To enter the film world of James Gray is to enter a closed world of Jewish families, with tensions between family members and frequently failed efforts by sons at succeeding at the commercial demands which both drive and act to suffocate those families. Gray has acknowledged that “family is the locus of wonderful emotional support, but also of great pain.” (1) He is the grandson of Jewish, Russian immigrants, some of whom came to the US after pogroms in which family members were killed. (2) His father and mother met in Queens, New York, following a failed date between Gray’s uncle and his mother and the later introduction by his uncle of his mother to his father, whom his uncle thought would make a better couple. (3) Receiving a doctorate in electrical engineering, his father worked in the electrical contracting business but was, according to Gray, not an “intellectual” given his lower class background. (4) In contrast, his mother’s family was firmly rooted in the American middle class, and the two families never talked with one another because of that class distinction. (5) Born in 1969 and raised in Queens, (6) Gray became the “intellectual” which his father was not. As an 11 year old, he would ride the subways alone into Manhattan to see movies at Times Square and at repertory theatres (7) and as a teenager he read on his own nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays. (8) He went on to attend film school at the University of Southern California, graduating in 1991 and largely discounting the technical aspects of what he had learned about film at USC. “It really comes down to being able to tell stories on film,” (9) he has said and, taking Shakespeare as his model, has observed that the key to story telling “is to communicate both an external and an internal conflict for the main character.” (10) He cites Francis Coppola’s Godfather and Apocalypse Now (1979) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Rear Window (1954) as films influential on him. (11)
Gray has to date written and directed four movies, Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), We Own the Night (2007) and Two Lovers (2008). His fifth movie (12) is currently in production and scheduled to be released in 2013. His working method emphasizes plot outline over scripted dialogue and improvisation tailored to the actors and their environment over formal storyboarding. Thus, he dislikes rehearsing his actors and prefers instead adjusting dialogue to the actors who play his characters (13) and capturing moments as they happen. (14) For example, he incorporated the muffling effect of the sudden snowfall in Little Odessa when the two brothers meet at Coney Island, (15) took great pleasure in the unexpected sound of thunder as Joaquin Phoenix in We Own the Night emerges from a field of high grass, having just killed the Russian drug dealer Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov), (16) and let Mark Wahlberg largely improvise his performance at the end of We Own the Night. (17)
Gray’s movies are deeply personal and have received sharply divided reviews. For some, his movies represent the portrayals of characters whose stories achieve tragic proportions insofar as they are condemned to lives not of their own choosing; (18) to others, his movies are inflated, melodramatic tales focused on men and in which women are one-dimensional stereotypes. (19) Gray’s public statements, both to interviewers and in the DVD commentaries to his movies, make plain that he is acutely aware of the dramatic conflict in his characters, and the terms “elemental” and “melodramatic” both apply to his films, which, while seemingly contradictory, accurately reflect his Shakespearean and operatic approaches to filmmaking. Gray portrays a world in which values are black and white. Nevertheless, in attempting to balance those values within the social framework of family and commerce, Gray’s characters are ultimately forced to compromise, resulting in endings that are bleak and tragic insofar as his characters never escape their social constraints and are left in a limbo of gray. There is no heaven in this world, and there is no next world. Moreover, the “elemental” and “melodramatic” aspects of his films, while contradictory, are what electrify his films. There is both an iciness resulting from the suffering indifferently inflicted upon his characters and an unrestrained emotion at the illusory warmth and love with which his characters are embraced.
As Gray has acknowledged, (20) his movies are autobiographical – strikingly so. Thus, he consistently highlights the Jewish background and environment of his characters. Little Odessa, Gray’s first movie, best illustrates this. The movie’s two sons are named Joshua (Tim Roth) and Reuben (Edward Furlong) Shapira. Joshua, the older son, is a cold-blooded killer for the Russian mafia whose father, Arkady Shapira (Maximilian Schell), will no longer permit him to enter their home. Reuben, the younger, adolescent son, is increasingly alienated from the aspirations of his father that Reuben become educated and succeed in the business world, in contrast to his father who has not. Instead, Reuben is drawn increasingly to the activities of his rebellious brother Joshua, activities both unknown and mythic to Reuben. In exile from his parents and their home in Brighton Beach, Joshua seeks to justify his existence by observing to Reuben that “we’re Jews, we wander” and later expressing a nostalgic hope that he might return some day to his family roots by emigrating to Russia. Indeed, Gray’s own paternal grandfather, for reasons unknown to Gray, complained how he missed “the old country”. (21) Joshua’s nostalgic hope, like that of Gray’s grandfather, to return to the “old country” is, of course, the reverse of the Eastern European Jewish dream of the American diaspora as the land of “milk and honey”.
