There are probably a great many directors who could claim to be “New York directors” or directors of “New York movies”. Plenty of auteurs film in the Big Apple, sure, but true New York movies have more than just the location and the accent. They have the feel, dumb as it sounds. Martin Scorsese is the name most likely to crop up in the present conversation, and in fact the case with Scorsese is such that the relationship might occasionally become reversed: Scorsese made his name depicting “New York things”, and he got so good at it that certain “Scorsese things” are now taken lock, stock and barrel as “New York things”. Take this simple, unadorned, stage-setting shot from James Gray’s debut feature Little Odessa:
Doesn’t something about that just scream Scorsese? The obvious comparisons are there in the smokiness, the coloring, the detail in the clothing and the food on the tables. The neon sign in the window. But the staging and perspective, too, seem to recall Scorsese’s camera. This is one of the more straightforward examples of such influence on the young James Gray, but the point isn’t to highlight how Gray made Little Odessa on the foundations laid by guys like Scorsese – he didn’t, and it’s clear even in this debut feature (made when Gray was just twenty-five) that his style is a distinct one largely free of ties to any cinematic giants of note. And the point isn’t even to prove that James Gray is deserving of a prominent rank amongst New York directors like Scorsese, although he is. The point, for now, is that Gray crafted Little Odessa as a New York movie, crafted it with that New York feel, and he did so for a very specific reason.
Little Odessa is about the Shapira Family, primarily the eldest son Joshua. Joshua, played by Tim Roth, is an outsider. He’s been under a sort of exile from Little Odessa – the colloquial name for Brighton Beach in Brooklyn – in the wake of crimes he’s committed. Though these crimes are never detailed or explained, it becomes pretty clear within the first few minutes what kind of guy Joshua is. He shoots two people on the street in broad daylight with not an inkling of hesitation, one for money and one in the spur of the moment after the guy recognizes him. He’s what we might call a cold bastard. That’s not a particularly grandiloquent descriptor, but it does have the advantage of being true.
And now he’s back in Little Odessa. His younger brother Reuben, played by Edward Furlong, is pretty happy about this. His father, played by Maximilian Schell, is not. His mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave, is old and sick and senile so she hardly notices Joshua’s return at all. The Shapiras are Russian immigrants, as were large populations of the Brighton Beach area at that time (possibly still today, though I don’t know), and Joshua’s hardcore connections are mainly through Russian-American mobsters. There’s one gangster in particular who wants him dead, so Joshua’s return to Little Odessa isn’t a valiant prodigal-son-returns jaunt around the old neighborhood but rather a sneaky, temporary slip back into the youthful hinterland.
“Where are you gonna go?” people keep asking him throughout Little Odessa. They mean after he leaves Brighton Beach, because he sure as hell can’t stay around here. When Reuben asks him Joshua shrugs and changes the subject. When an old girlfriend poses the question: “Back to Russia,” he jokes. They’re talking about belonging, and it’s in this idea that Joshua might be caught; he belongs in Little Odessa because it’s where he grew up, but he doesn’t belong there anymore because of his actions. Is it still his home? If not, where is his home? A particularly harrowing scene prompts Joshua’s father to state it bluntly: “Even you must know there’s nowhere you can go anymore.”
By the end of Little Odessa, Joshua has lost everything. His ailing mother has succumbed and passed, his father has sold him out to the aforementioned Russian mobster, and Reuben is caught in the middle and met with a tragic end. So by the end of Little Odessa, Joshua is essentially an outcast three times over: he’s no longer able to return to Russia (the home of his blood) nor to Little Odessa (his new home), and his family (which, with no small amount of sentimentality, we might recognize as his real home) is ultimately taken from him as well. He’s destined to be the outlier, and the final shot of Little Odessa sees him sitting alone and motionless in his parked car. Where Joshua could possibly go from there is anyone’s guess.
So filming Little Odessa as a “New York movie” – whether or not that was a conscious effort on Gray’s part, whether or not we even agree on a definition of “New York movie” – ties into this beautifully, because New York feels like Joshua’s home. Gray’s camera is a very different beast than, say, Scorsese’s camera; a scene that Scorsese would likely film with fluidity is approached with a more stationary perspective, although a few brilliant camera sweeps into a sewer and down a hallway and across a long table should also be appreciated. It’s a remarkably taut and well-defined debut, though, and the fact that Gray’s first feature work can even be mentioned in the same breath as Scorsese’s shows how sure his hand is throughout the film. Most of Gray’s work (he only has five films to date) is set in New York, but Little Odessa is likely the best example in his filmography of that elusive, nebulous, inexact, extremely rare piece of art: the true New York movie.