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Hall of Mirrors: James Gray's "Armageddon Time" and Steven Spielberg's "The Fabelmans"

Two filmmakers of Ukrainian-Jewish descent paint the canvas of their childhoods to reflect on family, art, and American identity.
Kelli Weston
The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg, 2022).
Filmmakers dip into memoir so often it seems inevitable. Apart from the hallowed pillars—The 400 Blows (1959), Amarcord (1973), Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987), Crooklyn (1994)—there has been a surfeit of, specifically, boyhood homecomings in the past decade alone: The Tree of Life (2011), 20th Century Women (2016), Roma (2018), Pain & Glory (2019), Minari (2020), Belfast (2021); all, invariably, ghost stories. Directors plunder the past and will their (re)visions into the material world where these spirits, animated by the pursuit of catharsis and peace (matters for the living), may behave authentically or not. The audience can never know. More reliably, these excursions yield a cinephile's bounty; if childhood is the canvas upon which adult preoccupations are birthed, here lies a natural map to a director's filmography: a compass to the primal event. 
Steven Spielberg has never exactly recoiled from history across his sprawling oeuvre, but his latest feature, The Fabelmans (2022), marks a decidedly personal departure. Here, he traces the genesis of his lifelong devotion to cinema: a generative love that has fathered the modern blockbuster, to say nothing of the American imago as the world popularly knows it and untold scions scrambling to forge themselves in his likeness. 
It all began with a train crash. Perched before Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), we find Spielberg placeholder Sammy Fabelman (played as a boy by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), quietly sandwiched between mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and father Burt (Paul Dano). The moment of inception arrives: a row of railcars colliding, flipping, and spilling across the tracks in a veil of smoke. In the dark theater, the boy's face alight with dancing images, a haunting has begun. When he keeps crashing his toy train set, Mitzi, an exceptional pianist who has foregone her own professional aspirations, realizes that Sammy needs "to control" this scene and buys a camera so that he may record the moment. Fascination transforms into habit as Sammy grows into a wide-eyed teenager (Gabriel LaBelle) of impressive talent, a resourceful architect of narrative and image in particular. This is his gift—he can always trick the camera into revealing precisely what he wants—but also his arrogance. It is his journey to discover that he can never fully "control" the image, for stories (much like the people that populate them) can be deviously independent, wiser even than their author's original conceptions. 
Armageddon Time (James Gray, 2022).
The release of The Fabelmans was preceded by yet another of these boyhood pilgrimages: James Gray's Armageddon Time, far more somber about the episode to which it must return. Unlike Spielberg, Gray has always drawn from his own life and, thus, recycles certain foundational elements in nearly all of his films: troubled filial relationships with a cold, distant, or overbearing father; fraught fraternity between two striving men (whether friends or cousins, they are always fundamentally brothers); and ethnic shame. Their films make, at first glance, an unlikely match. The Fabelmans swells with ebullience; Armageddon Time is a tragedy. Perhaps the two properties were destined to end up mirrors, composed by directors, both of Ukrainian-Jewish descent, in reflection on family, art, and identity. 
Armageddon Time lands in Queens circa 1980. Middle schooler Paul (Banks Repeta)—Gray's surrogate—befriends Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), a Black classmate. Both boys are consummate troublemakers, but their teacher reserves his harshest rebukes and punishments for Johnny. Their bond seems borne out of recognition: they are both, in different ways, emotionally neglected and unhappy at home. Paul is the mischievous and routinely disparaged youngest child, quite unlike his more dependable older brother Ted (Ryan Sell). Much to the chagrin of his mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) and his temperamental father Irving (Jeremy Strong), who would prefer he adopt more sensible ambitions, Paul dreams of becoming an artist; only his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) encourages his creativity. Still, Paul has more allies than Johnny, who lives with his sickly grandmother and faces the onslaught of slyly insidious forces, eager to crush and disappear him, all alone. Neither boy is academically minded, but Paul relies smugly on his family to shield him from the all-too-predatory consequences. Even when he resists their efforts—when he is sent to his brother's private school, funded and formerly attended by several Trumps—Paul always finds himself rescued by whiteness. Johnny, meanwhile, is swallowed up by the state.
Gray's films have never been commercial successes, and he has struggled to garner the same passion stateside that he has so handily claimed in Europe, where he at least enjoys more critical and institutional admiration. A determinedly traditional filmmaker, known for his understated storytelling and classicist impulses, Gray mines fecund terrain with his ambivalent, melancholy portraits of America. Even when he ventures from her shores, in The Lost City of Z (2016) and Ad Astra (2019), he betrays a grave skepticism about the values that have long shaped American cinema. Those films’ adventurous white men—Charlie Hunnam and Brad Pitt respectively, both of them blonde and blue-eyed—could not be more archetypally suited for onscreen expedition, a genre inclined to drown the horror of empire in spectacle. But eventually, they must confront the doomed hubris of their missions, already presaged as dubious, even deranged projects from the beginning. Gray's ornate formalism—often aided by the cinematography of longtime collaborator Darius Khondji—cloaks these barbed musings in such open-ended elegance that it makes sense to fixate elsewhere: on fatherhood, grief, arresting final shots. In those realms, he clearly exercises more conviction. But if he chases the glamor of familiar fantasies, his films cannot quite shake the somber shadow that so stubbornly clings to them.
Above all, Gray is a devoutly New York director, in many ways the ideological, if not stylistic heir to Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes. The white ethnic families of his operatic crime thrillers upend romantic illusions of assimilation, for the cost is truly terrible whether they are prepared to pay or not. Some films end more optimistically than others, but the American Dream, as Gray tells it, comes rigged with an interminable bill that must be paid to survive, to belong: the best his characters may hope for is somehow to preserve their souls amid the carnage; when Gray is at his most idealistic, they succeed. In that way, Armageddon Time falls among the bulk of his oeuvre—family (tribal) melodramas—kin to Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), and The Immigrant (2013), all of them, more or less, Cain and Abel retellings. Fitting that Gray should render this bitter exchange for a nation of pious exiles in such Biblical terms, where dogged individualism only culminates in spilled blood.
