James Gray On Why Cannes Winners Are Boring

While many true film lovers take each film on its own merits and can enjoy blockbusters and art house films with equal measure, but there are audiences who – be it by taste, upbringing, peer pressure or social circles – have firmly planted their flag in one camp or another. Some will turn their noses up at the mere hint of something arty or pretentious, while others will crow about their easy dismissal of empty soulless studio toy commercials.

You’ll find plenty of the latter annually salivating over the list of films that have made it into competition at the Cannes Film Festival every year. They will be people also quite familiar with the work of James Gray, the director who has had four films of his at the fest: “The Yards,” “We Own The Night,” “Two Lovers,” and “The Immigrant”.

In a new interview for Film Comment (via Robert Pattinson Au), Gray was asked about the mixed reception to “The Immigrant” and how it was deemed “unreleasable in certain quarters.” Gray responded with a long answer about the use of narrative and how, in a way, the Cannes critics are often just as stuck in formulaic thinking as those who only watch blockbusters – it’s just a different formula:

Because [‘The Immigrant’] adheres to some aspects of classical narrative form, but not all. I have a sort of bigger philosophy about the movies, which is that the cinema essays of Godard are obviously extremely important in the continuum, but…he did them already. No one else can follow him doing that. It’s sort of like someone who comes along and tries to do a drip painting — it’s like, uh, ok, that happened already, so what are you doing? So I feel like that moment has passed, and my own obligation is to revisit traditional forms of storytelling but almost double down on the emotion of it.

In other words, we’ve now acknowledged that our indulgence in narrative is a bulls–t fantasy that we require. We’ve deconstructed it. Okay, good. So now what? We can just go ahead and say the fantasy is nonsense and bullshit, so then fine, you can just kill yourself now. What’s important is that now that we’ve acknowledged that the fantasy is bulls–t — that our need for narrative, our need for the extension of sympathy, is some kind of extension of our our desires — now we have to delve even further into that fantasy. And in my view, and this is not a popular one, a lot of film criticism out of Cannes, for example, is filled with critics who are stuck in 1968. And still want to see the deconstruction.

….So that’s why the Palme d’Or winners and the films perceived as great out of Cannes are generally movies with very little staying power and are incredibly boring to watch. And it’s why there’s this terrible feedback loop of critical response in Cannes, which are in some ways every bit as cliched as ‘Batman v Superman.’ Handheld camera, austere, working class…I’ve been a juror, and you can smell them a mile away. It’s a joke almost.”

Gray admits it’s also possible that his movie “just stinks,” but says The Weinstein Company effectively shelved the movie following Cannes and only gave it a nominal release after being pressured to get it out there. Gray adds: “If you say cinephiles like the film now, that’s great, tremendously gratifying. But in some ways it hurts, because where was everybody in 2013 in Cannes?.”