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Our Ship is Coming

by Juliana Costa

          As fate would have it, I watched Armageddon Time (2022) by James Gray and Larry Cohen's It's Alive (1974) in the same week at the movie theater (Paris je t'aime). A stroke of luck bringing together two films that, although they are not essentially about it, carry within them the tragic question: to kill or not to kill the father? The question becomes even more strident when it comes to James Gray. In the third film of the father’s trilogy, after entering the Amazon mysteries in The Lost of City of Z (2016) and going into space to settle the score with his progenitor in Ad Astra (2019), the filmmaker revisits his childhood in a popular New York neighborhood. But in none of the previous films is the father figure put in the dock like this time. In Armageddon Time, Gray  hits the nail on the head to talk about his relationship with his father while exposing the racist pact of the white American middle class to escape the social marginalization of the Reagan era in the early 1980s.

          Here the director's melancholic classicism fits like a glove. In contrast to the recent Hollywood edulcorated nostalgia about conservative decades of the 20th century, such as the 1950s in The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg, 2022) or the late 1970s in Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2021), Armageddon Time reminds us all the time where the 20th century began to end, and with it the dream of welfare states in the Americas. It is the time of the evasion of the middle class from public school, of austerity policies, of the first hammering on the wall, of "every man for himself" - not by chance, the title of the film with which Godard opens his production of the same decade. It is in this country and in this time when white middle-class families deepen their "gangsterism" of social ascension to compete over "who has the most lights in the garden during the Christmas holidays." Says the synopsis: "In the early 1980s, a New York family seeks the American dream". Let's see what they are capable of.

          We are moving toward the end of the saga of Paul Graff's (Banks Repeta) coming of age as a 13-year-old boy, the youngest son of a Jewish family in Queens. At this moment he has just been rescued by his father (Jeremy Strong) from the police station, where he was for having masterminded an intricate robbery plan to escape to California with Johnny (Jaylin Webb), his black friend, who throughout the film suffers an accelerated process of economic and social marginalization. At the police station, Paul's father meets the policeman. Johnny assumes responsibility for the theft. Paul keeps quiet. He leaves the police station with his father. Johnny stays and we don't need to stay with him to know his outcome.

          The next scene is worthy of a mob movie. The car parks in front of the house and the headlights are turned off. It is a conversation in the dark. A dialogue follows in shot and reverse-shot, in a low voice, portrait frame, which closes in on the close-ups at key moments. If we expected an uplifting speech from father to son at this point, what Gray shows us is a conversation between two accomplices to a crime, dimly lit by a yellow streetlight, in which the more experienced crook says to the younger one something like "we need to get away with it, and we should use all the cards we have available to us to do so, even if it means throwing the other one out on his own". Every man for himself.

         In an earlier scene, also inside the car, driving through a prime New York neighborhood, the mother (Anne Hathaway) sighs, admiring the grand houses of those who made it. "Our ship is coming," replies the father. Curious the expression since Johnny, the black friend billed as bad company and removed from Paul's life, dreams of being an astronaut. His spaceship will not arrive and certainly the ship that will take the Graff family to Shangrilá will leave many johnnys on the way. Because a ship is for the chosen ones, and for there to be chosen ones there have to be forgotten ones, and everyone knows that family is the non-negotiable asset when it comes to choice. It is impossible not to think of Mars One (2022), by Gabriel Martins, who also dreams of a ship for a black boy, this time in a Brazil plagued by an extreme right-wing government that echoes the US economic policy of the decade that brought down the Berlin wall. Also both films gravitate around a family nucleus, but Martins is far more gentle and trusting of the family than Gray. Not coincidentally it is a black family. Unlike Paul Graff's lonely earthy ending in Armageddon Time, Deivinho (Cicero Lucas) gets a joint plongée shot with his parents and sister in his last scene, soaring into the skies of Belo Horizonte. Their ship seems to have arrived.

***

          As fate wouldn’t have it, but Hollywood's nostalgic hard-on for family narratives and conservative decades, Spielberg also filmed a somewhat different paternal transmission scene the same year than Gray's criminals in the dark night, this time set in the early 1960s. In a brightly lit apartment, a sensitive and understanding father, heroically framed, weeps remembering his wife who left him to marry his best friend, and tells his son something like, "you must go after your dreams." Admittedly, Spielberg's optimism comes from remembering the beginning of a decade that freed Hollywood from the Hays code and that saw in Kennedy's rise to power a light at the end of the grim tunnel of a Republican general's eight years in the presidency. Still, it is almost childlike the trust Spielberg places in the family, this shadowy institution of the failed “american way of life” that Gray films so well.

