Monday, March 2, 2009

It's in the genes: The Films of James Gray

Time for a bit of straight-up auteurism, since that seems like the best approach to discuss the merits (and also the possible limitations, at least in his work as it has been realized so far) of this fascinating filmmaker.
In an interesting recent interview, director James Gray described his approach to telling stories as a search for "authentic emotionality." It is perhaps telling that such an intelligent filmmaker has to use an awkward, and potentially misleading, phrase to describe movies that are so carefully, elegantly, and intelligently crafted. Gray intends "authentic emotionality" as a description (or at least the beginnings of a possible description) of the four films he has helmed - Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), We Own the Night (2007) and Two Lovers (2009). We can understand the phrase more concretely through Gray's commitment to understanding character and relationships between characters, and the ensuing commitment to derive narrative and stylistic structures that organically emerge from the dynamism and development of those relationships. Ultimately, then, these films suggest a far simpler word to describe them: classicism. Gray is not quite as immediately brilliant as Wes Anderson or Paul Thomas Anderson, whose films operate no less beautifully - and with no less acute a sense of what is needed cinematically to suggest character emotion and relationships - but in ways that tend towards a more noticeable use of style. (Of course, here a massive footnote would need to be inserted to discuss all those things that pass by quietly on a first viewing of films as rich as There Will Be Blood and The Royal Tenenbaums, but for the sake of time and argument I'll just assume it's a safe move to regard the Andersons as far more "stylish" than Gray). Neither are his crime films as immediately gripping as Scorsese's (who has, in his flawed but still interesting recent work, become more mannerist relative to his earlier classicism), even though both The Yards and We Own the Night have stayed with me far longer after I saw them the first time than anything the Italian-American maestro has made since Casino. "Classicism" seems like the right word because I have come to value these films' tendency towards that quality of lingering - the gesture of an actor, or a camera movement, a mise-en-scene, or a color scheme - that in classical cinema registers its affect almost imperceptibly, the image otherwise being devoted to simply telling a story.

Which is not to say that Gray hasn't grasped film history and weaved its lessons into the texture of his films. "Classical" does not imply that Gray slept through the last twenty-odd years of pastiche and anxiety of influence, and nor does it mean that his work lacks visual power. (One of the flaws of neoformalism's partially justifiable tendency towards over-emphasizing the "invisible" in classical style is de-emphasizing the recondite power of so much great classical cinema, the hidden affects of which have long been a treasure trove for auteurist cinephilia; delightfully, recent work on cinephilia, such as that of Christian Keathley, is accounting for this lack).

The makings of Gray's sensibility are apparent in his only intermittently interesting debut feature, Little Odessa. Reuben (Edward Furlong), is the younger brother of a hitman named Joshua (Tim Roth) who is estranged from his family (containing the first of Gray's ineffectual or absent patriarchs, in this case the source of abusive violence that Gray presents as one of the causes of Joshua's own violent career). Reuben is seen first at the cinema, watching a western. There's a too-obvious connection between the open frontiers of that genre and the enclosed urban sprawl of urban New York City in Little Odessa, although Gray is, thankfully, more interested here in the enclosed nature of Joshua's psychological space (and the threat that Reuben's may become equally as enclosed) than anything to do with hackneyed imagery. (If Gray's imagery is merely functional in this first effort, then, he at least lets Tim Roth do his usual effective work of suggesting this enclosed, private, inarticulate interiority). But the film at least contains retrospective signs of what is to come. At the end of the film, after a major character has been shot dead through a white sheet which recalls the shape and color of a cinema screen, it's also the first announcement in Gray's work that he's becoming interested in doing more than just using old cinematic forms. Reality rips through the cinema screen only at the end of Little Odessa, and Gray takes this cue in order, is three later films, to dig deeper into the possibility of using image and sound to plunge the rich depths of enormously interesting characters (played by even more enormously interesting actors, of which Joaquin Phoenix, in the later films, is central) rather than merely letting those depths linger on the surface of the performances. In other words, with Little Odessa, Gray just films talented actors; in his later films, he partners the work of his performers with an aesthetic vision interesting in its own right.