Moreover, death permeates Gray’s films, (22) including Little Odessa, and death as experienced by Gray’s characters is consistently associated with Jewish rituals meant to lessen the raw pain of those left behind. Perhaps most poignantly in Little Odessa Joshua’s father acknowledges to Boris Volkov (Paul Guilfoyle), the local gangster boss, that he has lost a son, namely Joshua, underscoring that Arkady Shapira has said yarzheit, the Jewish ritual expressing one’s bereavement for one who has died, over Joshua. Similarly, Joshua waits for his former girlfriend, Alla Shustervich (Moira Kelly), as she leaves one evening from the local synagogue, and courts her by expressing his sympathy for the recent death of her father. She, in turn, later acknowledges that she daily recites Kaddish for her father, the mourner’s prayer in which the mourner blesses the greatness and sanctification of God’s name. Gray, in fact, locates the source for the seeming contemporary Jewish obsession with death in the “dump”, the final resting place for those whom Joshua assassinates. The “dump” unmistakably evokes the Nazi “final solution” for the six million Jews killed during World War II in concentration camps and whose bodies were cremated.
We Own the Night and Two Lovers are no less focused on the Jewish upbringing of their characters. Indeed, their Jewish identities are at the centre of the dramatic tension that drives these two movies. In We Own the Night the central character played by Joaquin Phoenix is alienated from both his father, Chief of Police Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall), and his brother, Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg), a lieutenant under their father and the head of the newly formed narcotics squad. Gray has described the movie as modeled after Shakespeare’s Henry IV with, for example, Joaquin Phoenix playing Prince Hal to Mark Wahlberg’s Hotspur. (23) Yet the movie’s dramatic arch is premised on Joaquin Phoenix’s deliberate adoption of the name “Green”, the “maiden name” of his deceased, Jewish mother. Everyone at the El Caribe Club, the Brooklyn nightclub that he manages, knows him only as “Bobby Green,” unaware of his relationship to the Grusinsky family. Thus, for example, “Jumbo” (Danny Hoch), Bobby’s closest friend and whom Gray has described as playing the Falstaff role, (24) stereotypically asks Bobby in one scene where he had run off to “like a Jew”. In contrast, the police honour Bobby’s brother Joseph Grusinsky at the local Catholic Church and identify Bobby at that ceremony as “Grusinsky”, resulting in a look of surprise on the face of Bobby’s Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada (Eva Medes). While the drug dealer Vadim Nezhinski wears both a Christian cross and a Jewish star around his neck and expresses to Joseph no confusion in wearing both symbols, Bobby is torn between and unable to reconcile his Jewish and Christian identities. We Own the Night can be understood as Joaquin Phoenix’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity, represented by his change of name from “Bobby Green”, his name in the film’s opening scene when he manages El Caribe, to “Robert Grusinsky”, his name in the film’s final scene when he graduates as valedictorian from the NYC Police Academy.
This divide in the main character’s identity is no less central to Two Lovers, though it concludes with a wholly different resolution. Having tried to kill himself after his fiancée left him and now living at home in Brooklyn with his Jewish parents, Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is involved with two women, one Jewish and one not, who represent parallel but distinctively different cultural choices. His Jewish “lover”, Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), is dark-haired, works for the drug company Pfizer, is the daughter of the owner of a chain of dry cleaning shops in Brooklyn with which Leonard’s father, Reuben (Moni Moshonov), hopes to merge his own dry cleaning shop, and is pursued by but has rejected many suitors. Tellingly, Gray has said that he hired Shaw for the part of Sandra Cohen when she informed him that her real name was “Schwartz”. (25) In sharp contrast, Leonard’s non-Jewish “lover”, Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow), is blond, takes drugs, is the daughter of a once wealthy but now impoverished family, and temporarily works as an “assistant” to Ron Blatt (Elias Koteas), a partner at a Manhattan law firm who is married, with whom she is having an affair, and who is paying for her apartment. That each woman represents a starkly different cultural choice for Leonard, to the extent the choice is his to make, is underscored by seemingly peripheral details. Sandra is associated with Judaism through her brother’s bar mitzvah, where we observe the reading of the Torah, a candle lighting ceremony, and the traditional dancing of the horah. In contrast, Michelle in Leonard’s parents’ apartment asks uncomprehendingly what an object is, which Leonard identifies as a dreidel, comments upon the stereotypically Jewish smell of mothballs, observes that the apartment is filled with books, underscoring the stereotypical image of Jews as “people of the book,” and expresses her ignorance of Yiddish.
Even The Yards, which contains no explicit reference to Judaism, wears Gray’s Jewishness on its sleeve. Leo’s (Mark Wahlberg) last name is “Handler”, suggesting that his absent father may, in fact, have been Jewish. That his mother, Val Handler (Ellen Burstyn), conspicuously wears a cross thereby suggests that Leo, like other characters in Gray’s movies, is also an offspring of a “mixed” marriage of Jew and Christian. Nevertheless, Val Handler seems no less stereotypically Jewish than the mothers in Gray’s other films. She is emotionally attached to Leo in the same way that the dying mother Irina Shapira (Vanessa Redgrave) is attached to and is idolized by her sons Joshua and Reuben in Little Odessa, that Bobby’s deceased mother is attached to Bobby through his adoption of her name in We Own the Night, and that Ruth Kraditor (Isabella Rossellini) protectively watches over Leonard in Two Lovers. Val Handler, Leo’s mother, similarly looks out for and has devoted her life to her son, hoping that he will better himself by making a living in the world of business.
