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James Gray A-Z  

Girish Shambu


A for A-Z    


What better place to begin this lexicon than the alphabetic lineage in cinema writing? I first encountered this strand of cinephilic expression in Peter Wollen’s ‘An Alphabet of Cinema’. Delivered as the Serge Daney Memorial Lecture at the Rotterdam film festival in 1998, the essay was later published in New Left Review and also collected in Wollen’s invaluable Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film. (1)


Here are some particularly memorable entries from Wollen’s lexicon: A for Aristotle (‘the first theorist of film’); B for Bambi (associated with a traumatic childhood memory for Wollen, a ‘hidden war film … released in August 1942, at the onset of the Battle of Stalingrad’); I for Thomas Ince, ‘who should get the main credit … for creating the institution of Hollywood’; Q for Bazin’s Qu’est-ce que le cinema?; and Y for Les yeux sans visage (Georges Franju, 1960), ‘the look dehumanized. In another form, it is Vertov’s camera-eye, the camera that comes alive like a robot, stalks through the city … hurls itself at the audience, filming the spectator, reversing the gaze, as in The Passenger [the 1975 film Wollen co-wrote for Michelangelo Antonioni] …’


James Naremore’s piece ‘An ABC of Reading Andrew Sarris’ is a lovely tribute to the critic that combines entries that one might expect (Auteurism, Bazin, Lists) with surprises that make unexpected connections, like W for (Oscar) Wilde:


1. See Peter Wollen’s ‘An Alphabet of Cinema’, New Left Review, no. 12 (November-December 2001). Also in Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film (London and New York: Verso Books, 2002), pp. 1-21.



  Both are iconoclastic, both are fond of epigrams and paradoxes, and both validate the pleasures of performance. Two of Sarris’ favourite directors – Ophüls and Sternberg – are among the cinema’s greatest aesthetes and might have been admired by Wilde. The key difference, it seems to me, lies in Sarris’ implicit belief in nature or in a world not made by art (even if it is a world of the director’s emotions). Notice also that he is resolutely opposed to Camp interpretation. (2)   2. James Naremore, ‘An ABC of Reading Andrew Sarris’, in Emanuel Levy (ed), Citizen Sarris: American Film Critic (Langham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2001), pp. 175-183.

Finally, Toronto-based James Quandt, to whom I’m grateful because his programming and writings were a formative influence on my own cinephilia, has used the A-Z template on at least two occasions. His programme notes for a Nicholas Ray retrospective in 2003 had a section of entries through which to view the oeuvre of this director, such as Architecture, CinemaScope/Colour, Eisenschitz, Gloria Grahame, Hands, Kienzle, X-Ray and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (3)


Quandt also authored an hour-long audiovisual essay called ‘Jacques Demy A-Z’ in which the section on B (to cite just one of several interesting entries) belongs to Robert Bresson. (4) Using images and sounds persuasively, he draws affinities between Bay of Angels (1961) and Pickpocket (1959): how Claude Mann and Martin La Salle are both ‘intensely interior’ actors; moments in the two films that echo each other; their use of certain spaces (crowded trains), specific techniques (such as voice-over) and certain gestures (the transfer of money via openings such as windows).




3. James Quandt, ‘Nicholas Ray A-Z’, in Cinematheque Ontario Winter 2003 Programme Guide (Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 2003), pp. 26-27.  

4. James Quandt, ‘Jacques Demy A-Z’, in the DVD The Essential Jacques Demy (New York: Criterion Collection, 2014).

My own attempt at a lexicon here is inspired by reading Jordan Mintzer’s marvellous book Conversations with James Gray, which collects interviews with the filmmaker and several of his cast and crew. (5)   5. Jordan Mintzer, Conversations with James Gray (Paris: Synecdoche, 2012).

B for Brighton Beach


The real-life business Brighton Cleaners (courtesy Cynthia Lugo)


This neighbourhood in Brooklyn acquired the name ‘Little Odessa’ after a wave of Russian-Jewish immigrants arrived in the 1940s and 1950s. Gray himself is of Russian-Jewish descent, and set his first feature, the gangster/family drama Little Odessa (1994), in Brighton Beach. He tells of spending time there as a teenager because it was easy to find places where he could drink underage:


  You’d go there and see mafia types who were totally out in the open. They’re not like the Italians, who are tremendously warm, almost musical – at least by their depiction in the movies, but also through Italian culture. The Russians are the opposite: they’re deeply private, worried about the State, and definitely not the warmest people. (6)  


6. Ibid., p. 52.

Gray’s Two Lovers (2008) also takes place in Brighton Beach. The laundry where Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) works is Brighton Cleaners, a real-life business. New York is one of cinema’s most filmed cities, yet not all of its neighbourhoods are equally represented on film. In a way, Brighton Beach stands in for all the spaces of this city that have been deemed by cinema to be insufficiently iconic.


We need an entire history of films that traces the counter-iconic tradition of setting and location. I like to think that for every Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011) – which opens with a pretty but utterly familiar montage of the city’s landmarks and locations – there is an Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974) that traces a personal and varied picture of a big city (in this case, Munich). Gray’s depiction of the city is not expressionist in the manner of Fassbinder; instead, it is documentary-realist and unobtrusive while quietly capturing its character. The director remarked after he made Two Lovers: ‘Brighton Beach is so ugly that it’s beautiful. History is an accumulation of detail, and I want to make a film with a sense of it’. (7)


C for Cinephilia







7. Cynthia Lugo, ’Two Lovers (James Gray, 2009)’, The Cynephile, 29 January 2010.


Gray is clearly a cinephile filmmaker. He talks frequently about movies that have made a mark on him, what he specifically borrows from them, and the way he screens them for his cast and crew during a project. His is a firmly canonical cinephilia: the works he invokes most often include The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974), The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1973), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), Rocco and his Brothers (Luchino Visconti, 1960), Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957) and The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970). (8) But it is Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), which he saw at the age of ten at the Ziegfeld Theatre in Manhattan, that appears to have had the most enduring influence upon him:




8. Conversations with James Gray, p. 11.


To this day, it’s remained very much my taste, which is part truth, part spectacle. It had red meat, but it also handled moral questions. It seemed philosophically grand, but at the same time it was not without entertainment value. It’s an interesting movie because, in a way, it’s fascist. But it’s also extremely sophisticated because it’s inviting you to acknowledge that everybody has a part of that inside them.

