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Director James Gray in real time 

James Gray’s new romantic drama Two Lovers harkens back to previous generations of emotionally realistic movies.

James Gray agrees when he is told that a romantic drama, like his film Two Lovers, is a rare breed in mainstream film. On the phone from his office in LA, he explains that the ridiculous behaviours that come with being in love are better suited to comedy than serious drama. So, how did Gray inject the story of troubled Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), torn between needy Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and devoted Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), with the appropriate dramatic tension?

"What is dramatic in life is life-and-death scenarios, really," he says. "In other words, if the character in the movie walks around going, 'If this happens it'll be fine, but if this happens it'll be fine too,' then the tension in the movie is nil."

Gray, previously known for The Yards and We Own the Night, speaks with a deep, Queens-inflected voice---"My parents moved to Queens so I could have a backyard, but I never had a backyard, I only had an alleyway"---that sounds like something out of his cop dramas. Two Lovers, with its romantic storyline, is a departure from his previous two films.

"It's like a dream, almost like a sad dream. I wanted the film to feel almost haunted," Gray says of Two Lovers, which he wrote with Richard Menello. It was a collaboration over the phone according to Gray: "It's a good thing to do because I get to have my distance and when the phone call's over I can hang out with my wife and my children."

Two Lovers succeeds in conveying characters who can be believed to have lived lives before the story begins. The film has such a deeply intimate quality it's hard to believe it does not stem autobiographically from Gray.

"People always want to see if you're revealed in the film, they always want to know how truthful it is to your life," he says. "The answer is that it's not at all truthful to me in any factual way. You know, I never almost dated a crazy blonde women who screwed me over," referring to Leonard and Michelle's relationship in the movie. "That never happened to me. But the emotions of it are what you care about. The emotions of it are personal to me. I was certainly interested in an emotional honesty. That was quite important to me."

Aside from being a drama in a sea of romantic comedies, Two Lovers is distinct for its bare emotionality, which Gray culled from 1950s and '60s European films and 1970s American films.

"They tended to treat the characters with greater respect," he says. "They tended to make the film with an eye towards a more emotional honesty and with an understanding of life's more melancholy movements. I mean, you would never describe most of what comes out from American movies as melancholy or moving emotionally. You would describe it probably as glib."

Gray touches on his perceived shift in tone in American movies from sincere to ironic, and has his own notions about why this may be the case: perhaps the film business is too big to risk its investment on searing emotional pictures; perhaps critics value irony more these days and find emotionality "vulgar." But, if anything, the trend towards the glib and ironic is evidence that there is no permanence in any artistic movement---that, as emotional honesty was valued in 1970s American movies, a hip awareness is valued today.

"I always thought I was mainstream. But what I found was that I never left the mainstream, the mainstream left me," he says. "The mainstream has tended to become ironic, distant, cold, everyone's an idiot, everyone is the source of a good joke and I don't feel good about it. I think, to me, it doesn't allow art to be transcendent.

"It's just the movies that I like and the thing that helps me cope with being a person. If the movie treats the characters with a glib insincerity, then how does that help us? How is that supposed to move us?"


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