James Gray has always, but always, been out of step. His first movie, Little Odessa, debuted at the Venice Film Festival in late summer of 1994, but didn’t have a domestic release, through Fine Line Pictures, until May of the following year. What happened in between was Pulp Fiction, which debuted at Cannes 20 years ago yesterday—a film whose startling success sent distributors scrambling to acquire any indie crime drama that wasn’t nailed down and roll out any movie that had a Tarantino connection, while filmmakers rushed their knock-offs into production. Yes, these were the dizzy days of Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Love and a .45, 2 Days in the Valley, Killing Zoe, and Destiny Turns on the Radio. (A listicle at The Playlist addresses at length this very topic.)
I saw every one of those movies at the time, and I also saw Little Odessa. It had a hit man among its characters, but otherwise it couldn’t have been further from Tarantino’s flip, hip dance-a-thon. And while I can’t remember a single thing from most of the abovementioned titles, I can’t seem to forget Little Odessa’s image of Moira Kelly, awkwardly bent in death, splayed out on the back patio of her Brighton Beach home. When characters got offed in Pulp Fiction, they might very well be back a few scenes later—this was the rewind, fast-forward world of a video-store prodigy. In Gray’s films, you die once and then you’re gone, gone, gone.
In the years since Little Odessa, Gray has managed to complete four more features, his pace and reputation having picked up once he’d recovered from the box-office debacle that was 2000’s The Yards. (I recall a damningly lukewarm review of the film—which, incidentally, is great—by one Andrew Lewis Conn in the November/December 2000 issue of Film Comment magazine.) This isn’t to say that things have been easy. The press for Two Lovers (08) was hijacked by star and four-time Gray collaborator Joaquin Phoenix’s “I am but mad north-northwest…” public meltdown, and Gray’s latest, The Immigrant, spent a year in limbo after its premiere at Cannes in 2013. Acquired by The Weinstein Company—the fortune that Pulp Fiction built!—it was left to malinger on the shelves without an announced release date in sight until recently.
Now The Immigrant has finally arrived, though without much of a greeting party to receive it at the dock. The film’s appropriately unglamorous opening image is a posterior view of the Statue of Liberty—call it The Phantom of Liberty. Gray’s story, co-written with the late Ric Menello, concerns Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a young woman from Silesia, on the German-Polish border, who arrives at Ellis Island with her sister (Angela Sarafyan) in the fall of 1921. They are all that each other has, their parents having been beheaded by hussars in the Great War, and this attachment will be Ewa’s damnation and salvation. Suspecting Ewa’s sister of being a consumptive, the officials place her in quarantine, while Ewa is denied entry into the country on moral grounds, alluding to some trouble on the passage over. Then, just when all appears hopeless, Ewa is plucked from the deportation line by one Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix). Posing as a representative of an aid society, Bruno is in fact a fleapit impresario who is procuring F.O.B. talent for his stable. Bruno runs an itinerant burlesque show that’s a front for peddling flesh, and shortly after he has Ewa in his care he has her turning tricks. Thin-skinned Bruno likes to think of himself as a benevolent protector, but Ewa, codependent as she is, is alone among the girls in not disguising her contempt for him. “At least I don’t kiss the feet of the man who makes me feel like a piece of trash,” Ewa says of Bruno, who we have earlier seen kissing her feet after she agrees to see her first customer. Bruno, you see, is in love with his charge, but paralyzed to act on it, and she puts her hopes instead in a small-time magician with the stage name Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who is in fact Bruno’s cousin.
Gray is a born-and-bred New Yorker and, like many born-and-bred New Yorkers who never struggled under the burden of a New York fantasy, he got out while the getting was good, and for some time has lived in Los Angeles. Gray’s work, then, may be seen as a perpetual coming to terms with the city that he left behind. Every one of his five films has been set in NYC, mostly in the unfashionable outer precincts of Brooklyn and Queens. (In Two Lovers, when Phoenix’s Leonard Kraditor comes into The City, his perspective is something like that of Ali Baba entering the thieves’ treasure trove.) The Immigrant is Gray’s first film with a female protagonist. It is also his first film to take place principally in Manhattan, and his first period piece—although “period piece” is a deceptive term when we are dealing with Gray. His New York isn’t the international megalopolis of desirous real estate that is constantly leveling and rebuilding itself, but a stagnant place of rent-controlled apartments meant to be passed down through the generations, clotted with the accumulated reminders of years and lives past. Think of the Shapira apartment in Little Odessa, its walls covered with family photos, or the Kraditor home in Two Lovers, where ancestors look down on the first kiss between Leonard and mother-approved mate Sandra (Vinessa Shaw).