In the context of characters whose Jewish upbringing is central to whom they are, it is not surprising that God in Gray’s movies is an Old Testament God, an unknowable and oftentimes unforgiving being, and that the Christian ideals of grace and the hereafter play no role. In Little Odessa Joshua’s father watches his wife slowly die of a tumour and tries to reconcile her loss as God punishing him for his wrongdoings. Yet his effort at a belief in a causal, rational relationship between what we do, on the one hand, and what we come to realize in this world, on the other, fails. The rawness of that emotion is surely underscored by Gray’s own mother having died of a brain tumour and his father having been no less “ill-equipped to handle it” (26) so that Gray “just pictured [his] own” parents in enacting these events. (27) This unknowable Old Testament God is exemplified by Joshua having become an assassin. As Joshua’s father observes, in an effort to civilize his children he played Mozart and read novels (Crime and Punishment, among others) to them, and yet Joshua became an assassin for the Russian mafia. About to murder without mercy, Joshua mockingly asks that the victim – on his knees, as though in prayer – to wait ten seconds to see whether God will save him. God does not, and Joshua without emotion shoots him point blank in the head, tossing his body and burning it in the crematorium of the dump. Gray’s Old Testament God is silent, providing no answers to his characters.
Ironically, if we are made in the image of the Old Testament God, then Gray’s characters reflect the seemingly irrational, at times harsh nature of that God. Arkady Shapira’s abusive treatment of his sons, taking his belt to them – “He gets what I got?” as Joshua comments when he observes the results of such treatment on his brother Reuben – imitates the actions of an Old Testament God. While apologizing for and seeking to justify his behaviour for Reuben’s “own good”, there is a mercilessness to Arkady Shapira’s conduct. That mercilessness of the father perpetuates itself in Joshua who becomes an executioner for the mafia, nearly executing his own father at one point when he forces him to kneel partially naked on the snow covered ground. A lesson for his father’s “own good,” it, too, like his father’s abusive treatment of his sons, sets events in motion and results in unforeseen consequences, including a horrifying retribution upon both father and his sons.
Moreover, Gray’s Old Testament God offers no hereafter in which his characters might take comfort. Arkady’s wife’s funeral service, with its long shot of the cemetery, shows us gravestones stretching into the distance so that they become indistinguishable from and merge with the buildings of the city. Confronted with death, Gray’s characters have only the here and now. Joshua imagines in the film’s final scene Reuben, his mother and himself sitting together on his mother’s bed, with Reuben expressing to their mother that “Josh is home” and “I love you, mom”. The reality is that Joshua sits alone in his car and stares out at the audience. God’s retribution is that Joshua has only this life, which he now faces without love of family or friend. With his animal-like instincts for survival, he is wholly alone.
Tragically, Gray’s characters are unable to choose through their deeds between good and evil and who they are and will become; instead, the events of their lives are pre-determined, thereby foreclosing their ability to choose. For example, in Little Odessa Sasha (David Vadim), a “nobody”, discovers that Joshua has returned to Brooklyn and warns Reuben that if “you tell anyone, you go to the dump.” Reuben, of course, immediately rushes to see Joshua at a motel, and then tells him that it was Sasha who first saw Joshua, notwithstanding that Sasha had also warned Reuben not to tell anyone that it was he, Sasha, who had seen Joshua. Sasha’s warnings are prophetically fulfilled. Reuben does “go to the dump,” once to witness an execution and the second time as the witness to be burned in the dump by his own brother. If there is no body, then there is no crime, Joshua had earlier observed. Joshua has, however, committed one against his own brother by attracting him to join him in rebelling against their father. Having ignored his father’s reading Crime and Punishment to him as a young child, Joshua now bears the unrelieved punishment of memory and guilt.
Like Job in the Old Testament, at best Gray’s characters merely endure. “Leonard, I love you but I have to go,” Leonard’s ex-fiancée confesses as he is drowning himself in the film’s opening scene, so that he then swims to the surface and saves himself. There is no understanding of or rational explanation for life’s events. “Our guys are dropping like flies,” Joseph tells Bobby, in seeking to persuade him to take responsibility for what is happening and to act as an informer. It is a line reminiscent of Gloucester’s bleak observation in King Lear that “[a]s flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ gods, They kill us for their sport.” (28) Understood within that context, Bobby’s response to his brother and father that he refuses to accept responsibility is the correct decision. No one has responsibility for what happens. Yet paradoxically Bobby is ultimately unable to act upon that decision and is eventually drawn into accepting responsibility and thereby forecloses his own chance at escaping family and an opportunity for erotic happiness with Amada.
Sadly, too, that inability to control events does not prevent Gray’s characters from deceiving themselves into thinking that they can do so. In obsessively watching, literally eyeing events around them, his characters mistakenly believe that they might come to know, understand, and control those events. In Little Odessa Joshua surreptitiously peers up at the lighted apartment window of his parents but, unbeknownst to Joshua, Sasha, in turn, watches Joshua. Reuben secretly watches Joshua execute and then burn in the oven at the dump a “rat”, seeking in the process both to understand his brother and what it means to murder someone. Unbeknownst, however, to Reuben, Reuben is watching an enactment of what will later become his fate, namely to be murdered and then burned in the oven. Leo in The Yards is forever watching Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), his best friend, and Erica (Charlize Theron), his first cousin – Willie and Erica dancing erotically at a club, Willie giving to Erica an engagement ring, Erica expressing to Willie her desire to marry and have a family – as though he could thereby come to understand in hindsight his affair at a young age with Erica. Yet Leo is ultimately helpless in protecting Erica. Always watching Erica and Willie, including while hidden from the stairwell above his mother’s apartment as their relationship deteriorates, he is absent when Willie in a rage and despair inadvertently kills Erica; at that very moment Leo is betraying Willie at the borough hearing.
