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Forms of Fate: "Two Lovers"

A version of this essay was published in German, in the film magazine Cargo, in June, as a DVD review. The Auteurs Notebook now presents the original English version with minor editorial changes concurrent with the Region-2 DVD release of James Gray's Two Lovers. The film was released here in America, Region 1, last month.

***

James Gray’s newest film, Two Lovers, is not of the so-called gangster genre his first three pictures are a part of (as their costumes and tough talk would have you believe). Rather, the film—or, more apt, it title—indicates romance. But the films Gray makes never settle for or into such reductive categories. Two Lovers tells us a story of love, yes, but it folds into itself like its protagonist, an obverse melodrama. In fact, this convoluted (indeed, created) term might best describe the Gray corpus: a cinema at odds with itself, with its audience, with its “genres.” There’s a lot of fight in this body. But it would be foolish to call James Gray’s films unruly for all the brash and violent behavior within their slow downturns. Each film, including the jumpier debut, is deliberate; each film feels mapped from the start; each fatalist fable leaves little to chance. His determinist cinema is not dour so much as a downer. You know things will not work from the start. Maybe this is why he has made only four films—he’s not about the uplift. That said, Two Lovers marks something new for Gray beyond genre hopping: its finale completes a circle, so to speak, but it does not foreclose a future. The attrition of his first features here transforms into acceptance.

Everything starts from sincerity for Gray. He says so in interviews, and, thankfully, his films turn away from irony towards actuality to help acquit their maker. Gray is not a filmmaker of immediacy—like, say, Cassavetes—as his films are patient affairs, able to indulge a languor even, but he is indeed after a brand of genuine sentiment (that is, not sentimentality) similar to that anti-hero of the “independent” film, another element of why Gray is so unfashionable in Hollywood frames. His films aim to erase the filters we are often force fed to see emotions through. Gray doesn’t point his camera at his actors, he moves his camera (and our eyes) with them to follow their movements so we see, especially in Two Lovers, that its not the typically precise camera but the acting itself that structures the mise-en-scene. Acting, of course, being a combination of action and intention where gestures indicate behavior, which, turning inwards, indicates psychology—or, at least, thought.

Though it’s not about depth, or backgrounds, per se, this pointing inside sets Gray apart from his more marketable, more profitable and thus more prolific contemporaries, each more interested in surface play. Quentin Tarantino is a pop art master, metabolizing cinema just like his New Wave heroes, chiefly making movies because he’s giddy for movies and has the funds to do practically whatever he wants. (Inglorious Basterds, an exploitation Nazi-hunter film, debuted in competition at Cannes this year, where Gray sat on the jury.) Across from Tarantino there is Wes Anderson, another post-modernist pushing style to the foreground in delectable geometry, assigning characters looks as a way to indicate character. (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a Roald Dahl adaptation made with stop-motion animation, will open later in 2009 and will likely only revive the critical taunts of twee-mongering.) Perhaps directly opposite Gray in this quadrangle is Paul Thomas Anderson, whose latest film is expressly about surfaces and history’s trace upon the earth. (No word on his next project, but this Anderson lives at the level, gliding; his kino eye muscles across faces as easily as across earth.) Gray roots at the scars we hide, at the marks that no mask can cover, as if prodding privacy. His second picture, called The Yards, is never open; it asserts, rather, there are rails you are on and you don’t switch tracks; most often, you sit alone in repair. It’s hard to stomach without breaking a little. However, these elegant films rise with their elements, constructed with care from a set of thoughtful performances. Each is, despite the battery and melting mold, an ensemble housing project.

Jaoquin Phoenix stars in Two Lovers, his third film with Gray, as lonely heart Leonard Kraditor. We meet Leonard crossing a bridge in slow motion. He carries dry cleaning and his shoulders slump. Then he climbs over the railing and drops into the water. The film, just begun, lulls. It floats unmoored for this brief moment as, in an aside brokered by dissolves, a beautiful woman walks past our gaze and through a doorway before Leonard jolts up, scrambling for the surface real slow. Somebody “saves” him and he lies, saying he fell in. The no-face saviors call him on it, call him a douche bag. And they’re correct. Leonard is four months home with the folks, suicidal and infantile, a wreck of immaturity and indecision. Leonard is also a flirt. He flirts with the world: he does magic tricks for kids, he horses around on imaginary stairs for co-workers, he cracks bad and self-effacing jokes. Phoenix works this pitch of silly at each moment: chewing gum like a teen all posture, his eyes flit away and roll, he speaks out of the side of his mouth, he bottles himself and tries to act like a cool guy. Leonard, however game he may be on the dance floor, however cute his flailing may be, is not cool. Which isn’t to say he’s a loser. More, he’s a dope with dreams. And Gray seems to say, here as ever, that these kinds of dreams are delusions, an obvious echo of his previous protagonists, especially those misfits of Phoenix’s creation. The pull of a world beyond is the greatest obstacle in these films.

