Let’s be modest: in France, film criticism is a tradition. The first French film review dates back to 1908. By 1918-1920, people began calling cinema an art form. By 1946, a new generation of critics, including André Bazin, began trying to define what cinema was. And by the 1950s, when we at the Cahiers du Cinéma attempted to define what an auteur was, we kept coming back to the notion that an auteur was a director whose thought expressed itself on the screen.
This reminds me of what my father used to tell me: “Everyone can have a hundred ideas a day. But what counts is to have one idea, and to take it as far as possible each day.” In other words, to have a thought. And the more I think of it, the more I believe that art is, in fact, thought. It’s the manifestation of our imagination through thought - not necessarily the rationality of thought, but the magnitude by which thoughts can express both our conscious and unconscious selves. 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 the Cahiers called an auteur. You could immediately spot it. And after four films, it’s been confirmed. 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 you do, our pasts are inescapable. It’s the very definition of tragedy - the pasts, and the Gods, weigh upon us with all their might. All of James Gray’s films consist of one or several characters looking to escape their pasts and liberate themselves, knowing all the while they will never do any such thing. If Visconti in The Leopard employed the maxim: “Everything must change so that nothing will change”, in James Gray’s movies the maxim could be: “We want everything to change, but we know that it cannot.”
The past in James Gray’s world means Family - Family in the sense of a mother, father and/or brother, but also family in a larger sense that reflects American society as a whole, with its notions of good and evil, and the idea that every good deed carries its own evil within it. While family may provide the foundation of love, it also suffocates us with its one original sin: it curtails freedom.
In The Yards, Family is defined by the broader clans of politicians and contractors, with each character shuffling to find their place as they march toward their doom. In Little Odessa, Tim Roth character escapes his family by eliminating them, while in We Own the Night, Joaquin Phoenix character is relentlessly brought back to his family, where he winds up replacing his father. And in Two Lovers, the mother played by Isabella Rosselini lets her son go, knowing however that he’ll soon return, that he’s incapable of leaving home.
Tragedy in James Gray’s films is also manifest in the way he uses action not to advance the plot, but to plunge us deeper into its emotional core. He’s constantly revealing the impossibility of making an “action” film (in the American sense of the term). With the prototypical American film the hero acts to erase the past in order to reach the future, and one could caricature the whole of American cinema as one long sequence of a car chasing another car, as the past recedes into the background.
But in the chase scene in We Own the Night, instead of driving away from the past, the hero heads right into it. His actions are blocked - in fact, he can’t act at all. All action has been withheld, and the hero’s goals are never, in the end, resolved, but left to hang there: the suspense is forever suspended. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, James Gray gives us a car chase where there’s no real chase, because in his world such a chase simply cannot happen.
While the characters remain blocked by their pasts, they’re also trapped within James Gray’s ironclad use of cinematic framing. As a director, he has reduced his style to the essential - to the frame as the purest expression of his thought. It’s a style that was born with Griffith, then developed by Murnau, and finally perfected by John Ford: if one is not in the frame, one does not exist. There is no hors-champ, no world beyond the limits of the frame, and the more he progresses, the more James Gray utilizes the frame and the frame only as a narrative tool.
This is particularly apparent in Two Lovers, in the scene where Sandra talks to Leonard in his bedroom. Initially, she’s framed at different angles, but during the scene’s crucial moment - where he tells her about the wife he once loved but ultimately lost - Sandra is shown exactly at the center of the frame. For Leonard, this means quite simply that there is no escaping the woman that both his past and family will force him to love, and the mise en scène lays her bare before him. She is the target of anyone’s desires but his own.
If the frame is James Gray’s single most potent cinematic tool, he occasionally uses other techniques - slow-motion, etc. - but only out of pure necessity, and he employs shots/counter-shots in such a way that nothing ever leaves the frame. While most contemporary American Filmmakers are concerned with destroying the frame or exteriorizing it via irony, he does the opposite, enclosing the totality of his art within the frame itself.
Many will deem such a style classical, but I find it to be the opposite. For modernity in cinema is less about inventing something new - an idea which has obsessed Hollywood for the last few decades - than about returning to the past to build upon cinema’s foundations. The films of James Gray, both in their thought and expression, are classic works which reinvent our concepction of classicism. They are, therefore, entirely modern.
With auteurs like him, the cinema will never die. Moreover, an art that had waited for millions of years to exist, an art directly founded upon lives that are captured and recorded, will never cease as long as life itself continues. As for how such an art is utilized, that’s another story.
 In French, the term “pensée” can signify “thought,” but also a “body of thought,” a “way of thinking,” or a “set of beliefs.”