Two Lovers likewise focuses on its characters who watch but who nevertheless fail to benefit from what they see and discover. (29) Michelle confesses to Leonard at their first meeting that she can see him from her apartment, and Leonard, in turn, watches Michelle leave through the peephole to his parents’ apartment. Ron encourages Michelle and Leonard to “keep an eye on each other,” knowing of Michelle’s renewed addiction to drugs but unaware of Leonard’s own dependency on drugs and his attraction to Michelle as someone other than simply a friend or “brother”. And after their sexual encounter on the building roof, they gaze upon one another from their respective apartments, and each comments how he or she never saw the other before this moment. Nevertheless, Michelle the next day will leave Leonard for Ron (who offers Michelle a life of material comfort) and Leonard will commit himself to a loveless marriage with Sandra (who has offered to take care of Leonard). “I know what love is,” Leonard declares to Michelle. Yet, having metaphorically taken a bite from the “tree of knowledge”, they are both exiled from that Eden-like moment in which Michelle exposes her breast to Leonard’s gaze. Gazing and the resulting knowledge of the other do not liberate or result in finding satisfaction.
Gray locates his characters’ entrapment in family, both through the overbearing love, which it engenders, and the passage from one generation to the next of that which the members of one generation seek to avoid from the prior one. Notwithstanding his rebellion against his parents, especially his mother, Leonard, like Joshua in Little Odessa and Bobby in We Own the Night, in fact, imitates his parents’ behaviour. Thus, Leonard’s mother, like Leonard, is always, if protectively, watching over him, her gaze upon Leonard as he gazes upon Michelle and her shadow appearing under his bedroom door as she listens in on his conversations with Michelle. Leo’s stairwell perspective in The Yards is repeated in Two Lovers when Leonard seeks to avoid Sandra and her family. Leonard’s mother, however, readily finds and confronts him on that stairwell as he ineffectively tries to escape with Michelle to San Francisco. “I love you very much,” she tells him, but then adds, “This is your home and you can come back whenever you want.” While phrased as an offer, the statement is more akin to an emotional command. Leonard does, in fact, return home that evening to the New Year’s Eve celebration where, embracing Sandra to whom he is now engaged, he weeps and then gazes out at the audience, alone and aware that he has been entrapped. Knowledge is a curse, symbolized by that oddly disconcerting moment when alone in his bedroom Leonard brings a match within inches of his eye, threatening to blind himself. The film’s last shot of Leonard staring out at the audience is thus reminiscent of the last shot of Joshua, who was also alone and falsely envisioned himself happily joined with his mother and his brother, both of whom were, in fact, dead. Leonard is now no less dead.
While the emotional suffocation of the mother entraps her sons, the emotional entrapment of Gray’s Jewish sons results no less from the commercial demands placed upon the father and the sons’ inability to confront their feelings at observing the spiritual death of their father. While the father in the Jewish ghettos of Russia, from which Gray’s families emigrated, was a revered figure, a student of the Torah, in the United States learning for its own sake has been replaced by commerce. Leonard’s home is filled with books, but Leonard’s father is focused upon the success of his dry cleaning business. In his after hours he does not read but instead watches inane television shows. Similarly, lacking sympathy for their father’s dilemma in this new world, Josh and Reuben have only disdain for him. Lacking any moral centre, their father seeks to enforce his rules upon them by physically beating them, and they, in turn, do not respect him for what he does. He earns his living through a newsstand at which he sells newspapers, candy, and cigarettes, in the process embarrassing his sons by the pettiness of how he earns his living. “Finish counting the pennies and put them in the box,” he tells Reuben.
America’s demand that the Jewish father be commercially successful rather than intellectually wise drives Gray’s Jewish sons to rebel. Reuben brushes aside his father’s acknowledgement of the pettiness of his life in order that his sons might have an education. Likewise, Joshua longingly tells his girlfriend that his family’s relatives in Russia were smart and that his brother is a “smart kid”. Gray’s camera tracks in on Joshua’s face as he eulogizes how he is “dumb”, not smart like those professors in Russia, where everybody was supposedly smart, thereby mythologizing his father’s past at the expense of his father’s present. Joshua’s memory of his grandfather’s memory creates an image of a Russia in which all things were good. Gray’s camera similarly tracks in on Arkada Shapira’s face and his eulogizing observation that at the age of 6 a father can do everything, at 12 he can do almost everything, at 16 he is an idiot, at 24 he is maybe not such an idiot, and at 40 if I could only ask my father. Imitating their father’s behaviour, there is a mercilessness to Reuben and Josh in their refusal to acknowledge their father’s good deeds, mitzvoth. Their father collects pennies to support his family rather than compromise his moral rectitude by accepting money from the local mafia boss; he honours their grandmother by having her live with them and then celebrates her eightieth birthday at a grand dinner; and he patiently, if with great pain, watches his wife die of an unexplainable brain tumour. They mock and disrespect him for having a mistress without understanding either his love for his wife or his human need for a mistress who offers him momentary relief from the unending pain inflicted by an Old Testament God. Raised within that family dynamic of a father who has been uprooted from the intellectual comforts of the old world, Joshua and Reuben idealize their mother, with Joshua’s final image of family excluding their father.