As the most faithful of Gray's autobiographical endeavors, Armageddon Time has drawn reasonable comparisons to The Immigrant, almost entirely based on the memories of his grandparents who came to America in 1923. But at least thematically, his new film more vividly recalls We Own the Night (2007). This time, in 1980s Brooklyn, brothers Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix), a nightclub manager, and Joe (Mark Wahlberg), a police captain, find themselves entangled with Russian mobsters. Neither emerge from the ordeal unscathed, but in a striking conclusion, Bobby—the prodigal son to their demanding father—becomes a policeman and Joe has all but left the force. Gray himself may envision this an ultimately triumphant tale; he is plainly sympathetic to the police (an especially malevolent unit at that). But earlier we have seen Bobby trade in his Polish surname for the more WASPy sounding "Green" (the family in Armageddon Time has abbreviated their name, uselessly it turns out, to "Graff"). And historically, one way ethnic groups transitioned into whiteness—sealing their power over Black communities—was through the police force. Gray's films frequently conceive  of whiteness as violence, one that requires casualties and complicity. Far from the calculated elisions and central ambiguity of We Own the Night, Armageddon Time announces this connection explicitly. Paul could not narrowly elude trouble if Johnny were not always there to absorb the ensuing blow. This is the contract, as the finale so dismally attests. Paul is no bystander, helplessly drafted into collusion; he is the face of his only friend's ruin. 
The Fabelmans (Spielberg, 2022).
Although not as single-minded as Gray, few films by Spielberg are untouched by the political. For the famously (and sometimes deceptively) sentimental filmmaker is also an earnest moralist, with more than one thankless foray into controversy to show for his trouble. In the face of criticisms that decried its unflattering portrayal of Black men, his adaptation of Alice Walker's material still distinguished The Color Purple (1985) as one of the most forthright depictions of queer Black womanhood at the time. Twenty years later, some critics vocally despised the "moral equivalency" that defines Munich (2005); that is, the mere suggestion that violence might never be righteous, might not even hold up to the standards of "justice" we claim govern us. In fact, The Fabelmans—which neglects almost everything outside the private concerns of his family—may be his most apolitical feature in over a decade. In its place, he considers the responsibility of the filmmaker, which gives way to an admittedly reserved censure of his own propensity to choose the more whimsical path within his stories.  
If he and Gray differ in their overarching visions, elementally, The Fabelmans and Armageddon Time are remarkably similar: both are, principally, family dramas with particular emphasis on complicated mothers. The Fabelmans dwells in the intricate emotional tapestry that fosters the family's eventual unraveling, but all the while, Mitzi, a capricious figure, nourishes her son's gift, even when it leaves her woefully exposed. In Armageddon Time, Paul has a troubled relationship with Esther, but like Mitzi, she, too, is her son's staunchest defender. Notably, Sammy and Paul both find themselves emboldened by an elder relation, who not only champions their artistic instincts, but functions as a conduit to a past and place outside of America. For Sammy, it is his bizarre great-uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), once a circus performer who dabbled in silent movies, who exhorts his nephew to follow his calling. Aaron, on the other hand, traces for Paul their family's exodus from Ukraine through Europe to America, "the land of dreams," but forever trapped in the gloom of enduring nightmares. Aaron explains that his mother came to America because "they wanted to kill her." And he leaves Paul with a warning, "She said, 'Never ever forget the past, because you never know when they may come looking for you.'"
Indeed, one might, through the white Jewish encounter with America, excavate the hollowness of race in all its contradictions. Boris and Aaron remind the boys, gently or otherwise, that they are innately outsiders; their relationships with their peers anchor them in that difference. Predictably, this works better for Spielberg, who does not find himself up against the painful, cinematic legacy that Gray does. Johnny does suffer from a sparsely crafted character and we are invited from the start to mourn him in all his potential, rather than understand him. Gray's limits have never been more glaring, though he has not quite fashioned a tale that demands—the way "white guilt" narratives do—absolution. It is relentlessly self-flagellating only to conclude—as this director is wont to—on an unsatisfying ellipsis. Spielberg, on the contrary, rarely leaves his conflicts unresolved (less so lately, upon linking faithfully with screenwriter Tony Kushner). The Fabelmans boasts a characteristically wistful ending, but one curious sequence at the film's climax unites these tales around their regard for cinema as a revelatory force, particularly where it concerns identity and whiteness. 
Sammy has been enlisted to shoot senior skip day, and he premieres his film to his classmates at prom. Sam's film unexpectedly valorizes his bully, Logan (Sam Rechner), a popular, anti-Semitic jock. The camera caresses his limbs and the sun gleams down on his floppy golden hair as he runs gracefully across the beach. Sam has chiseled him, for the whole school to see, in a white, masculinist visual grammar so sovereign it might otherwise be laughable were it not charged with so much discomfort and frustration. Sam cannot seem to answer even for himself why he has chosen to mimic this imagery and although it only wins Logan yet more favor from their class, the footage sends him into emotional crisis. This moment of imagination—of cultural mythology—brings him, literally, to his knees, compelled to confront his own lack (or, the need for the myth to begin with). 
If Paul is rescued by whiteness—a far more cogent concession—Spielberg imagines Sammy, himself, to be rescued by authorship. Neither is untrue. Spielberg is a mythmaker, and as Sammy discovers, cinema is a space that can be painfully revealing, even when the camera is not directed straightforwardly at the truth. 

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