Men in Love:
An Interview with James Gray
By Andrew Tracy
I can’t pretend to be a disinterested observer of the career of James Gray. After writing a long and laudatory article on his 2000 film The Yards in Cinema Scope, Gray contacted me to say thanks, and we’ve since struck up a friendly correspondence that noticeably increases in anxiety (mine) whenever a new film of his is about to open. Critics who become acquainted with filmmakers are put in a naturally difficult position, seeking to avoid special pleading while simultaneously trying not to offend by saying anything too harsh. This writer has been fortunate, so far at least, in that Gray’s subsequent films—2007’s We Own the Night and the newly released Two Lovers—have been blessed with the same virtues as The Yards: a darkly exquisite visual palette; a distinctively hushed, delicate dramatic atmosphere; deeply felt performances whose restraint only heightens their moving affect; and a pervasive feeling of tenderness and sadness that undercuts the frequent, and bewildering, charges that Gray is a macho poseur, spinning out copycat Scorsese genre riffs.
It should be stressed here that this is almost exclusively a phenomenon of American criticism—Gray’s films have been famously well-received overseas, particularly in France. Nevertheless, the marked hostility to Gray in the US ever since The Yards remains one of the most curious cases of critical perversity in a field littered with them. It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to dislike a filmmaker’s work, but the sneering condescension and wholesale dismissal directed towards Gray is both unwarranted by the films themselves and quite beyond the pale of civilized argument. In the case of Two Lovers, at least one prominent critic has even gone to the trouble of fabricating scenes whole the better to mock the film: J. Hoberman’s snide review claims that Joaquin Phoenix’s Leonard and his family-approved Nice Jewish Girlfriend Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) “engage [in] sex made all the more incestuous by the presence of their parents kibitzing around the dinner table a few yards away.” (In point of fact, Leonard and Sandra only share their first kiss in front of a wall of family photographs, after which Leonard jokes that he feels a little uncomfortable doing this in front of his grandfather.)
There is little space here to speculate on the possible motivations for this and comparable instances of a marked lack of critical ethics (if such a term isn’t a complete oxymoron) as applied to Gray’s films, but happily, they seem to be getting rarer, as Two Lovers has garnered a healthily positive response overall, even in the US. Nevertheless, the winds of critical fashion are not, of course, of any real importance to the actual work. In a film world ever hungry for novelty, Gray’s films—with their evident seriousness of purpose, their lack of “revolutionary” aesthetic and narrative strategies, their worked-through ideas and conceptual completeness—can have a distinctly musty tinge for some. Perhaps Gray is irrelevant to any progressive idea of American cinema, to that hunger for largeness (of ambition and scope) that still underlies so much of our expectations for American filmmakers. Against these vaunting hopes, Two Lovers is, simply, yet another beautifully made, doggedly serious, utterly moving, wholly and happily un-epochal film from a director who has now made four of them.
Reverse Shot: Why do you think this film in particular is getting such positive reactions in the U.S. in comparison to your last two films? Do you think it’s a case of a coherent body of work that’s slowly drawing appreciation, or do you think that Two Lovers struck people in a completely different way from The Yards or We Own the Night?
James Gray: Honestly? I really don’t know. I can’t even speculate as to what people respond to or don’t respond to in my films because I’m too close to the material. It’s too personal for me—autobiographical, I should say. When you’re making a film, it’s impossible to try and tailor it for a certain audience, or to try and elicit a certain reaction. A 29-day shooting schedule doesn’t give you any time to think about what critics or audiences will or won’t like. Ultimately, you have to make the film you want to make—or, to sound pretentious, that you need to make—or you couldn’t make a film at all.
RS: You’ve built up a recognizably personal world over the course of four films, but each of the films is about something completely different. The emotional drama at the center of The Yards is not the same as that in We Own the Night, which is not the same as in Two Lovers . . .
JG: I really hope so. I try very hard with each film to find a new way of approaching the themes that interest me. In some ways, you want to repeat yourself from film to film, but at the same time you have to try to couch your ideas in another way, you want to present them through a different prism, if that makes sense.
RS: There certainly are very definite continuities through all your films, on a thematic as well as (more obvious) stylistic level. A particularly striking aspect of your work is the way you depict romantic relations between men and women. Your men—actually, this position is mainly occupied by Joaquin Phoenix in all of the last three films—approach the women they love with this tender and desperate urgency, as if these women represent everything they are and can be in the world, and when they lose those women they lose the world as well. Where does your interest in these kind of feelings, and these kind of men, come from?