We Own the Night is Little Odessa in reverse. It, too, is about two brothers, Bobby and Joseph, and their father, Burt Grusinsky. However, where the father in Little Odessa collects pennies in the hopes of educating his sons and bettering their lives, thereby expressing greater care for family than his own career, the father in We Own the Night identifies more with his career than his family. Work first, play later, he tells his sons, in contrast to his Jewish wife, their mother, who was supposedly “too easy” on Bobby. If the tragic ending of Little Odessa is that Joshua rejects his father, the tragedy of We Own the Night is that Bobby becomes his father. On graduation day he is, as one person remarks, “all dressed up looking like a chief.”
We Own the Night can also be understood as the struggle for the soul of Bobby by two fathers, one Jewish and one not. As the movie begins, Bobby successfully manages El Caribe, which is owned by a large, gregarious and seemingly Russian-Jewish family headed by Marat Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov). Bobby feels at home and is happy in this environment. While his real father comments disparagingly about Bobby’s Puerto Rican girl friend Amada, that Bobby’s diamond earring must have been very expensive, and that he’s “uncontrollable”, Bobby is erotically caring about Amada and thoroughly enjoys managing the nightclub. He excitedly envisions an expansion of the club to Manhattan. While Bobby’s friend Jumbo laughingly calls him a “fuckin’ animal”, Bobby innocently admits to Amada during the movie’s first scene that if he died now, he would be happy. Combining elements of both male and female in his attire, he is warmly welcomed into Marat’s apartment, where he is stuffed with home cooked food, where, as Jumbo later observes, Marat treats him as a son, and where Bobby reciprocates the love which he receives, affectionately kissing Marat on the forehead. In contrast to the world of Police Chief Burt Grusinsky, where you work first and play later, Marat’s world is one in which work and play are one and family and commerce seem in harmony.
Yet Marat’s world also represents a compromise in that commerce has infected its values upon family. Gray’s characters are forever watching and eyeing events. In that context the unremarked upon moment early in the film when Marat over dinner casually picks out and eats the eye of a fish suggests a darker side to Marat’s character. Not separating work and play, Marat, we later learn, uses his grandchildren as couriers in his drug business. While he expresses pride that it is his “own method” that he uses for the sable furs which he imports, that method and those sable furs are to further his importing of drugs into the country. “This is what we’ve wanted for so long,” Marat observes, as he is about to close the drug deal. He is a successful business man, who enjoys combining work and play, and is proud of what he has achieved, including surrounding himself with a boisterous, happy family. It is that very business, however, which has created the murderous Vadim, in effect, Marat’s other son and Bobby’s brother. Seeing Marat and Vadim together as they are about to consummate their drug sale, Bobby cannot help commenting with surprise and jealousy in his voice that “they’re so fucking close the two of them.” It is the same jealousy that Joseph had previously expressed to Bobby, confessing that he always did what their father told them to do and how Bobby in contrast always seemed free. Bobby cold bloodedly kills Vadim in retribution for the killing of his natural father, but there is no joy in the kill. Moreover, Vadim, with blood flowing from his mouth, seemingly utters as his last words to Bobby “I love you.” (3) Similarly, Bobby’s adopted father Marat sadly expresses that he didn’t know that it would be Bobby’s family. His fellow police want Bobby to “drop the hammer” on Marat in retribution for the laughter everyone has enjoyed at the expense of the police who have been “dropping like flies”. In a scene reminiscent of Joshua and his father in Little Odessa, Bobby insists that Marat get on his knees, encircled by the police, but then refuses to execute him, evidencing both his moral rectitude and his love for this other father.
While Marat’s world has been compromised by commerce, it nevertheless at least offered an old world family in which men could express genuine love for one another, brother to brother and father to son. In contrast, the film’s final scene shows Bobby graduating as valedictorian from the police academy, his natural father dead, his adopted father in prison, and his brother retired to an administrative position in the police force. The final exchange between these brothers of “I love you” is perfunctory. Bobby, now called Robert, is emotionally alone, imagining that he sees Amada in the crowd in the same way that Joshua sought solace in the image of Reuben, their mother and himself together. There is no hope of a genuinely warm and familial life, a life that integrated work and play and in which the masculine and feminine characteristics that Bobby had once displayed were in balance. In contrast to the opening scene in which Bobby and Amada erotically enjoyed one another, if Bobby died now attired in the severity of his police uniform, he would not die happy but would instead feel nothing.
