How ‘Armageddon Time’ took on the air of a ghost story
Director James Gray’s recent films have taken viewers to the Amazon (“The Lost City of Z”) and across the solar system (“Ad Astra”). With the 1980 family drama Armageddon Time, Gray takes the action not only back to his hometown of Flushing, Queens, but closer to the home where he grew up.
“We didn’t shoot at my old house because the woman wouldn’t let us,” says Gray, “but we just moved 90 feet south. I’m not exaggerating.”
Speaking via Zoom from his Los Angeles home, framed by a vintage poster of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, the 53-year-old filmmaker reveals his obsession with recreating childhood details.
“The setting had to be as close to my memory as possible. So we got the same plates we had as a kid with a green floral pattern. And the chandelier was the same as the one in my dining room. The wallpaper is very, very close.”
But the purpose was not documentary veracity. Instead, Gray says he told cinematographer Darius Khondji to “shoot this like it’s a ghost story.”
As a result, the actors in “Armageddon Time” are almost never filmed in their prime light. As Gray says, “The light comes into the house from the other room, or there is a lamp, but the actors are a bit away from the lamp. The point is that these people are only temporary residents of a very real physical space.”
The autobiographical coming-of-age story follows a precocious, recalcitrant sixth grader named Paul (Banks Repeta) who befriends a similarly wayward, orphaned black classmate named Johnny (Jaylin Webb). When the two friends get into trouble, Paul is sent to a posh private school where a major benefactor is the father of future President Trump, while Johnny is left to his own devices.
In Gray’s dramatization of his own middle-class, secular Jewish family, we witness the complexities of assimilation—this is a liberal-minded family that sneers when President Reagan appears on television, but also displays frivolous prejudice.
The numerous supporting cast members who complete Paul’s family include Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong as his mother and father, and Anthony Hopkins as his beloved grandfather.
Paul’s home is a zone of relative comfort, but its residents are divided by class consciousness. “It’s a semi detached townhouse in Queens, and [the father] drives a Plymouth station wagon. They’re not poor, but they’re watching [other] great houses with enormous envy. If someone drove a Cadillac in my neighborhood, the whole block would shake.”
Gray has a deep sympathy for his parents’ compromises, even if they led to violence and exclusion. “I don’t blame my parents,” he says. “They did their best. There was probably a side to them that didn’t fill me with the moral and ethical basis that is probably needed in the world. And they lashed out in a way that expressed their inability to deal with a child trying to break through to the other side. So there are no easy answers to that.”
Gray’s reflection on his parents’ difficult choices extends to a thorough critique of American capitalism in Armageddon Time, with cameos from both Reagan and members of the Trump family. In Gray’s opinion, “something came to an end in 1980,” and we’re still feeling the aftermath of that paradigm shift today.
“Metrics are kind of broken in American life,” Gray says. “Integrity is not yet monetized by the system, and there is no way to think of an ethical person as anything but capitalist. It means nothing to live ethically in the United States right now.”
Although Gray shuns the “classic” label associated with his filmmaking, “Armageddon Time” is a familiar-seeming story, but its narrative is steeped in emotional complexity and richness of detail.
“I have a great fondness for narratives that are told clearly because I feel like there can actually be ambiguity here,” says Gray. “That you make something so clear that it can’t be vague and still have multiple meanings. For me, this is the richest place to play.”
In “Armageddon Time,” Gray strives for ambiguity by confining the story to Paul’s perspective. In the film, a somewhat selfish child can expand his empathy, but only to a certain extent. Although Johnny is a three-dimensional character, the film does not incorporate his point of view.
Gray frames this selection as a deliberate limitation. “Actually, you want a limited perspective,” he says, “because that way we can understand how another person sees the world, which leads to greater compassion. If I had tried to incorporate Johnny’s point of view, it would have been a stupid act of hubris on my part.
“You can’t work everything and everyone all the time, and you shouldn’t,” he continues. “The point of art is the expansion of our sympathies… that we see into a different consciousness. That makes it beautiful. That’s why we do it.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-11-09/james-gray-armageddon-time How ‘Armageddon Time’ took on the air of a ghost story