Gray's two crime films develop the first real signs of that vision. The family is the most important recurring theme in his work, and its "natural," transparent function in American culture to a certain extent functions as the equally invisible thematic parallel to the director's style. The Yards opens with Leo (Mark Wahlberg) returning to his Queens neighborhood after a time in prison. He travels home on the subway, the film's most important visual element for reasons which soon become clear. Leo, who is under close watch by the police during his probation, needs to go straight, and is initially offered a very cushy and very legit job by Frank (James Caan), a substitute patriarch for Leo's own missing father. (Frank repeatedly offers Leo and his mother money, which Leo's proud mom refuses; the implications of a romantic entanglement between Frank and his mother are there too but, like much in Gray's oeuvre, this remains tantalizingly suggestive). Frank owns a business repairing subway cars - thus, he is a very important player in the "rail yards" of the film's title. The subway and the "yards" serve not only as the mode of transport they obviously are but also as a vast artery linking all of the characters into the same eventually suffocating genealogy of which Frank is the patriarch. (In the later Two Lovers, the subway out of Queens and into the city would appear as a means to escape the binding strictures of the family, but to anyone who has seen The Yards first this is, straightaway, an ironic meaning). The job Frank offers Leo involves at least a year of technical training, but Leo needs money now to take care of his sick mother, Val (Ellen Burstyn, the second of Gray's dying matriarchs, after Vanessa Redgrave's turn in Little Odessa). So it's not a innate desire for the night life and high rolling that sends Leo into a partnership with Willie Gutierrez (Joaquin Phoenix). Guitierrez has had a great deal of experience doing highly illegitimate work for Frank: He brokers under-the-table deals for contracts for Frank (to avoid affirmative action laws, we realize) with the government, the kind of heat that Frank clearly wants Leo to avoid. To summarize this tangled web: A job goes wrong, things get out of control, and Leo is pinned for murder.

The dense familial interrelationships in The Yards (and the non-familial ones that, in essence, become such as the walls close in) become difficult for a critic to parse, even if they're clear as water while watching the movie. This is especially true because the characters themselves are headed in a number of different directions at once. Whereas Leo keeps his distance from Frank, wanting to assert his own control over his future as well as that of his mother's, Willie seeks Frank out as the kind of white-bred patriarch which might help him forget his own ethnicity. This is in part a question of upward mobility and miscegenation, and the two are related to one another as they are in all of Gray's films. Affirmative action is killing Frank's business, and Willie - the ethnicity of his name 'Guiterrez' at odds with the Protestant 'Olchin' - wants to be known as a friend of the family business, not the enemy. Miscegenation is not a larger social taboo in these insular films, but rather a purely familial one, and it is never so much stated as it is implied (in We Own the Night Robert Duvall implicitly disapproves of son Phoenix's relationship with the Puerto Rican Eva Mendes simply by dismissing her casually during conversation, with no conscious sign of racist intent yet racistly all the same, as "that Puerto Rican"). For Willie, who loves Leo's cousin (and Frank's step-daughter - I told you these familial bonds were complicated) Erica (Charlize Theron) and sees her as a crucial piece of his potential success in both the Olchin family and the subway business, blending in is crucial.