And what of the mothers of these Jewish families? They are stay-at-home women who have lived or live entirely for their sons. They are dead (We Own the Night), dying (Little Odessa) or alive (The Yards and Two Lovers) but in each case doing whatever is needed to enable their sons to surpass their fathers in the world of American commerce. In The Yards Leo’s father is absent while his mother suffers so that her son might succeed. Waiting for him to be released from jail, she barely survives, refusing any money from her brother-in-law Frank (James Caan). Always forgiving of Leo, she accepts his gift to her of a dress, even as she warns him that they need to save every dollar. She endures a heart attack when the police, searching for Leo, invade her apartment but remains the forgiving mother, allowing Leo to return home even as the police continue their search for him. It is to her that Leo sadly confesses his realization that “it’s just the two of us.” “It always was,” she replies, thereby underscoring that to her it is only family that matters – and especially the bond between mother and son. Leo, who idolizes his mother, then passes on this lesson to his young nephew when he tells him at the funeral for Erica to come inside their home because his aunt needs him.
Yet Leo’s mother, no less than Gray’s fathers, has been corrupted by the demands of commerce. Her dream is that Leo should rise above his working class status. She has always hoped that he would be in business, one of those men going into Manhattan each day, since he looked so good in a suit. In fact, the last scene shows Leo riding the subway dressed in a suit. Yet this supposedly triumphant moment is undercut in that Leo is now alone in the subway. Moreover, it reminds us of the film’s opening scene, falsely implying that nothing has happened in between – not Erica’s death, not Willie’s betrayal of Leo, not Leo’s betrayal of Willie. Devoted to her son Leo, she is wholly ignorant of the business world of “suits”. While Leo looks good in a suit, she confesses to Leo that she does not know what “the suits” do when they commute to the city. Gray, however, places in context her ignorance by showing us throughout the movie the corruption of these men in suits, especially the scene in which one such suit, the borough president’s assistant, removed his suit and stood naked in a quid pro quo business transaction.
The son’s idealization of the Jewish mother requires that she be innocent of the corrupting aspects of the commercial world, but her encouragement to succeed in that world is itself corrupting. Leo instinctively learns the skills needed to survive in the business world, but these skills include his betrayal of Willie and Frank. He succeeds in business, because he betters Frank, notwithstanding his self-righteous refusal to associate himself with Frank and his “friends”. (31) Appropriately, it is the parentless Willie who is the innocent sacrificed to the world of commerce. Willie viewed Frank as his surrogate father to whom he could turn in times of trouble, and, in fact, Frank, first and foremost a business man, knows what to do at such times. He both distances himself from Willie and prepares to kill Leo in order “to do what is necessary to protect his family,” in other words, himself. Willie, the orphan who goes nightclubbing with Erica and who repeatedly, until too late, refuses to betray Frank to the competition, is sacrificed, along with Erica, in the interest of maintaining Frank’s business.
Leonard’s Jewish mother in Two Lovers is no less devoted to her son. She is, in fact, both less innocent and more aggressive than, for example, Leo’s mother, in assuring that her son achieves his place in the world of business. Leonard’s father verbalizes that the upcoming merger of his dry cleaning business with the Cohen family’s dry cleaning business will enable Leonard continued access to the health insurance necessary for his bi-polar drug treatment. It is Leonard’s mother, however, who makes certain that he will be taken care of. While Leonard is not unaware of these machinations, observing that Sandra is both beautiful and good for business, he is incapable of escaping the life that his mother intends for him. While still suffering from the loss of his fiancée, who loved but left him because they could not have children together, Leonard, in effect, marries his mother in the form of Sandra Cohen. Sandra confesses that she had wanted to meet Leonard the moment she saw him dancing with his mother and looking cute at the dry cleaning store. No less aggressive than Leonard’s mother, she pursues him and sleeps with him at his parent’s apartment on the night of her father’s birthday. For her, their sexual affair is satisfying; in contrast, he afterwards stares at the audience. “I want to take care of you. I understand you,” she later tells him, the same words of protection and self-sacrifice which Bobby’s father speaks to Bobby when they learn that Vadim has escaped. “You don’t pretend to be what you’re not,” she adds. He responds, however, by acknowledging that in his confused state he does not know what it means to be himself. He remains for the moment torn between what is expected of him and what he desires.
Michelle, the object of Leonard’s desire, is, in fact, Leonard’s mirror image. Leonard repeats to Michelle Sandra’s words, namely that he wishes to take care of Michelle, even as he physically seduces her at her most emotionally vulnerable moment, and the next day throws away his medication when he thinks that Michelle will escape with him to San Francisco. Yet Michelle remains dependent upon the commercially successful Ron no less than Leonard is dependent upon the dry-cleaning business of Sandra’s parents. Moreover, Michelle’s affair with and marriage to Ron is no less incestuous than Leonard’s marriage to Sandra will be. Michelle initially identifies Ron’s voice as that of her father, and just as Michelle has said that Leonard is like a brother to her, Ron, in turn, observes how Leonard reminds him of his son. Moreover, as Ron observes, Michelle is addicted to drugs no less than is Leonard dependent upon drugs.
