Monday, April 27, 2009

Heart-shaped box step: James Gray talks about Two Lovers, the dictates of desire, and the uncertain whereabouts of Joaquin Phoenix

As Leonard sinks to the bottom he looks up toward the shrinking sun shattering in the frigid water, and just when he seems resigned to his death a woman crosses his field of vision, apologizing for having to leave. So what shakes Leonard out of his suicidal calm it seems is not even the promise of the woman’s return, but rather the mere chance to caress the melancholy memory of her leaving him one more time. This is how
Two Lovers begins. This phantom woman from Leonard’s past will not reappear, but two others will take her place in his unfading desire to be swept away by some overpowering feminine force.

As depicted by Joaquin Phoenix, Leonard is at once among the most pathetic and dynamic protagonists in recent movies. He’s introduced to the lovely, kind and comforting Sandra, exquisitely and movingly played by Vinessa Shaw, by his parents. She’ll be good for him, as well as good for business, given her family’s interests in investing in Leonard’s parents’ Brighton Beach dry cleaning. She’s a too-perfect match for this depressed but sheepishly charming guy from good immigrant Jewish stock. She even works for Pfizer, the company that produces Leonard's medication. 

By accident, though it somehow feels closer to his own volition, Leonard meets Michelle, an unstable, vivacious new neighbour played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Michelle, who dates her older, married, wealthy boss, who likes designer drugs, who is not Jewish, is clearly not good for Leonard the way Sandra is. She comes to embody everything Leonard longs for, as opposed to what he can have.

The third woman in Leonard’s life is Ruth, Leonard’s mother, played by the inimitable Isabella Rossellini not as the stereotypical nasally Jewish momma, but as a concerned and outwardly conservative woman who deep inside just wants to do right by the unruly dictates of her son’s heart. Two Lovers is not so much a love triangle as an uneasy quadrant around which Leonard must box step until he builds up the courage or foolishness to break off in a single, focused direction.

As wildly distinct as the very intimate Two Lovers is from We Own the Night (2007), the large-scale crime drama director and co-scenarist James Gray made immediately before this, it’s startling how closely their thematic trajectories match up. It’s something we spoke about quite a bit when I interviewed Gray. With four films now under his belt—the others are Little Odessa (94) and The Yards (00)—Gray has developed a very particular body of work, one that combines familiar, audience friendly genres and talented stars with a flair for intricate visual poetics, but that’s arguably had a hard time finding the larger audience it deserves. Still, as Gray explains it, he’s been lucky to make these films at all, and to make him his way.

Two Lovers seems in one sense a cautionary tale against family as a force that’s antithetical to self-realization. It contradicts so many movies set in ethnic communities that strive to show family as something comforting, fortifying, and at worst frustratingly quirky.

James Gray: Absolutely. And addressing something of both these things you describe is part of what makes movies about family so intriguing. Family can be a locus of great emotional support, and also a terrible place where your dreams are killed. In
Two Lovers the family stifles Leonard, but it also saves his life.

JB: Obviously it would be deluded to blame Leonard’s problems on anything other than his own weaknesses and precarious desires, but I couldn’t help but consider how much he’s a product of this very specific environment the film carefully evokes.

JG: It was especially important to me that Leonard’s parents were very clearly not Americans, that he felt outside the mainstream from the very beginning. And that the family home itself is claustrophobic. It’s shot that way. We didn’t construct a set, so you couldn’t just move walls around. Essentially the camera was always in a place where a person could be.

JB: So when we watch Leonard in his parents’ home, even when alone with a woman, there’s always this ghost of a familial presence. Yet it’s interesting that you mention the claustrophobic scenes, because I want to ask you about another scene that feels exactly the opposite, this moment where Leonard confesses his love to Michelle on the roof. It’s a turning point that manifests very emotionally, very physically. One of the things that made it so memorable for me is the fact that it’s delivered in this slow, unbroken, gliding, nearly hypnotic overhead shot.

JG: Yeah, the camera starts about eight feet in the air while they’re in that brick gazebo and winds up becoming a two-shot in profile of the actors. The shot is about five minutes long. What happens here, what I intended, was that at about this point in the film things start to become dreamlike, more cosmic and mythic. I was trying to find a way to mirror how delusional Leonard was becoming.

JB: A number of critics describe your films as old-fashioned, but this is a highly unconventional way to cover a love scene.

