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Cannes 08: James Gray on “Two Lovers”

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05262008_twolovers1.jpgBy Erica Abeel

When was the last time you heard someone drop a mention of Jacques Lacan? (I’ll pause if you need to refresh your memory of the name at Wikipedia). If the answer is never, you haven’t sat down with the delightful James Gray, who was at Cannes with his new film “Two Lovers,” starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw and Isabella Rossellini. In a stream-of-consciousness monologue that could pose a challenge to any interviewer, Gray also cited as influences Dostoevsky’s novella “White Nights,” Scorsese, Hitchcock, French poet Louis Aragon and a B-movie starring, uh… John Hodiak? There’s a sense that Gray’s in a hurry to put across his ideas now, since later can be a long time coming, given the gaps between his films. Bowing in 1994 at age twenty-four with “Little Odessa” (which took the Silver Lion in Venice), he didn’t produce “The Yards” till 2000, “We Own the Night” following in 2007. He’s emblematic of those creative strivers in it for the long haul, living with the material of his films for years; keeping his focus, determination and confidence, and, one would hope, some other means of financial support.

“Two Lovers” not only treads on the heels of last season’s “Night,” it moves away from the filmmaker’s previous dark, violent films centered on Russian mobsters to explore a modern love story set in Gray’s beloved Brighton Beach, Brooklyn locale. After a suicide attempt, Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix), an attractive but troubled guy, moves back with his parents in Brooklyn. Enter two women: ravishing blonde shiksa (Paltrow) who’s involved with a married man and promises big trouble; and the daughter (Shaw) of his dad’s new business partner, who’s not only lovely, but eager to take care of fragile Leonard. An adept storyteller, Gray fleshes out the classic conflict between romantic rapture and the sensible choice. Critical response was mixed, but one thing’s been clear: Gray, a three-time contender at Cannes, receives more esteem from the French than at home.

At the press conference you criticized current filmmaking in America. Could you elaborate on that?

It’s a complex discussion because it involves so many different factors, very few of which are any good for the movies. You’re seeing all these specialty film [distributors] literally going out of business. There are so few buyers, and the buyers that are here are so hyper-cautious it’s insane. The corporate system dictates what gets made, and the movies are so bad because of the economic structure of Hollywood. The big business takeover of Hollywood is at fault, rather than American storytellers — it’s what keeps textured movies from getting made. You’re force-feeding crap into the population.

05262008_twolovers2.jpgSince 1980, with the end of United Artists, there’s been a permanent sea change in the movie business. Directors stopped being the central creative force in the picture. UA was the studio behind “Raging Bull” and “Apocalypse Now” and “Annie Hall.” When UA left the business, American films started to become more blockbuster-oriented, in itself is not a bad thing. I think Spielberg is one of the most talented people who has worked in the movies. I’ve never seen a guy who’s better able to stage a scene. I went to see “Munich” with my wife and I was like… Some of the staging of the scenes was so good… [cites a moment in “Jaws”] You won’t see moments like that in American movies today. That extra layer of tenderness is gone.

So the multinationals have bought the studios and you’ve got “Iron Man” — though I thought Downey was quite wonderful. Then you’ve got very small artsy films with no emotional connection that appeal to few people. And what’s happened is that there’s no middle. There’s no narrative storytelling, a movie like “Vertigo” that has psychological complexity and uses genre in an innovative way. American filmmakers have lost their storytelling muscle.

If Fellini had made his movies today, you would hate them, because the intellectual component in “La Strada” is not right there in front of you. He’s not jump-cutting his way to heaven. It’s all emotionality. Am I making sense?

The critical response to you in the U. S. has also been somewhat divided.

I like that. Because if everybody loves you, you must be doing something wrong. It means there’s no button being pushed… The only way that everybody loves you is toward the end of your career. Scorsese gets great reviews now, but Pauline Kael said “Raging Bull” was crap. Stanley Kubrick? Now, oh, he’s the greatest — but Sarris said “Barry Lyndon” is the most boring movie of all time. That doesn’t mean I’m good, I could stink. I don’t read my reviews — I throw them in the garbage. If they’re good, you believe them and that’s bad. If they’re bad, that’s terrible for your confidence. If they say I’m terrible to the point where I shouldn’t make films, then shame on them. Because even if you don’t like the films, they’re clearly not made for mercenary reasons.

How do you feel your movie fits in with the romantic genre?

I tried very hard not to watch other movies, not to steal from them. I tried to do something true to myself and let the chips fall where they may. We watched “Vertigo” in preparation and “A Short Film About Love” by Kieslowski. There are very few movies in English about romantic obsession told with a seriousness of purpose. Americans have always been excellent at making romantic comedies — but dramatically, we don’t really try to do it. I stole from literature. I was obsessed with a character from “White Nights” by Dostoevsky, an off-kilter, lonely, depressed soul. It was my idea to have Joaquin update the Underground Man. Leonard was crazy, too, but he was taking his meds. One day he didn’t, he jumped off the bridge. I love Tolstoy even more. [Long riff on “Anna Karenina”]. You read that book and think, okay, that’s a towering genius, I hate myself. [Segue to riff on the Beatles, followed by one on Coppola in the ’70s, Jean Renoir, Godard, “The Conformist”] “Notorious”! A-plus plus! “Psycho”! But “Vertigo” is the masterpiece, she comes out of the bathroom with a green light behind her, you want to burst into tears… I don’t get out much, as you can see.

05262008_twolovers3.jpgWhat’s the appeal for you of working with Joaquin?

He’s one of the few actors working in American film today who’s able to convey great internal workings non-verbally. He’s a thinking actor, and the camera doesn’t lie. He cares for the same things as I. He has the same taste. We have a shorthand now. I’ll say after a take, “I don’t know…” And he’ll say, “Yeah, yeah, I know.” And he’ll get rid of the problem. I was very disappointed he didn’t come this year. He got sick and was literally throwing up. [To the publicist] Do we get lunch here?

Could you talk about Leonard’s two lovers? He seemed to have an entirely idealized view of Michelle/Gwyneth, while Sandra/Shaw seemed an extension of his mother and family.

[After quoting Lacan and Aragon]: Romantic love is a projection of fetish and fantasy, which doesn’t mean it isn’t real to you. If the night I met my wife, she’d have been dressed in a different way, she might not be my wife. I tried to present a situation in which everything Leonard projected onto Michelle was both good and bad. And she was in love with her married guy for both good and bad reasons. And Sandra was in love with Leonard for both good and bad reasons. I didn’t want to reduce everything to a schematic idea. The fact is, Michelle encourages him to be an artist. For all her negative shit, there was no question that she would encourage a side of him that his parents never would.

What was it like to watch the screening of your film in Cannes?

It was the longest one hour and 43 minutes of my life. I’m more process- than result-oriented. It was the best experience making a picture I ever had. I love working with actors and watching them do things I had no intention of putting in the movie. You want to constantly be surprised.

[Photos: Phoenix and Shaw; Phoenix and Paltrow; James Gray – “Two Lovers,” 2929 Productions, 2008]


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.