Sandra is, in turn, a mirror image of Ron. She offers Leonard both a way of living through her father’s dry cleaning business, whose expansion is represented by pins on a map, and medication, through her own job at the office in Manhattan of the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. When Leonard returns to his parents’ apartment after choosing not to end his life by walking into the ocean, Sandra’s taking on of the protective role of Leonard’s mother is acknowledged when Leonard looks and smiles at his mother and then looks and smiles at Sandra. Each, in turn, smiles at him, and he then presents to Sandra the engagement ring intended for Michelle. “I’m happy,” he lies to Sandra when she asks why he is crying. Like his father, he will run the dry cleaning business, even though, as he observed to Michelle while following her on the subway into Manhattan, it makes him “feel fuckin’ dead.”
If the Jewish family entraps Gray’s characters, it is commerce, business, idealized by the Jewish father and mother, which renders those sons less than human, animal-like. For Gray social class plays a major role in how his characters’ lives will play out, (32) and the importance of class to Gray surely reflects how his own father’s lower class family members did not speak with his mother’s middle class family members and vice versa. (33) Business thus offers supposedly a way out of one’s social class. Yet business in Gray’s films offers only an illusion of escape and consistently corrupts Gray’s characters who strive to rise above their social class. Thus, in We Own the Night managing El Caribe excites and brings Bobby alive. Yet the nightclub and the drug trade, which will fund the club’s expansion to Manhattan, are inextricably intertwined. Bobby boasts to Jumbo that when he expands the club to Manhattan, he will be the future “King of New York”, a reference to King of New York (Abel Ferrara 1990), in which the main character openly deals in drugs. Vadim, Marat’s other “son”, routinely kills police (whom he characterizes as “Mickey Mouse”), nearly assassinates Joseph, and murders Bobby’s father given the money to be made from the drug trade business.
The dry cleaning business in Two Lovers is only ostensibly more benign than the drug trade in We Own the Night. The plastic covers to the dry cleaned clothing that Leonard delivers say “We love our customers.” Yet Leonard’s father simultaneously and without drawing a distinction negotiates to sell his business and marry off his son. His future partner, Michael Cohen (Bob Ari), meanwhile hangs in his storefront a neighborhood map tacked with pins akin to those hanging in police stations where such maps mark the progress in the war against crime. It’s a “terrific opportunity” for everyone, Michael tells Leonard, but Leonard’s parents recognize it as an especially favourable one for Leonard in enabling him to escape the lower class of Brooklyn. “So nostalgic, like the place I grew up,” Michael, a Long Island Jew, observes of Leonard’s parents’ Brooklyn apartment. In business everything is about the relative values of the quid pro quo.
The Yards, which is based on Gray’s father’s own business experience, (34) most clearly shows how business works. Frank’s castle-like home and his company, The Electric Rail Corp., have been built upon a barter system in which the successful players know when and what to exchange. The film’s key scene is the Brooklyn Borough Hall hearing where the men in suits engage in a series of quid pro quos. The borough president threatens Frank that he is on his own; but Frank sidesteps that threat by informing the borough president that he has kept copies of the records for contributions given to politicians over the years. The boss of Welltech, the minority-owned business, which competes with Electric Rail, threatens that it’s time for “retribution” what with Leo prepared to testify against Frank and The Electric Rail Corp.; but “retribution” means an increase in Welltech’s share of the public contracts for the repair of the subways from 10% to 20%. Even Leo, the film’s central and supposedly sympathetic character, has bartered his way out of his dilemma at the cost of Willie’s imprisonment, a reversal of the film’s opening in which Willie welcomes Leo home after Leo’s imprisonment for not ratting on Willie. Doing business is no different than doing time in prison. When Leo acknowledges during his interview for a job with Frank’s company that he “did time”, Frank responds that it’s “tough in there” but that the business world is no different.
Commerce infects everything. Judaism itself is a commercial business. Josh nonchalantly asks Reuben how much money Reuben made from his bar mitzvah, the Jewish ceremony that celebrates a boy’s entry into manhood through the study of the Torah. Likewise, Michael Cohen at his son’s bar mitzvah jokingly asks his son to universal laughter in the room whether he will lend his father $200. Manhattan is no different in its corruption than that of the other, lower class boroughs, notwithstanding its surface of civilized sophistication in the form of live opera at Lincoln Center rather than CD operatic highlights. Ron’s Manhattan legal practice enables him to betray his family and maintain Michelle as his mistress.
No social class offers its members genuine freedom, and no character is free from corruption. Leonard dropped out of law school and remained behind in Brooklyn with his parents. Engaged to Sandra and soon to be married, he will take up and expand upon his father’s dry cleaning business. Yet Ron, who became a lawyer and left his mother behind in Leonard’s neighborhood, is no less trapped than Leonard. Notwithstanding his tailored suits and sophistication, he deserts his wife and son for a younger woman. When told that Leonard is into photography, Ron offers the fatherly advice that that is all for the good “as long as you love what you do”. No one, however, does it for what he or she loves but rather everyone does it for the money. (35)
Self-interest is all so that betrayal of friends and family is the norm. Initially refusing to disclose to the local gangster boss that Joshua is in Brooklyn, Joshua’s father succumbs in an effort to protect his other son, Reuben, but also as a means of retribution against Joshua. Serving time in jail rather than betray his friend Willie, Leo later turns on Willie, learning from Willie and others that this is how one does business in order to survive. “No more, you fucked me,” he tells Willie. Horrified at the initial suggestion that he inform on others at the club, Bobby, whom the police call “Robert”, later wears a wire to Vadim’s drug den and forces Jumbo, whom he now calls “Lou”, to squeal on Marat’s involvement in the drug trade.
