Saturday, October 20, 2007

I'll Admit ...


















... I'm a bit predictable. I loved it. More later.


Addendum: 'Old Masters' aside, I think James Gray may count as my favorite American filmmaker working in Hollywood right now. Other contenders would probably be people who work on the fringes of the mainstream, Entertainment Weekly-type industry, sometimes but not always making these highly "visible" films (Linklater, Haynes). Gray's three features to date are bona fide respectable ensemble cast affairs, with fine production values, and storylines with themes revolving around family, loyalty, betrayal and revenge, community, ethnicity, and money. In fact if one demands freshness and variety from a filmmaker, Gray may not satisfy: his films are all resolutely New York-centric, all dealing with ties between crime, law, and economic institutions, and developing largely within the confines of Eastern European ('white ethnic') communities. He mines this milieu in the same way Ozu mines the Japanese middle class in his 1950s films, even using a lot of the same actors from title to title (plus Danny Hoch is in this one!), offering variations on a theme.

And while Gray's style may be perfectly in accord with mainstream conventions, even "classical," it's no surprise that they don't make a splash in the multiplexes. In addition to heavy issues, the mood throughout the films is often somber, lonely, claustrophobic. The narratives themselves feel a bit inorganic, perhaps here in We Own the Night most of all--there's a sense of tragedy that renders certain other elements of narrative almost inevitable. These aren't films that "take you into their world" as fully as a great yarn "should," which is not to say there aren't individual sequences which do this (such as one particularly heart-racing car chase in We Own). The films hold you back a bit too; you analyze precisely what's happening because there's a moral metacommentary inscribed, I'm sure, quite intentionally on the texts.

And then the framings and compositions--for example, the visual work that cleaves (in both senses of the word) Joaquin Pheonix's character to and from his father (Robert Duvall) in their first solo meeting, sitting next to each other in a church pew, photographed in shot-reverse shot once they start talking, but if I recall, with each man off-center, each close to the edge of the frame that the other would be sitting in, so that they appear "close" (and indeed are physically close in the diegesis) but unconnected by means of each cut. (And Duvall is facing towards Pheonix in a posture of parental desperation; Pheonix is hunched away.) It's not virtuoso filmmaking; it's simply expressive on the most basic level.

Gray's films are, appropriately enough, composed entirely in grayscale (tonally speaking). Even We Own the Night, which has more of a traditional 'good-versus-evil' structure than his previous two films, doesn't exactly come off as a ringing endorsement of the police force or civic duty. Life is more like a maelstrom and whichever side of cops or robbers the characters are on has less to do with moral qualities and more to do with family connections and the vagaries of the money flow in this underworld on the fringes of Manhattan finance and "spectacular" politics ...

12 comments:

Brian said...

Make no apologies for predictability.

Sure, it's nice to be occasionally completely surprised by our reaction to a film, but I'm tired of the critical pose in which somehow the only "pure" way to see a new film is to go in with no hopes or expectations, and that the only acceptable second-choice alternative is to have our hopes and expectations completely turned on their head. As if trusting taste and instincts in our viewing choices somehow equates to being brainwashed by received notions. I think it would be illogical to continue being a cinephile, and not to nurture and follow certain interests, and even have expectations fulfilled.

That said, I still have yet to see a James Gray film. Hopefully I'll remedy that soon!

Ryland Walker Knight said...

I was pretty "predictable" in loving _Darjeeling_, so I agree with Brian. That said, this didn't do for me what it has done for you and Dan Callahan. I liked parts of it, you can guess which ones, but I found myself thinking, "Really?" a few times. I think, gasp, I am more in Walter Chaw's camp: Gray is clearly a talented director but not much of a writer. Also, I was confused by the politics. But maybe that's bc it's "composed in grayscale" and meant to show that either side is an ineffective cipher. Having just begun the second season of _The Wire_, the thematic similarities are apparent (subscribing to an institution will fuck you over the more reliant you become on it), but I guess I just like Idris Elba a lot more than scary white dudes with ponytails and mustaches.

Zach Campbell said...

OK, predictable is all right sometimes then!

Brian, I hope you'll let us know how you feel about Gray's work when you see it.

