For years I’ve been moaning and groaning about the James Gray cabal — a fraternity of elite critics, cultureburg foo-foos and film festival staffers who’ve sworn by Gray‘s films for years, and for reasons that to me have always seemed thin or specious. It’s not Gray’s films that have gotten in my craw as much as the constant overpraise.
James Gray (safari hat, beard, earphones) directing The Lost City of Z with Charlie Hunnam. Why isn’t Gray rocking the short sleeve T-shirted look that the crew guy is wearing? He looks like a tourist who’s been asked to step off the Jungle Safari boat in Disneyland, especially with that fanny pack and those long khaki sleeves. If you’re going to wear a safari hat you need to go cowboy style (i.e., Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now). And if not that, a standard-issue director’s baseball cap.
I was actually okay with (i.e., not disturbed or offended by) Gray’s New York-centric films for nearly 20 years — Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own The Night, Two Lovers and Blood Ties (a fraternal crime thriller written by Gray but directed by Guillaume Canet).
But The Immigrant was mostly a drag (“A well-made, respectably authentic period drama, but the pace is slow and the story ho-hums…I must have looked at my watch six or seven times”) and The Lost City Of Z was, I felt, all but impossible. I wanted to escape less than 30 minutes in but I was with a paying audience at Alice Tully Hall and felt I had to stick it out. It was hell.
Yesterday MCN’s David Poland filed a piece largely in league with my views, not just about his frustrations with Gray but also the cabal.
Excerpt #1: “I don’t get it. And now, six features into James Gray’s directing career, I think I am done apologizing for it. My experience of Gray’s films has been, consistently, ‘great acting…why doesn’t the story work?’ And yet, some of the smartest critics I know are true devotees of everything Gray does. They must be hip to something that I’m not seeing, right?”
Excerpt #2: “Where I see a 1930s/40s backlot jungle movie [in The Lost City of Z], they see a lush, elegant dip into the profoundly exotic. I see Charlie Hunnam as I have usually seen him (a serviceable, professional hunk actor) out of his depth, not offering the emotional range that this character demands. They see him making a breakthrough performance of great depth. Where they see restraint and subtext in the inaction of Gray’s work, I see a puzzle that simply doesn’t interest me.”
Excerpt #3: “Many critics revel in Gray’s work [because] they are deeply moved by the withholding nature of Gray. I think they like that the emotion is (mostly) secret. I think they prefer emotional restraint on the paint-drying level to scenery chewing (or their idea of what that means). What disconnects for me in every film, it seems, is what turns them on about his work. And thus, I have to assume that this thing — genius or defect — is deeply embedded in Mr. Gray. I just don’t like that flavor.
Excerpt #4: “It’s not fun being the stick in the mud who won’t go there with a guy that so many colleagues love. I don’t take pride in raging against the work. Given the commercial insignificance of Gray’s work, hating on his work is like pulling wings off a fly. The whole thing makes one feel like a vulgarian, however irrational that is in context.”