Gray’s world is bleak. It is a Jewish, patriarchal world in which sons are forever rebelling against overbearing but helpless fathers and mythologizing their caring but overly protective mothers. It portrays the “new world” in which intellect and learning for its own sake are socially useless; they have been replaced by business, which is a lethal mixture of bartering and betrayal ostensibly in furtherance of family but no less in furtherance of an instinct for self-survival. It is an Old Testament world in which the patience of Job, the quality of mercy and the sweet fruits of the hereafter play no comforting role. Contemporary films are frequently either art-house films, which are ironic and intellectual, or blockbusters, which consist of comic book and fairy tale stories. Gray’s films partake of neither and are more akin to classic, Hollywood narratives. His films dramatize in a linear fashion the tragic stories of characters unable to escape their fate. If his films are at times melodramatic or portray stereotypically women and parents, they do so to enact what Gray perceives as the dilemma of sons both self-aware and entrapped in a world that suffocates them in the name of family and responsibility.
- David Frankel (editor) and Jordan Mintzer (interviewer), Conversations with James Gray (Paris: Synecdoche, 2012), 52
- Ibid. 22-3
- Ibid. 26
- Ibid. 26
- Ibid. 23
- Ibid. 26.
- Ibid. 28
- Ibid. 129
- Ibid. 42
- Ibid. 43
- Ibid. 32-33.
- Gray’s new movie apparently was previously titled “Low Life” and is to be distributed in 2013 by The Weinstein Company. http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/new-look-at-joaquin-phoenix-and-marion-cotillard-in-james-grays-untitled-period-drama-formerly-known-as-low-life-20120723#, retrieved on July 25, 2012.
- Conversations, 49
- Ibid. 57
- Ibid. 56
- Commentary by James Gray to We Own the Night DVD.
- Ibid. 133
- Andrew Tracy‘s review in Cinema Scope of the movie of We Own the Night typifies this view. For example, he observes: “When he [Bobby] later collapses sobbing into his brother’s arms, telling him that he doesn’t want to be alone, Gray tellingly cuts to Amada [Bobby’s girlfriend] on the other side of the room, excluded and abandoned, and knowing herself to be so. At film’s end, the return to the sanctified familial fold complete, Bobby and Joseph [Bobby’s brother] both silently recognize what the former has lost along the way; and their closing exchange of fraternal love serves not as an affirmation of that love, but as a lament for what has been lost and a rebuke to that which has taken it.” http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/interviews-subverting-the-moment-james-gray-on-we-own-the-night/, retrieved on July 14, 2012.
- A.O. Scott’s review in The New York Times of October 12, 2007, of We Own the Night typifies this view: “….It is, rather, a bloody, passionate melodrama, self-consciously Shakespearean — or Biblical, or Greek, take your pick of atavisms — in its intentions…. Authority in this world is patriarchal: Women are always being told to leave the room, mind the children or wait in the car. An index of Bobby’s betrayal is that he has adopted his mother’s maiden name, and his attempt to escape into a life of easy pleasure, social mobility and self-invention is doomed from the start. Where he ends up is where he always belonged.” http://movies.nytimes.com/2007/10/12/movies/12nigh.html, which was retrieved on July 14, 2012.
- Conversations, 52.
- Ibid. 23.
- Many of the same themes with which Gray is concerned, such as death, are presented in a wholly comic mode by another Jewish filmmaker, namely Woody Allen.
- Conversations, 130
- Ibid. 130. The character’s full name is “Jumbo Falsetti”.
- Ibid. 179
- Ibid. 52
- Ibid. 54
- King Lear, IV, i, 36-37.
- Two Lovers is, of course, modelled, in part, after Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). For example, both films consist of a “set” in the form of an apartment building courtyard, include as their main character someone who is a photographer, as a “hobby” in Two Lovers and as a professional in Rear Window, and focus upon the voyeurism of their main characters across that courtyard.
- The English subtitles to the DVD for the movie indicate, however, that Vadim’s last words are “fuck you”. The screenplay to the movie has an entirely different scene in which Vadim, fatally shot by Bobby, asks that Bobby not leave him to die alone consumed by the flames engulfing the field. http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/We-Own-the-Night.html, retrieved on July 14, 2012.
- Gray added the scene at Frank’s home, including the confrontation between Leo and Frank, following Erica’s funeral at the insistence of Miramax, the production company for the film. Gray subsequently released a “director’s cut” version of the movie which excludes the scene. Conversations, 96 – 98.
- Ibid. 88
- Ibid. 23
- Ibid. 90
- This absence of distinction between boroughs is surely what motivated Gray’s opening to We Own the Night with its black and white shots of violence in the borough of Brooklyn – “we own the night” cops arresting criminals, guns, and dead bodies. In contrast, Woody Allen nostalgically opened his movie Manhattan with its romantic black and white shots of the Manhattan cityscape and the sounds of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.