James Gray explains how 1980 led to our current dysfunction

James Gray has started writing his new film, armageddon time, after taking a trip to her childhood home in Fresh Meadows, Queens with her own children a few years ago. One of the only pieces of evidence that his family ever lived there was, he tells me, “a gate my father had built around the garbage cans that had a majestic g for Grey, which had come out of its hinges. He thought of the dinners, the gatherings, and the death of his entire family living there, except for his brother. “I was filled with a real melancholy,” Gray said. “And I started to feel like there was no memory of their existence.”

This realization sent Gray on a journey into creative territory he had until now mostly avoided: his memories. Gray has spent much of his career making films about New York, but his last two projects, the masterful tropical epic The Lost City of Z and the dismal sci-fi blockbuster Ad Astra, had taken him very far. “I made a movie in the jungle, which was… very physically demanding, and then I made Ad Astra, which was taxing for other reasons,” he told me, referring to the film’s troubled post-production. “I wanted to rediscover my love for the medium.” The result is armageddon time, a bittersweet memoir set in 1980 about a pivotal moment in Gray’s adolescence as a middle-class Jewish child growing up in deep Queens. The film also takes into account the venal politics of the time, which Gray sees as a wake-up call for our polarized present.

To tell this story, Gray went as specific as possible. armageddon time follows temperamental sixth grader Paul Graff (played by Banks Repeta), whose parents, Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong), transfer him to a private school out of concern for his classroom behavior and his notes. Gray turns this change of life into a ruthless exploration of class and privilege in a time of changing American mores. The Graffs, though confident of their Jewishness, are eager to assimilate, which puts their son in the same school that the Trump family, then avatars of the wealth of New York’s outer neighborhoods, attended.

This kind of aspiration was what the wrought iron of the family home g signified to Grey: a status totem on an otherwise modest property. In armageddon time, the equally humble Graffs family is often in a state of talkative chaos, sometimes against the backdrop of feuds or outright wars. Strong’s performance is the kind of riveting piece of self-loathing the actor excels at, tying the character’s class anxieties to his struggle to project authority in the home. armageddon time also explores Paul’s relationship with his loving immigrant grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins); his difficulties as a student; and his bond with a black classmate named Johnny (Jaylin Webb), who has no access to any of the help Paul eventually gets. The film is steeped in both love and guilt, a complex depiction of parenthood with a bittersweet view of the costs of assimilation.

Additionally, the film features a one-scene appearance by New York City housing magnate Fred Trump and his daughter Maryanne (played by John Diehl and Jessica Chastain, respectively), who Paul clashes with on his first day at his new school. . The cameo is based on something Gray says happened when he started attending Kew-Forest School, of which both Maryanne and Donald Trump were alumni. According to Gray, he was barked at by Fred in a hallway; later that day, he had to listen to a motivational speech from Maryanne in the auditorium, insisting that hard work was the key to his success. When we spoke, Gray recalled the saying about people oblivious to their privilege: “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” “That was the talk,” Gray said. “I remember being like, What the hell are you talking about?

The sudden appearance of the Trumps in armageddon time is a shocking, funny childhood memory that quickly freezes as Maryanne begins to lecture the students about personal responsibility. Knowledge of the Trumps’ presence in modern America is also the unsettling aftertaste of Gray’s nostalgia – the idea that a family he viewed as villains in school came to dominate the discourse. Politics. “I started, in my own pathetic way, to think that 1980 is a very important year in the history of the country,” Gray told me. It was the year of the Reagan Revolution, a political realignment for the country. But it was also a tragic time for two of Gray’s idols: Muhammad Ali, who lost a brutal fight to Larry Holmes in October 1980 that essentially ended his career, and John Lennon, who was killed in December of the same year. “They both represented integrity to me,” Gray said.

For the director, the Reagan era was the start of a decline in values ​​that led to the election of Donald Trump decades later. “Crisis #1 for me is that we haven’t yet found a way to monetize integrity. All of our problems stem from that,” Gray continued. “Everything becomes transactional, your only value is how much money you make, and integrity doesn’t matter.” Donald Trump, Gray said, is “a completely transactional figure.”

Yet the film also speaks to the dreams of Gray’s parents, social class, and the “roots of what we call white privilege.” His closest inspiration was Federico Fellini’s film Amarcordwhich combines a semi-autobiographical portrait featuring the director’s childhood memories with an illustration of Mussolini’s heyday of power and fascism in 1930s Italy.

Our discussion turned to Father Coughlin, a priest and broadcaster who attracted a massive following in the 1930s and launched anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi rhetoric on the eve of World War II. “I believe he had 30 million listeners a week,” Gray said. “How many people were there in the United States in 1936? I’ll guess 100 million” (I checked, it was about 128 million). Explosions in popularity for such personalities, quasi-celebrities who mix populist appeal and right-wing politics, are not new phenomena, but Gray thinks people should pay more attention to them to understand our current moment. . “It’s hard to look at world history and not see a strange propensity that our species has for fascism,” he said. “It’s an unbearable thought.”

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