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James Gray Blasts Guardian Review of 'The Immigrant': "One of the Dumbest I've Ever Read"

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by Sam Adams
December 2, 2013 3:22 PM
9 Comments
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James Gray, left, with Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner at Cannes in May
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images Europe James Gray, left, with Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner at Cannes in May

At Cannes, James Gray told Indiewire's Nigel M. Smith that critics who found his film The Immigrant too slow could "go fuck themselves." Six months later, he's apparently still steamed at one of them in particularly. Eric Hynes sends word from the International Film Festival of Marrakesh that Gray took the opportunity during a roundtable interview to attack The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, as well as asserting that his movies aren't mean to be for everyone:

If everybody loves the film then there's really something quite wrong with it. If everybody loves it then it’s sort of a crowd pleaser. And that's never been my view of what a good piece of cinema or art is. Upon initial release. What has to happen is the movie has to have a life, it has to mature over time, then only after a year or two or three or four that you can see what it is.

Of course I take it personally. This year I tried to read as little as possible, but the publicist did send me some reviews, particularly out of the UK, which I found gallingly dumb. It's hard to read a review that you think is flat out dumb and not take it personally. Any argument can be made for or against a film, but the Guardian review was one of the dumbest reviews I've ever read. He spoke about how the film went south once I staged a preposterous scene where Caruso sings for the immigrants. Which is actually the recreation of an actual event. So if you're going to make the main focus of your criticism how dumb I am for staging a scene, you better get your facts right. And he didn't. He wouldn’t be expected to know that, except it was in the press notes, that I had recreated this concert. So he was not only dumb, but lazy. His job, he has no real obligation to like or dislike a film, to be right or wrong in terms of history. He can say anything he wants. But he can not be wrong about the facts. You can argue any opinion, but I can't say to you that 2 plus 2 is 7. I can't do that. That's not good criticism. So I thought, he's a failure as a critic. His job is to educate the reader, so he's actually corrupt, and doing a disservice to readers for telling them that something never happened when it did. After reading that, I was so disgusted that I stopped reading the reviews.

Bradshaw, who starts by calling The Immigrant "gloomy and baffling," does indeed question the Caruso scene, though not exactly in the way Gray characterizes. Here's the relevant passage:

Everything about the way The Immigrant has been furnished and designed shows how genuinely concerned Gray is to make his film authentic. Yet, having exhaustively established that Ellis Island is a tough place and its officers tough people, Gray asks us to believe that it would lay on a lavish theatre show to entertain its hospital patients -- starring Caruso, no less! Fancy society folk in Manhattan pay an awful lot of money to hear Caruso, and his fee must presumably be huge. Would the Ellis Island authorities really pay that kind of cash to entertain the poor immigrants? Or would Caruso do it for nothing?

To the extent that Bradshaw implies something of the sort could never have happened, he's obviously incorrect. But he's also accusing Gray of not making the event credible within the context of the story, which is an entirely different thing. The Immigrant, which will be released in the U.S. next year despite persistent rumors that it might skip theaters altogether, is indeed a scrupulously realist film, but the Ellis Island pageant is something quite different, a vision of America's promise that is more myth than reality. Rather than doubting whether Caruso would have sung for free, Bradshaw might well have asked how Jeremy Renner's unexceptionable stage magician manages to levitate without the benefit of any visible assistance. Caruso's visit may have been real, but it's not entirely meant to feel that way.

Update: At Filmmaker, Kaleem Aftab has a response from Peter Bradshaw: 

“I apologize to him for the factual issue about Caruso and Ellis Island. He’s right: 2 plus 2 does not equal 7, though there is another critical point about the credibility of this scene within the dramatic context. However, James Gray is unquestionably a major talent and his future films at Cannes will be events that I will always look forward to.”

Sharp-eyed readers (or those with functioning short-term memories) may notice that Aftab's article looks quite a bit like this one without actually acknowledging its existence; we link to it without further comment.

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9 Comments

  • elizabeth medina | April 27, 2014 8:33 PMReply

    I loved this film because the story, the characters, the ambience, took me to that world. The only thing I regret is that there were no subtitles when Polish was being spoken.

