The Choice Images of James Gray

A gathering of the most moving, exquisitely lit, painterly, or else astutely functional images from within James Gray’s small but impressive oeuvre. There exist shots not included that may be more meaningful, but I have tried to skew towards those that largely speak for themselves, those nearly as aesthetically pleasing in static form as they are in motion accompanied by sound. Despite this, I will write a little for each shot, explaining its inclusion and perhaps providing deeper context as to the motivations of character and drama.

While taking screencaps, I found myself inundated with pictures from Two Lovers, while severely lacking some from Little Odessa and We Own the Night. Odessa would probably feature more prominently had a decent video ever been released, allowing me to better appreciate its colour, texture, and framing. As for WOTN, I’ve always found the film less striking visually (certainly following Savides’ anamorphic wonder The Yards), despite Gray’s ever-more-accomplished sense of classical film grammar. Rather, it has a stronger overall design (especially in relation to colour), whereas individual images for the most part don’t soar so highly. Or perhaps I am prejudiced against the taller, 16:9-ish widescreen ratios. In any case I legitimately first thought the blu-ray of WOTN I’d bought had been 2.35 with the sides cropped off as it looked imprecisely composed to me (and you know Miramax…). All this said, I think it’s a mighty handsomely lit movie. Case in point:

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Wowza. Here is the shot in motion, and it is the sexiest 5 seconds of film in recent memory. Wedged in the middle of a series of regular-motion, handheld party shots, Eva’s fashionably-late entrance of sorts amplifies the very purposeful sense of pleasure (that is to be stripped from these people) while attributing to her character a Goddess-like significance: In her slow-motion nonchalance and total sexual confidence she has mastered her own Dionysian universe that will never cease to be. The scene is not tainted with notes of inevitable ruin, Gray gives her and the rest this glorious moment. This is also an example of a very common visual motif in Gray: that of the harsh top-light draping faces in shadow, though usually to sinister (for the inscrutability of the eyes) rather than sensual effect. Watch as Eva is enveloped in shadow, the gold light defining her clavicles as the cigarette smoke snakes behind her. Ah!

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The following year, another of Gray’s women glides slowly towards the camera, but to entirely different effect. Oh, spoiler alert I guess (as if Gray could be spoiled). Actually, Gray has laced the entire film up to this point with dread, so you already know Phoenix isn’t going to elope with Paltrow and live happily ever after. But to focus on this scene in particular: Phoenix comes down to meet Paltrow as his parents’ New Year’s Eve party buzzes on, so a feeling of isolation is imbued in this cold, deserted courtyard, which is lit and graded in a palette of apple greens and emeralds that underscores this isolation and sourness in a way blues for instance could not in their lovelier melancholy. Phoenix is alone and anxious for a while, throwing pebbles at her window and whispering “please come” before the echoes of solemn footsteps signal her arrival. Every single beat of this scene is telling us “uh oh”, but this shot is that pit-of-your-stomach confirmation. Unlike Eva, Paltrow doesn’t move in slow motion, yet somehow the effect is achieved without it. She too is silhouetted, but almost entirely; only a fill light halfway down the alley gives us the vague glimpse we scramble for to know the expression on her face. She was never his, but here she is truly distant—a sullen, impenetrable shape bearing bad news.

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Speaking of sullen, impenetrable shapes. The first shot of Two Lovers is visually stark and simple, but by virtue of playing on the virginal mystery and sense of infinite possibility that are unique to the opening frames of every film before it necessarily coalesces, it also conjures a potent emotion. It is emphatically one of a deep, dire melancholy—yet we naturally have zero knowledge of who this man is or what he’s been through, or indeed if a major story event is occurring (typically the effect of slow motion as a formal device, though not for this director). Gray holds us in this moment of wallowing: a single bird helpfully confirms that slow motion has indeed been deployed while more importantly evoking the ethereal, cosmic poetry Gray is forever chasing (The Yards‘ space odyssey opening may have it beat on this), and then a yellow light enters the wide negative space of gorgeous teal sky, offsetting it majestically. It’s perhaps too literal to perceive the lights along the pier as vestiges of hope in a gloomy twilight world, but Gray is not one to be gratuitous: the lamps add a prettiness that tempers the morbidity. After all, Phoenix survives his plunge, and this anguished introduction deftly turns awkward comedy.

