The Cinema of James Gray: A Conversation Between Two Cinephiles

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This was originally a response to Guido Pellegrini, a Match-Cut, Rotten Tomatoes, and Corrierino forum member and excellent film writer as part of an ongoing conversation about James Gray and We Own the Night. Read his part here.

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Gray’s cinema is an oppressive one. He has perhaps the most oppressive sensibility of any filmmaker I know. A lot of people like to talk about the cluttered interiors of Wong Kar-Wai’s cinema, but Gray’s cinema is more thoroughly oppressive in both its look and behavior.

I’ll talk about two forms of oppression.

The first is the more familiar systematic oppression of the social against the individual. This is the oppression his characters face when they try to veer outside of the demands and expectations of the familial structure. The second is the more personal oppression of the family. This is the oppression his characters face from familial bonds of duty and sacrifice. The former is a more global kind of oppression, the second more local, but they are also closely related. In many ways, the distinction is superficial, but it’s useful in seeing how Gray’s style cinematically evokes the theme of oppression in different ways. For instance, the oppression of the individualist world stems from its foreboding tension and anxiety. When in closed quarters and family surroundings, it’s not tense and fearful, but it’s claustrophobic and overbearing.

Take how Gray evokes these sentiments in The Yards. Gray’s evocation of home is built around small intimate family gatherings. In the opening sequence of The Yards, the party scene (inspired partly by Visconti’s party scene in Rocco and His Brothers) he uses long lenses and shallow depth of field to create a suffocating intimacy. The entire film is shot with anamorphic Panavision C lenses with a graduated DOF that gives the film a cluttered, soft-focused feel and look. The “flat field” lens is notable for increasing the effect of the shallow depth and also sharpening the edges for a more flattened, less “curved” space that you get with the curved lenses. He also relies heavily on long lenses, especially in the opening scene and interior spaces. The distorted, collapsed perspective of the long lenses in these settings (as long as 135 mm) create a claustrophobic atmosphere, but also a warmth and elegance. It’s an inviting, congenial situation even if one you couldn’t bear to be in too long. You feel the care and concern of his family and friends, particularly his mother, but everything feels so heavy, so cluttered, and invasive, even if genuine and caring. It’s a love so focused and demanding that it verges on the point of oppression (look for similar effects in Two Lovers). The impression of shadows and the obscuring of the mise-en-scene with the soft focus lens only further tightens the space and collapses the interiors. The filmstock was also underexposed to give the film a brownish, amber like tint, which also gives the film both its intimacy and its dark, shadowy feel. (Check out this video where Gray and DP, late poet of cinema Harris Savides, discuss Gray’s use of watercolor paintings and “the voluptuousness of death” aesthetic).

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In contrast to these scenes, when Mark Wahlberg’s character is out on his own, the flattened space of the lenses is used to highlight the anxiety, stress, and oppressive chaos and criminality of the outside world. The effect is often distinguished by the score. When he’s outside, the sounds are often industrial, such as echoes of machinery, thick stormy bass, grinding piercing sirens, or the reverberating noise of trains, cars, and even plane engines drowning out the soundtrack, even when the objects that produce those sounds don’t seem to be nearby. This is essentially the same effect Gray uses in We Own the Night when he drowns out the sound of echoing gun shots to amplify the ringing in Phoenix’s ear as he stumbles through a chaotic, claustrophobic interior, or when the sound is drowned out during the car chase sequence as the massive rain storm obscures his vision as he’s trapped inside an enclosed, foggy interior, further evoking the feeling of dread and powerlessness. Conversely, familial interior scenes in The Yards are scored with a lush, symphonic drone. It’s interesting when this is used behind conversations. It drowns out the dialogue and heightens the overbearing nature of the conversation. It magnifies the overwhelming barrage of family interrogation, where it is turned into a kind of persistent, relentless, hypnotic force. It also heightens the melodrama of the situation in that it adds a thick layer of seriousness so that every glance, gesture, and whisper carries the weight and force of the world.

But in We Own the Night, which Gray consciously mirrored on the look of The Yards, the oppressive technique adapts to its unique thematic function in the story. The opening sequence does everything it can to capture the sexual euphoria of the 80s. The oppressiveness of the opening scene is its aggressive hedonism with Phoenix’s grinning, slow approach toward an almost desperately aroused Mendes and the feeling of being overwhelmed by the overstimulation of infectious iconic 80s pop, drugs, and eroticism. Gray stylizes the scene until we’re practically suffocated with the moment (which relies on close ups and flat space). It’s potent because it shows Gray dealing in extremes; pure uninhibited excess against the total restraint, duty, and self-sacrifice of the rigid lifestyle he ends up in. There’s no room for the possibility of a bland, vanilla existence (which is a point of contrast to modernists like Scorsese). The dichotomy is all or nothing; total inhibition or total resignation, pure euphoria or complete misery. The interesting thing is there’s a kind of exhausting, overbearing dedication in both ways of being. Alternatively, the ambient sounds and tones on the soundtrack in the suspenseful scenes (which almost remind of Lynch and Grandrieux) create an unsettling atmosphere, sounds that are just ambient enough to seep beneath conscious awareness but drone enough to affect your experience of the film.