  • Jake T | December 6, 2013 3:28 PMReply

    In response to Sam Adams' update about not ever having met Peter Bradshaw: to the extent that I was implying you had not only met Peter Bradshaw, but were his "buddy," I was speaking figuratively (as if I'd called you his "brother critic," which would also have been metaphorical). My point was that you were trying to pull the wool over our eyes in order to save Bradshaw's bacon, not because you know him, but because if people start calling out critics on their slacker approach to their own work, where will it end? Next thing you know, someone will be asking you whether you really think the wretched detainees on Ellis Island could have viewed a sudden performance by Enrico Caruso, the greatest musical star of his day, as anything short of miraculous. It really happened, they were no doubt really wretched--don't you think it probably seemed somewhat astonishing to those who witnessed it? Did it transport them to a magical fairyland? No, but the film doesn't imply that it did. What it does imply is that even people in miserable circumstances can come upon brief moments of hope and joy. That does not make the pageant more myth than reality, nor does the film in any other way portray life as neatly divisible into simplistic alternatives such as myth vs. reality. I guess that's why this matters enough for me to keep writing: Gray is one of the very few filmmakers we have who both insists upon the complex emotional lives of his characters and tells authentic stories about them. For Bradshaw to trash such a film (“a stifling opera of unhappiness; a thick sepia of solemnity; an oppressive andante tempo”) would be bad enough under any circumstances. But the only time Bradshaw can actually muster the discipline to point out specific negatives is when he’s parading his bafflement over how Gray can ask us to believe that Caruso ever performed there. Clearly Bradshaw couldn't get past his disbelief, and it infected his response to the entire movie. Your attempt to disguise this offends me. It also confuses me. You complain that Renner's magic show is not "credible within the context of the story," because magician Renner can "levitate without the benefit of any visible assistance." Oh, I get it: because Eva and others in her situation were suffering, the magician should suck. By that logic, if Gray had to include Caruso's performance--justified, you may grudgingly admit, because it actually occurred--he should have at least preserved the "reality" of his film by having the great singer croak like a frog. After all, it's impossible that the detainees should ever have witnessed anything sublime and let it enter their hearts. In that way, I guess, they're kind of like some film critics out there.

  • Thomas Prieto | December 8, 2013 5:35 PM

    The film is largely from Marion Cotillard's perspective. Renner's character isn't actually supernatural. Gray is trying to show us that from Cotillard's perspective, he is amazing and an escape from her bleak reality. That's why she likes him. He's a possible escape from the harsh world she's known. Considering the bad experiences she's had with family and supposed friends, meeting a nice and charming man seems supernatural.

  • Sam Adams | December 6, 2013 4:44 PM

    Hate to play this card, but you really need to read more closely before you respond. "Credible within the context of the story" is referring to Caruso, not the magician, and to Bradshaw, not me, and is also not a "complaint." And I'm not saying "because Eva and others in her situation were suffering, the magician should suck." I'm saying that because Gray makes a point elsewhere in the film of painting Renner's character as a second-rate (at best) performer, the fact that he's able to perform actual supernatural magic in that setting clearly indicates a departure from the tone of the rest of the film. I'm not sure how labeling Bradshaw's review as "obviously incorrect" counts as circling the wagons.

  • Snowangelsweden | December 6, 2013 1:50 PMReply

    James Gray - I love you :) !

  • Jake T | December 5, 2013 1:07 PMReply

    Sounds to me like Grey caught Bradshaw with his pants down and now Sam Adams is just trying to protect his buddy. Bradshaw clearly doesn't think Caruso could ever have sung at Ellis Island, but Adams tries to cover for him.: "To the extent that Bradshaw implies something of the sort could never have happened, he's obviously incorrect." "To the extent"? What on earth else could Bradshaw mean? Gray is also right that the Caruso scene is "the main focus of Bradshaw's criticism.” Check the original review and you'll see that the Caruso scene is the only scene he singles out for specific criticism--and the only negative he mentions is believability. So how come Adams invents criticism ("not...credible within the context of the story") Bradshaw himself never expresses? Something doesn't smell right here, and Bradshaw's new, last-minute apology seems bogus: he's pretending Adams' wishful thinking about the original criticism is actually what he meant. Yeah, right.

  • Sam Adams | December 5, 2013 1:39 PM

    For the record, I've never met Peter Bradshaw and have no reason to suspect he could pick me out of a lineup.

  • J.McLain | December 2, 2013 6:33 PMReply

    Yes. Big stars never give their time and money to causes they think important. That is why the U.S.O. ceased to exist years ago. Oh wait . . . Never mind . . .

  • Largeman | December 2, 2013 4:13 PMReply

    I love James Gray

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