Ryland, sorry you didn't like this one more. (I don't get Chaw's review at all--I mean, The French Connection is more or less a piece of shit if you ask me. [As is Night and the City!] Citing that as a great cop procedural?) WOtN isn't Reaganite conventionalism at all; and I also don't think that the writing is bad. I don't think Chaw's criticisms (or Kent Jones' with regard to the dialogue, for that matter) actually illuminate the film at all, they seem like misunderstandings to me. Chaw writes, e.g., "gets the scales lifted from his eyes after his brother (Mark Wahlberg) and father (Robert Duvall), both decorated police officers, are threatened by his employers"--but this isn't the case at all, there are no scales falling, no enlightenment: Bobby Green gets backed into a corner, it's about the vagaries of moral panic, not actually good/evil (though the film is structured along these lines, narratively, it's true). Or the cliche that I've seen mentioned about this film a few times now--"two brothers on opposite sides of the law"--which isn't true, it just fits the formula the film's detractors want to convince us it fits; but Bobby's not ever a 'criminal,' he's just a club owner with a recreational drug habit. Where his real separation from his family comes in has nothing to do with the Law. I think the film is very well-written, myself ...

(Haven't yet seen the new Anderson, either.)

Zach Campbell said...

Oh, and sorry for that horribly written comment above (how many times did I use the phrase "at all"!?)--it was composed very, very quickly and without much thought to how it comes across ...

Ed Choi said...

While I'm eager to see James Gray's films, I have to ask you, Zach: where's the love for Michael Mann? For me, he's the greatest of American filmmakers working today, aside from Charles Burnett. Though there are admittedly a number of directors whose work I need to familiarize myself with more extensively (Jarmusch, Araki, PTA, Haynes, Spike Lee)

Within contemporary Hollywood, Mann strikes me as the only filmmaker who has achieved something closely akin to what the so-called 'auteurs' of classic Hollywood managed in their day. That is to say he's developed a sensibility of personal expressionism which satisfies convention and hence can be easily reduced critically to the conventional, but which really is far more internally (to his subjects' questions) rather than outwardly (to us) directed. So the correlation I'm drawing is less between Mann's 'auteurism' and say Ford's 'auteurism' than Mann's 'classicism' and Ford's 'classicism'. Each of Mann's films is a product of discipline, of studied improvisation (again I'm thinking of Ford or Preminger), the likes of which I think is currently unavailable in American filmmaking.

Whether James Gray is doing this as well, and with so much skill remains for me to see, but I just wanted to know your feelings on Mann's work in brief.

Zach Campbell said...

Ed, I like Mann's work a lot. He's got an amazing eye; and I don't simply mean he makes "pretty visuals," but that his way of composing images in time & space seems more organized, graceful, powerful, beautiful, all that, than most other filmmakers'.

Gray's doing something a little different. His writing is as important as his mise-en-scene, in terms of what makes his films distinctively his. (Mann could shoot the next Harry Potter film and there'd be a definite Mann-authorial dimension there; not so sure about Gray.) So for Gray's films there are a lot of non-virtuosic elements to his work that are guided by a great intelligence and depth of feeling. Mann is more virtuosic, and more about surface--which I don't mean as a putdown in any way, or as a way of saying his films lack depth, but rather, what depth there is in Mann tends to come directly from his mise-en-scene and not from scripts (whereas with Gray it's all inextricably linked). That's how I'd describe the difference between the two directors.

As for the issue of 'classicism,' I've got to mull it over.

Joel said...

Zach,

Just got back from seeing a double header: "Gone Baby Gone" and "We Own The Night". Wow - I'm completely in agreement on the lack of critical understanding of WOTN. As far as the cops vs. robbers, good vs. evil aspect, I wonder how many critics reviewed the trailer (which made the film appear so much simpler than it actually was). However, I don't really know what you mean about the vagaries of money flow in the underworld. I think there may be an implicit financial critique somewhere in there, but it doesn't seem like something Gray is trying very hard to emphasize or explore.

Andrew Tracy said...

Zach,

excellent comments on the film. I took a stab at the questions of 'classicism' and 'predictability' here.

I think you've touched on some of the most important facets of the film, which have gone largely unremarked upon likely because they're in plain sight. I like your formulation of "expressive on the most basic level", precisely because basic, in this instance, is synonymous with fundamental - and it is this level that is so rarely addressed by critics.

Gray's films are, moment to moment, some of the most carefully calibrated (visually/narratively/emotionally) being made in America (at the very least), and without a hint of the precious about them. In that very scene between Phoenix and Duvall that you discuss, recall that tiny moment at the end where Phoenix hops over the pew and Duvall instinctively reaches out a protective hand and half-audibly says "Be careful" - moments like these are not accidents, they are written and directed and inserted quietly into the fabric of the film; they are the narrative and emotional building blocks which so many directors skip over in favour of 'virtuosity'.