After Leo gets his hands blood red, Willie tells him to leave town. In part, this is out of respect for his friend, and in part out of knowledge that Leo can only harm his ability to get into Frank's good graces. (Frank, we suspect, has full knowledge of the lengths Willie goes to in order to get deals done, but hypocritically keeps his hands clean from the matter). Thus, when Leo returns to Queens, the film becomes concerned less with the pursuit of Leo by the cops and more with the disturbance his presence poses to the running of both the Olchin clan and Frank's business - which are, in the end and tragically, the same operation. Time and time again in The Yards we get breathtaking images of characters attempting to escape their familial bonds (which feel everywhere in Gray like ineluctable shackles) : Erica and Willie dance ecstatically at a night club (the kind of pulsating dance scene that figures in all three of the director's recent films, and is most exciting here), yet when Erica is thrown into Leo's arms in that same scene (a prefiguring of an incestuous backstory involving the two of them that the narrative will later reveal) it becomes clear how difficult it is for any one of these characters to extricate themselves from the binds which tie them.

The Yards has enough plot for two or three films; that it handles its narrative lines with such dexterity (and more ably, I am afraid, than my own attempts to summarize it) is one of its biggest accomplishments. But with We Own the Night Gray begins to scale back his motifs a bit (a process he takes to a logical end in the most insular and sparse of his films, Two Lovers) and what results is one of the great American films of the last ten years. The movie begins with a sober series of black-and-white photographs documenting the experiences of New York City police officers, perhaps setting up the expectation that what is to follow will be a sparse police procedural. And it is, to some extent. But after this opening prologue, an image, saturated in striking red, of Joaquin Phoenix's Bobby Green (importantly, 'Green' is his mother's maiden name) standing in his nightclub, about to make love with his girlfriend Amada (Mendes) bursts onto the film's visual track alongside the pulsating rhythm of Blondie's Heart of Glass. In a single sequence everything that constricts Phoenix's figure in The Yards is blown up: Whereas Phoenix attempted to inscribe himself inside the family in The Yards, here his character has already begun his escape. As proprietor of the night club, Bobby works for a Russian immigrant (Moni Moshonov) who acts as yet another of Gray's substitute fathers. Bobby has designs to become a kind of king of new york, and offers to open up a series of nightclubs in downtown Manhattan. Manhattan is ever a symbol of desire in Gray's films (in the recent Two Lovers it becomes the objective correlative of a purely psychological space outside of the family, whereas in The Yards it's a similar realm the artery of the subway can never quite reach). In We Own the Night, set several years prior to both The Yards and Two Lovers, it functions as a frontier for business expansion (the film is set in the early 1980s, before Guiliani's whitewashing of the streets and the ensuing corporate takeover).

This suggests a political subtext to We Own the Night. Bobby's real father is the police chief Albert Grusinsky who, as I've already suggested, embodies racist tendencies of his own. But he's also a mouthpiece for Reagan's America circa 1980, in particular the war on drugs. Gray never comes out and condemns this 'war' on an abstraction (a motif re-appearing in "the war on terror" - or at least its xenophobic side-effects - which is a palpable part of everyday life in New York in Two Lovers, even though it is only mentioned in dialogue once) : instead, he is more content to show its utter ineffectuality and moral vacuity through carefully modulated performances. Duvall's in particular is important in this regard. Early in the film, Duvall stands in a church (the most overwrought, yet effective, symbolism in any of Gray's features to date), lecturing his son Bobby (whose nightclub contacts know nothing about the fact that his father is a cop) about the dangers of the drug trade in the streets of New York. Bobby's knowledge of the night club scene will help Albert and his son, Bobby's brother, police Captain Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) track down a Russian drug operation in the city. At the beginning of the scene, Duvall stands behind Wahlberg, using Joseph as an instrument of moralization. When this doesn't work, he dismisses Joseph and the rest of the crew and sits down next to Bobby for a "heart to heart." The fragile bond between father and son is evident here, and despite his gruff words Duvall betrays a tough love for the sheep that has wandered from his flock. But he's also unable to back up his words with any real sense of authority: at the end of the scene, in a moment that happens so fast it's very easy to miss, Bobby, instead of exiting through the pew, jumps over it before his father has any opportunity to admonish him for his disrespectful behavior. Indeed, what draws Bobby back into his father's family and this "war" is their weakness, rather than their strength: after Joseph is shot by a Russian druglord with links to Bobby's nightclub, Bobby makes the tough decision to become a cop, in effect giving up the chaotic Dionysian joy of his life in the clubs (and "that Puerto Rican woman") for an Apollonian world of order, causality, and panopticism. We Own the Night is one of the only classical American films I can think of wherein the protagonist's goal is to give up a life of riches, fame, and women in order to eventually take up a position of weakness (paradoxically, a position he arrives at through the greatest personal strength and perseverance, although by the end of the film it feels almost like a Jansenist austerity that would not be out of place in Bresson). The final sequence demonstrates the total incapacity of the Grusinsky male to act as authorial agent, the Grusinsky Bobby (notwithstanding his retention of his mother's maiden name) chooses to become in the name of "morality." There's quite a bit of heartbreak to this: as Bobby scans the audience at a police function at the end of the film, he happens upon a woman who looks vaguely like Amada. But "that Puerto Rican" has since long been expunged from the narrative, Bobby's personal life, and the social order of Giuliani's 1980s America. Few films from the last decades are as full of energy as We Own the Night, and it's this energy and vitality that Bobby gives up, casting his lot with family, authority, and disciplinarity by the end of the film.