The locus of The Immigrant is the tenement flat where both Bruno and Emil were partly raised. As I have mentioned, The Immigrant takes place in 1921. Now, most filmmakers assigned to conjure up 1921 would set about finding the most perfectly preserved specimens of period accoutrements—a Gramophone with a polished horn, a coat whose raccoon lining has store-bought sheen—so as to create spic-and-span vintage window dressing. What this fails to take into account is that most of what you would have actually seen around in 1921, particularly if you stepped a few rungs down the socio-economic ladder, was the detritus of recent decades, just as when entering your grandparents’ house, the offices of a medium-sized family business that’s been breaking even for forty years, or a greasy spoon, you are no longer strictly in the present. For example: presently I live in Woodside, Queens, not so far from The Yards country, which means that I spend a great deal of my time somewhere between 1985 and the present.
Though The Immigrant takes place in 1921, it is more nearly proximate to the Gay Nineties than Fitzgerald, a tired, threadbare New York of coldwater apartments and variety theaters that won’t last through Prohibition, where chorus girls still sing “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.” The notable exception is the stuffily well-appointed Greenpoint, Brooklyn home of Ewa’s aunt and uncle, where the bourgeoisie ideal of gemütlichkeit is alive and well, protected by a hypocritical hard-heartedness—and a paradise from which Ewa, perceived as tainted, is quickly evicted. Otherwise, the palette of the film is heavy on rusty blacks and tobacco browns, shades resistant to the ubiquitous grime of the time and place. If I had to guess, I would say that Gray and his cinematographer, Darius Khondji, had been looking at paintings by Reginald Marsh, Childe Hassam, and George Bellows, as well as the recently departed Gordon Willis’s work on The Godfather Part II. (Cotillard, like De Niro in Coppola’s film, spends a good bit of screen time conversing in an unfamiliar foreign tongue, but all merit aside, I don’t anticipate an Oscar for this La Vie en gris.)
It is one of The Immigrant’s more piquant ironies that Ewa is introduced to America at a moment when the New World was more ancient than the Old. The War heaved Europe, gasping, into modernity, and while the tremors were certainly felt stateside, America enjoyed the debatable luxury of languishing in the sitting room of the Victorian era for a few years longer. You can see this in our film art, certainly, particularly in the continued prevalence of the melodramatic form in its classic Chautauqua tent style. Movies are only present in The Immigrant in an offhand reference to new competition from “the pictures,” and at one point we see a magic lantern being set up in preparation for Orlando the Magician’s stage show. For the record, though, some of the foremost American film attractions of 1921 were Chaplin’s The Kid (he also made a The Immigrant, in 1917) and D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm, both more indebted to Dickens than Dada, while in the year prior the premiere melodramatician of the decade to come, Frank Borzage, had a hit with Humoresque. (Meanwhile, in 1921, Europe produced Lang’s Destiny, Murnau’s Desire, and Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage.) Humoresque, concerning a Jewish boy who grows to be a great violin prodigy, takes place on the same Yiddish-speaking East Side streets on which The Immigrant lays out its scene. The longing for a lost European ideal of kultur also surfaces briefly in The Immigrant as Ewa, returned to Ellis Island in a brief respite from her hoochie-coo day job, witnesses a free show for internees featuring Enrico Caruso. (The tenor Joseph Calleja performs a selection from La Rondine by Puccini, whose triptych Il Trittico, specifically the “Suor Angelica” episode, Gray has called the inspiration for The Immigrant.)
Humoresque is based on a story by the writer Fannie Hurst, whose most famous title is Imitation of Life, source of both the John Stahl (1934) and Douglas Sirk (1959) films—the history of American melodrama is just this brief. “Critics are inclined to belittle them and call them cheap,” Borzage said of his adopted métier. “But they don't seem to sense the idea that life is made up largely of melodrama.” Indeed, the melodrama has traditionally been a vehicle to deal explicitly with questions of sex and class which concern most of us more than gunplay, Gray’s film being no exception to this. Suggested The Immigrant drinking game: take a shot of absinthe every time someone says the word “money,” and see how long you last.
