Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

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.
19

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.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
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.

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