By Steve Erickson
In James Gray’s new film, the tragedy and pain behind Jewish assimilation lurk just outside the frame.
Armageddon time, directed by James Gray. Screening at the Brattle Theater on October 29, part of the IFFB Fall Focus.
Armageddon time It is a film about its own inadequacies. Set just before Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election, it’s full of markers of an America whose worst tendencies, despite superficial changes, persist. In the press kit, director James Gray said that “the American Dream has always figured prominently in the story my family likes to tell about itself. We didn’t buy into many empty bromides, but we believed wholeheartedly in the larger narrative arc…our privilege was both real and fraught.” .”
As the generational tide turns to the tunes of the Clash (whose cover of reggae singer Willie Williams’ song provides the film’s title) and the Sugarhill Gang, the tragedy and pain behind Jewish assimilation lurks just outside the frame. Paul (Banks Peretta) is a boy raised in a middle-class Jewish family in Queens, surrounded by a history of racism and anti-Semitism he doesn’t understand. It is James Grey’s most autobiographical film, drawing its entire plot from his own experiences.
Paul Graff (Banks Ripetta) enters sixth grade, hanging out with his black friend Johnny (Jeline Webb). Their teacher dislikes both, but singles Johnny out for humiliation. Inspired by a museum visit, Paul decided he wanted to become a painter. Paul and Johnny are considered troublemakers, but this only has real consequences for the former when Johnny gives Paul a joint in the bathroom and suggests they smoke in a stall. Paul doesn’t seem to know what it is, but they get high together. Unfortunately, their teacher notices the smell and sound of the boys’ laughter. After Paul is caught, his parents Irving (Jeremy Strong), a plumber, and Esther (Anne Hathaway) force him to enroll in a private school. He befriends Johnny, whose life becomes more difficult, for reasons Paul doesn’t really understand. He is close to his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins). But he is willing to let Johnny live in a small house on the family property when his grandmother’s health problems become unbearable.
Darius Khandji’s cinematography paints the film in an earthy tone, fitting a movie set during autumn. The visuals have the nostalgic look of a book of faded photographs. However, the narrative does not romanticize the past. The roots of the current rise of the far right are everywhere, from Reagan’s comments in a TV interview about America becoming Sodom and Gomorrah to Paul’s frequent academy appearances by Fred Trump. If the last detail, in a speech by Mary-Ann Trump celebrating her success as a lawyer, wasn’t taken directly from Gray’s life, it could be dismissed as too heavy-handed.
Much of Gray’s work is based on the New York City Jewish neighborhood where he grew up. At first, he told these stories through a neo-noir lens. Although he started working in the 90s, his early films lacked the satirical touch of other genre works by directors of his generation. When they drew on film references it wasn’t jokey pop culture references and hip distance. They tend to treat petty criminals in Brooklyn with the grandeur of Coppola’s gangsters. Gray may have felt at home in the new Hollywood, but he struggled to find a mass audience in the United States decades later (at first, most of his critical support came from France.) two loversHis films abandoned their genre elements — immigrant And The Lost City of Z Back in the past. Made with the biggest budget of his career, Ad Astra veered into the future but, while it was stylistically spectacular, its intimate musings on a troubled father-son relationship didn’t benefit from sci-fi trappings and solar system-wide scope. Gray recently admitted that his control over the film was taken away during editing.
Obviously, Gray’s films usually draw on elements of his own life, even when they are not overtly autobiographical (immigrant It was based on the experiences of his grandparents in the United States in the 20s. Armageddon time This memoir takes vision to a new extreme. Paul’s family is well sketched in. Critic Wayne Glaberman compared it to Barry Levinson’s multi-generational Jewish-American story, avalon, is on target. Hopkins, Strong, and Hathaway breathe considerable life into their roles. Although Irving is not sympathetic, especially after hitting Paul, his face indicates his struggle to break into the middle class and the anger he had to hide to stay there. Irving and Esther don’t understand some fundamental conflict: they talk about the Holocaust’s impact on their family (something Paul doesn’t fully understand until Aaron describes his mother’s expulsion from the Ukraine) but then indulge in casual racism toward blacks and Asians. next moment
Ironically, the film’s biggest problem is not doing justice to Johnny. The scenes with Paul and his relatives show a believable dynamic that is missing from the two boys’ friendship. Armageddon time See Johnny as Paul. But, as a mature filmmaker, Gray should be able to elicit more curiosity and outreach from his young stand-in. The ellipsis of Johnny’s own story – an incident at a Sugarhill Gang concert that apparently leads to an injured leg, an unseen grandmother who becomes impossible to live with – pushes him away from the center. Armageddon time. Another film may be made on his life.
This imbalance becomes particularly problematic in the last half hour of the film. Without giving away spoilers, Paul makes a decision that has dire consequences for Johnny, who makes a choice that benefits Paul, who leaves soaked in grief. Gray does not come close to judging the gravity of the situation. He, like many white directors, falls into a common trap. Armageddon time Liberals embrace guilt and shame but offer no idea what to do with them—beyond acknowledging that they are there. Here, a variety of stories based on personal experience mitigates both the need for authenticity.
Steve Erickson Wrote about film and music for Gay City News, Italic MagazineThe Nashville scene, Trouser press, and other outlets. He also produces electronic music under the Colin Magician tag.