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

The Playlist By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist December 12, 2012 at 3:50PM

A definite high point of our Marrakech International Film Festival was not only getting the chance to talk with director James Gray (“Two Lovers,” “We Own The Night,” “Little Odessa,” “The Yards”) about his upcoming directorial and writing projects (see our previous coverage here and here), but also having the time to let the conversation spin off, through some of his past experiences, and into a more general discussion about the state of contemporary U.S. cinema. Gray’s perspective as a commentator is of course informed by the kind of filmmaker he is: in his assessment of U.S. cinema being in a state of deep crisis, it is hard not to see a man arguing forcefully for his own livelihood.
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Francis Ford Coppola Martin Scorsese Woody Allen
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. 

Vertigo
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?

Raging Bull
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. 

This article is related to: James Gray, Marrakech Film Festival, Interview, Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant


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