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The above, again from Two Lovers, is more “astutely functional” than, say, painterly—though nonetheless pleasing to the eye. Far from the modernism of a Yoshishige Yoshida, who plastered his films with bold, conspicuous ‘Scope compositions, Gray’s rare bit of extreme framing here works in the service of story: Phoenix’s parents are visually compartmentalised on the far left of the frame, denoting their emotional distance—that is, the distance Phoenix would rather keep them at as he goes against their wishes in pursuit of a more exciting time, while down the corridor to the right, as we see when the camera pans and thus eliminates the parents from sight, Phoenix escapes to his bedroom. Gray has already up to this point shot the apartment interiors intelligently, with a total comprehension of how its inhabitants move routinely or else as a foreigner through its tight spaces (or rather, he makes them tight), strategically placing the camera in ajoining rooms so the walls cover more space than bodies do (for instance, when Vinessa Shaw’s family visits). But this shot is more jarring, and to greater effect. Instantly, we feel removed from the parents, and Phoenix’s time with Paltrow weighs heavier as a precious secret. And what it tells us, actually very subtly, is that despite their vexation, the parents have remained seated rather than rushed to the door to badger Phoenix about his lateness. So reinstates their well-meaning, passive-aggressive approach to getting his life back on track. The devil’s in the details, as Gray often says.

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While I’m still on the subject of edge-framing… Actually, this is not one of my favourite Gray shots from a purely visual standpoint, but I’ve included it so that I may expound upon that which is so instrumental to his work, to his worldview. As we saw in The Yards as Marky Mark first ventured to rebuild his life at his uncle-in-law’s rail company, he is visually dwarfed by the factory itself, an idea perhaps inspired by Pakula’s own fascination with the individual as mouse caught within insidious political/capitalist networks. Rather more timeless than specifically modern, Gray’s notion is an existential one: those forces churning time immemorial, making playthings of us. Here, near the end of We Own the Night, Gray cuts back from the scuffle to minimise the pair within their frigid, desolate boardwalk surroundings, a sole streetlight an indifferent witness to their sad (but not petty, Gray is no asshole) drama. The mood is palpable. But such a shot achieves something as crucial to Gray’s dramaturgy as to his worldview: the deflation of melodrama. Melodrama as a genre is richest when the solipsistic is exposed, with the bathetic but not condescending puncturing of one’s emotional involvement at precise moments, an objective view. Without resorting to arch, Brechtian techniques (the closest the pleading looks into the camera of Two Lovers, phenomenally effective), Gray’s deftly subtle approach resurrects that of Visconti and his White Nights (obviously inspiration for Two Lovers), in which the high-flown drama in the foreground is frequently offset by the lovers, prostitutes, bums, and onlookers in the background. Examples of this plaster Gray’s work (most specifically the laughing kids watching the funeral in WOTN comes to mind), if Little Odessa to a lesser extent.

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This sombre end piece to the climactic sequence from Little Odessa attains a tableau-like poise, a tableau of death. Admittedly more effective in motion, the mournfully billowing sheets, less indifferent than the streetlight of the previous image, nonetheless (aided by the bass Buddhist chanting on the soundtrack) evoke that same regrettable senselessness. It is particularly so in that the younger brother was shot mistakenly by one there to defend his family, in one terrible moment that recalls the conversely very intentional killing not long into Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. It’s possible Gray is with this reference connecting the violence perpetrated against European immigrants by land barons as depicted in that film, to what could be their descendants’ ingrained disease of criminality—the sick capitalist justification of Gate breeds a yet more senseless era of men literally killing their own kin. But as an image it is arresting in terms of composition and line within the wide frame: Roth enters at the far right background, making his way past the first body up to his brother, where the sheet cuts vertically and with the other leads horizontally over to Moira Kelly on the far left (herself contorted in a fashion similar to Theron at the end of The Yards), creating an almost perspective wide “V” shape or rather an “L” if planted diegetically to the ground’s surface.