         This almost reverse mirroring in the films' treatment of each director's childhood experiences becomes quite explicit in the final sequences. In both films we have the following construction: a conversation from father to son, the meeting of the protagonist with an authority and reference figure, a final scene in which the character walks away with his back to the camera towards the horizon line.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

         If Spielberg, as always, abuses the close-up as an expression of wonderment before the world in his close-ups and counter-plans, Gray will express the disconnection and isolation of the characters to their surroundings. Although The Fabelmans has its driving motif in the cinematic accident, - the opening sequence is about Spielberg's boyish fascination with a scene of a train rolling over - illustrated in the script through the story of a family shattered by maternal adultery, the mise-en-scéne celebrates domestic relationships (even the lover is from / of the family!). The scenes around the family can be dramatic, but never really tense or bitter. The camera embraces every member of the family, and all together at the same time, there is no possibility of real breakdown. In her grandest moment, when she embodies Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes' A Woman Under Influence (1974), the mother (Michele Williams) dances lit by the headlight of a car. But we see little of the wholeness of this woman who has her voluptuousness interrupted all the time by the faces of family members gazing at her. It is not a time for her, it is always a shared, fragmented time, so that the cinematic accident is not such an accident, so that it never hurts - unlike Gray who seems to want to hurt the viewer with every social and moral embarrassment of the characters. The most tense discussion in The Fabelmans closes with the moving ascent of the mother on the piano bench saying she is going to therapy, a comic relief, the scene was already getting aggressive and we don't want to hurt our audience. A nefarious web of familial love binds those characters together in such a way that one does not exist without the other. There is love behind everything, from betrayal to neurosis. What a wonderful familiar love neurosis, from it comes the welcome, the encouragement, and the salvation.

        But Gray's family also welcomes, encourages, and saves, through gloom, despair, and violence. In Armageddon Time, the dry cuts of editing dig a chasm between parents and children, between siblings, between grandparents. The family discussion around the table does not have a comic background, it expresses the estrangement and lack of control of the "patriarch" before this institution created to gravitate towards him, which the character has his physical and intellectual insignificance exposed in almost every scene. It is with the pathetic brutality left to him that he takes back the reins of the family situation, before this lack of control means the family's fall into the pit of economic destitution of the Reagan era. The mediocrity of the character is almost touching, opposed to the selfless and understanding heroism of the Spielbergian "patriarch." The cowardice of the parent as seen from the point of view of the son, cowering in the corner of the bathroom stall while awaiting the beating, reverberates in every other scene of the character, especially the final conversation inside the car. His head is often lowered, subservient to a structure in which he must become the wolf in order not to be hunted, but which at most makes him a domestic dog defending the master who keeps him imprisoned.

          This is the great lesson passed on from father to son that circulates silently in American family relationships, an institution that preserves the most nefarious social traditions in the guise of a space of security and shelter, and Gray knows it. Just as Clint Eastwood also knows this in American Sniper (2014) when he evokes the founding myth that underlies the dream of the “american way of life”, "wolf is man's wolf," also in a scene of teaching from father to son: "And there are those blessed with the gift of aggression. With the indomitable need to protect the herd. These are a rare breed that lives to face the wolf. They are the sheepdogs. We are not raising sheep in this family. But we protect each other. If someone fights with you... If someone bullies your little brother, you can finish him off". The only thing missing was for him to specify what he means by this intimidation that justifies the annihilation of the other. In Armageddon Time, as in American Sniper, the transmission of this value so dear even to American foreign policy, takes place in this family bosom, so tender and welcoming. And the one who passes this "great lesson" on is not exactly a hero, but a character disturbed by fear, who finds in the discourse of paternal protection the weapons he needs to justify his brutality and the social evils he perpetuates. James Gray resorts to family drama to expose what is already known, but that even the younger generations seem to want to ignore: the family institution, America's moral foundation myth, is the most responsible for social, racial, and gender inequality. And we are all complicit in pretending that in images and narratives in which family approval represents the redemption of the individual can masquerade as revolutionary or even critical. A kiss for the beloved film of the generation that wants to transform the world with the aesthetics of soda pop advertising and the final reconciliation between mother and daughter.

          “Let us be the wolf of man's wolf, the wolf of the wolf of the man's wolf," as Caetano Veloso sang in Língua, in the same 1980s. For unsurprisingly, the herald of salvation Shymalan arrives in 2023 with a message as simple as his mise en scène is sophisticated: either we kill the family or the world ends. In Knock at the Cabin (2023), family and spectacle, love and relationship of dependency, media and sacrifice, martyrdom and salvation gleam at the tip of an axe about to crack a skull. Or several. Including the skull of a sweet, loving father. A clear image, a prophetic cry of rapture. If the baby monster of It's Alive made the mistake of leaving his father alive, and this mistake, despite giving us two great sequels It Lives Again (1978), Island of the Alive (1987), cost him his life, let's look more at the images of Mr. Nigth Shymalan. He knows that no ship will save us.

April, 2023

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