Monday, May 26, 2014

Lady Liberty's Bind

James Gray's films have in a way been exercises in reconstruction: whether it is to transport us to Brooklyn or Queens in the 80's, or to a more recent past in the same city, these reconstructions have not been only of a place or a milieu, but rather of conclaves. While great care is taken to give the viewer a sense of time and place, what renders his movies most realistic is the natural depiction of small groups of people, their associations and the way they frame an individual and his/her desires and choices made. The dramatic conflicts which  inhabit his films are not put forward by abstract societal or temporal stresses, but rather personal binds a character grasps in order to not get lost amid the chaos of his/her life, the chaos they conceive the world really to be. Yes, there is pathos in how individuals handle themselves in a world full of corruption, or amidst a war they don't understand, or when burdened by the memory of past failures and shortcomings, but the dramatic momentum, that force which gives itself raw and brings his movies to the height of tragedy, is among the beats of every discordant disconnection: a character's face, a viewer, realizing that the binds they chose to grasp are slowly tightening around them, trapping them with no way out without losing the very singularity they desired and fought to maintain.
In a book full of interviews with and about James Gray (I haven't read it yet-but if you got the dough...get it!), Jean Douchet writes:

          Plenty of filmmakers have 'ideas', but very few have a 'thought'. For instance,
          Quentin Tarantino has lots of ideas, and from time to time he has a thought,
          but it's not an immense one. On the other hand, it was clear from his very first
          film that James Gray was what we at CAHIERS called an auteur. You could
          immediately spot it...His work is marked by a highly emotional, sensitive and
          violent thought, channeled through a mise-en-scène that is rooted in classic
          auteur cinema. With each film, he returns to the same 'thought' over and over
          again: No matter what we do, our pasts are inescapable. It's the very definition
          of tragedy--the past, and the Gods, weigh upon us with all their might.

I've written about James Gray in general before, but now we have a new film of his, THE IMMIGRANT, which in critical ways seems like a transitional work, but one that is very much still preoccupied with the same thought: that the past is inescapable. Yet there are a couple of crucial differences between THE IMMIGRANT and his previous work. For one, the 'violent thought' Douchet addresses, which I see as a depiction and extension of the hubris characters in his other films suffer from, and the frustration stemming from those slashed, aching egos, is simply subdued. While violent things do happen, and there are human monsters, the burden of the film, and its propulsion, is not one of violence, ending towards exhaustion or resignation. What moves the machinery of the story forward, and it certainly doesn't move relentlessly as in previous films, is not hubris, but a surrendering of will. There is a change, from violent and naive thrusts against obligations (against the world, against whatever is an image), against whatever can bind a person, to a sense of approach to the world as if ready to suffer it, to not be victimized but to survive it.

This change can be derived from the film's center being a female character, something Gray hadn't done before. And yet, there is also total reciprocity among bodies and faces. If THE IMMIGRANT can be thought of as an opera, each major close up of Ewa or Bruno's face is an aria, and faces too sing to one another in duet.

And it is apt to say that Gray here more than directed really composed the film. Bodies in movement, quiet yet violent situations, faces in sharp focus in contrast to a world that seems to literally break into dust, sensuous and out of grasp, images that do not cut from one to the other but fade in and out, bleed into each other in an episodic narrative. Events fade in and out, like a tide coming and going, a sort of dream.

While it is a period piece, the film is no spectacle (as in, it doesn't rely on the spectacular). It is, however, full of little pretensions, little plays. The film is a meticulous reconstruction of a time period, but we do not get a general glimpse of the past, of New York. There is no "look at this world we made for this movie" attitude. The pretension is elsewhere. Ewa begins work as a sewing girl for a theater troupe but shortly thereafter is forced to change work to that of prostitution, and it is clear from the get go that the little play the women put up, where they each represent a different nation, is but a presentation meant to titillate, to work as a thinly veiled exhibition of women as goods to be bought for a night. The cruelty of this presentation is all the clearer once Ewa is dressed as Lady Liberty and forced upon an audience of men who do not do anything but sneer derisive expressions of desire. Ewa can hardly take the mistreatment, and in the hands of a less able filmmaker and actor, the moment would have seem a didactic irony or moral symbolism. Diversity here is presented as a cruel ruse, and without the slightest hint of irony, of a great moral lesson in place. Later in the film, when Bruno is again presenting women to be bought for pleasure, he gives them all titles from American aristocratic families, in another cruel touch that is ignored both by the actors being sold and the targeted audience. It is a cruel, sick joke and pretension that seems to not satisfy anyone, and yet speaks to their yearnings: the possibility to be welcomed as both a part of a multicultural society and an olden, American, nativist aristocracy.

Waiting to see the film, when I first heard of Gray's production and his personal ties to the story (the film is partly based on stories his grandmother had told him about their arrival to America), Elia Kazan's AMERICA AMERICA was on my mind. A.O. Scott for the NYT also had the film in mind, and with good reason. James Gray has also been asked about similarities between the two films, to which he was responded that beyond both films having Ellis Island in them there are no similarities. And while I agree, THE IMMIGRANT is a very different film, I honestly feel it is easier to speak about its merits if seen as part of a conversation with Kazan's film. Both films present contrasting views of America from immigrant eyes.