JG: The old-fashioned thing comes from a lack of vocabulary, I think, from people who view things like storytelling and sincerity as old-fashioned. Some people are just anxious to categorize. Old-fashioned to me doesn’t mean anything.

JB: Your camera, if I recall correctly, takes a similar perspective in one of the most memorable and visceral scenes in
The Yards. I’m thinking of that terrifically dirty fight between Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg.

JG: That was for a different reason, but you’re very right. I wanted that fight to show how these people were struggling against an oppressive environment that was much bigger than them. But then I suppose the same thing is true of the scene we're discussing in
Two Lovers. You can see the whole neighbourhood in the distance, a whole other world that’s quite indifferent to Leonard or Michelle’s predicaments. I never shot any other coverage for that scene because anything else would have seemed bogus. Plus I had him turning away from camera for a great deal of that confession. The idea was that he would turn away from camera so the audience would understand how embarrassed he was without him having to say it, or play it even.

JB: Hm. What you’re saying reminds me of the famous shot in
Taxi Driver where the camera turns away from Travis as he speaks with Betsy on the phone...

JG: And it dollies down that empty hall. Fantastic.

JB: It’s a testament to the complexity of
Two Lovers that Sandra, while representing the safer romantic choice for Leonard, is so utterly appealing, beautiful, unpretentious, sexy and emotionally frank, while Michelle is hardly a mere vixen. The performances really defy the archetypes.

JG: I tried to steer clear of the romantic comedy version of this story. I wanted it to be that Leonard was blind, that what made Sandra unappealing was how much the family liked her, to express how elements of our desire for someone is entirely external to who the person really is or what they look like. Sandra could be the most beautiful person on earth and Leonard wouldn’t have seen it. Some feel she’s too good looking to be Leonard’s second fiddle, but that’s such a dunderheaded way of thinking about characterization. I mean, how many times in life do we find ourselves thinking, “What does she see in him?” Or, “She’s so lovely, what is his problem?”

JB: Something that defines Leonard is his inner conflict between the reassurances of traditions and the allure of recklessly breaking away from everything and venturing into new terrain. I wonder if you don’t feel something similar at times in the way you’ve developed your films, which echo previous periods of film history and yet seem poised on the vanguard of the current scene.

JG: I used to think a lot more about where I sit in the world, who likes me and who doesn’t. But one of the advantages of getting older and more decrepit is that at a certain point you don’t give a shit anymore and you do the work that feels close to you. To me, the litmus test for a work of art—and in my case I’m using the term loosely—is whether it can move you without offending you. That’s it. We’re living in a cultural scene that largely quite bereft of soul. It can be quite depressing. But I’ve been very lucky. I get to make the films I want to make. I have been denounced by some but very respected by others. You really can’t ask for more than that.

JB: Do you teach as a sideline?

JG: I taught at USC about seven years ago, but I don’t think they liked me very much. They never asked me back, anyway. I probably was not very good. You know, students would make movies and the lights would come up and I’d say, “That movie was really bad—let’s talk about why,” which is not what you’re supposed to do, I guess. You’re supposed to tell everyone that everything they do is fantastic. [Laughs]

JB: You’ve worked with Joaquin Phoenix now on three pictures, and his performances in them have been among the finest of his career. How have his contributions changed or intensified the stories you’ve been trying to tell, or perhaps the way you’ve told them?

JG: He has sharpened my sense of what constitutes my biggest interest in movies, which is the ability to depict the external and the internal conflict in hand. He’s quite brilliant in that way, very experimental, very inventive. He’s raised the bar. I’ve learned a lot from him.

JB: I wonder if when you first worked with him these were things you might have only been able to see in the cutting room, things that it took longer to learn how to detect while actually on set. After all this time, are you now better able to read each other in the moment?

JG: I don’t think we read each other at all anymore. We finish each other’s sentences. It’s become almost boring. I don’t talk to him. He doesn’t talk to me. I do another take and he says, “Yeah, I know.” Honestly, I remember being very aware of what he was doing the first time we worked together, very aware of what kind of actor he was.

JB: I guess there’s still some ambiguity regarding whether or not Phoenix will ever go back to acting, but I wonder if you have any more projects you’re hoping to tempt him with.

JG: Sure. But I’m just trying to figure out where he’s at. The bigger question is what he wants to do. I don’t know what he’s up to. I really don’t. But if he decides to act, believe me, I’ll find work for him.

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