Now as to Michael Mann -

I think you overlook Mann's considerable involvement with his scripting, which, in his best films, complements that surface virtuosity you describe beautifully - he's not simply a (blue-tinted, Chris Cornell-scored) gun for hire. The problem with Mann is when that laudable concern with surface - of revealing character through his or her (mainly his) actions, in all the connotations of that term - ultimately scants on developing any intrinsic connection to the people onscreen; thus in Miami Vice the spectacle of two impeccably-suited blank slates doing barely comprehensible things very decisively.

Ryland Walker Knight said...

Yeah, it may have been a lazy reading on my part. But don't get me wrong: I think there are some delicious moments: the moment of silence that extends to the stairwell kiss and, of course, the two set pieces (drug house, rainy streets) that anchor the middle of the film stand out. But the thing I thought of when mentioning the Chaw piece was his claim that Joaquin's slide into police clothes-work-ethos is "never in doubt." I'm always a little wary of stories that seem only to unfold a logic, not explore an affect. And I know Gray is trying to do the latter here but the film is so concerned with story it has to insert exposition right there outside the graduation scene. Perhaps this is why I like Miami Vice: its formalism is drenched in affect and the plot lines are mostly irrelevant. Something similar happened when watching _Marnie_ again recently: the first hour is phenomenal but the second hour gets bogged down in its psychoanalysis mumbo jumbo. Sometimes high melodrama and high formalism can work but even _Marnie_ is no _Letter From an Unknown Woman_. (One might argue _Lola Montez_ suffers from a similar kind of problem as does _Marnie_.) _The Birds_, on the other hand...

Ed Choi said...

Andrew, I admire the stab at pinning down classicism. I'd say that your definition is definitely one I could side with, though in the end I do quibble with the identification in your two examples of classicism with a kind of narrative determinism. So I'd broaden the delineation a little, and say that classicism has less to do with an engagement with the mechanics of narrative structures than it does with those of dramatic structures. And here I posit drama in an abstract sense, as conflict. Now, conflict can be generated formally, or directorially, within and against a narrative structure as it would appear to be in "We Own the Night", or within and against a spacial structure as it is in "Miami Vice". But I have to stress as Gray does in the interview that the dividing line between these two structures is hard to discern. Both of these films tell stories.

Also, I disagree with your comments on "Miami Vice", which I feel is a masterpiece, because for one thing I don't think one needs to build an intrinsic connection to the people onscreen, and secondly I think the very fact as it is presented in the film, that these two men have such fragmented existences, becomes heartbreaking in and of itself.

Zach Campbell said...

Joel--re: money, I think that this actually provides part of the crux of the narrative. The film isn't a cops vs. criminals story as we've acknowledged but it's about the way in which these two groups of people try to mobilize everyone around them into this mindset. At the film's beginning, Bobby is living more or less effectively between these two worlds, and he probably thinks he's mostly outside of either of them, as well. (Insofar as a fictional character can "think" that is--but I imagine that we're invited to fill out this part of his psychology ourselves.) On two or three occasions he brings up moving operations to Manhattan: he's going for the limelight, he's a bit limited by his Russian benefactors precisely because he's not (really) in their money racket. It's his ignorance of this racket that allows him to participate in an illusion of bon vivant apoliticism (i.e., not that politics & crime don't exist, but that his hands are clean ... enough). The Russians don't want to move to Manhattan because it's expensive: and I think also because its more visible. These Brooklyn/Queens ethnic communities Gray works in really are somewhat tangential worlds on the periphery of the biggest money movements in the city. It's not until he's being sucked into one or the other world/community that Bobby lets go of his illusions (and hence also his happiness), because it's not about easy legitimacy, it's not simply a matter of making lots of profits and living well. It's about the power struggles that go over who gets these profits, where, and why.

Andrew, I finally read your piece--that's a very informative interview, and a concise rundown of WOtN's virtues. It's interesting Gray is so insistent upon what he terms content: he really is one of the best, that is, most organic and fundamentally fluent, formal players--stylists--out there, I think. But his films aren't stylish, and his particular brand of dedication to narrative doesn't seem to exist anywhere else in Hollywood money. (Extemporaneously: I can see minor, valid comparisons to Eastwood and Ferrara. Scorsese. Rafelson's King of Marvin Gardens in terms of tone. But he's got something unique to the way he presents his stories to people, the way he tries to bring up emotions.)

Noel Vera said...

Hi, Zach.rote a few words on the film