That lack of tension and energy, given up willfully at the end of We Own the Night, is apparent in Gray's most recent film but, curiously enough, to great dramatic effect. The director performs variations upon many of the same ideas we see in The Yards and We Own the Night in Two Lovers, but whereas the two previous films amplified what lied buried and inarticulate in Little Odessa, Gray's motifs, now well developed, are simply allowed to pattern their way through a relatively more sparse love story. The genre canvas of both The Yards and We Own the Night, in terms of content, became very nearly operatic, bursting at the seams with the "authentic emotionality" Gray aims for. However, stylistically, this emotion is carefully measured and observed more than it is indulged. Faye Dunaway's collapse at the end of The Yards is the stuff of Tolstoy, but at the very same time firmly a part of the film's greater realism: Gray keeps everything in long shot, and the intense affect of Dunaway's potentially melodramatic turn is dispersed into the space around her. The pulsating energy of the nightclub scenes in both films, on the other hand, suggest characters ready to break out of the psychological prisons in which they've been inscribed, and that energy inflects Gray's form. Although Two Lovers has one of those nightclub scenes, too - wherein Leonard (Phoenix), a mama's boy from a respectable middle-class family of Russian jews, dances with a beautiful shishka, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) who seems to have landed directly from a Philip Roth novel - it's dispatched with fairly early. The fact that the awkward, autodidactic Leonard eventually finds himself locked outside the nightclub, suggests plenty about the direction of Gray's style this time around. Images of entrapment are everywhere, some perhaps obvious (Leonard's room, which provides a view of only a few other lonely windows, becomes something of a supporting actor in the film), others not (Leonard's wall is dotted with frames of photographs of his family, and Michelle's wall is utterly blank, although not until I saw the film a second time did I realize that, to the respective character, each may as well have been empty).

Leonard has his life laid out for him: he will marry the thoughtful, kind, pretty - and, importantly, Jewish - Sandra (Vinessa Shaw, who quietly gives the best performance from out of the most challenging role in this film) and will carry on and expand his father Reuben's (Moshonov, the Russian patriarch in We Own the Night) dry cleaning business. The most emotionally wrought scene in the film, for me, involves Leonard visiting his father's best friend and Sandra's father, Michael (Bob Ari). Michael's plans echo Reuben's: Leonard will take over the business and expand it alongside his father's own, and marry his daughter; that these plans seem ultimately undistinguishable from one another to Michael and the rest of Leonard's family is clear, and paralleled by a bit of mise-en-scene that Gray, in a rare stylistic flourish, tracks in on in the middle of the scene: a map of the Queens city district, with various future dry cleaning franchise locations mapped out one by one. It's a depressing vision: Leonard's future, which we feel was once bright and ambitious (a past buried before this film begins), become an instrument for the expansion of a fucking dry cleaning business!, this track-in seems almost to be saying to exclaim. The monkey wrench in all of these plans is, of course, the shishka, for Michelle offers both a child-like fantasy of future escape (Leonard and Michelle are equally children, nearly everyone else in the film literal or figurative fathers or mothers) and an awfully interesting way for Leonard to forget his present-tense problems.

