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

Festivals
by Jessica Kiang
December 12, 2012 3:50 PM
19 Comments
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James Gray
Is it the fickle audience that is therefore to blame?
No, I think the studios have done a brilliant job of creating the audience it’s now attempting to satisfy. There is a difference between the satisfaction and the exploitation of public tastes. If you give -- and I’ve used this analogy many times, but it's true -- if you give somebody a Big Mac every day, and then you give them salmon sushi, their first inclination is not to say that salmon sushi is the most delicious thing they ever ate, their first inclination is to say, “That’s weird and I don’t like it.” And it’s very hard to get them back. 

To you, studios have a responsibility to provide some salmon sushi amongst the Big Macs?
They do… even if [the films] are not huge hits they do. I’m not even talking artistic responsibility, forget that, but if you want to talk like a stockholder to them…and by the way, Warner Brothers did do it, they’ve done "Argo," they’ve tried to do a couple of these pictures, and Amy Pascal at Columbia has tried to do a couple of them as well, with some very good results. But the thing is that you need [everyone] to do two or three of them a year in order to maintain a broad-based interest in the product.

It’s like when American car companies in the early '70s stopped making convertibles. They were losing a few dollars making convertibles and so they said, "Let’s not do it." And all of a sudden other people were making convertibles and American car companies stopped seeming to have a broad-based product line.

Even looking at it purely in capitalistic, corporatist terms, I think if they made two or three of these kinds of pictures every year, then people like my dad and my brother -- college-educated people either in their 30s, 40s or 70s, would have a movie to go to. And it would maintain the broad-based relevance of movies. 

"I think the reason movies are no longer relevant is because the self-appointed cognoscenti have nothing to go watch."
So you believe the current culture is eroding the relevance of the movies?
I think the reason movies are no longer relevant is not because they don’t make money, because they make more money than ever. They’re not relevant because the self-appointed cognoscenti have nothing to go watch. So if you look at the numbers they’re doing great, but look at people like, you know... Norman Mailer would not have a movie to see. Norman Mailer, if he were alive, would see a movie from Europe.

But there’s a whole other swirl of issues that is not only about this, it’s not only about economics. It's all connected to a post-1968 drive toward post-structuralism, the focus on the destruction of narrative… I think telling a story is somehow [becoming] "quaint." 

Does storytelling feel too unironic for our ironic times?
Yeah, I’m not exactly certain when that began. And it’s not just movies, it’s culture-wide. Look at music, the idea of melody. I would say over the last 30 years melody is not really particularly important. Isn’t that analogous to story [in film]? 

I think that people have done [the destruction of narrative thing]. Derek Jarman made "Blue," and that’s it. Once he made "Blue" you can’t do anything else. Once Andy Warhol shot the Empire State Building for 8 hours what are you going to do? What more can you do? Jackson Pollock "broke the ice." And by the way I love these people. Jackson Pollock is the greatest, I’m not badmouthing these people, but cinema, for me, the meaning of it is telling a story on film. 

For me, it’s an act of hubris to say that you don’t need story because it means that we would be members of the first group of human beings in the entire history of the human race that didn’t need story. And I’m not so arrogant as to suppose that’s the case.

Dardenne Brothers
And how do you feel about non-studio cinema, the kind you have been watching and judging here as part of a Film Festival Jury?
I see a wonderful dedication to the art form and I have been pleased with the overall quality of the movies - I’m not bored. By the way, though, I really wish that people would begin to put cameras on tripods a little more. I don’t know when the handheld camera became such a hackneyed device of the art cinema -- I feel like the Dardenne brothers did it brilliantly and everyone’s trying to steal from them now.

But what I think is lacking is an emotional commitment -- a fervent commitment to the material, a sincerity. But some people don’t like that, because we’re living in a very ironic, distanced, very “we’re smarter than the characters in the movie” era. And that’s some people’s taste. 

La Strada
And how would you exemplify your taste in this regard?
My taste, I mean if I had to pick one movie, which I would  never want to do, I keep thinking about "La Strada," because there’s such a total commitment to those people and the movie never puts itself above any of the people in it. It’s a very Franciscan approach to the drama, and to me that’s very beautiful. 

[Author] George Eliot said "the purpose of art is to extend our sympathies" which I think is very beautiful. Kubrick wished all movies were “more daring and more sincere.” A lot of directors today are focusing on what is daring, but are not really focused on what is sincere.

James Gray's "Lowlife" stars Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Renner and the director hopes to debut it at Cannes next year. The picture is scheduled for release stateside in the fall of 2013.

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19 Comments

  • 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. http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/marrakech-12-james-gray-says-nightingale-probably-back-to-original-title-lowlife-hopes-to-premiere-in-cannes-2013-20121205

  • 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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