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At last, The Yards! I’m afraid my very limited comprehension of the fine arts will not do justice to this overwhelmingly painterly film; indeed something like 95% of its shots are figures (namely faces) sculpted in dramatic chiaroscuro lighting (and shadow) emphasising three-dimensional form, strongly evoking the Caravaggisti. Indeed it was Caravaggio who came instantly to mind the first time I saw The Yards, even despite my relative unfamiliarity. However, the pleasant if melancholy candlelit party near the beginning more particularly references the Baroque likes of Georges de La Tour, Trophime Bigot, and to a lesser extent Joseph Wright of Derby or even the much later Petrus van Schendel, each known for recurrently painting a single candle light source into the work itself (Caravaggio, conversely, seems to rarely if ever paint the actual source). If the latter two artists allow for more colour variety and compose at a greater distance (and Schendel favoured exterior settings to boot), then Gray’s scene better resembles the former two Frenchmen with their ochre palettes, but especially La Tour given the relatively undramatic content itself. It should be noted the DP was light extraordinaire Harris Savides, who later shot another enchanting candlelight scene for Glazer’s Birth. But why this one shot from Wahlberg’s party? The candle, sure. The palette. The grain. The four panel piece behind Wahlberg, some of the first floral designs in a film full of them. The cousin’s head positioned beside and lower, an oddly satisfying overall composition. But mostly it’s the feeling it generates being the reverse of Theron’s concerned gaze upon Wahlberg during his mother’s speech, the gentle pleasure of watching people watch.

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Much of the previous paragraph speaks to this incredibly luscious shot, more pointedly chiaroscuro for the intense drama inherent in the men’s looks, the Gordon Willis-like sculptural lighting.

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The emotional bulk of a performance in a Gray film is through wordless expression: thinking, crying, fiercely gazing faces in close-up. If the scene is central to this character, those around him do the talking. Gray and Phoenix’s working relationship thus makes sense, the latter as he is so capable of emoting on cue whereas delivering lines trips him up (his dopey mumbling, often resembling that of a half-wit, has been made great use of in his best films). What’s unique to The Yards is that when Phoenix’s inner turmoil takes centre stage, Harris Savides’ poetic lens flares supplement the tragic feeling. Likely the DP’s suggestion, flares are fairly absent in Gray otherwise, and for Savides more or less make up an entire career of ethereal light. Having said that, this is also the film that intermittently shorts out the power as in a horror film, and has the tense meeting between Caan and Wahlberg lit by a rotating beacon outside—effects so imbedded in the story as to surely be Gray’s doing. Flares typically form polygonal shapes, but Savides’ tend to be soft veiling hazes, the result of the light source treading the edge of the frame (look at Gerry, Finding Forrester). Though a coral horizontal beam flickers over Phoenix’s face upon hearing of Wahlberg’s aborted hit assignment (an effect that intensifies the moment while symbolising an irrevocable wound in their relationship), the scene of his arrest features the hesitantly enveloping blaze under discussion. What makes it sublime is the way the refracted light trembles as it lifts, in harmony first with Phoenix’s falling tear and then with his surrendering hands, as if the camera were also welling up with tears.

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The beauty of the simplicity of this shot should be readily apparent. Preceding the entry above, it marks the cessation of Phoenix’s luxurious life with this family, with Theron. In stillborn silence, he soberly places the keys on the table: so carefully as to arrange them in a rainbow spread, and as his hand retracts, to brush a finger against the clip in an act somewhere between clingy bereavement and the unavoidable sealing of one’s own fate. Gray, fully understanding the gravity of this moment, gives the keys and their placement the very centre of the wide canvas—otherwise blank but for the tablecloth’s subtle floral design—in a close bird’s eye shot. Immense character and narrative consequence pared down to a humble object-symbol; unpretentious for its literal function, and for its light treatment.

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I’ve paired this with The Yards‘ keys insert for the similarity of their narrative meanings. In a way, an inverse of that symbol but no less the resigning of Phoenix’s fate to a less than desirable life, the engagement ring (inside its box) initially intended for Paltrow is reclaimed from its resting place in the sand, to be now bequeathed unto parent-approved Vinessa Shaw. Of course, it works in conjunction with the glove (earlier gifted to him by Shaw) illustrating his recovery and capitulation immediately prior. Phoenix’s hand picks up the case in the foreground, where the focal point resides and remains as the camera pans up to show an increasingly bleary Phoenix lumber off aside the bokeh. An extremely unusual and thus surprising shot for Gray, its visually metaphorical purpose—that is, a sense of Phoenix’s dreams/youth, even soul, vanishing—explicates it. More accurately, they are left behind as he vanishes; though simultaneously the nebulous formation of a new man, the viewer, abandoned as opposed to tracking away with Phoenix in some fashion, feels the painful loss more strongly. So goes the technique that so gracefully exhibits Gray’s remarkable empathy where a lesser director would more objectively play up the not-insignificant self-delusional aspect of Phoenix’s tragedy.

  • Part 1 of my online contribution to the exploration and admiration of James Gray’s work, a podcast episode, resides over at They Shot Pictures here.
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