There is little of Borzage’s poeticized poverty in The Immigrant, which Gray has stated is very much the stuff of real life, largely drawn from the experiences of his grandparents, Russian Jews who came through Ellis Island in 1923. I’d put his immediate cinematic antecedents a little closer to home: a little of Martin Ritt circa The Molly Maguires, some Robert Mulligan in the attention to shadowplay and emotional lucidity. The Immigrant is a simple story, told clearly and directly, building to an emotional climax of dumbfounding, immobilizing power, which hinges on two confessions, one from Ewa, the other from Bruno. (“If you could lick my heart, you'd taste nothing but poison,” says Bruno, his words echoing a line from one of the survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.)
The measure of Cotillard’s performance isn’t how she rises to the occasion of her big scenes—and yes, she does—but how alert she is in moments that will never see the light of a highlight reel: the first time she wakes up in the tenement flat provided by Bruno, wielding a shiv picked out of the coal scuttle in self-defense, or painting her lips with a pinprick of blood to give herself the illusion of healthy color. As for Phoenix, he’s awkward when he has to play the ballyhoo man—see his repeatedly tripping over the line “J.P. Morgan’s prize progeny” when he’s pimping his girls as the naughty daughters of America’s Robber Barons—but this gets at the contradiction that defines Bruno: he’s a repressed libertine. While Bruno drinks himself into an insensate blur more than once, he is never explicitly seen to set aside a piece of ass for himself, and his overwhelming sexual jealousy of his cousin is the fulcrum on which the story pivots, as Bruno eventually picks up the burden of tragedy from Ewa. As for Renner, the only actor in last year’s American Hustle who managed to fight his upstaging hair to a draw, he’s exceedingly dashing in eyeliner, and it’s a pleasure to see him in a role this succulent. After doing over a decade of work in semi-obscurity, racking up a string of creditable parts leading to his break in 2008’s The Hurt Locker, we’ve since had to suffer through watching an actor of Renner’s caliber scrambling for blockbuster paydays as soon as the first big check was wagged in front of him.
Speaking of the Other American cinema: last fall, curiously, I found myself watching Gray hold court at a “Masterclass” at a film festival in Marrakech, Morocco. During the period when Gray was taking questions from the audience, made up mostly of journalists and local students, one of the latter asked something about the future of American cinema. I am indebted to my colleague Eric Hynes for transcribing Gray’s response.
“For me personally, I view things very grimly. I think that the economics are disastrous. This whole idea of having to make a billion dollars for the parent company's stock price, it's almost impossible to tell a personal story with those kinds of financial stakes. It's like a straightjacket. So I have a very grim long-term feeling about what I like. Personal films, dark films. But that doesn't mean the medium is dead. It means the medium's going through a transition where it changes into something else entirely. And I think it's going to be a kind of combination cinema and amusement park ride—there's something coalescing that is beyond what I can imagine, that I think will be great for viewers. Movies are headed in a more sensate direction. Less about the verbal and more about the visual. Audiences these days have incredible visual literacy. They are so ahead of me visually it is ridiculous. But my own view is that narratively they are maybe in a more primitive place than they were 30 years ago. How they view and process stories. Good guys and bad buys—they need them more than ever. For the viewers of tomorrow that embrace that kind of sensory cinema, the future is very bright. For people who enjoy another kind of cinema, a more intimate cinema, I think American cinema is in a very difficult situation.”
Which brings me to last Friday’s other opening of note, Godzilla. The film is the latest resurgence of the deathless behemoth who first appeared in Ishirō Honda’s 1954 film for Toho, the reckoning for mankind’s folly in opening the Pandora’s box of the A-bomb. It is difficult to imagine an American film being made nine years after 9/11 in which a big rubber monster would emerge from the footprint of the Twin Towers, but then the Japanese have always had a healthily less-than-sacrosanct relationship to their national tragedies—the 1960 Wanda Jackson song “Fujiyama Mama,” which begins “I've been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too / The same I did to them, baby I can do to you,” was a bona fide hit in the Land of the Rising Sun!
This Godzilla, more immediately concerned with the fallout of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, doesn’t take anything lightly. There is one particularly solemn moment in which a Japanese scientist, played by Ken Watanabe, produces his father’s pocket watch, which stopped at the moment that Little Boy detonated over Hiroshima. (One presumes that his father survived the blast, as Watanabe was born in 1959, and his character would be at least 70 years old otherwise.) The film begins in 1999, on the morning of what appears to be a routine meltdown at the Janjira nuclear power facility in Japan. Flash forward 15 years later: a surviving American plant supervisor, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), is still investigating the incident, in the course of which he discovers a massive cover-up. The perpetrators were in fact MUTOs, leviathan creatures that feed off of radiation, now in hibernation at the site of the disaster. The MUTOs wake up cranky, revealing themselves to bear a striking resemblance to the monster from 2008’s Cloverfield, an inspiration in more ways than one. Another monster shows up shortly thereafter, who will be familiar.
The resurrection of Godzilla was entrusted to one Gareth Edwards, who is a more talented ecdysiast than any of Bruno’s girls, leading us through a verrrrrry slow reveal of first the MUTOs, then Godzilla himself. I’d accidentally “cheated,” having already seen the 2014 model Godzilla in a commercial for the 500L Fiat Family, which Godzilla tries to eat, chokes on, and spits up. “It’s a lot bigger than you think!” goes the tagline—and tricks of perspective are key to Edwards’s approach. He gets several impressive effects by showing the monsters not head-on, but through inopportune, obstructed, or mediated POVs: through the perspective of omnipresent monitors, looking up from an awed human’s-eye-view—again, the influence of Cloverfield is evident—or, in one particularly ravishing set piece, through the hectic windshield wipers of a parked car on a Golden Gate Bridge under siege.
Three generations of Godzilla costume actors—Tsutomu Kitagawa, Haruo Nakajima, Kenpachiro Satsuma—in Bringing Godzilla Down to Size
Edwards has a knack for guiding the viewer’s eye across the widescreen frame—I’m thinking of a moment in the Honolulu airport where, from inside the terminal, we watch a fire spreading across the runway, hopscotching from one airliner to the next, three fuselages exploding left-to-right like tic-tac-toe until they meet the sturdy legs of Godzilla, who is entering the frame from screen right. Edwards moves fluidly between the macro and micro, fragmenting his big scenes into component sketches, breaking up his kaiju fight choreography so it looks like something crowdsourced by spectators on the ground. Unfortunately, Edwards is also obliged to periodically veer away from the destruction to remind us of the existence of the movie’s ostensible protagonists, Lt. Ford (!) Brody (!!), scion of the paranoid ex-plant supervisor, and Ford’s wife and young son. Brody is played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, hired for his facility to gaze spaniel-eyed at collapsing buildings, and his family by Elizabeth Olsen and Carson Bolde, who fulfill the requirements of their roles by respectively being a human female and boy child. Elsewhere, the movie’s control rooms and laboratories are liberally sprinkled with recognizable actors, including Watanabe, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, and, very briefly, Whit Stillman regular Taylor Nichols. (“Of course there's a Godzilla! We all basically know there is.”) There’s no indication as to what most of them are meant to be doing, or as to why these actors should have been cast instead of any others. On the whole, the ensemble seems to have been brought together with an eye towards racking up a certain number of Good Actor prestige points. I kept expecting David Thewlis to show up, but no dice.
Strictly speaking, this might not matter. Having seen practically all of the Toho Godzillas (and much related fare), I can’t offhand think of a single stand-out performance save for those by Takashi Shimura, The Peanuts, and… does Raymond Burr count? (Of course it goes without saying that respect is due to Haruo Nakajima, Kenpachiro Satsuma, Tsutomu Kitagawa, and Katsumi Tezuka, among countless other unknown suit-actors.) The 2014 Godzilla looks good, anyways, having put some pounds back on the years since the 1998 Roland Emmerich outing, when he was unwisely sleeked down to imitate new-kid-on-the-block Jurassic Park. Real Godzillas have curves—anyhow, today’s stylistic flavor-of-the-week is a quasi-documentary style “sensory cinema” that at least provides for some new angles on an old monster. Others are not so measured in their reaction: in a piece at The Dissolve, David Ehrlich has labeled Edwards’s Godzilla “The first post-human blockbuster,” which begs the questions: (a) the first? and (b) is this actually, as Ehrlich’s concluding paragraph would have it, “exceptionally brave”?
Ehrlich concludes his analysis by noting that “the film climaxes by finally aligning the human POV with that of the titular monster”—and The Immigrant likewise ends with a shift in perspective, from Ewe to Bruno. I happen to think one is an immeasurably greater artistic achievement than the other but this is, as I’ve been saying, all a matter of perspective.