Jones began working with Scorsese about 20 yearsago on the archival research of old films; the preservation of old films is one of Scorsese’s passions.
Jones co-directed Scorsese’s “My Voyage to Italy” and a History Channel film on the Statue of Liberty, among many other projects.
“A Letter to Elia” explores Kazan’s long and remarkable career, from his co-founding of the influential Group Theater and Actors Studio, in 1932 and 1947 respectively, to landmark films that helped make Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty and others stars. His testimony before the Un-American Activities Committee and its aftermath is a key part of the film.
“That’s not something that can be separated from his career,” Jones said. “But the pressure on him was something that we can’t imagine today. I take exception to people who claim they know with 100-percent certainty what they would have done under those circumstances.”
Jones, who is planning on joining Scorsese for a sequel to “My Voyage to Italy” and is in the early stages of a project involving the Berkshires, will come to BIFF with both “A Letter to Elia” and “Wild River,” a lesser known Kazan film from 1960 centered around the Tennessee Valley Authority. It was a career-making film for Lee Remick and includes “some of the greatest passages in film history,” Jones said.
He believes Kazan, in his post-testimony career after 1952, drove himself to new heights of film-making.
“The films had more gray areas, were less conventional, more truthful,” Jones said. “He reinvented himself as an independent filmmaker. In some ways, I admire him even more.”
If you go ...
What: Berkshire International Film Festival and Kent Jones screen ‘A Letter to Elia’ and film by Elia Kazan
Where: Beacon Cinema, 57 North St., Pittsfield
When: ‘A Letter to Elia’ Saturday at 1:30 p.m., with Q&A
‘Wild River,’ Kazan film, 3 p.m.
Information: For full film festival schedule and tickets, visit www.biffma.org.