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David Poland

By David Poland

The James Gray Thing

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I don’t get it.

And now, six features into James Gray’s directing career, I think I am done apologizing for it.

My experience of Gray’s films has been, consistently, “great acting… why doesn’t the story work?”

And yet, some of the smartest critics I know are true devotees of everything Gray does. They must be hip to something that I am not seeing, right?

Where I see a 1930s/40s backlot jungle movie, they see a lush, elegant dip into the profoundly exotic.

I see Charlie Hunnam as I have usually seen him (a serviceable, professional, hunk actor) out of his depth, not offering the emotional range that this character demands. They see him making a breakthrough performance of great depth.

Where they see restraint and subtext in the inaction of Gray’s work, I see a puzzle that simply doesn’t interest me.

I think the reason that Joaquin Phoenix has been so critical to Gray’s work is that he brings the kink that Gray just isn’t interested in bringing… even though his films are all about passion. The way Spielberg hits the wall when it comes to sex or Fincher hits the wall when it comes to heartfelt emotion, Gray is drawn to big emotions underlying his work, but then seems to make every effort to keep it under restraint.

Perhaps Gray is the great tantric filmmaker and I am just the heathen who wants to have the emotional explosion every time.

Or, as Richard Brody of The New Yorker put it: “James Gray’s films are the public trace of a secret doctrine: don’t follow the words, follow the music; don’t believe your eyes, believe your heart. He’s a devoted, meticulous, fanatical realist whose clear, tough, physical dramas sublimate themselves into undertones and overtones, murmurs and intimations, reminiscences and dreams.”

Yeah. That makes sense. And it bores the crap out of me.

Really, my thoughts about why so many critics revel in Gray’s work is that they are deeply moved by the withholding nature of Gray. Ironically, the only James Gray movie to gross as much as $4 million domestically is the one movie critics hated, We Own The Night. Ironically, this is also the second-lowest grossing Mark Wahlberg movie of the last decade (20 films).

I think they like that the emotion is (mostly) secret. I think they feel he is, somehow, a feminist, in that his women suffer in a more realistic way than in most “Hollywood” movies (but suffer they do). I think they prefer emotional restraint on the paint drying level to scenery chewing (or their idea of what that means).

My decades of film obsessing has included many directors with whom I didn’t connect early on only to fall head over heels a few films later. I am thrilled when it snaps in. Peter Weir, Danny Boyle, Lars von Trier, Robert Altman, Almodóvar, Jane Campion, Iñárritu, Baz Luhrmann, Haneke and Mike Leigh are amongst the filmmakers that took time for me to make a strong connection… to understand what they were up to and to fully appreciate it. There is usually one film that, finally, connects, and sends me off to reconsider all the other work I had seen and have not connected with before that moment. I am glad to say that only one filmmaker on that list is no longer with us and I now joyously anticipate every new work from each of the others, resilient even after disappointments.

But I don’t think this is ever going to happen for me and James Gray.

I think his fans in the critical community are right, really. What disconnects for me in every film, it seems, is what turns them on about his work. And thus, I have to assume that this thing – genius or defect – is deeply embedded in Mr. Gray. I just don’t like that flavor.

It would be perverse, in a way, to wish for James Gray to make a movie I loved. (And keep in mind, in spite of not connecting, I respect the work he gets from actors and completely understand why they want to work with the guy.) If he made a movie I loved, he would have failed himself.

It’s not fun being the stick in the mud who won’t go there with a guy that so many colleagues love. I don’t take pride in raging against the work. Given the commercial insignificance of Gray’s work, hating on his work is like pulling wings off a fly. The whole thing makes one feel like a vulgarian, however irrational that is in context.

I still hate The Immigrant (great performance by Cotillard… but what a mess) and will scoff every time I hear or read a critic talking about it as an overlooked masterpiece. The Lost City of Z belongs in conversation with Apocalypse Now or Herzog’s jungle work like Trump belongs on Mount Rushmore. Give me The Mosquito Coast on white men trying to figure out their place on the planet every time.

But… I am taking the James Gray chip off my shoulder. I’m sure he’s a great guy and would be a wonderful thinker with whom to spend a four-hour dinner. No need to be frustrated about how some see his work or being emphatic about taking shots at the work.

Like mushrooms, I will keep trying them with an open mind every couple of years, not really expecting my palette to change, but hopeful, as I am missing out on something that so many others love. And if my tastes don’t change… just order something else. Not so bad.

4 Responses to “The James Gray Thing”

  1. Christian Hamaker says:

    I enjoyed reading this – and disagreeing with it – David. I haven’t seen “Lost City of Z” yet, but I’m a huge fan of overlooked masterpiece “The Immigrant” (sorry) and “Two Lovers.” Anyhow, I love the engagement here – we all have revered filmmakers that leave us cold, don’t we? We can all relate, even if, in this filmmaker’s case, we (I) don’t share your opinion.

  2. CJ says:

    And yet…people keep giving him money to make movies. I’m not going to pile on Mr Gray, who is probably a lovely human, but cannot help but notice that there is no female filmmaker in the world who would get this many chances without a genuine hit. There are so many talented women (and POC) who haven’t gotten even a single shot and it’s getting pretty hard to bear.

  3. Doug R says:

    Don’t feel too bad Dave, the critic for cbc radio feels exactly the same way you do about Gray.

  4. EtGuild2 says:

    Nail on the head for me. My dad ranted for years about how great Two Lovers is…blahhhh. And THE IMMIGRANT is definitely a mess.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin