As testament to the generosity of Ira Sachs’s cinema, witness an early scene from the writer-director’s recent, masterful feature Forty Shades of Blue, in which Memphis-based singer J. Blackfoot takes the stage at a musical tribute, spreads his arms wide and welcoming, and good-naturedly commands the audience to “Show your love!” It’s an order for empathy that lacks any trace of condescension and it parallels the demands Sachs’s films (which include various shorts and only one other feature, The Delta) make on his viewers. I think there’s an implicitly cynical vibe that runs through today’s movie audiences, be they critics or casual patrons, a feeling that everything has been seen and that only a sledgehammer surprise can shock us out of our senses-dulled complacency. Yet surprise is one of the arts’ more overrated aspects—we need less momentary jolts akin to intravenous caffeine infusions (films that finally flatter our own passive disengagement from them) than we do whole new ways of seeing (films that require of us a commitment to and participation in their each and every waking moment). Forty Shades easily falls into the latter category, detailing the disintegration of a relationship and the birth of a self-aware individual with a vividness, clarity and emotional precision entirely unique to its creator. In this critic’s opinion it’s a film for the ages and in anticipation of its first-run release I met with Ira at his office in downtown Manhattan.
I had the chance to watch some of your short films, which was helpful as I was only familiar with your two features The Delta and Forty Shades. I especially enjoyed the video portrait of your father Get It While You Can: My Father in Moscow in which there’s a line of dialogue that I think is key to approaching your filmography. It’s when your father turns to you and says, “It’s all vicious, but true.”
[Laughs] That’s really nice, I like that.
I think that gets at what I really love about your movies.
I’ve never done anything with Get It While You Can and I really like it because it’s a portrait film and I’ve always been really interested in portraiture. I’m interested in how to present a heroine or hero, much like Henry James in that it’s an almost psychoanalytic reading of the characters.
Without the psychobabble.
Well, I don’t connect psychoanalytic with psychobabble. I deeply respect psychoanalysis and I don’t think of it as babble. It’s just how good or bad you are, how good your analysis is. I think when you’re making certain kinds of films—perhaps any kind of film—you put yourself on the line to be judged for how you view people. Your sensibility, and the texture of your sensibility, is how the film is defined. It’s only as good as its own texture and that texture is very personal when it comes to a film like Forty Shades.
Get It While You Can helped inform my view of Rip Torn’s character Alan in Forty Shades. In my review I called him “Svengali” and a lot of people seem to view him as a bastard, a total jerk. I think they’re missing something because he’s a character who has a very tender side as well.
I think Alan is a character, and in this way he’s somewhat similar to my father, who has an inability to speak and to listen to the people closest to him. Over the course of the film he actually becomes much more human because of the vulnerability that this situation creates in him. He’s finally open to other people’s expressions and emotions and I think the tragedy of the film is that he probably could connect with Laura (Dina Korzun) and Michael (Darren Burrows) toward the end, but it’s too late. John Cassavetes’s Husbands is a film that was inspiring to me because it looks at masculine male behavior, but with affection. I think Alan’s character is very male and very domineering and dominating, but there’s also a genius to him that is lovely.
You mention Cassavetes. I think a good comparison for the tone of Forty Shades is The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.
I actually tried to write my senior thesis on that film. I ended up writing on Playtime by Jacques Tati because at that point the only print of Bookie I could locate was in Gena Rowlands’s bathroom in her house. I almost got them to send it to me when I was in college, but it didn’t work out.
When I saw Forty Shades a second time I realized I was wrong about a lot of things that I said in my review. For example, I said (as many critics who have reviewed the film have said) that Laura and Alan are married when they’re not. And it’s key that they’re not married.
Well I find that when you watch a movie there’s an experiential relationship for the viewer where they sort of create their own story. It’s your impressions: You take it in as you feel it and if you get involved enough then the details don’t really matter.
Your first short, Vaudeville, takes place in the world of amateur theater. Does that setting reflect your origins?
Yeah. I worked a little in amateur theater straight out of college. I started working in theater as a kid. I was involved with the Memphis Children’s Theater, which was this kind of urban performance theater in the middle of Memphis. The thing that inspires me most about theater is the idea of community, what kinds of communities and subcultures are created, these different little corners that have their own rules and their own heroes. I think that the setting for Forty Shades is a musical subculture that parallels growing up with my father in the ’70s. His was a sort of bachelor subculture, of guys going out to bars, and that later related to my own explorations of gay culture. When I was working on The Delta, at one point we thought there was going to be a larger sort of fireworks feel to the film and I actually went to a fireworks convention in upstate New York. That was fascinating to me, to arrive in a world that had its own complete hierarchy of highs and lows and heroes and victims and stars. I think that’s kind of what Forty Shades is about. It’s a culture in which there’s someone who’s king and the king is Rip Torn—his world is very small, but within that world he’s master of his domain.
Most filmmakers are inspired by movies but you seem to be one of the few who are able to translate that into something personal.
I’ve never gone to film school, but I do approach filmmaking through other movies. Watching movies is the way that I try to find a language that works for myself. I think that as you get better you find your own voice more clearly. Eventually you have to be interested in something that’s very honest and direct about the characters in a given story. That has to be primary when you’re directing a movie. I said earlier that psychoanalysis was something that was important to me. I take it really seriously because I think it’s an integral part of my directing. Good psychoanalysis is a process of trying to understand and analyze other people well, an ability to sort of dig deeper and deeper into a number of details within one moment. Proust is psychoanalysis to me. Proust is like an endless and endlessly fascinating sort of foray into the specificity of experience. I think that’s what directing is about on some level.
It’s interesting how you talk about psychoanalysis because to me it feels like a negative connotation to place on your movies, but I guess that just shows our different experiences with it.
[Laughs] You know, I find that when I talk about making movies that I come across much more pretentious and academic and intellectual. When I’m actually making them I feel more instinctual. I spent seven years preparing Forty Shades, very much a process of study, and throughout that time I was looking at films, studying films, trying to understand the language of other films in order to get a deeper sense of how I wanted to write with images. Ken Loach was sort of the significant guidepost for my cinematographer and me. His was a type of visual language that we really wanted to use.
And then I come along and start making comparisons to Marlene Dietrich and Douglas Sirk. It’s interesting how we read different influences into the movies we see, whether we make them or just watch them.
Right. I think that’s what’s exciting, that you make something and it goes away from you and then other people can bring in their own barometers.