The most impressive filmmaking Gray has yet done takes place in depicting Leonard's and Michelle's clandestine meetings on top of their apartment. Freedom and limitation are inextricable in these images: the blue-gray skyline offers an expanse that's well beyond anything Leonard's (or Michelle's) family is able to offer, yet Gray constantly pins the two characters within internal frames in the image (in the end, it's the characters' gaze out onto the skyline - they hardly ever look at one another directly, and at the same time, during these conversations - that we perhaps notice more than the skyline itself, or even the characters themselves). When Leonard and Michelle finally make love on the rooftop it's partially the product of passion, but mostly the result of Gray's claustrophobic use of narrative space, which eventually shoves the characters so close to one another that they seem to have no other option. In the hands of a less skilled filmmaker, it would have been a ridiculous narrative trope (again, the melodramatic derring-do of a romantic novelist suggests itself), but in Gray's film it feels like the inevitable result of a slowly developed spatial logic.

Gray's careful patterns and at times overbearing spatial logic has a potentially debilitating side, however. The sense that one feels trapped just like Leonard at the end of Two Lovers perhaps suggests Gray has also arrived at an important juncture in his own filmmaking. The motifs are all repeated carefully, almost mathematically; perhaps the most subtle repetition is the name of Reuben, Leonard's father, and also the name of Furlong's character in Little Odessa (himself a Russian Jew). Gray's fictional genealogy, winding its way through all four of these films, with each new entry feels more suffocating and enclosed. The director has extended this logic to the mise-en-scene of his new film, which not only emphasizes entrapment as a trope within particular scenes (the booth at the restaraunt, in which Michelle is pinned in between her lover Ronald and Leonard; the glass panes separating Sandra and Leonard from the sea while they have lunch, which may as well be a concrete barrier) but which itself becomes entrapped by repeating the same handful of locales with only minimal variation. I can't get enough of these films, and part of the reason is the pleasure of tracing out these subtly placed and by-now fully expected effects. At the same time the director has also managed to pin himself, along with his characters, into a corner: Despite his invisible style, the power of his repeated themes and motifs betrays an awareness of auteurism as a discourse, and auteurism, whatever its value, has the equally pernicious ability to trap any critic - and, indeed, any filmmaker - into simply saying the same thing over and over. Two Lovers avoids this danger because of its sparseness: Gray's aesthetic vision is here pared down to a kind of narrative and stylistic minimalism; it works to cleanse the palette after Gray's earlier (and, admittedly, richer) crime films have been enjoyed. But the reason Two Lovers works suggests equally the reason why the next film might not. I'm working against my own desire here: I would queue up for Two Lovers II or We Own the Yards in a New York minute, and would probably enjoy myself just fine, but I think that it would be best for Gray's art to get out of New York City and to stop fretting about overbearing matriarchs and ineffectual patriarchs the next time 'round. He may have to fall flat on his face - to make a beautiful, overambitious mess like The Darjeeling Limited or a Gangs of New York - but something tells me that, in the end, it will have been worth the time it takes to make valuable misstep if only to get back on track again with greater intensity. (After all, both Darjeeling and Gangs are about as much fun as I've ever had watching bad films). The sad, delicate beauty of Two Lovers' final shot all emerges centrifugally from Phoenix's dead eyes, suggesting a complete loss of vitality and the will to live for what one values above and beyond what your family has given you. The worst thing to happen would be for that lack, and that ineluctable trap known as "the genes," to become the limitation of the filmmaker himself.

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