Thursday, September 19, 2013

Nocturnal Phenomenology

I first saw WE OWN THE NIGHT  years ago to battle a bout of insomnia. I thought the film would serve as enough of a distraction from my thoughts, but could also fade into background, calm me down and let me drift into sleep. Usually, when I'm tired, a film which requires me to follow a plot of us vs. them, or a thrilling scenario of classical categories, can be just the thing to soothe prescient worries of the day. In seeing something as familiar as THE GODFATHER I could be sure to lose my train of thought, but not myself, so I judged this other film would be close enough.

And while that was the expected result, there I was an hour later into the film, not only completely awake but deeply moved, anxious and out of breath. I felt enveloped by the very surface of the film, like another skin, or a singing breath in a language I didn't know but which made me tremble. There is, not only in WE OWN THE NIGHT but in all of James Gray films, a histrionic physicality, as if rain, light, a face, or the very night trembled with feeling and fell apart right in front of you as you are enveloped in the damage each image suffers.

I feel there isn't much lively discussion to be had about only the stories of each of his movies, as if TWO LOVERS could be considered an emotional film because its story pertained a 'damaged' man, a 'fuck up', who is torn apart between the love he feels for a woman he thinks is an outsider like him and another woman who wants to protect him, provide him safety from his own brokenness. While the story, as written, is itself a wonder (being written by Gray and Richard Menello ) of personal storytelling and classical, clear and concise dramatic construction, the events as seen and experienced in the screen rarely look, well, constructed. It's as if the story is in itself a great superstructure that the images, in carrying out the narrative could only shred it into chaos, hurt, and longing. Pure emotion.

It is in that sense that I consider James Gray not only one of the greatest filmmakers for his willingness and astounding ability to offer personal stories that are also classically constructed, but also for his simultaneous desire to present such pristine discourses as they crumble with each passing gesture. He doesn't deconstruct his narratives, he tears them apart.

Imagine you are listening to, say, Mozart's clarinet concerto in A major, in a large concert hall. The music swells and reaches you and you become part of it. But you do not drift with every note. You are not enveloped in the ongoing becoming of the music. You are instead all the sounds, and rather than flowing into a clear movement, a river of emotion,  you find yourself hovering and bouncing all over the place the way sound really behaves. There is a clear movement, and an emotion, but its being is revealed raw and there is no center, nothing to hold on to. Try to think of harmony then. Try to find that place of quietude.

But let's consider a few images that reflect what I'm trying to get at. In THE YARDS, for example, as a train goes underground, into a tunnel full of dark, or in WE OWN THE NIGHT, as the main character drives a car in a chase scene, surrounded by rain, mist, and shots fired at him, or in TWO LOVERS as two main characters dance at a club, he holds her close as he lightly kisses her neck, about to get lost into the sensuousness of their embrace when she wrenches herself away from him...

And so on. In WE OWN THE NIGHT, what we see before anything else is stock photographs of the police from the time the film will depict. Photographs that show the great toll a war between cops and drug dealers took on the city. There's one picture where an officer's jacket shows the name of their division, "We Own the Night", right before the picture of a dead body, and when we already see the action that follows this time set up we'll realize the hubris of such a title and the tragedy that entails choosing a side. Bobby, the main character, is forced to make the 'right' decision, and side himself with the law. He survives the ordeal and his father, who is chief of police, doesn't. But that isn't why the film is a tragedy. What Bobby loses is more than his father or his prior 'carefree' life. He loses the one person who did not belong to any sides, his beloved and his escape from the double bind. As a matter of fact, he also loses himself, his own singularity in a world that would not allow him to remain at the edges without choosing a side. The nature of this tragedy is clear enough to see after reflecting on the film, but its construction, the cause and effect of this narrative, is not the strength of the film. WE OWN THE NIGHT first has you feel the very weight of fate and of each turn that erases the possibility of love for Bobby. As long as he is not a soldier in this war, he is very much stuck in that chase scene, moving forward blind as outpours of rain and bullets swing by relentless. His choice is not so much an affirmative action, but rather a rejection of the chaos he cannot deal with anymore. It makes the ending of the film, an official affirmation of his position in society, a pathetic, sad moment.

In TWO LOVERS, there seems to be a similar relentless rhythm, taking the main character, Leonard, from scene to scene in heightening levels of frustration and longing. When he's with Michelle, the woman he is infatuated with, he is promised closeness. Every gesture of desire is towards embrace, towards a physical rest, and each time the gesture is to bloom, each time he is about to touch her, the embrace falls apart and the moment is lost. Even when he finally embraces the other woman, Sandra, who offers him safety and certainty, he comes to know, to feel that such embrace is also already broken, that his desire is never to be fulfilled.


  1. The car chase in the rain in "We Own The Night" is amazing - dark, chaotic and obscured, I couldn't believe how effective it was.

    Great article, Gray seems very unrecognized. R

  2. Yes, Roger, the chase scene is remarkable. It was shot on a sunny, quiet day, the rain and mist being added on post prod digitally. A great use of the technology if you ask me.
    Gray is the among the best working today, period. I read he's adored overseas though. There's a book about him and his methods, and where was it published? In France of course.
    Glad you liked the article, and more so, the films!