Nowadays, cinematography has become good in lots of good Hollywood films, so you don’t realize that Apocalypse Now was the first time an American audience had been shown that kind of use of light, the movement of the light, the way Marlon Brando was filmed in the darkness. (9)






9. Ibid., pp. 32-33.

I associate cinephilia with a special attunement to the medium-specific properties of cinema – despite the fact that cinema itself is a synthesis of multiple media. And so, when I read Gray’s sentiments about his first encounters with Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980), it instantly made sense: ‘I began to see cinema as the perfect combination of so many wonderful art forms – painting, photography, music, dance, theatre’. (10)


There is an amusing account by James Caan of Gray’s personal cinephilia actively disrupting his filmmaking: on The Yards (2000), Gray would sometimes be so elated by a take that he would laugh out loudly – thus destroying the take. (11)


Like other cinephilic filmmakers, Gray is fond of borrowing from or quoting his favourite films. One example is the drug den scene in We Own the Night (2007), during which we see Joaquin Phoenix disappear into the darkness, and of which Gray says:



10. ‘Relying on his Own Tastes: James Gray on “Two Lovers”’, IndieWire, 13 February 2009.  

11. Conversations with James Gray, p. 107.

  I ripped that shot off from Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), where the Lady Macbeth figure comes out of the darkness with an urn. The whole idea was that he might be walking into his own death. (12)   12. Ibid., p. 137.  

Finally, Peter Labuza’s entertaining conversation with Gray on the Cinephiliacs podcast helps illuminate the director’s cinephile side. (13)


D for Disco



13. ‘Episode #61 - James Gray (Nights of Cabiria)’, The Cinephiliacs, 5 July 2015.









Neil Bogart was a music executive who founded Casablanca Records in 1973 and became closely associated with the rise of disco when he signed – and threw his company’s weight behind promoting – Donna Summer and the Village People. He died young, at 39, in 1982. Summer dedicated her self-titled 1982 album to him, and there is a character based upon him in the pseudo-biopic of the Village People, Can’t Stop the Music (Nancy Walker, 1982).


Bogart and Casablanca Records were also the subject of Mecca, the first screenplay Gray ever wrote, when he was 21. It was optioned by Universal Studios in 1991, and Rob Weiss (of Amongst Friends [1993]) was named to direct – but the project was later shelved. In 2013, it was announced that a Neil Bogart biopic called Spinning Gold, to be produced by and starring Justin Timberlake, would begin production. (14) No news of it has surfaced since. Further, it does not appear to have any connection to the Gray screenplay.


One more connection to disco: the Brooklyn nightclub El Caribe, owned by the Russian mob in Gray’s We Own the Night (2007). Phoenix plays its manager, Bobby Green, likely of Russian-Jewish origin, having changed his name from Robert Grusinsky. Often mentioned in stories about Neil Bogart is the interesting fact that he was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who fell in love with a music rooted in African-American and gay cultures.

  14. Pamela McClintock, ’Spike Lee in Early Talks to Direct Neil Bogart Biopic “Spinning Gold”’, in Hollywood Reporter, 30 October 2013.

E for Emotion



A word that crops up frequently in interviews with Gray – and one that clearly carries an enormous personal weight for him:



It [the idea for a new film] starts, usually, from what I want to express emotionally.


The movie [The Immigrant (Gray, 2013)] is not afraid of emotion at all.


I just try to do an emotionally honest film as best I can.


Everything I’ve done and everything that has been done that I find interesting has been a move, as close as possible, to emotional identification. I’ve said it before: authentic emotion, the most direct way to our emotional core. Anything that gets in the way of that, I find harmful. (15)


Emotion in Gray’s films emanates primarily from characters and their life situations. But his cinema is superior to what we normally think of as ‘character-driven’ films. This is because Gray (like Eric Rohmer) surrounds his characters with a mise en scène that is subtle and thoughtful, yet insistently expressive. It is these traits that have led to Gray being tagged an overtly ‘classical’ filmmaker. (He often, and understandably, chafes at this characterization: no artist wants to be put in a box.)


I want to propose something else: that Gray wants to be thought of not so much a classical filmmaker as a classic one. In other words, as an artist whose work is for the ages, undimmed by time. There is an artistic conservatism in this position, a turning away from overt experimentalism, distancing devices and self-reflexivity. To my deep ambivalence, he says:


15. See the following: Zachary Wigon, ‘A Really Amazing Interview with James Gray, the Director of “The Immigrant”’, Tribeca Film, 16 May 2014; Adam Nayman, ‘Words Matter: James Gray on “The Immigrant”’, Cinema Scope; Adam Cook, ‘Love and Sincerity: A Conversation with James Gray’, MUBI Notebook, 5 October 2013.  


  I've always felt that if you look at what lasts, in cinema and in art in general, it tends not to be a modernist or postmodern approach with ironic distance and narrative dysfunction. It would be easy for us to find self-reflexive poets from post-Virgilian Rome, but nobody reads them except for graduate students. In the end, what matters to us is story, it's how we make sense of the birth/death/life cycle. I'm obsessed with trying to find details of peoples' behavior and see how their behavior affects the story itself. (16)  


16. ‘A Really Amazing Interview with James Gray, the Director of “The Immigrant”’.

F for France


Jean Douchet


The French-celebrated American filmmaker is now a venerable tradition in cinema. That Gray was part of this tradition was driven home to me when I read a story from Cannes by Dennis Lim in 2007. He reported that


  boos erupted during the closing credits [of We Own the Night]. American critics seemed to be the most vocal in their disapproval. A dismissive review in Variety deemed the film ‘exceptionally conventional’ and likened it to ‘an O.K. television movie’. But it also had its champions – notably among European, and most of all French, critics. The French daily Le Monde concluded its rave by proclaiming Mr. Gray ‘one of the great American directors of our time’. In a recent interview in Manhattan Mr. Gray said: ‘Apparently I’m the dramatic version of Jerry Lewis. Someone wrote that I’m the object of Gallic fetish’. (17)  



17. Dennis Lim, ‘An Auteur for a Neglected New York City’, New York Times, 9 September 2007.

The preface to Mintzer’s book is penned by none other than French super-critic Jean Douchet, who makes this provocative distinction between ideas and thought in Gray’s cinema:    


[My] father used to tell me: ‘Everyone can have a hundred ideas a day. But what counts is to have one idea, and take it as far as possible each day’. In other words, to have a thought. And the more I think of it, the more I believe that art is, in fact, thought. It’s the manifestation of our imagination through thought – not necessarily the rationality of thought, but the magnitude by which thoughts can express both our conscious and unconscious selves. Plenty of filmmakers have ideas, but few have a thought.


For instance, Quentin Tarantino has lots of ideas, and from time to time he has a thought, but it’s not an immense one. […]


With each film [Gray] returns to the same thought over and over again: No matter what we do, our pasts are inescapable. It’s the very definition of tragedy – the past, and the Gods, weigh upon us with all their might. All of James Gray’s films consist of one or several characters looking to escape their pasts and liberate themselves, knowing all the while that they will never do any such thing. If Visconti in The Leopard (1963) employed the maxim: ‘Everything must change so that nothing will change’, in James Gray’s movies the maxim could be: ‘We want everything to change, but we know that it cannot’. (18)









18. Conversations with James Gray, pp. 12-13.  

F could equally stand for Family. Douchet again:    


The past in James Gray’s world means Family – Family in the sense of a mother, father and/or brother, but also family in a larger sense that reflects American society as a whole, with its notions of good and evil, and the ideas that every good deed carries its own evil within it. While family may provide the foundation of love, it also suffocates us with its one original sin: it curtails freedom.


In The Yards, Family is defined by the broader clans of politicians and contractors, with each character shuffling to find their place as they march toward their doom. In Little Odessa, the Tim Roth character escapes his family by eliminating them, while in We Own the Night, the Joaquin Phoenix character is relentlessly brought back to his family, where he winds up replacing his father. And in Two Lovers, the mother played by Isabella Rossellini lets her son go, knowing however that he’ll soon return, that he’s incapable of leaving home. (19)







19. Ibid., p. 13.  

G for Gender Politics



As much as I love and admire Gray’s films – and this A-Z lexicon is motivated by those feelings – I harbour a couple of reservations about his work. One is that he leans toward a certain aesthetic conservatism – the earlier entry on ‘Emotion’ captures my feelings on this point. But my larger reservation has to do with the place of women in Gray’s work.


In his first three movies – Little Odessa, The Yards, and We Own the Night – Gray was already displaying a remarkable ability to attract wonderful women actors: Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunaway, Vanessa Redgrave, Charlize Theron, Eva Mendes, Moira Kelly. All these women deliver superb, nuanced performances – but they all play characters who are powerless witnesses, mostly watching the action from the sidelines. Things happen around them and to them. And there is an odd disconnect between the charisma and intelligence these actors emanate onscreen, and the quietism and passivity of their characters.


With Two Lovers, women start acquiring a certain prominence in Gray’s cinema. The characters played by Gwyneth Paltrow (Michelle) and Vinessa Shaw (Sandra) are memorable and crucial, but the film nevertheless centres on Leonard, remaining with him to such a remarkable degree that everything we see and learn about these two women is from his vantage point. Reinforcing this impression is the stark dichotomy with which we are encouraged to view these two women. Michelle is mysterious, emotionally volatile and unreliable, while Sandra is her opposite: generous, forgiving, reassuringly domestic and emotionally available. (To his credit, Gray admitted in an interview that despite its two key women characters, the film was still ‘sort of spiraling up a man’s ass’.) (20)


Gray went on to put a woman centre stage in The Immigrant. Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) is the title character and beating heart of this work. She arrives in 1920s New York from Poland with her ailing sister, and Bruno (Phoenix) opportunistically takes her under his wing, selling her into prostitution. But when she turns to her religious faith and performs an astonishing gesture of forgiveness for all his violent and heinous actions, the film, in a bizarre turn, becomes all about his redemption. Gray is clearly ennobling Ewa’s gesture; he wants us to be sincerely and un-ironically moved by it: Look at how this wicked man was saved by an act of love and absolution by a noble, God-fearing woman.


He has spoken of this gesture:


20. ‘Love and Sincerity: A Conversation with James Gray’.


  [Ewa] delivers Bruno, she forgives him no matter how awful he’s been and that even he can be redeemed, so that the film had to end with him, because she has passed this torch of forgiveness in a way. See, forgiveness, the interesting idea about it, people say ‘how could you forgive so and so, he or she did such a horrible thing’ and my own thing is that forgiveness empowers the person who does the forgiving. If a Holocaust survivor forgives a Nazi, it doesn’t empower the Nazi, it empowers the victim. The victim has the power to do that. (21)  



21. Ibid.  

Now, one might argue that Gray is, in a sense, reflecting a reality that likely existed at the time the film is set. And that actions such as Ewa’s were perhaps not unusual at the time. But this is where his aspiration to making classic art – i.e., art that ‘stands the test of time’ – backfires. Every film must be conscious not just of the time in which it is set – but also of the time in which it is made. In other words, The Immigrant speaks not just of 1920s America – but also to the world of today. And the momentous narrative gesture of forgiveness that the film pivots on – and exalts – seems exactly wrong-headed at this moment in time and history. Today, when sexism, racism, xenophobia and hatred of every stripe have inscribed themselves into the fabric of everyday American life, Ewa’s act of forgiveness cannot help but strike us as being untimely and naïve, with little meaningful to say to us at this difficult moment. One thing is clear: Forgiving the heinous actions in our midst will not ‘empower’ us right now. Only fighting them has the possibility of doing that …

H for Holst



Howard Shore’s powerful and moving score for The Yards is an interesting hybrid. It was adapted from Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’, a seven-movement orchestral suite by the English-born composer, completed by him in 1916. Each movement is named for a different planet, and Gray had been especially obsessed at the time with the Saturn movement (‘The Bringer of Old Age’); Shore took this into account when assembling the score.


