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Interview: James Gray Talks Working With Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix & The Central Crisis Of American Cinema

by Jessica Kiang
December 12, 2012 3:50 PM
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The accepted wisdom about your films is that they're better received in Europe than in the U.S. Is that still true? Was it ever?
It’s not really true anymore. I think I’m a very American director, but I probably should have been making movies somewhere around 1976. I never left the mainstream of American movies, the American mainstream left me. Really what I’m doing is an attempt to continue the best work of the people I adore, Francis Coppola and Scorsese and Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick and those amazing directors whose work I grew up with and loved. Because really American film was that! An American commitment to narrative with an interest in the creation of atmosphere that came probably from Japan or Asian cinema, with a commitment to thematic depth that comes from Europe... We lost that.

I think, with respect, it’s a convenient narrative that my films are better reviewed in Europe but actually the reviews for my last film in the U.S. were really good and the film was not a financial success, so I can’t blame that on the critical establishment who treated me, if anything, with kid gloves. [But the French especially] have always supported my work for reasons I can’t explain, and I love them for it. I’m very grateful.

"I think I’m a very American director, but I probably should have been making movies somewhere around 1976."
The individual versus society seems to form an integral part of many of your narratives. Is that a conscious starting point for you?
It may seem difficult to believe, but I don’t sit down to write that… it always winds up becoming that. It’s not a conscious thing at the beginning of a creative process.  I start with a mood or an idea that comes from a personal place emotionally and the narrative concepts come much later. 

And you also seem to frequently deal with the American taboo of class divisions? 
Well, my wife thinks I have an obsession with social class. So I guess I have an obsession with social class. It probably stems from feeling like an outcast, you grow up a goofy-looking idiotic kid in a fairly working class neighborhood that’s fairly close to a very rich center of the universe, then I guess you feel like the outsider and that becomes a preoccupation… 

I think true economic class unhappiness comes from when across the street someone has a new Cadillac and you can’t get that. If everybody lives in the same way, there's something almost narcotizing about it, but the true misery of economic class difference is knowing that you can’t have what somebody else does. 

Maybe that’s bullshit. [But] it was my experience where my neighborhood was very working class, semi-attached row houses on a treeless block and two miles away was an area called Jamaica Estates, where they had very big houses on great big plots of land. I remember my mother would dream of having this decent house and we would get in the car -- I think if it now, it’s so sad -- she would say, “Let’s look at the houses” and she would take us past these big houses. Why this would be a point of pleasure for us I’ve no idea. 

Do you feel class is something not addressed enough in U.S. film?
[Class is] not discussed in American life very much -- there’s a notion that social or economic class divides don’t exist when of course they do. But that wasn't always true in film -- think of John Ford, it’s always all over his films. The idea of "Vertigo" is partly genius because of social class -- the idea is he has to make Kim Novak up to the fancier version of Kim Novak in order to rekindle his obsession. So class becomes part of that story. Today, I mean, what social class can you find if someone’s a fucking Spider-Man? What the fuck does that mean?

I'm sensing a degree of dissatisfaction with current mainstream U.S. film from you...
I think it’s in profound trouble in a way that is not reflected by people writing about cinema now. What I find troubling is, I’ll read, for example, conversations between AO Scott and Manohla Dargis [in the New York Times] and I find that they’re extremely erudite, and I love what they say. 

But sometimes I feel like the subtext is them trying to convince themselves and each other that the state of cinema not so bad. And what neither of them has ever really addressed, and I have not read it anywhere else either, is the troubling disappearance of "the middle." Which is not to say the middlebrow -- that exists with flying colors. But there is tremendously interesting cinema being made that is very small, and there are very huge movies which have visually astounding material in them, but you know Truffaut said that great cinema was part truth, part spectacle, so what’s really missing is that. It’s what United Artists would have made in 1978 or something. 

Like "Raging Bull" could not be a low-budget movie, it just couldn’t, there’s a certain scale that’s involved in making it, and no one would make "Raging Bull" today. The last example of the industry doing this middle movie that I’m talking about, to me would be Michael Mann’s film “The Insider” which I really like. That has scale and also a bit of truth it. What I don’t see as part of the discourse is a discussion on the economic forces that have forced out the middle. There is some discussion, some awareness, but not enough, because to me that is the central crisis of American movies: the disappearing middle of the mainstream.

"What I don’t see as part of the discourse of cinema is a discussion on the economic forces that have forced out the middle-sized film."
So where has the audience for these films gone?
They’ve migrated to television. So there’s superb television, but it’s not for me because first of all, the two-or-three hour format is just perfect, because it replicates best our birth-life-death cycle. "The Sopranos" was genius television but it went on forever, and it never seemed to culminate in anything, and then everyone was pissed off at the ending but that’s exactly why TV cannot substitute for a great movie because the swell of the architecture of a movie is part of what makes it the most beautiful visual art form. 

And it’s true, right? There’s a kind of beautiful movement to a wonderfully structured film which is not reproduce-able by the best "Breaking Bad" [episode], which, by the way, is great. But it’s not the same thing - that’s a kind of luxuriate, get the food delivered, sit down in front of the TV and for that moment, that hour, you’re in pleasure, and then you go back to your life until the next week. It’s not quite the same [as a movie], not as transformative. 