 Kazan's film is one of great optimism, where America is a promise, and arriving, a baptism. On arrival one is cleansed from all shame, all sin, and therefore whatever one did to get to America ceases to matter. The arrival is what counts, and our purpose is to strive on to bring those who are far to the same type of redemption. We see the hero of Kazan's epic journey through and suffer various trials and tribulations, and commit as many objectionable acts all in service of his single minded goal: to arrive to America, and be cleansed of the very shame the acts he's committed bring. His journey is long, the kind that could make anyone look back and think he's lived a few lives already. Each new trial is taken as seriously as the last, and is rendered realistically, each instance with its own dramatic arc. The realistic, sharp depiction of landscapes and surroundings are as important as the internal struggles of the hero.
In Gray's film, arrival is the beginning, and every tie to one's past or one's family is rather exacerbated. There is no escape from the past. Rather, the past rears its head and clutches. One does not arrive at a 'new world', but to one that is already occupied, where the game is rigged and there is no purpose but survival. Ties are not historical, or tribal, or racial, they are almost fantastical, religious. This is not the stuff of myth (of 'what makes America America'), but of tragic understanding.
To me this was clearest at the beginning of the film, where the world titters, and the very image seems to be breaking into dust, lost forever. With its color palette, malnourished and yet reminiscent of a romanticized past, it gives a sense both of a distant past and of a desperate present where nothing can be grasped. It is the visual depiction of uncertainty, of dreams falling apart instead of coming into place. And yet, contrasting this tittering, this breaking into dust, there are faces in close up, sharp and in front of us, present to us, but themselves lost, strangers to a new world, and yet singing with every pained gesture of uncertainty.

Ewa doesn't act as if her past is her fate, as if she fears her past irreversible, or erasable. She bounds herself to it because she feels how fragile it is. Her past is inescapable because she chooses to suffer that burden, to not lose herself in a new world that could only commodify her and ask her to put on a charade. Her family that have already settled in America refuse to give up their ties to the new structure they belong to. They hold on to their newly gained honor, pride, class: a house, a status, a position in society. Her chosen bind is of another kind. While it undermines tangible structures already in place (a group of workers, never mind what work), or her settled family, it intensifies an unseen body, a filial journey, a promised life to be lived in pursuit of her own happiness. Her own subjection is akin to a surrendering to faith,  a promise.

Kazan and Gray have in common their place in the story they are telling. They go back into the past in order to tell a story which directly relates to their place in America. Kazan, however, becomes a narrator within the story, as if trying to explain his existence as an American, as the fulfillment of that promise, that yearning his ancestors had when coming here. Gray's stance is, in contrast, ambivalent. He fills his story with settled newcomers, people who in one way or another form part of a structure already in place, having laid claim to their stake of some American dream. And he sets against them a new force, a new life, a human being who is bent not pursue a life dictated to her....his is a tragedy without heroes, hence without a final, physical death. As such, tragedy is boiled down to being about inescapable impulses, forces which fracture life. Mary Renault, in her book "The Mask of Apollo", writes:
                            All tragedies deal with fated meetings; how else could there be a play?
                            Fate deals its stroke; sorry is purged, or turned to rejoicing; there is death,
                            or triumph; there has been a meeting, and a change. No one will ever make
                            a tragedy--and that is as well, for one could not bear it-whose grief is that the
                            principals never met."

Renault here refers to the grief of realizing Plato and Alexander the Great, who while being characters who shared so many historical and philosophical ties,  never met even though they, in hindsight, can only seem to be fated to meet. Kazan's film, not being a tragedy, can only hint at this type of non-meeting. Tony Morrison also noticed in Kazan's ending that curious non-meeting. While the hero, Stavros, has already arrived, kissed the ground beneath his feet and gone straight to work and dream of bringing his family to America one by one, we can see a new character, a black boy, who is trying to pursue the same dream but is denied work and put on the street. The two characters never meet, and are rather forced not to face one another. Stavros is in the end complicit, or at least happy in his ignorance, of a system which oppresses others. However resonant the ending of Kazan's movie is, the point cannot seem but an ironic curiosity. There is no great insight, or emotional underscoring of the situation.

Gray's ending is on the other hand both memorable and searing. Previous films by Gray had ended in enclosure. Central characters, despite their fight against the ties which bind them, their refusal to submit, in the end surrender themselves to their fate, awakened to their frustration. They are trapped in ceremony. It is remarkable that in THE IMMIGRANT you have an image both of openness and enclosure. Two simultaneous fates, fueled by the same lucid understanding. Ewa gets to get off the island, toward an openness, and Bruno stays behind, enclosed and unable to get out. Two simultaneous, contrasting fates (like the two faces of a coin, of a history), fueled by the same need for redemption.
It is a remarkably different idea for Gray, but it is still the same thought. Renault was right, just to see this sort of departure is already close to unbearable. The grief is almost too much. It is a sad and beautiful thought.

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