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Your remarks about Coppola ring true. The way Phoenix blows the sting-operation and panics powerlessly in the car chase sequence display that Gray’s characters are far more common, but also that he operates in the mode of film noir more so than Coppola. The pressure of the family in immigrant America under capitalism is the unifying theme, but Coppola, a modernist, always creates space for either autonomous individual resistance or individual triumph under the circumstances of community clashing (as The Godfather pt. 3 reveals, it takes a particular breed of man to achieve what Michael Corleone achieves. The mob triggers the worst kind of evil in a man capable of the greatest kind of good, a duality of a perfect monster and superhero in one man). Gray’s characters are entirely unwitting victims of their circumstances. Their choices are always masked under the veil of illusion, their successes usually aren’t of their own making, or their perceived failings are made successes and their perceived successes made failings. In Gray’s world, pretensions of agency are a wash.

In some ways, Gray’s only accidentally a genre filmmaker. Crime doesn’t figure into his films the way they do for someone like Scorsese, where the culture of crime is explored at its very essence. For Gray, the culture of crime is part of a larger network, a socioeconomic network that ties family, ostensible ‘legitimate business,’ government, and society at large together as a complex entity. His films trace the individual’s (non)role in this entire network. Why is this significant? Because in Gray’s cinema, and Mann’s cinema, there’s something larger than local relationships that’s oppressive. Although it isn’t always explicit, their cinema is always suggestive of a more systemic oppression. This is more harrowing because the crux of the problem runs so deep and through so many layers that the individual’s fate is almost always a near certainty. To echo your point, so often characters in Scorsese’s films create their own downfall. They’re pulled into crime by the allure, prestige, and glamor of the culture. It’s so intoxicating that all else in life seems plain. In other cases, as in The Departed, there is a more aggressive oppression, a socialization, a fate-deciding, but it begins with one evil self-aware operant that is in many ways a puppet master that creates his own downfall. (See the opening monologue where Frank says “I don’t want to be a product of my environment, I want the environment to be a product of me.” I’d say only Age of Innocence really does away altogether with Scorsese’s individualism. Perhaps his only true noir).

This is why the Mann comparison is especially apt. In fact, I would suggest that the relationship is stronger here than anywhere else. I would only quibble about the social element in Mann’s cinema, although I know you were only working from memory. I’d actually argue that Mann’s approach to crime is more global and less local than Gray’s. It’s important to remember that in Heat, there is a specific context, a locality; Heat‘s world is quintessentially urban and post-industrial. He deals with the interlocked system of corruption from top-down in the modern metropolis. It’s a situation where white-collar business executives, blue-collar workers, subjects of youth culture, immigrants, upper-middle class doctors, detectives, and their families all traverse the same paths and become implicated in a larger-scale culture of criminality and corruption. You are right Mann emphasizes the paths of his characters primarily through focusing on the nature and extent of their personal relationships, but he ends up locating a larger context by displaying the level at which those relationships extend across socioeconomic boundaries. In order to bring this closer to the ground, think about a few situations in Heat. For one, would Breeden, the ex-con, have ever been killed as McCauley’s get-a-way driver if there wasn’t a corrupt institution in place that forced him into exploited, degrading labor? He was more than just vulnerable to McCauley’s offer. His fate was all but sealed the moment he fell into the system. Criminal options didn’t cease for him when he was convicted, they only magnified as other legitimate options disappeared. Similarly, we see in Roger Van Zant’s character the arrogance and gall of corporate CEO types attempting to meddle with dangerous criminals (we also see corporate corruption and avarice in The Yards, The Insider, and even Collateral).

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But in the end, you’re right that there is greater room for vice and choice in Mann’s cinema than in Gray’s. Mann’s cinema is a cinema of professionals, a cinema of excellence. His protagonists possess far more agency, more ways to assert selfhood, more capacity to resist oppressive forces from the outside (e.g. Heat, Collateral, Ali), but this just means Gray is more noir; his cinema is more fatalistic and tragic. The other difference is that Mann is interested in sustained moods and intensity, but builds tension sparingly and with great subtlety. Gray evokes fear and anxiety unlike any American filmmaker I know of since Hitchcock (only Fincher comes close to him in this respect). Gray’s poetic evocation of an overwhelming sense of dread is truly a marvel.

But in spite of all this oppression, Gray is not a nihilist. It’s debatable even whether he’s a cynic. Two Lovers, for instance, suggests an almost Bressonian transcendence in its conclusion, a hard-won struggle of redemption only fitting of a Bresson or Eric Rohmer film, but it’s also an artful study in resignation. The concept of resignation traced from its most oppressive, darkest corners to its potentially most fulfilling corners. But there’s an ambiguity in it as well. It’s not clear that in this moment Phoenix’s character is fully prepared to find peace in a future that has been predetermined for him, one that will also inevitably perpetuate the same cycle for future generations.

There is perhaps one more comparison worth mentioning. Abel Ferrara’s cinema bears much resemblance to Gray’s and Mann’s, but Ferrara’s noirish dread is more moral than strictly existential. Like the modernism of Scorsese, Coppola, and touches of Mann, Ferrara emphasizes personal responsibility, but like Mann and Gray, the social is still an aggressive element in Ferrara. His individualism is very robust, but there are perhaps more similarities than differences. In the end, Gray is certainly noir, but his take on noir is very fascinating, very complex. In my eyes, he is the face of current neonoir cinema. Perhaps its finest practitioner. That’s high praise, yes, but I think James Gray is a quiet master of cinema.

I really appreciate your message. I had actually been planning on writing about Gray for some time. Thank you for the opportunity to discuss this great filmmaker.

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One response to “The Cinema of James Gray: A Conversation Between Two Cinephiles

  1. Pingback: Conversation: We Own the Night and James Gray | Elevator to Alphaville

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