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  • Proletcult | December 22, 2012 5:01 AMReply

    Mr. Gray's concern with class is refreshing. He's right, class as a driving theme is virtually absent in American cinema today. Left-ish fimmakers have substituted middle class identity politics for genuine class politics. And the results have been an absolute disaster. We've gotten to the point where 400 people now own as much wealth as the bottom 150 million. Part of the blame goes to those artists whose progressive politics are designed more to make themselves feel good about how "enlightened" they are than to inspire a genuine shift in mass consciousness. Part of the blame also lies with film critics who elevate the myopic, ultra-twee, middle class angst of Wes Anderson's work to the status of art.

    Beasts of the Southern Wild was one notable exception to the routine. Here there is a genuine affection for poor people and their struggles. It's approach is still that of enlightened liberalism rather than radicalism, but it's a start.

    I'd point to Ken Loach's work, but he's a Brit. Nonetheless, if there are progressive filmmakers out there genuinely concerned with the plight of the working class, appalled by the suffering of poor people, appalled by the thievery of the banksters and other one percenters and looking to inspire the working class to action then they could do worse than to be good students of Loach's work, which goes beyond the usual liberal bromides to tell working class stories with a radical edge.

  • randy | December 16, 2012 1:55 PMReply

    james gray is the only contemporary american director who is as talented in making movies as in talking about them.

  • Zach Heltzel | December 16, 2012 4:45 AMReply

    When discussing how there is very little irony in modern storytelling, despite the fact that we live in a very ironic time. I'd like to throw Joseph Kahn's name into the ring here; his movies DETENTION and TORQUE are drenched in irony, and that is partly why they are incredible strokes of genius that have yet to be appreciated for what they are.

  • Aksel | December 15, 2012 6:13 AMReply

    Great interview from a great director! Thanx!

  • Duder NME | December 14, 2012 1:56 AMReply

    The main reason for this shift of movie tastes is centered on adults not finding/having enough time to watch films en masse while also giving their children so much disposable income, which now dictates moviegoing and moviemaking. That simply wasn't the case in the 70s, even after the advent of the blockbuster age, some early 80s summer films were part of the old aesthetic. Now it's all about release windows and viral schemes and branding, to the point where adults can't be motivated unless they've already heard about an established franchise (the Big Mac).

  • T.A. | December 13, 2012 10:29 AMReply

    Never knew a single thing about this man before reading the interview. Seen two or three films by him, not knowing who had made them or that they were even made by the same director. All in all, he was certainly a pleasure to listen to in this interview and he is indeed calling for right things here. Makes me want to see his films again and the ones I had not seen already. Less Spiderman and more social class, soul and honesty should be the topic of 2013!

  • tania | December 13, 2012 10:01 AMReply

    Marion is a wonderful actress

  • Alan | December 12, 2012 6:32 PMReply

    "And what neither of them has ever really addressed, and I have not read it anywhere else either, is the troubling disappearance of "the middle."" Clearly, this guy doesn't read enough film criticism. I hear this ALL THE TIME.

  • Alan | December 13, 2012 4:44 AM

    Yeah, David Denby wrote an entire essay about how big budget films are swallowing the market and eroding the market for well-made middle budget features, but I guess that isn't going "deep enough". Oh wait, David Denby wrote, so, no, it isn't deep or intelligent enough, but at least he intended to write something about the issue.

  • Kim | December 12, 2012 7:22 PM

    Yeah sure, by writing 2 sentences about it every 15 reviews? He is right, they never go deep enough, they never truly explore it.

  • CL | December 12, 2012 5:56 PMReply

    I could have sworn this movie's title had been changed to "Nightingale" - much more evocative. So now they're changing it back? And is there enough time to de-Weinstein this project so it won't get dumped on two screens and buried?

  • The Playlist | December 12, 2012 7:30 PM

    Yes, Gray recently told us it was reverting back to it's "Lowlife" title. It was named "The Nightingale" for about 8 months or so. He explains it all here.

  • ere | December 12, 2012 5:10 PMReply

    This is a great, great interview. James Gray is awesome

  • TheoC | December 12, 2012 4:50 PMReply

    Excellent stuff, great interview. I'll be adding this to instapaper to pore over again

  • Christian | December 12, 2012 4:35 PMReply

    Good stuff. However, if he wants edgy studio pictures and American cinema about social class problems then he should watch a little indie flick called The Dark Knight Rises which has more in common with Charles Dickens than Marvel's latest adventures of flying men in tights fighting aliens.

  • Yod | December 12, 2012 9:46 PM

    Batman fans are so annoying. The Dark Knight Rises was a shallow popcorn flick, albeit a good one. Nothing more. Just big 'spolsions and stuff. To claim otherwise makes you a fool.

  • 4 | December 12, 2012 5:07 PM

    Read the interview: "But there is tremendously interesting cinema being made that is very small, and there are very huge movies which have visually astounding material in them, but you know Truffaut said that great cinema was part truth, part spectacle, so what’s really missing is that."

  • Claire | December 12, 2012 4:30 PMReply

    Thanks you so much Jessica for the interview. This guy is so passionate, it's very inspiring. He is an amazing director and he should have more confidence in himself, he is truly one of the best storyteller of the last decade. I honestly can't wait to see his next effort "Lowlife" & I wish him to finally renew with the critical acclaim and success he deserves.

  • sduh | December 12, 2012 4:25 PMReply

    Great stuff! So true.. thumbs up

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