Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 07, 2022 1:16 pm 
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Profiles in cowardice

My title refers ironically to a special fact about this film and James Gray. His unique courage is in willingness to admit his shortcomings. Specifically, in his autobiographical Armageddon Time he shows how he fails his sixth grade best friend. The compensation, of a bitter sort, is that it's the society that's failing all of us. The best friend of wispy, artistic Jewish sixth grader Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), who is doing his sixth grade for the second time, and who is Black. It's 1980, the start of the Reagan presidency. Politics, race, morality, and family pressures bear down on young Paul. Those and economics have Johnny in their vice grip. Paul does betray Johnny. But apart from the fact that Paul's not strong enough or responsible enough to be culpable for this, where the movie is paradoxically exhilarating is that this is a filmmaker's story about his life that shows how far short he fell from being a mensch.

Whether things get better in that sphere later we don't know, but is he not a mensch now in being able to present himself thus unguardedly? "Making a memoir," Gray has said in a recent interview (Reelblend Podcast), "Is not an act of self-aggrandizement; it's not like an excuse to talk about how terrific you are." He sees it as an opportunity to do a searching analysis of yourself and also of the world you live in, that you lived in then. And he has said, and he shows, that he took great pains to be as specific as possible in the details about everything, the schools, the family, even the chinaware on the family table, just like his own growing up.

With this specificity and honesty, Armageddon Time became thought-provoking for me too. It aroused memories of my own family growing up, of what school was like. I didn't have a Black best friend, my father never beat me or even yelled at me. I was encouraged, along with my sister, to be artistic. Not going to private school as Paul eventually does (which separates him from his friend) was a conscious choice of my parents. I remember how sympathetic my fifth grade teacher, Ms. Robinson, was, her appreciation of my sense of humor; then how nasty and harsh was the sixth grade one, Mr. Standish, who put a damper on everything for me and on top of that had almost-physical clashes with a bigger, older boy (who may have been held back like Johnny). Because, as reviews have said this is a "very Jewish" memoir, it also aroused memories of my first warm encounters with young Jews, mostly in college, but we were still just boys then. I remembered the kinship I felt at the time. Gray's world is both sympathetic and distant.

Johnny and Paul are both troublemakers. But, as a dramatic outlining of racial and social inequallity, Johnny is consistently the one who gets more of the blame. Mr. Turkeltaub, their Mr. Standish, brands Johnny as a troublemaker and a loser. But while everybody, including the boys at Paul's new private school and Paul's own family, looks on Blacks as a danger and a liability, Johnny isn't clearly doomed until the pair get in trouble with the law. Then, Irving (Jeremy Strong), Paul's intense plumber (or plumbing engineer) father, turns out to have points with the cop in charge for having done him a favor, and so he has "a leg up." As Jews seeking to better themselves, Paul's parents know the importance of this. Because his mother, Esther Graff (Anne Hathaway, excellent), a home economics teacher, is president of the PTA, Paul thinks, and tells Johnny, that she controls the school. He is utterly naïve, but surely he is lying when he tells Johnny that his family is "very rich." They are, however, miles more secure than Johnnie, who lives with his grandmother who has dementia, and is likely to be put into foster care at any minute. What's heartbreaking in Armageddon Time is how both boys cherish dreams, Paul of being a famous artist, Johnny, with his NASA souvenir tokens, of being a space engineer.

Gray is wonderfully precise about very much in this film, including the family dynamics, with the brother Ted (Ryan Sell) who beats up on Johnny and tells him to shut up (but perhaps protectively), the parents, the uncle and aunt, also schoolteachers (Marcia Haufrecht, Teddy Coluca), and the famous Grandpa (Anthony Hopkins), all talking at once at the dinner table. Those are moments that stick with you, and surprisingly, Anthony Hopkins, as an old Jew brought from Ukraine to Liverpool and from Liverpool to Ellis Island, is believable, or at least you don't have time to question it, and his many speeches stick and sing. There is enormous weight on Grandpa's shoulders because he not only must be the one who encourages Paul as an artist but also the one who explains where they came from, about antisemitism and about the Holocaust, and who sits by in his dying days while the boy sets off his model rocket and tells him to be a mensch, not to take it when they talk shit about Blacks (and at this point Grandpa gets to spout a lot of profanity, perhaps as a rite of passage for Paul, perhaps to make him more up to date). Grandpa makes it clear to Paul the game is rigged, and you have to do all you must to get around it. This is why it's he who pushes for Paul to be switched to his brother's school, to play the game.

Yes, all this and more, and in a way it's absolutely great, and in another way it's too much. There's a nagging feeling that as fine as Jaylin Webb and Banks Repeta are (and they are both terrific actors), they just don't look right to me for who they're supposed to be. James Gray is doing his best, and it's very good. He enters familiar movie territory with Paul's new, private, school based on Gray’s alma mater, the Kew-Forest School. But he gives us details special to him: Paul is almost immediately buttonholed by Fred Trump (John Diehl), Donald’s father, who was indeed on the real school’s board of trustees. And then Donald’s sister Maryanne Trump (in a choice performance by Jessica Chastain) visits the school to give a poisonously absurd little speech about the value of hard work and how, ostensibly, no one handed her anything for free.

It feels as if Gray is drawing heavily on Truffaut's 400 Blows for the relationship between Paul and Johnny, especially when they get in their big trouble with the law by stealing a computer from Paul's new school, just the way Antoine Doinel and his pal stole the big typewriter. This is okay - there's no harm in a homage to one of the greatest coming of age films - but it underlines a big difference. Truffaut is transmuting his early life into art. Gray is intent on anatomizing all the social, racial, ethnic, and economic elements that fed into his young life and seeing them in the light of the American Zeitgeist. In the way he seems to draw on the incident from The 400 Blows, which starkly underlines the racial divide the French film didn't have, Gray is also grasping for a strength of structure that Armageddon Time, for all its wealth of information and even of wisdom, doesn't have.

Gray's movie leaves us with a whole lot of things to think about, but they work as separate elements, not as a film, a work of art unified in itself. There are many touching and emotional moments, but they don't combine overwhelmingly fill you with an unforgettable visual and emotional impression the way it happens when Antoine Doinel runs down to the sea and stares into the camera. But that's not bad. It's almost a Brechtian Alienation effect. Nothing warm and cuddly here, even when Anthony Hopkins is on screen. We're supposed to think. When Gray said the film was a critique of capitalism he may have been going a bit overboard - but it's in there.

Armageddon Time, 114 mins., premiered at Cannes May 2022. It has since been or is slated for 19 other total international festivals including Telluride, Deauville, Zurich, Athens, Hamburg, Mill Valley and New York. Limited US theatrical release began Oct. 28, 2022. Metacritic rating 74%.It was released Wed. Nov. 16 in Paris, and the French critics loved it: AlloCiné press rating 4.4 or 88%. Screened in San Francisco Nov. 6, 2022.

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