Dark Victories

60-Year-Old Polish Guy Tells All

"I'm the slowest guy ever," says James Gray, explaining why it took him six years to follow up Little Odessa with The Yards. "People wanted to work with me, but they wanted to do it on their terms." Gray was 24 and fresh out of USC film school when he made Odessa. He's since discovered that youth isn't always a plus. "It helps to get the movies made because the culture's so horrendously youth-obsessed. But it can work against me critically. There's a temptation for people to expect jolly or at least more pop-oriented movies from someone my age. I wonder if the reception would be different if I were a 60-year-old Polish guy."

Cannes, where The Yards premiered to a mixed response this year, seems to be a touchy subject for the amiably neurotic Gray. "I vowed after that never to put a movie in competition again. I think it's dangerous to care about awards, and I hate myself for caring." He says that reviews, even raves, are a great source of anxiety. "It never gets easier to read that you suck—they may be right. I have to reach a more Zen position of caring less."

In the next breath, he's offering—with decidedly non-Zen-like consternation—a revisionist take on Little Odessa: "When I watched the movie again for a DVD commentary, I was embarrassed. It struck me as the work of an intensely depressed person. The funny thing is, I was trying to do that with The Yards, a completely tragic ending, and people say, oh, but it's happy. I wanted it to be the darkest thing ever and I feel like I've fucked up." When he's not agonizing over his own work, Gray seems to be tortured by the looming death of cinema. "I worry that movies are like opera. They've peaked and the art form is dying. Everyone's heralding digital video, but forget what you think about Dancer in the Dark—don't look like a movie to me."

Gray received his film education in New York revival houses, and it shows. "Rocco and His Brothers changed my life," he says. "The Yards has a lot of stuff that completely rips off Rocco. The fight scene between Joaquin and Wahlberg, I just lifted it. Coppola stole from Rocco for The Godfather. I think it's OK to steal. People say, your movie owes a lot to The Godfather and actually, it owes a lot to Rocco. I guess it's because James Caan is also sitting in a dark brown room in The Yards."

Gray's pet subject: all-time favorite movies ("There are probably five Italian films on my Top 10, three Japanese films"). He presses me for mine; I settle on Vertigo and he launches into a passionate monologue: "Vertigo is so completely brilliant. Let me tell you about Vertigo. My perspective, not that you care. I first saw Vertigo as a double feature with Rear Window. I think I was 14. I loved Rear Window, didn't like Vertigo. Three days later, I was still thinking about it. I became obsessed with Vertigo. It was James Stewart driving around for an hour, it seemed boring to me after Rear Window. But I couldn't forget it. So I went back and saw it five times. It's a virtually humorless, perfect, perfect movie."

I have more questions for him, but he's decided that we should talk movies for the remainder of the interview. Having covered plenty of ground—from Tati to Tarkovsky—he's still at it when his publicist drags him away. "Are you ready to lose all respect for me?" he says with a grin. "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me—that was absolutely brilliant!"

 
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