According to the director:


  Howard adapted and stole some of the motifs and orchestrations from [‘The Planets’]. When he was done, he played the entire score for me on piano and harp, and we talked through each piece together. I would tell him to take a certain melody and expand it, because what I basically wanted was for two themes to be repeated throughout the film. I did the same thing for We Own the Night. (22)  


22. Conversations with James Gray, p. 96.

I for Immigrants



Family and the immigrant experience are key themes in Gray’s cinema partly because he appears intimately connected with his own forebears and knowledge of their experience:


  I know that my grandparents came over from Russia in 1923 – this was just before the quotas – and that they came through Ellis Island, where their name was changed from Greizerstein to Gray. The common belief is that this was done by the customs people in Ellis Island, but apparently this wasn’t always the case. It could have been done by the person filling out the ship’s ledger, for instance … When they arrived, they settled in Brooklyn on Willoughby Avenue, in what’s now called East New York or Brownsville. My grandfather had a plumbing shop there during the Depression years. He spoke almost no English at all, even until his death. (23)  




23. Ibid., p. 22.

He also drew directly from his grandparents’ experience for his work:    

  The stories about Ewa [in The Immigrant] not knowing how to eat a banana or looking at the plate of spaghetti with meatballs and thinking it’s bloody worms come from them. The monologue that Marion [Ewa] has in the church about the ship from Europe all comes from my grandparents telling me about their experience. The attitude of the customs officials at Ellis Island and neighborhood people came from my grandfather. Maybe I got some details wrong because they’re both dead and I couldn’t consult them. They’re actually in the movie. You see a photograph of them. All of that stuff is autobiography. (24)  



24. Steve Erickson, ‘James Gray on His Personal Vision for “The Immigrant”’,, 14 May 2014.

Gray cannot be accused of conveying a romantic view of the immigrant experience. The Immigrant is lovingly shot, and recreates New York’s Lower East Side in 1921 with impressive and imaginative detail. But his depiction of the harsh conditions of living and working – and the degradation visited upon Ewa and her fellow burlesque performers – is unremitting and powerful.

J for Jordan Mintzer


Jordan Mintzer


Mintzer’s book on Gray, published by Paris-based Synecdoche, is the first on this filmmaker in any language. It collects a number of leisurely interviews with the filmmaker and his collaborators, and is arranged chronologically, covering the films from Little Odessa to Two Lovers. It is also a beautifully designed object, bilingual (in French and English), and reproduces an array of materials such as water-colour storyboards, production stills, script pages and images from the films.


Mintzer is a critic for Hollywood Reporter who, a few years ago, penned ‘The Smuggler’, a valuable introductory overview of the work of French critic Serge Daney, that is well worth reading. (25)

K for Koshashvili and


Late Marriage, with Moni Moshonov on left


Gray on his inspiration for Two Lovers:


25. Jordan Mintzer, ‘The Smuggler’, Moving Image Source, 17 July 2012.










  It was hard to find a movie about desire told in the certain key that I was after, which would be a love story almost directed by the thriller-side of Roman Polanski. There is one Israeli film called Late Marriage (2001), a director named Dover Koshashvili, which I think is beautiful and I stole a lot from. I even cast Moni Moshonov, who’s in that film. (26)  


26. Conversations with James Gray, p. 173.

Gray wanted Two Lovers to be set in outer-borough New York, and also proximate to the beach (a couple of crucial scenes take place there). This gave him just a few options: Rockaway, Brighton Beach and Coney Island. He also needed an apartment building – where much of the action takes place – and where you could look across the courtyard. Since Rockaway mostly had houses, he decided (as with Little Odessa) that the film would be set in Brighton Beach. The apartment building, and the general tone and feel of the film, were explicitly intended as an homage to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog: Six (1990). (27)


L for Laundry Lines




27. Ibid., p. 173.


To me, white sheets have always been powerfully cinematic. In fact, for millions of Indians over the years, they served as screens on which movies were projected in traveling ‘tent cinemas’ that roamed the country. In the childhood years of my movie love, the sight of a hanging white sheet – not just in a cinema but anywhere – caused a tingle of excitement, sparked a flight of fancy.


White sheets make at least two types of appearances in the universe of cinema. The first is indoors, in the bedroom – thus charging this plain and ordinary item with eroticism. The second is outdoors, most frequently hanging on clothes lines, as they do in the heart-breaking climax of Little Odessa, where they result in an accidental killing. In this scene, obscured vision leads to death.


This reminds me of other, kindred moments in cinema, of white sheets on laundry lines momentarily blocking and unblocking vision. For instance: the eerie, fleeting image of serial killer Michael Myers glimpsed between clothes lines in the backyard in Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978); or the lovers’ crisis in Liberté, la nuit (Philippe Garrel, 1983), an event we view intermittently through hanging laundry – Garrel then cutting indoors to a bed with crumpled white sheets (is there a director who films beds and the humble act of sleeping better than Garrel?); or, most iconically, the finale of Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958), in which Zbigniew Cybluski (‘the Polish James Dean’), playing a WWII Polish resistance assassin, is shot by soldiers, his body disappearing into a sea of hanging white clothes, slowly reappearing as an expanding blood stain on a sheet …


A final thought: Because we often tend to view Gray as a ‘classical’ director, there is perhaps less attention paid to inter-textuality in his work. Gray himself has openly identified borrowings from scenes in older cinema that he loves. But there are at least two details from his films that I’ve read nothing about, and that have made me wonder: Is Ewa Cybulska’s last name in The Immigrant a veiled allusion to Zbigniew Cybulski in Ashes and Diamonds?; and are the first words of Leonard’s mother Ruth (Isabella Rossellini) to Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) in Two Lovers – ‘Hello, neighbour!’ – a sly reference to Dennis Hopper’s greeting of Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), the lover of Dorothy (Rossellini again), in Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)?


M for Mood


Rosemary's Baby (poster by Andrzej Pagowski)


Gray often speaks of creating and sustaining a particular mood and ambience for each one of his films. For Little Odessa, he says:


  I was not interested in using specific sound effects as stings, but in building a whole world. I played a lot of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) for the sound designer, because Polanski was very good at creating an aural landscape, with ticking clocks, foghorns in the distance … (28)  


28. Ibid., p. 58.

In the scene in which Tim Roth and his gang kidnap the Arab jeweller, there’s no music, only certain sounds:    

  I was also obsessed with capturing the kind of sound effects that seemed to haunt my childhood. I grew up not too far from the Long Island Expressway, and when you’d get close to it on a particularly quiet evening, you would hear this [imitates a high-pitched humming]. It’s a sound effect called ‘Singing Semis’, which was created by Walter Murch for Coppola’s The Rain People (1969). I used it in that scene, and I’ve put it in every movie I’ve done. (29)  



29. Ibid., p. 59.

The endings of Gray’s movies – and here I don’t mean the narrative endings but the literal ones, the final couple of minutes of projected images and sounds – are designed to hold on to the mood they have been striving to create and maintain. When Adam Cook remarks in his interview, ‘At the end of the credits [of The Immigrant], there’s a lingering ambiance that must carry on for thirty seconds after the credits have rolled’, Gray replies:    

  I’ve done that on every film. In We Own the Night it goes on for two minutes. I like to make sure the audience is left, ultimately, with the sound that first made me feel the mood of the piece. In this case, I remember going to Ellis Island in 1976 and hearing those seagulls and the surf. The Yards ends with the sound of the subway, Two Lovers ends with the surf of Brighton Beach, We Own the Night is the prison. It’s my own personal way of signing off with this stage of my life. This is where I was at this part of my life and this was the mood I was trying to impart to you … (30)  



30. ‘Love and Sincerity: A Conversation with James Gray’.

N for New York


The French Connection


Being Gray’s hometown, a city he seems to passionately know and love, references to it are sprinkled throughout this lexicon. So let me zero in here on a specific aspect of the New York of his films. Gray depicts the city in a way that emphasizes its working-class neighbourhoods in various parts of Brooklyn and Queens. For the characters, Manhattan is glamorous, rich, far away. Think of Bobby, pitching to his Russian gangster boss the exciting idea of expanding their nightclub operation from Brooklyn to Manhattan, or Leonard’s night-time car ride to the Metropolitan Opera, set to a swoony, Henry Mancini-style accompaniment on the soundtrack.


But it is outer-borough New York that Gray wants to show in his movies. The imposing and breath-taking Manhattan skyline that we have seen a thousand times on film is not for him:


  It’s like Woody Allen’s Manhattan done incompetently, because in Manhattan he has an awareness that the vision is romanticized and bogus. And in a way the whole movie is about people’s neuroses, and how the beauty of Manhattan is only a sad and ridiculous surface. (31)   31. Conversations with James Gray, p. 88.

Because Manhattan has some of the world’s priciest real estate, films set there necessarily focus on the rich. Which is why one of Gray’s favourite New York movies remains The French Connection, because ‘it depicted New York as a giant garbage can. It had never been shown that way in a movie before. Before then, most movies about New York had been focused on the glamour’. (32)


O for Opera



32. Ibid., p. 89.  

Puccini's Suor Angelica by the Los Angeles Opera, directed by William Friedkin (2008) (photo by Robert Millard)


Gray is famously an opera aficionado who, David Ng informs us, ‘can discuss the virtues of certain Puccini recordings over others’ and ‘keeps his some of his favourite operatic selections on his smartphone, ready for instant playback’. (33) When he sent the great cinematographer Harris Savides (1957-2012) his script for The Yards in the mid-1990s, he made a cassette tape with opera on it, and gave Savides specific instructions on how to read the script and listen to the operatic accompaniment simultaneously. Savides remembers:



33. David Ng, '"The Immigrant”: James Gray on Puccini and Other Opera Influences’, Los Angeles Times, 12 May 2014.

  So I got the package, and sat outside reading the screenplay with the music playing, facing this beautiful, dramatic sky where it looked like a storm was brewing on the horizon. When I got to the last two pages of the script, this Maria Callas piece came on, and the whole thing made for an extremely powerful experience. (34)  


34. Conversations with James Gray, p. 115.

The germ of the idea for The Immigrant came to Gray five years before he made the movie, when he went to see a production, in Los Angeles, of Il Trittico, a set of three short operas by Giacomo Puccini. Ng reports that he was struck particularly by the second, ‘Suor Angelica’, directed by William Friedkin. Ng writes: ‘In both stories, a saintly heroine is cruelly deceived by those whom she trusts. But rather than take revenge, she learns the value of forgiveness, and in so doing attains a level of spiritual grace’. (35)


Gray’s attraction to opera is rooted deeply in his valuing of ‘emotion’:



35. “The Immigrant”: James Gray on Puccini and Other Opera Influences’.

