He sure ain't no Taranteenie

Little Odessa boasts Tim Roth, gangsters and guns. But it's no Reservoir Dogs. Sheila Johnston meets director James Gray
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An excited yelp went up at the Venice Film Festival when Tim Roth whipped out a gun in the opening moments of James Gray's Little Odessa: "Reservoir Dogs 2!". "I knew then that it was gonna be a long one hour 40 minutes," the director recalls now. He knew full well what the audience had in store: a sombre, romantic story about the decline and fall of a Russian-Jewish family in New York's Brighton Beach. His film came away from the festival with a Silver Bear for Gray and an award for its star, Vanessa Redgrave. But it certainly wasn't a Quentin Tarantino.

At the press conference, a journalist asked him one of those earnest Italian questions: "Signor Gray, is there hope in the world?" "No," came the deadpan answer. It was a joke - I think. Gray is funny, articulate, and a mean mimic: he has his actors, Roth and Maximilian Schell, down to a T and was even roped in by a colleague to post-sync some of Sean Connery's dialogue in Highlander 2 (it was temp track which didn't end up in the final edit).

Brighton Beach, now known as Little Odessa, is relatively uncharted territory, both for tourists visiting New York, and for film directors, although Neil Simon has occasionally used it in nostalgic pieces like Brighton Beach Memoirs. Gray's film, like Simon's, is autobiographical but rather less roseate.

"I'm called James Marshall Gray - Marshall after a Justice of the Supreme Court - and yet here I am, this wimpy Jewish guy. My grandparents changed their name, which was something like Greichenstein, at Ellis Island - it was one of those clichd stories.

"My father grew up in a completely Russian household, even though it was in New York; they'd buy potatoes in 50-pound bags. He's so, so Russian. But if you asked him, he'd say, 'I'm an American, of course!', and he'd be right in some way.

"I had always intended my film to be about that. The parents had to suppress their Jewishness in Russia because of the State's anti-religion stance. In America they have to lose their Russian-ness as well; they wind up in a kind of nether world. It's the constant struggle to find a place for themselves which in some ways is the source of great tragedy.

"Little Odessa is a very bizarre place: great to go party but also amazingly xenophobic. The people there see the world very dimly - it's almost like there's an invisible wall around the community. Coney Island, for instance, which is near Brighton Beach, is very black and Hispanic. There's a boardwalk running through the whole area, and neither the white Russian Jews nor the blacks and Hispanics cross that imaginary barrier. It's as if they know there's this strange territoriality.

"Its closed nature is partly down to distance - it's 14 miles from Manhattan, at the end of the subway line - and partly because of its being a really new place. Chinatown and Little Italy in New York are almost tourist traps now, having been there for 100 years. Little Odessa has been in existence for maybe 25 years, since the early Seventies, when there was a period of dtente between Brezhnev and the United States and several hundred thousand Russian Jews were let out of the country. That was the wave of immigrants that created Little Odessa."

The other social sub-group in the film is the Russian mafia, for which Tim Roth works as a hit-man. Here, Gray is keen to disclaim all personal connections: asked about them, he says cagily, "You have to talk to certain people in order to get to know the nature of the community. There are several strata to the Russian mafia, but it's pandemic. It completely runs Brighton Beach, as well as being a big problem in Russia itself now; you have to deal with the second economy all the time, which is run by the organizatsiya.

"It's very loosely run, sometimes in gangs from particular areas - you'd have an Odessa gang or a Kiev gang. There's no family hierarchy like in the Italian Mafia, which seems, to me, a very interesting change: it mirrors the destruction of traditional notions of family that's going on in society at large.

"What's so great about the Godfather movies is that they owe so much to that idea. They're so obviously American Dream movies - driven by the idea of wanting to become Governor Corleone. My film is about the Dream failing altogether. There's no chance of assimilation for these people, because there's such a gap between what they used to do and what they're doing here.

"The nature of America today is so different from what it was at the time of The Godfather: a time of post-war economic boom. Today, the whole industrialised world is going through declining expectations. Once immigrants could start out in blue-collar jobs and now those jobs are disappearing. It's low-wage service jobs versus high-wage intellectual jobs which require excellent use of the English language - which these guys, brilliant as they are, don't have. So they can't do what the first wave of Ellis Island immigrants did: work their way up and have their children become scientists or presidents or whatever. One thing that's sad about Little Odessa is that a lot of the immigrants are very well-educated: chemists, physicists, teachers of economics from the old Soviet Union. And now they're forced to drive cabs."

No one will ever mistake Gray for a Taranteenie: his kind of film-making is severe, non-genre and rather unfashionable. He has written a disco script set in the Seventies, "a very serious movie, about permissiveness without purpose, and self-destruction and a number of things". You may be sure that it won't be another Saturday Night Fever.

Not that he cares. "Those kind of movies have their place: sometimes they're really good and a lotta times they're bullshit. There is an anti- art vein in cinema and you have to fight it constantly. I don't want to sound like I'm ragging on Tarantino-style movies - but if that's all that's being made, it's a problem, right? Maybe that's all that people want to see but I don't think so. There's an audience out there for interesting movies. I refuse to believe otherwise."

Fashionable or not, at the age of 26 (he was 24 when he made Little Odessa) Gray has some heat on him, as they like to say in Los Angeles: he has just signed a two-picture deal with Twentieth Century Fox. But he remains cautious. "The worst thing you can do in the world is be hip; that's what kills you. In any discipline, it's a marathon, not a sprint. Longevity is key. I mean, is Akira Kurosawa hot? No, but he's great. Not that I'm saying for a moment that I'm as good as him...."

n 'Little Odessa' opens tomorrow and is reviewed opposite