Gray is a borough filmmaker. He grew up in Queens and his movies largely steer clear of Manhattan. Little Odessa is a Brighton Beach two-act; The Yards sees a lot of Queens’ wider horizons; We Own The Night moves around Brooklyn and Queens in almost equal measure with little time for the glamour of the city; Two Lovers roots its hurt, once more, in a Brighton Beach womb-home on the edge of the ocean proving Gray’s great arena is the oppressive family apartment all hallways and picture frames, all a nostalgic hue past taupe into fawny oatmeal. Although it would be easy to peg this geographic consistency as that of a resolute outsider, Gray’s art aims to seduce as much as stand up alone; it’s perverse, each film’s amber inveigles passivity. His worlds wind up closed despite the lush invitation their representation offers. Edward Furlong’s shadow on a green wall (he’s Little Odessa’s Peter Pan in reverse, some Dickens urchin) pointing a gun he’ll fumble with before shoot becomes, in Two Lovers, light shining past or through walls and windows, their sources reminders of what lies outside and unattainable. Projections point back, too, we remember.

The film (ahem, Leonard; ahem, Gray) does, we should note, trek into the city. Each trip is a brief taste of the world of possibilities for our man—and each ends in rejection. Some might call this foreshadowing, but, since Gray works with the medium as a medium (for myth, for thought, for history), these turnarounds do not register as signposts but as ineluctable non-events. We see Leonard as we see Hitchcock’s Scottie, pursuing an idea not a person. Leonard’s idea (also, ideal) is Michelle, a blonde shiksa played aloof and beautiful and appropriately adolescent by Gwyneth Paltrow. Michelle lives up a floor across the courtyard and Leonard can watch her through his rear window, even photograph her, just like another Stewart-Hitchcock creation, to better fix his image of her as a sexy savior. That is, though he yearns to “save” her (from herself, from her married lover, from her pill popping), he really wants her to save him—by giving him an excuse to flee his home and the life laid out before him. Her light offers our man an illusion of agency above all else. And we know, from the minute Leonard snares Michelle’s flighty attention, as a circumstantial haven, that he is, it’s unavoidable, doomed to fall for her and doomed to lose her—all without ever truly “having” her in his life. Their pursuits—together and independently—are only ever (always already) fantasies.

As expected, and as first introduced, Michelle has her opposite in Sandra, a prim Jewish dream girl for Leonard (for his parents, too) who, in effect, engineers the entire film’s progression. Although Sandra and Leonard’s fathers already seem to have a business plan in action before their children meet, this meeting, as a potential for love, or at least marriage, is easily incorporated in the blueprints for the paternal merger. But it is Sandra’s desire to meet Leonard—and she makes it plain, she admits it up front. While he shucks and lies trying to play it cool and guarded, she owns up to what is a healthy and honest interest: she saw him in his father’s store and thought his antics cute. Of the love triangle, she is the most direct, which, we see, is the most honorable role to play; we know where she stands because she knows where she stands. She, like Gray, wears no mask. We see this in a direct address early in the picture, when Sandra first meets Leonard at his parents’ home. Seated on his bed, she cops to her curiosity and looks directly into the camera, confronting the audience with her appeal, which, however guarded, as is expected, is a passionate invitation to participate in the disorders of desire. Its frankness is slightly uncomfortable, though Sandra is seductive and alluring. (Part of this is, of course, that Sandra can be easily understood as a male auteur’s wish fulfillment; but that stance would get us nowhere, or simply directs us into a corner, like Leonard. Part of this, it seems, is that women are so rarely afforded the opportunity in Hollywood to have uncomplicated and earnest desires. Still another part of this is that this sincerity directs the film and underscores the unease of its emotional extremes.) Sandra is played by Vinessa Shaw, a full bodied brunette any schlub like Phoenix’s Leonard, sense of humor or no, would be lucky to talk to let alone to be pursued by; at any rate, Shaw is most famous to male, hetero cinephiles as the doomed Domino in Kubrick’s final masterpiece on self-deception, Eyes Wide Shut, wherein she is seen at most events naked, save a mask; this inversion, accidental or intentional, delights me.

Another inescapable fact: these women, these lovers, are types—concepts, even, that orbit Leonard, pulling him with differing (though, again, typical) options for ways of life. The bad girl blonde is a crush object; the sensible dark-haired lady is a displacement of mom. Were I more versed in psychoanalysis, I could offer some kind of Lacanian reading to better confirm another association Gray claims for his art. But that background is not necessary to see how the good girl mirrors Leonard’s mother in the rather obvious visual cue of their shared brown hair and the equally obvious narrative set up of the joint family business venture; nor is a Freudian table setting necessary to see that the shiksa presents our man with a vessel for his unchecked romantic projections. Again: they are types, they occupy roles from the start, and this little myth of temptation has but one trajectory. As a hermeneutical situation, we might say, the film presents understanding in an almost Socratic form of recognition, which again echoes the Freud, where we do not understand differently so much as remember something we have forgotten, or repressed, as the case may be. It is no shock that in such a world, our man Leonard finds his solution—if not a new understanding then a reoriented acceptance of the world and his circumstances within it—by standing at the edge of the ocean. And then he returns home.