  The word ‘operatic’ is often misused to mean over the top, where someone is over-emoting. And that does a terrible disservice because ‘operatic’ to me means a commitment and a belief to the emotion of the moment that is sincere … It’s the last island of sincere emotion that exists in our culture. (36)  


36. Ibid.

The character of Enrico Caruso even makes an appearance in The Immigrant, and delivers a performance that Gray based on a real-life event.

P for Painting


The Discovery of the Body of St Alexis, c. 1640 (Georges de la Tour)


Gray started out making elaborate and beautiful watercolour storyboards for his films, but abandoned the practice later in order to be more open to the new and unexpected possibilities presented by shooting locations. But his love of painting – and its deep influence on his cinema – has endured.


He recalls the formative moment of seeing Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’ at a Whitney Museum retrospective of the painter when he was just ten years old. This event found a later echo with the 1970s American ‘New Hollywood’ cinema Gray came to love, especially the work of cinematographer Gordon Willis, which was also influenced by Hopper. Gray’s love of painting especially sensitizes him to the expressive possibilities of lighting; for example, he cites Willis’ use of top lighting, and how it was clearly marked by Hopper. (37)


When he hired Savides to shoot The Yards, he had them meet up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where they spent forty-five minutes studying a handful of paintings that Gray had specifically chosen to illustrate the kind of lighting he wanted. Savides says: ‘It was very much in the style of the paintings of Georges de La Tour. Everyone is surrounded in darkness, and they’re standing around a candle which illuminates the entire scene. James referred to such a style as “the voluptuousness of death’”’. (38)


Tom Richmond, the director of photography on Little Odessa, tells the story of trying to invent, with a painterly sensitivity, a new scheme for night shooting in New York:



37. Conversations with James Gray, p. 33.  



38. Ibid., p. 115.

  James and I discussed the fact that we had never seen a night scene in a movie where the light was warm. The night light in movies was always blue, but when you actually take a picture at night in New York City, it comes out yellow or orange. So we decided to light our nights with sodium vapor instead of mercury vapor, and the result is that Little Odessa is one of the only films of the time where night light is warm rather than cold. (39)  



39. Ibid., p. 79.

On the budget constraints posed by Little Odessa, Gray recalls:    

  I remember thinking to myself that if there’s a trade I have to make between beautiful lighting and the number of shots, I will always opt for the lighting. So what I tried to do was design elaborate masters that would cover the scene in a way that would provide very little coverage for the editor, which is why the movie was cut together in only six weeks on actual film. (40)  

40. Ibid., p. 55.

Q for Queens


The Queens-set In Jackson Heights (Frederick Wiseman, 2015)


In one of the first interviews he ever gave, Gray said: ‘I’m a schmuck from Queens and I don’t know anybody. I’ve been so lucky, it’s almost nauseating. I mean, I was directing Vanessa Redgrave at 24’. (41)


On the back cover of one of the most renowned of graphic novels, Art Spiegelman’s Maus (serialized from 1980-1991), there is a street map of Rego Park in Queens; this is very same neighbourhood Gray’s parents lived in, met and got married. But by the time James was born, they had moved to a different Queens neighbourhood, Flushing. The constantly shifting demographic identity of New York neighbourhoods – dramatized, for example, so memorably in the credit sequence of Abel Ferrara’s China Girl (1988) – was also at play in Flushing in the years Gray was raised there:









41. Paula S. Bernstein, ’Brighton Beach Memoirs’, Filmmaker Magazine, Winter 1995.


[Despite the fact that my family was Russian-Jewish, the neighbourhood] was very German WASP. There were some Jews, though by the time I had left many more had moved in. The character of my neighbourhood changed very significantly from the early 1970s through the late 1980s. It went from being very Archie Bunker-ish – the whole Elks Lodge thing – to being very Jewish, and now very Asian. The result is that the food in Queens is significantly better than when I was a kid […]


I think [the city of New York] is mostly better [now] and it’s a mistake to romanticize what was an extremely dark period in New York history. The city was very close to bankruptcy around 1975-1976, and I don’t remember it being a very happy time to be there. (42)




42. Conversations with James Gray, pp. 26-27.

Gray also recounts a funny anecdote about Martin Scorsese, who was born in Flushing and lived there until the age of ten, when his family moved to Little Italy:    

  I once asked him how growing up in Flushing was, and he said [imitating Scorsese]: ‘It was fantastic, it was like Paradise!’ I said, ‘Flushing was Paradise?’ ‘Yeah’, he said, ‘I’d ride my bike around and stuff …’ Flushing for me was not a paradise. (43)  

43. Ibid., p. 89.

R for Russia


Four Nights of a Dreamer (Robert Bresson, 1971)


Gray’s ethnicity is only one of his many connections to Russia. Many of his films prominently feature Russian characters and communities, like the family and setting at the heart of Little Odessa; and several gangster characters, including the nightclub owner (played with quiet menace by Moni Moshonov), in We Own the Night.


But in a less visible way, Russia finds its way into Gray’s work through literature. He has likened The Yards to a sprawling Russian novel, which takes its time to introduce its characters and establish all the connections between them. And he joined his illustrious predecessors Luchino Visconti and Robert Bresson in adapting Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1848 short story ‘White Nights’ (as Two Lovers).

S for Step Outline



Gray has said that he is not interested in directing from scripts written by others; he sees screenwriting as integral to the making of his films. Gray writes screenplays quickly, but this is preceded by a long period of time spent structuring and outlining. Once he has assembled all his ideas for individual scenes, he puts together a step outline, which is a numbered list of all scenes, accompanied by notes for each. This outline grows larger and more detailed, until it is time to sit down and write the screenplay, which takes little time, and primarily involves creation of the dialogue. So, for example, in the case of Little Odessa, the story planning took 4 months, following which the script was written in 3 weeks. (44)


After Gray made Little Odessa, someone gave him a copy of Coppola’s step outline for The Godfather, and reading it cemented his way of working the way he does.




