Will James Gray’s ‘Lowlife’ Be a Return to Cinematic Sincerity?

GetInline(1) James Gray

At the Marrakech International Film Festival, one thing was clear: Parisians love James Gray.

Asked if it’s because he has European sensibilities, the Queens-born director disagreed. “I’m a very American director,” he said. “But I should have been making films in 1976. Coppola, Kubrick, Scorsese, Altman — American film was the best in the world then. But we lost that.”

As a child of the ’70s, Mr. Gray became obsessed with the era’s cinema. Like the works of that time, his movies show an “obsession with social class” (or so his wife says). And that obsession will be on full display next year, when he releases his fifth feature, tentatively titled “Lowlife.”

The film, set on the Lower East Side and Ellis Island in the 1930s, was filmed in part in the East Village last February as well as on a Bronx street that resembled the Lower East Side during its grittier days. But the work has nothing to do with Luc Sante’s Bowery-focused history, “Low Life.”

“‘Moron,’ ‘cretin,’ ‘lowlife’ were actual Ellis Island designations. You didn’t want to be a lowlife,” Mr. Gray explained.

GetInline-1(1)Carlo Lavanga

Following Jim Jarmusch’s advice, the director phoned Mr. Sante about the title. The former East Villager didn’t want to see it used, nor did the studio, but Mr. Gray wants to go ahead with it anyway, he said.

“Lowlife” isn’t the first time the auteur has turned his lens on the immigrant underworld. His first film, “Little Odessa,” was a family drama about the Russian mafia in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. He brought it to Venice Film Festival in 1994. “The theater was half full and after it screened one person clapped,” he said. “I took a flight back to New York and someone greeted me with a sign saying, ‘Call this number.’ I had won the Silver Lion Award and got back on a plane to Venice.”

At the age of 25, the experience made him think he was the greatest thing in the world. “Then I made my second film,” he laughed.

“The Yards” is a fantastic film about family, crime and corruption centered around the Queens rail yards. Despite a cast that included Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix and James Caan, it did not do well commercially.

Mr. Gray next went to late-’80s Brooklyn, again with Mr. Wahlberg and Mr. Phoenix, in the near-perfect caper “We Own the Night.”

His next film, “Two Lovers,” dropped the gunplay for romance. It also starred Mr. Phoenix, who, instead of promoting the film, angered Mr. Gray by growing a beard, becoming a rapper and acting crazy for a year. “He thinks he’s a better actor now,” said the director, who made it clear he loves Mr. Phoenix. “But I don’t think he is.”

In “Lowlife,” Mr. Phoenix returns as a downtown sleaze ball, Jeremy Renner plays a magician, and French actress Marion Cotillard is a burlesque dancer. Mr. Gray said he wanted to work with Ms. Cotillard only after she disagreed with something he had said by throwing a piece of bread at his head.

“She’s interesting,” he thought.

The film was inspired in part by old family photos. “A few were from a trip to Ellis Island in 1976,” Mr. Gray said. He realized no one had ever really filmed the island, though over 40 percent of Americans have descendants who passed through there. Research began. Soon he was using a yellow legal pad, his writing method, and drafting what became “Lowlife.”

Mr. Gray hopes the film will be a respite from a lack of sincerity that pervades this “ironic era” in American city. He quoted George Eliot: “The purpose of art is to expand sympathies.”

Referring to another Queens boy, Spiderman, he noted that when you make a movie for a hundred million you can’t address social issues. “Kubrick said he wished all movies were daring and sincere,” he said. “These days there’s daring but much less sincerity.”