JG: Well, I said the films are autobiographical, and they are. I’m not the characters that Joaquin has played in my last three films, but there are of course enormous aspects of my own personality and my own life in there. I’ve had those feelings of fixation and worship in my own life. I wasn’t an outcast or anything when I was a teenager—I was more the class clown—but I didn’t exactly hit with the ladies, either. And when you’re vulnerable like that, the person who you fix yourself on seems like everything to you. We don’t love people, we love the image we make of them—we make them the perfection that we don’t have in our own lives. And when they don’t live up to that image, or when they take themselves away from us, well, that’s it: we’ve lost everything. We haven’t, of course, but we feel that way even if we know it’s not true intellectually.
RS: Though a lot of great films have been made from the completely male-centric viewpoint of the woman as the image or ideal, your female characters seem to retain their own existence apart from the men who love them, and apart from the roles those men need them to play. In The Yards, Erica (Charlize Theron) represents the culmination of Willie’s (Phoenix) climb up the ladder of success and acceptance, but for her, he represents a way to get the family she’s always wanted—they’re both using each other, and that’s the foundation of their love. And in Two Lovers, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) isn’t just the blonde goddess who can give herself or take herself away from Leonard, but a person with problems and obsessions of her own; it’s painfully obvious from the beginning that she isn’t the dream woman Leonard wants her to be.
JG: I hope that comes across. I hope that comes across in all my films. It’s hard as hell for a man to write female characters, and you really need to work hard to give them the same depth and dignity that you’d give to your male protagonists. And frankly, in Two Lovers I think Michelle is ultimately far more of a sympathetic character than Leonard. When they have that sex scene on the roof after she’s broken up with her lover—actually, I shouldn’t even call it a sex scene. It’s not rape, exactly, but Leonard is definitely taking advantage of that moment of weakness. I think what he does to her is horrible—it’s the moment where he crosses the line, and she’s vulnerable enough at that moment to be swept along with it.
RS: The roof scene is followed immediately by the scene where they talk on the phone while looking at each other from across the courtyard, and Michelle starts undressing for him through the window. In that scene, do you think Michelle is still in the grip of that “moment” on the roof, or is she actually considering the possibility of a relationship with Leonard?
JG: To me, that is the actual sex scene, the actual love scene. I think this is the moment where Michelle first sees Leonard as a sexual being, as a potential lover; that’s what she means when she tells him, “I never really saw you before.” I think at that moment those feelings she’s having are genuine, that there really is this tenuous romantic connection between them. And when she offers her body to him this time, it’s a real offer—she’s giving herself to him willingly, not being taken advantage of.
RS: Another powerful male/female relationship that recurs in your films is that between mothers and sons. Mark Wahlberg and Ellen Burstyn have a wonderfully sad rapport in The Yards, and in Two Lovers’ penultimate scene, on the stairs between Phoenix’s Leonard and Isabella Rossellini’s mother, their combative relationship just quietly falls away.
JG: Well, of course, this is another way in which your life makes its way into your films. I watched my mother die while I was a teenager, in a very painful way—I mean, every death is painful, but it’s particularly hard when you see someone slowly getting worse and worse, and you’re helpless to take their suffering away. That experience has naturally really marked me; it’s had an enormous effect on who I am. It’s something you never forget, and when you’re doing any kind of creative work, those experiences are inevitably going to inflect the relationships you create, the tone you’re setting, the world you make.
RS: Even those critics who dislike your films now at least concede that you’ve created a world that’s uniquely yours—so at least in their eyes you’re not a rip-off artist any longer, just a personal filmmaker whose films are bad. To ask an impossible question, how exactly do you go about building up a world on the screen?
JG: Well, like I said, a lot of who you are is going to find its way onto the screen regardless of your own efforts. Your work will always be marked by who you are and where you came from. Hell, even something as ridiculous as the weather can exert a huge influence over who you are as a person. Someone from sunny southern California is going to have a different outlook and manner from somebody from Seattle, where it’s raining all the fucking time. I grew up in New York, where you’re either huddling inside so you don’t freeze your ass off in the winter, or closing all the windows and cranking up the air conditioner—or in my day, lots of big fans—so you don’t die from the heat in the summer. I can only think that all those cramped, cluttered, closed-in interiors in my films are there because so much of my life was spent indoors in those conditions. The same goes for my preoccupation with class and class difference. My family certainly wasn’t destitute, but I was always conscious while growing up of not having much money, and I was always sensitive to those signs, both obvious and subtle, that other people and other families were better off than we were. So while you can make choices and decisions when you’re making a film—and when you’re making a film you’re always making choices and decisions—a lot of what you end up putting in there has chosen you without your knowing it.