44. Ibid., p. 49.

  I initially storyboarded my films very elaborately, but don’t do that anymore. Now I only do shot lists, because on Little Odessa I realized very quickly that you have to throw all that stuff away. For the shootout scene, I got to set and the whole location was different than the one I had in my head. So it’s a waste of time to do all that work before shooting. Hitchcock did it, but he was working in much more controlled environments. And after a while it stopped working even for him, because the style of movies had changed. (45)  



45. Ibid., p. 56-57.

T for Tragedy


We Own the Night


Harvey Weinstein of Miramax loved the screenplay for The Yards, specifically the New York social world depicted in it. He also developed a great liking for Gray personally, and took a special interest in the project. The film scored a competition slot at Cannes, where the French press acclaimed it, but the American press was more lukewarm. Producer Nick Weschler recalls: ‘After that, Harvey and Bob Weinstein lost their steam, because they weren’t sure whether it would work. I remember Bob saying to Harvey: “This isn’t a drama, this is a tragedy. People don’t want to go see tragedies”’. (46) Thus their decision to invest only minimally in advertising and promoting it.


Gray loves Shakespeare. In his early twenties, he happened to see a Central Park performance of Measure for Measure, then devoured most of the plays, becoming obsessed with them. He was particularly struck by Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 (technically considered part of Shakespeare’s histories, not tragedies), and went on to model We Own the Night upon them. (47)


Mintzer points out: ‘The idea that Joaquin Phoenix’s character gives up his way of life to save his brother is very Shakespearean’ – to which Gray replies:



46. Ibid., pp. 159-160.  



47. Ibid., p. 129.  

  It is, and there’s also the great way that Shakespeare was able to delineate both external and internal conflict in a character. He was the master of the dilemma, and dilemmas are everything in narrative fiction. Once you know that about We Own the Night, it’s kind of obvious: Robert Duvall is a Bolingbroke-type figure, a sort of mediocre king. There’s prince Hal in Joaquin [Phoenix], with his buddy Falseti (Danny Hoch), who’s a Falstaffian figure. And the brother (Mark Wahlberg) is a kind of Hotspur – a mediocre great warrior … I only wanted the film to be about cops on the very surface. (48)  



48. Ibid., pp. 129-130.

U for USC


The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010), shot at USC.


Gray’s filmmaking ambitions were visible early. In high school, he applied to several film schools, was accepted everywhere, and chose to come to USC (the University of Southern California) because, even in his teens, he wanted to be physically close to the industry. The vigorous competition between the two coastal schools, USC and NYU (New York University), meant that USC awarded generous scholarship money, and also funded the senior thesis film (something NYU didn’t do), thus sealing the deal for him.


But once he got there, Gray was disappointed. USC heavily emphasized the technical elements of filmmaking (skills he acquired quickly) at the expense of narrative storytelling, which was his true interest: ‘I have no interest in the other [i.e., non-narrative] kind of filmmaking. I feel like telling stories is the way people communicate ideas to each other, and have done so since the beginning of time’. (49)


For his thesis, in 1991, he made a short film called Cowboys and Angels, that he didn’t write, ‘about a private investigator who has to take a runaway back to her father’. One reason it distinguished itself from the rest of the student work was its music score with songs by Bo Diddley, Dave Brubeck and Billie Holiday – while the other students were self-composing their own scores on synthesizer. It captured the attention of a producer, Paul Webster, who then offered his services to Gray to produce his first feature, Little Odessa. (50)


USC was also significant because he met his friend and collaborator Matt Reeves there. Reeves, who went on to direct films such as Cloverfield (2008), wrote and produced The Yards with Gray. They were drawn to each other as eighteen-year-olds at USC because they loved both American cinema and European art films. Reeves remembers:


49. Ibid., p. 43.  



50. Ibid., pp. 42-44.  

  NYU and UCLA [University of California at Los Angeles] were much more auteur-driven programs, while because of George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, USC was considered a very studio-blockbuster kind of school … USC was set up to run like a studio, and you had to pitch your project and then they would only finance five thesis films a year. They also didn’t want the writer and director to be the same person, which is the opposite of teaching someone how to express themselves. In many ways, it was antithetical to the movies that James and I were excited about. (51)  



51. Ibid., pp. 108-109.

V for Verismo


Samuel Fuller in La Vie de Bohème (Aki Kaurismäki, 1992)


By his frequent admission, Gray has long been obsessed with verismo, a tradition in Italian opera that dates back to the 19th century, and is associated with Puccini and Pietro Mascagni; Puccini’s La Bohème (1895) is probably the signal work of this tradition. Gray explicitly intended The Yards to evoke this movement, and also set The Immigrant in the early 1920s partly to gesture towards verismo’s influence on the performance style of silent melodrama.


A hallmark of verismo, and something that holds particular attraction for Gray, is its turning away from the traditional subjects of opera, like kings and queens and gods, in favour of the romantic and working lives of ordinary people. In addition to characters, the movement is also important to him stylistically, because of its affinities with the literary tradition of naturalism, and figures such as Emile Zola (‘verismo’ means ‘realism’ in Italian). Gray contrasts the sincerity and honesty of verismo with much contemporary work: ‘We live in a cruel and snarky period with a lot of ironic art [that] is dishonest – it puts the cinema audience above the characters and the story’. (52)


W for Widescreen


The Yards


When The Yards was finally released on region-1 blu-ray in 2011, it was egregiously cropped from the original aspect ratio of 2.30:1 down to 1.79:1. This was particularly appalling because Gray’s use of widescreen is not a fringe benefit, a decorative choice, but an integral part of his artistic vision: He uses the format to insistently situate his characters within a world, a society, a culture that is larger than they are.


