Feb 14, 2009

On Two Lovers

By Evan Louison

When the confines of family are what the American life asks us to find comfort within, it is a comfort from the strain and relentless obstacles of our everyday struggles. We seek loving arms to soothe our brittle skins. Family is the name these arms are supposed to wear on both sleeves, and that comfort is said to be eternal.

Still though, there is that strain. At times those arms may try to hold us so tight that we are left with little in the way of an escape for our desires, for the strength of these confines is unbearable --- it is eternal.

If there can be anymore perfect a questioning of the care and love of family when it comes to how our desires come to treat us, and how we treat those we desire, James Gray’s Two Lovers is it. While many will decry the actions of his characters as childish, or even as one fellow voice referred to them, “suffocating” --- we should look no further than Gray’s picture to find the mystery of love as it finds us, escapes us, and tries to help us in ways that make us run from it.

There is a scene in Two Lovers where Joaquin Phoenix’ Leonard is stuck outside a club in Manhattan, not allowed back in, and dejectedly accepts just to go home, call it a night. He lives in Brooklyn South and is waiting for someone who isn’t coming out, a woman who will nearly be his undoing. He holds up his hand and calls for a taxi only to take his hand down again and turn away. “Who’am I kidding, I can’t take a taxi…” he mutters and trudges slouched down the street towards the train. It’s these kinds of choices in the story for only a second of time that serve to make the work feel on the cusp of something real, warm and living. Without granting its characters these spare moments, cold and yet more human than we might come to expect, common thought would direct us to critique Gray's work on its superficial graces alone. These stories are not romanticized New York situations soaked in archaic drama and they are not the blistering, unflatteringly flat lives of America’s roaring teenage twenties. Gray trades in classically painted pathologies, yet unlike his previous works, which are bathed in violence, this one is painted with lust and want. All Gray's protagonists search for something, some kind of redemption. As Mark Whalberg’s character Leo in The Yards says to his mother, “I know I can never redeem myself…”, we believe more and more that he should and will try to do just that.

When asked about the film, Gray referenced Shakespeare’s Measure to Measure for its portrayal of a dilemma that shakes a character’s life. In the play, Isabella, a nun, is broached with the position of having to plead for her brother’s life to an authority not her own. Her brother Claudio has been sentenced to death for fornication, and it is only up to Angelo, the judge who has the power to grant clemency in the case. When she goes and makes her petition known, Angelo’s response is an impasse for her. As Gray puts it, “He says, sure I’ll spare your brother’s life. But you’ve gotta fuck me first.” After a short pause he raises one hand and says, “That’s perfect.”

The dilemma of the character Leonard, played with ferocious, awkward and nervous intensity by Joaquin Phoenix (topping a triumvirate of progressively intense performances under Gray’s direction), is clearly decipherable from the moment we first meet him, staggering towards ill-fated attempts at an escape from the life he seems stuck so helplessly in, across the Sheepshead Bay footbridge in Brighton Beach. This is a young man, trapped in a situation of a loving, caring family that wants what’s truly best for their child, and truly thinks they know what that is - to marry into the clan. Leonard's parents, played by the intangible, pitch perfect Isabella Rosellini and Moni Moshonov, believe they've found their son a suitable wife. Played by the wonderful Vinessa Shaw (remember Hocus Pocus?) It is up to Leonard to decide, is it this world or the next one which begs his presence? Which can he want more?

Leonard seems destined to blindly love and desire, tempting destruction by the other side, the unknown represented in the fleeting, mysterious love of Gwneth Paltrow’s Michelle. Hers is a beauty that is as elusive as she is calmly frustrating to observe. Leonard’s desire is tenfold upon every refusal and brushing off he experiences in chasing her, his every growing frustration paramount to nothing else except the watchful and misguided gaze of his mother. Rossellini isn’t really as “shrill” as one other observer called her recently, but actually quite insightful in understanding the true benevolence that exists in every old-fashioned parent’s wishes for their child.

I find myself surprised as to not have a single hesitant ounce in me that is ashamed to admit I am touched and questioned by the work of James Gray. There is something in his work that yearns for more than the physicalities of our everyday, of our bodies, and our need for comfort. Yes, of course I question the overbearing masculinity of his work, and the archetypical nature of his stories’ women (they are usually either Queen Mother or Seductress). But all the more I question the reasoning behind those who would refute the use of such archetypical roles in his films as unnecessary or antique, as “overbearing.” It is foolish to expect that we are free of these characters in our modernity, that these questions bear no important need to be examined yet again. We should not find his worldview to be poisonous or old fashioned, we should understand it as it wishes to be understood --- as something recurrent in us like a old feeling swept under the rug of our intelligence and stirred up again, to flash in our face by yearnings and the puzzling times they may breed for us.