After shooting Little Odessa, his first feature film at the age of 25, James Gray has only four films at 42. The biggest gap in the span of his career is the 9-year one that ensued after Harvey Weinstein got his dirty paws on The Yards and forced Gray to tack on a happy ending, before the director returned with 2007's We Own the Night. Gray may be far from prolific—mostly because he has continually struggled to find both funding and a proper audience—but if we look at his career in a quality over quantity sense, he's among the most impressive in contemporary American cinema: few can compete with his eye for composition, his understanding of light and shadow, his musical sensibility, and of course he's been eliciting some of the most memorable performances. This is thanks in part to having made three (soon to be four) films in a row with Joaquin Phoenix, but also for having the smarts to place actors like Pheonix and Mark Wahlberg alongside legends like James Caan, Robert Duvall (no coincidence that both are Godfather alumni) and Isabella Rossellini. Gray's cinema is populated with tragic characters torn yet fulfilled by family ties. His sense of environment as a dictating force permeates each of his works. The human struggles in Gray's films are made intensely palpable by his formal and dramatic intelligence, which has set him apart as a unique artist—something which he has not been recognized on any significant scale, though it is pertinent to mention that the French have been on to Gray's brilliance for some time. Not coincidentally, twenty years into his career, it is the French who have published the first book on James Gray.
The volume was put out by Synecdoche Books early this year and is edited by Jordan Mintzer, film critic for The Hollywood Reporter, with words from Jean Douchet (notable, more on this later), Francis Ford Coppola (barely) and otherwise filled to the brim with interviews with Gray and his various collaborators (the list is actually quite impressive, though Phoenix's absence is no surprise). There are, of course, both good and bad components in publishing the first work on a filmmaker. There's a freedom and burden in the lack of precedence which you (the editor and contributors collectively) unavoidably must set. The choice, then, to make this an interview anthology is a clever one, and the right move. Digging into the director's brain works as a great "first step" in what will hopefully be a considerable series of various critical writings on James Gray—especially when the director in question is one of the most articulate around and additionally one of the most open to discussing his own work. As Mintzer points out in his foreword, there are some universal lessons to be learned from Gray's insights into his career. That of the difficulty to make it in the sub-Hollywood terrain that he navigates, to cope with the demands of producers, actors, and the importance of adapting to the conditions on set in spite of rigorous preparations—Gray makes beautiful watercolor storyboards of his compositions, images of which are included in the volume.
Douchet's preface titled "James Gray: The Art of Thought" is one of the best pieces I've read on the director. It's relatively brief but effective at articulating Gray's cinema:
"If the frame is James Gray's most potent cinematic tool, he occasionally uses other techniques–slow-motion etc.–but only out of pure necessity, and he employs shots/counter-shots in such a way that nothing ever leaves the frame. While most contemporary American filmmakers are concerned with destroying the frame via irony, he does the opposite, enclosing the totality of his art within the frame itself."
He places Gray's mise en scène in a lineage with Griffith, Murnau and Ford and goes on to call his work "entirely modern" in that "[his films] are classic works which reinvent our conception of classicism."
Mintzer appropriately starts out his interviews from the very beginning, discussing James Gray's early life as well as his family's origins—including mention of his grandparents who emigrated from Russia to the United States, something which we can now see influenced his next project, Lowlife, a story of a Russian immigrant set in the 1920s. It's a pleasure reading Gray's account of his history, and if anything it's a shame it isn't more detailed. One surprising section, which I'll allow the reader to discover, involves a childhood friend who partly inspired Little Odessa, who would later be arrested for murdering his mother.
The interviews progress chronologically through Gray's career with the occasional exchange with actors (including: James Caan, Eva Mendes and Gwyneth Paltrow) and other creative collaborators (such as: Harris Savides and Howard Shore). While there's hardly a passage that's anything less than interesting, some highlights emerge as especially notable. When discussing Little Odessa, Gray recalls how he and Tim Roth clashed towards the end of the shoot over a creative difference. Joshua, Roth's character, a disowned son, returns home to his father (played by Maximilian Schell). Roth refused to play the moment where they confront each other as Gray directed, so instead he asked Schell to start whipping Joshua with a belt. Unbeknownst to Roth, he did so—watching the scene, it's quite clear Roth's infuriated response is not faked—resulting in a minor falling out between Gray and Roth. However, in Roth's interview included in the book (one of the most memorable), he remarks on the decision: "at the time I was very angry about it, but in hindsight it's a great scene, and the anger seems real. I think that it served the film well."
The conversations aren't limited to the specific films though: Gray expounds on his own film taste. At one point, he reveals what he thinks is "the greatest moment in the history of movies":
"The scene where Jimmy Stewart leaves Kim Novak alone in her apartment, and then she looks at the camera...At that moment, the picture transcends anything Hitchcock ever did." (The book even generously includes a two-page spread of this image.)
Now to judge a book by its cover: Conversations with James Gray is just about the most gorgeously designed film monograph I've come across, from its innovative top/bottom split of french and english, to its placement and selection of images, its texture...I could go on, but it's worth iterating that this is quite clearly a lovingly made tribute to a filmmaker who, admittedly, needs this sort of emphasis to get noticed (I'm still trying to wrap my head around the exclusion of James Gray from Cinema Scope's "50 Best Filmmakers Under 50 list"). He's the sort of director whose presence isn't perpetual: most seem to unfairly forget about him until his newest film rolls around. After following We Own the Night up with Two Lovers just over a year later, it seemed maybe this trend could change, but with his already-wrapped Lowlife being held back, ostensibly for a Cannes debut, by its producers (the Weinsteins again), it looks like there could be yet another 5-year gap added to his filmography. Mintzer's book tries to correct the situation by calling attention rather boldly to a still young filmmaker as a master worth studying. The spaces it leaves unfilled don't necessarily make the book feel incomplete—rather, they beg for a second book to follow, and sooner rather than later.