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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]

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