Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 01, 2023 9:05 pm 
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Comparing the 2022 films of Richard Linklater, James Gray, and Stephen Spielberg


A hopeful coming of age and a disenchanted one; Spielberg's magic touch

After initial rejection, in early November Richard Linkater's APOLLO 10 1/2: A SPACE AGE CHILDHOOD was included in the competition for Best Animated Feature. It's rotoscoped, which means instead of being drawn - or computer-animated - from scratch, it's largely reformatted from film of staged or real events. It's interesting to contrast Linklater's fanciful coming of age film about 1969 with James Gray's about the early 1980's.

This new Netflix film follows the life of Stan, a young boy in 1969 Houston, around the time of the first moon-landing. To make the project, Linklater set up live-action scenes on a sound stage with a team then using rotoscoping and 2D animation to bring the film to life. It's very loosely autobiographical. Linklater didn't have five siblings like this one. This is in Houston, where Linklater was born; he grew up in other towns.Houston is headquarters of NASA, and this film downplays the fact that the flight to the moon took off from Cape Kennedy, Florida.

Stan tells that he was secretly recruited by NASA officials for a top secret mission to train for and execute travel to the moon on a test vehicle that is "a little smaller" than adult size, so they need a talented kid. We don't quite know whether this is the boy's fantasy or the film's.

This is a portrait of a bland, hopeful place and a big (Catholic?) family in an optimistic time. When America landed a man on the moon and 600 million people saw it on television, the US got to ignore the disaster of the Vietnam War Kennedy expanded, Johnson continued, and Nixon tried to end. Linklater uses a lot of actual TV footage, including NIxon's phone conversation with Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. We see Stan's family watching, with him sleepy from a day at Astro-World, but "remembering" his moon flight. The cultural life of this time is largely projected through television, at a time when there were three channels and everybody watched them.

As A.O. Scott's review of ARMAGEDDON TIME points out, it follows a familiar theme in American fiction of a white boy or man whose closeness with a person of color leads to moral awakening.
Interracial friendship is an old and complicated theme in American culture. Think of Ishmael and Queequeg bedded down at the Spouter-Inn in “Moby-Dick,” Huck and Jim adrift on the Mississippi in “Huckleberry Finn” or Dylan and Mingus tagging up Brooklyn in Jonathan Lethem’s “The Fortress of Solitude.” In almost every case, the white character’s perception is central (these books are all first-person narratives, and in a palpable if not literal sense, “Armageddon Time” is too). The Black character, however brave, beautiful or tragic he may be, is the vehicle of his companion’s moral awakening.

The best friend of Paul, who is a Jewish boy in Queens in 1980, is Johnny, who is black and gets into more trouble in class just because of his race. Paul is aware of this disparity and injustice, but not only can't do anything: his father sends him, like his brother, to a private school, and so he is cut off from Johnny by his family's economic advantage.

Coincidentally, Johnny collects NASA mission patches and dreams of becoming an astronaut. It soon emerges that he hasn't a chance of living that dream the way Stan does - at least in his imagination fueled by the happy, secure surroundings of his childhood and family and their involvement with NASA, where his father has a job in accounting and logistics.

We could also contrast ARMAGEDDON TIME with Stephen Spielberg's THE FABELMANS. Both are coming-of-age tales of boys who realized early on they wanted to make movies. What I liked about ARMAGEDDON TIME is that it's so self-critical. There is nothing rosy about it. Gray is hard on his family, his young self, and the times he grew up in. Even though THE FABELMANS focuses a lot on the splitting up of the boy's parents and his mother's secret infidelity with his father's best friend that leads up to it, there is a lot that is rosy about the picture of childhood. Spielberg acknowledges that he is Jewish ad encountered anti-Semitism, but there is not the sense of growing up in a Jewish environment. The Fabelmans are out West. A Jewish friend of mine used to say "California Jews don't know they are Jewish."

But while I admire the harshly self-critical stance of ARMAGEDDON TIME, and I feel a greater kinship with the insecure, suspicious world of Gray's cinematic childhood than with the bland, hopeful one of Richard Linklater, as awards season progresses we see the optimistic view is the one that draws the praise and sells the tickets . ARMAGEDDON TIME was a failure at the box office (which Gray seemed to expect). APOLLO 10 1/2 is fun, even quietly exhilarating. Typically for Linklater, it doesn't try too hard (even though it's actually quite spectacular in its way).

As for THE FABELMANS, it's got seven Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Lead Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Production Design, Best Original Score. This fits my experience: despite my sympathy for ARMAGEDDON TIME and easy enjoyment of the charming but lightweight APOLLO 10 1/2, it was THE FABELMANS that gave me the heightened pleasure of watching a movie that is not only identifiable and thrilling but palpably beautifully made. Spielberg depicts his precocious early development as a filmmaker in a way that's a joy to watch. He has a magic touch.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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