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Conflicting Traditions

Armageddon Time (James Gray, 2022, USA)

by Pedro Henrique Gomes

          Several elements contribute to the dramatic contours of Armageddon Time so they can better shape James Gray's latest film. Its spaced-out, slow-moving editing structure, at times simply lingering on details that are certainly trivial to most of its average peers, is one example of this. At a family dinner table, it is any detail that can reveal the intimate conflicts of the characters (and their contradictions); an offhand comment, a vibrant line, silence, fear, hesitation, revolt. Gray is an artist of details, whose melodramatic vein needs to run and be perceived in its complexity, to spill over in each line, in each sequence. The goal seems evident: the interval between a conversation, where every scene or action is of great interest to the movie, which builds patiently.

          Although Two Lovers (2009) is a more direct reading of Dostoevsky’s White Nights, Armageddon Time is perhaps his most morally - and politically - tributary to the Russian writer. But the similarities between them don't stop there: the strummed soundtrack dictates the rhythm in the 2009 film and also drives all the main moments in this one - it wouldn't be absurd to think, in a fictional exercise, of Joaquin Phoenix's character in Two Lovers as a consequence of the young lead of Armageddon Time, full of conflicting attitudes and thoughts, living in permanent adventure and some unpreparedness to face the world with maturity.

          This limpid tone to face a subject, racism (which is one of the many subjects of the film, the most apparent, but not the only one), is notably too violent for certain discourses that circulate among us nowadays, stuck sometimes by a school mentality, sometimes by a fissure of colonial thinking - when not by operations based on simplifications. Gray chooses another path, dirtier and, there is no other word, more difficult. He will show, but not tell; he wants the nuance, not the shortcut. At the same time, even in a work with many biographical features, the film is not about the "I": the narrator wants us to think in third person. But this is not the only concession employed here to make his interests more evident; he gives us something else.

          On any given day, while competing with classical music on the radio, Só Danço Samba plays in a version already amalgamated by American jazzists, with Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfá. We are at the hellish turning point given with the campaign that would take Reagan to the White House in the early 1980s. And there he is on television, citing Armageddon, the end of the world through the destruction of the uncontested values that the law must defend and enforce, using Sodom and Gomorrah as a symbol of lowness. The communist threat provokes the conservative tradition: it must be defended. This is the background that highlights the story and lines with the characters' characteristics, passions, anguishes, attitudes, and reactions throughout the film. Ellis Island is a recurring point of departure in Gray's filmography. It is there that thousands of immigrants from all over arrived to populate New York at the beginning of the 20th century, like young Paul Graff's grandparents. With them also came an ancestral knowledge, Jewish, and a way of seeing the world not always understood by the boy. Armageddon Time is a film about the formation of these values in his imagination and in his reality.

          At school, the young student approaches Johnny Davis, a black boy, perhaps the only one in his class. It turns out that his "environment" did not teach him how to live with this dark-skinned young man. The lessons learned at home, from his parents and grandparents, were contradictory, and in the school environment itself what he saw without understanding was perceived with suspicion. When he witnessed frankly racist episodes, he didn't know how to react. In a conversation at a park, in one of the most beautiful moments of the film, he expresses this discomfort to his grandfather (an Anthony Hopkins in a low-toned, restrained, internal performance, like all the cast and the movie itself). Here there is no doubt that he knows what his powerlessness means, and the violence of all he sees against Johnny. Even so, as he matures a certain awareness of the world around him, he will remain powerless. Although his reading of all this context has bothered part of the audience, Gray's handling, in any of the most tense moments in the film, is clear and precise about what he criticizes and questions. Forgive me if I am a bit biased, but it is the form, that set the representation, and gives the theme the complexity it deserves.

          In discourse, Armageddon Time offers no punitive violence to the thirsty viewer beyond the most varied that its scenes show, perhaps because of this some moralistic discomfort has run through some of the movie's readings. It shows a material reality not only by what it highlights, but by all that it consciously erases, isolates, sets aside. He chooses the riskiest path, not that of the commonplace denunciation that can be made nowadays by anyone, but a twisted, confused, difficult path of concision. This is precisely why Gray's film is insufficient in dealing with the issue of racism in the formation of the values of an American liberal middle-class boy, because it does not provide a conclusive, absolute, explanatory closure. It is just as well.

          One could not expect anything different from a filmmaker who, for almost 30 years, has been creating a cinema of suggestions, of doubts, conflicts and contradictions, of mental nightmares that shake the moral, intellectual, and political formation of his characters. His "world" is always open.

April, 2023

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