Upon the release of We Own The Night, Dennis Lim tagged Gray as “arguably premodern”. Further, the “classicist” label has been used as often as possible to describe his determined, unhurried cinema. This critical push seems misguided, a narrow view of tradition. Though his cinema is unfashionable, it is not any less inherited. What stuns us is that he can, in fact, make these male melodramas sing simply, that he can fold his past into his story without a wink. Two Lovers does wink, though, you may think. And you would be correct. Its second-to-last shot has Phoenix’s Leonard peer out at the audience from inside an embrace with Sandra that tells us everything: this proposal is not “true” love, but neither was the “love” he felt for Michelle any “truer” than this one; rather, and here’s where Gray has turned a corner, Leonard knows this fate is not forfeit, nor is it a trap of circumstance, but precisely opportunity. In fact, Leonard’s decision to return home is heroic, a courageous move back into life, into a new year. The camera retreats, the wall of portraits—puzzled together like a collage of history peering back at the present to point out (at) its failures as a silent chorus—is replaced by the swinging star of the future falling, and, in a long embrace seen across a champagne celebration, the private becomes socialized.

Good text. Worst screencaps ever.
I blame Mark Cuban, among other delivery systems. Thanks for reading.
Now seriously: a good read about what’s easily the best American film of the year. I liked what you said about Sandra/Vinessa Shaw, but: does she appear naked in Eyes Wide Shut? I was always under the impression that Domino wasn’t at the Somerton party. The girl that takes to Bill being Amanda/Mandy.
RW
I was about to ask the same question. It seems to me that Shaw isn’t quite slender enough to be one of the Helmut Newton-type girls at the party. I don’t think it’s ever made explicit just who the girl is who “redeems” Bill. Michel Chion gives those scenes a close look in his BFI monograph on the film. Because of the masks, figuring out who the girl is requires, well, “perverse” attention. And Kubrick makes things even more complicated by switching out actresses (wearing the same mask!) between consecutive shots. Not to sidetrack us from your interesting piece, Ryland.
Well, I trust you guys. I made the association without specifically looking at the Kubrick again. That said, it is a minor note in a broader argument.
RW
Right, of course, I didn’t mean to indicate otherwise. I think you’re right to note a link to Kubrick through Shaw, and Gray practically says so himself in his commentary on the DVD (as a side note, the ONLY thing I would complain about with Gray are his DVD commentaries, from the constant impressions of actors he works with to the false modesty of remarks like: “I’m not saying that’s what I did. I’m saying that’s what I was trying to do”). Performance-driven, borough-centered, fable-like, deliberate, determinist, patient, sincere, elegant, lulling, though not quite “classicist” as many critics have argued — you’ve nicely captured the spirit of this beautiful film and of Gray’s ways of working. I like especially your point about “types” orbiting Leonard — a nice way of thinking about how the structure of the film develops. Leonard as heroic in the final scene is an interesting take. It seems to me like your notion of Gray’s cinema being “at odds with itself” works at the level of the scene in those last moments, which are at once “joyous” and despairing. I feel if Leonard is heroic, then it’s partly because he walks knowingly into a future that his parents have lovingly but still somewhat aggressively imposed on him — the future with the dry cleaning business. And yet, at the same time, the only moment of relief from this feeling is the deeply affecting shot we get of his mother (Isabella Rossellini) acknowledging his return.
Boone
“its not the typically precise camera but the acting itself that structures the mise-en-scene” Filmmakers who know how to work that don’t need QT’s bankroll. Those Two Lovers stills are so subterranean looking, it’s like Gray is creating a space where the acting CAN “structure the mis-en-scene,” away from typical “real” world/movie-world distractions. Yes, different from Cassavetes in that Cassavetes let the actors run riot wherever they happened to be. It might be a difference of personality more than anything. Gregarious versus gentle. But deeply invested in what’s up with people as people, above all, in both filmmakers’ work. I’d like to see them magically swap pictures— say, Gray’s A Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Cassavetes’ Two Lovers. I pick Bookie because it is almost as hushed as Gray’s films, featuring a “dope with dreams” (Ben Gazzara) trying to “act like a cool guy” in the face of fate. Juicy words you put up there, man. Gotta see more Gray.
Deleted
Thanks for this. I just viewed this film for the first time last night. Reading this text really helped solidify how much I liked the movie.

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