The Yards has a remarkable street-fight scene between Leo (Mark Wahlberg) and Willie (Joaquin Phoenix) that was directly inspired by Rocco and his Brothers (Luchino Visconti, 1960), but Gray shoots it very differently from Visconti. The camera remains unusually distant from the characters, and proceeds to retreat even further as the scene unfolds, the widescreen compositions accentuating both the distance between the characters, and their surroundings (buildings, fences, trees, the street). Gray explains:


52. Tim Appelo, ‘James Gray on “The Immigrant”’s Opera Score’ Hollywood Reporter, 9 May 2014.  












  The whole idea of it was that they were really powerless to act, that they were beating each other up but that their environment had as much to say about their lives as they did. Their ability to choose is dictated by the culture and society at large. The point of the sequence is not the punching, but to present two guys who were warring against each other, and doing so because of forces out of their control. (53)  


53. Conversations with James Gray, p. 94.

The widescreen compositions also posted some interesting technical challenges during the shoot because the film was shot on old Anamorphic and Panavision C-Series lenses:    

  They were very slow and the depth of field was awful. For instance, in the opening party scene we shot with real candlelight, and when Ellen Burstyn moved her head only slightly she’d be out of focus, so we would have to do another take. Overall, it took a long time to shoot because the lighting in the entire film is ridiculously precise. It’s like Gordon Willis on steroids! (54)  


54. Ibid., p. 93.

X for x-factor


James Gray


For several centuries now, ‘x’ has stood for the unknown. Terry Moore has speculated that the practice owes its origins to Spanish scholars being unable to translate certain Arabic sounds, such as the ‘sh’ in ‘al-shalan’ (the word means ‘unknown thing’ in Arabic). Instead, they misrendered the sound as ‘ck’, which is written in classical Greek as X, the symbol for ‘chi’. (55)


As I write this, the most tantalizing James Gray x-factor has to be his science-fiction project Ad Astra (‘to the stars’ in Latin), which is set to start production in a few weeks. The project is currently shrouded in secrecy; however, going back a few years, we can consult an interview Gray gave to IndieWire, in which he spoke at some length about it. Admittedly, at that time, Gray had 400 pages of notes, an outline and structure, but had not yet written the script, so it is unclear how much resemblance the final film will bear to his initial description:











55. Terry Moore, Why is “x” the Unknown?’,, February 2012.


You read about the astronauts who went to the moon – the 12 who walked on it, and the others who orbited – all suffered serious mental trauma of one kind or another. It was almost unbearable to see the earth as small … looking like a marble. Edgar Mitchell started to talk about aliens and Area 51; Neil Armstrong basically went to his farm in Lebanon, Ohio, and never left it again; Buzz Aldrin has been open about his alcoholism and depression. So part of the story is that the infinite is unbearable, the idea of deep space is unbearable, and we need terra firma.


2001, which is my favorite film in the genre and one of my favorite films ever, is about man’s confrontation with the idea of the infinite and then evolving into a new species when in contact with an alien force … The problem is that most science fiction films certainly the Kubrick film does not do this, but it comes close, I would argue, to making this mistake, which is to awe us with some kind of visual spectacle and size. But you can’t really do that, it has to be conceptual, the awe has to come from a conceptual place … What is awesome now in the Kubrick film when you see it, is not the stargate – which I think ages somewhat poorly – what ages brilliantly is HAL’s takeover of the spacecraft and seeing the starchild in that white room, because that is a conceptual brilliance. He’s not trying to awe us with a ‘Look at the size of the ship!’ thing – that doesn’t ever work. So it’s incumbent on me to come up with something that is conceptually awe-inspiring. (56)







56. Jessica Kiang, James Gray Reveals Details About his Developing Sci-Fi Thriller and the “Conceptual Brilliance” of “2001”’, IndieWire, 28 May 2013.

Y for The Yards



My favourite James Gray movie. So much of what I love about his work – the intelligent and expressive mise en scène, the detailed performances, the building up of a socio-economic context around the characters, and the critical depiction of Family – comes together in this movie in a way that is deeply satisfying and moving. Gray said of his aims:


  I was trying to tackle a couple of different things, one of which was how corruption and violence are the central organizing principles of society. I was also anxious to show a kind of ersatz family – one that had tried to reconstruct itself and was held together partly by class envy, and then is ultimately destroyed by corruption … in some ways, The Yards is the favourite of my movies, even though it’s my least successful movie on almost every level: worst reviewed, worst box office, and the most difficult to cut together. (57)  


57. Conversations with James Gray, p. 85.   58. Ibid., p. 98.

The look and production design of The Yards owe something to Robert Moses, a city planner known as the ‘master builder’ of New York City and its environs, and who transformed the city in the period from the 1940s to the 1960s. Moses’ legacy has been much criticized: he often displaced poor people from their neighbourhoods in order to build highways, bridges and tunnels, de-emphasized mass transit, and launched a great wave of suburbanization in the region.


Initially, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax championed the film when he was producing it, especially taken by the densely detailed rendering of its world of subway contractors, their business operations – including the bidding processes for contracts at Borough Hall – and the internecine warfare between the firms. But Weinstein came to believe that the original ending was too dark. So he forced Gray and Reeves to write a new ending, in which Leo denounces government and business corruption in court. Gray recalls: ‘I had wanted reshoots for other stuff that I had run out of time to do, but which I thought would make the film work better. To hold me ransom, he said, “Alright, but you give me that ending!” So I did it, and I will never do that again’. (58)


Z for the city of Z



Let me end on a note of suspension, of cinephilic anticipation: Gray’s new movie, The Lost City of Z (2016), closed the New York Film Festival a couple of months ago, and will be released in spring 2017. Its subject is British explorer Percy Fawcett, and his several attempts to discover a lost Amazonian city – a quest that ended with his disappearance in 1925. The movie was shot in the Colombian jungle and in Northern Ireland. Only a handful of reviews have appeared so far; I have not read them. I patiently await the surprise of my first encounter with it …


58. Ibid., p. 98.







© Girish Shambu 2016.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.