Since its bow at Cannes in May, countless cinephiles - myself especially – have been eagerly awaiting the release of James Gray’s fifth feature film The Immigrant. In an attempt to quell while simultaneously stoking my excitement, I have begun to rewatch Gray’s concise yet rich oeuvre: Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own The Night, and Two Lovers. Upon my revists to these various cinematic treats I was once again utterly taken by the sweeping tales of crime and familial ties that unavoidably call to mind the hallowed works of Cimino and Coppola. James Gray certainly shares an affinity for a grand operatic vision, but I have found myself drawn more and more towards the small, seemingly inconsequential details that litter his films. Those shots – many of which feature sumptously rendered dishes of food– transform his films into a breathing pulsing reality, but also connect with me on a deeply personal level (and not just because I love good food).
The majority of Gray’s work is influenced by his own Jewish-Russian heritage: Little Odessa centers on the Jewish-Russian mafia, in The Yards it’s implied that Leo (Mark Wahlberg) is of Jewish descent, and in We Own The Night and Two Lovers the main characters Jewish-Russian identities are crucial to both films narratives. Continuing the trend The Immigrant is biographically informed by Gray’s grandparents’ immigration through Ellis Island from Russia and the Ukraine during the early 1900s.
(We Own The Night)
I - like Gray – am a practicing reform Jew of Russian and Germany descent. As a young boy my great great great grandfather on my father’s side made his way from Russia to Ellis Island in the hopes of making a better life for himself. In an interview at Cannes Gray mentioned that his grandparents, like most immigrants, barely understood, let alone spoke any English1. Similarly my great great great grandfather bewilderment of the English language is the genesis of my last name: when asked by the immigration official at Ellis Island what his name was he misunderstood, instead he believed the man asked him where he was from. Not quite sure how to convey this information he exclaimed “Usen”- which was the name of a river in Russia that his village was near. My last name, a crucial aspect of my identity as a person, is the result of a conversation that was completely lost in translation.
In the same interview Gray also mentions how the Nazi brutalized his relatives during various pogroms2. Like many of Jewish heritage, I have also had to grapple with my family’s own violent and dark connection to the Holocaust. My grandfather – my mother’s father – escaped Nazi occupied Germany when he was just thirteen. The majority of his family, my family, never left the concentration camps that they were forced into. Though I may not have grown up in Brooklyn, I share a deep mutual heritage with Gray. This heritage - that has so deeply informed our lives - is what permeates his films and allows them to posses such a deeply nuanced sense of naturalism and authenticity.
I don’t mean to suggest that one can only effectively construct a film that they share– whether on the macro or micro level – a connection with because that is blatantly false. However, the subtle touches and seemingly obsessive details that mark the world building of Gray’s films smack of someone who has not only witnessed these events and gatherings, but fully lived them.
The largest and seemingly most inconsequential of these various signifiers is the loving attention that Gray’s lens pays to food. Take for instance a dinner between two Jewish families during Two Lovers: After introductions between the various family members are made Gray cuts to a full on closeup of the food - rather then the families sitting together at the table. A thick turkey breast and a delectable tray of kosher deli pickles are lovingly displayed as dinner chatter drones on in the background. This food not only provides the world with an incredibly tactile texture – they don’t so much look edible as mouth wateringly delicious – but they also function as an entrance to this dinner for the viewer. By putting the food up close and center – so close that you could almost reach out and grab it – Gray has placed you fully at this meal as a participant rather then a passive observer.
Similarly in We Own The Night, Gray utilizes a long tracking shot of a buffet line in the midst of a gathering of police officers and their families. The aluminum tray of macaroni & cheese and deviled eggs not only weave the fabric of a 80s Brooklyn, but it also places you in the midst of this celebration. A wide overhead shot showcases the mass quantity of people buzzing around the event thereby giving this scene it’s grand scope; but the macaroni and deviled eggs give it depth - transforming it from a mythic tableaux into a tactile reality
(We Own The Night)
As anyone who has attended countless high holiday gatherings, Passovers, and break fasts can tell you, it’s all about the food. Countless plates of brisket, kugel, blintzes, lox and smear, and many other delicacies line the table. I couldn’t even begin to recall what conversations I had at these various meals, but the food has stuck with me forever. The wife of Marat, the Russian mob boss, attempting to ply Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) with plate after plate of food is so accurate that I feel as if I know this woman.
Latter when Marat and Bobby are having a serious discussion about expanding their night club business the camera follows Marat’s hand as it drifts down to a plate of smoked fish. In a sense this fish is as important as the conversation: Bobby and Marat’s talk informs the narrative, but the fish informs the authenticity of the world and the people who inhabit it.
(We Own The Night)
At one point in Two Lovers a montage of black and white photographs occurs: these photos are taken Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) during the Bar Mitzvah of his girlfriends younger sister. Instead of calling attention to the films artifice – moving picture has transitioned to still photography – they only draw the viewer in more. While many directors would be content merely showing the Bar Mitzvah party (which Gray does, even nailing the hired Bar Mitzvah MC) Gray has taken the time to capture the actually ceremony. The passing of the Torah, the reading of the Talmud, and even the tallits not only look accurate, but look like my own Bar Mitzvah. Though these photos are only on the screen for a few moments, they significantly contribute to the film’s already deeply textured milieu.
James Gray does not merely direct: he crafts vibrant worlds that refuse to be confined by the frame. The numerous subtle details he employs - informed by his own Jewish-Russian heritage – connect with me at a deep emotional level and pull me into his grand, operatic narratives. Due to Gray’s incredible skill as a craftsman though, it doesn’t matter if you share a similar heritage or not. While I bring my own extra textual baggage to his films, he in turns provides viewers with baggage of their own. Other filmmakers employ props, James Gray captures reality.