james gray on armageddon time antisemitism and racism in 1980s queens

James Gray on ‘Armageddon Time,’ Antisemitism and Racism in 1980s Queens

28james gray1 facebookJumbo

It takes only a few minutes of watching “Armageddon Time” to recognize that the main character, the redheaded sixth-grader Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), is a barely disguised version of the film’s writer-director, James Gray.

The film is set in 1980 in Flushing, Queens, where Gray grew up, at a moment he sees as a cultural turning point. The memoir-like plot follows Paul’s relationships with his parents (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong) and his British-born grandfather (Anthony Hopkins). It also, centrally, deals with his friendship with a Black classmate, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), who is held back by racism and other social forces in a way that Paul — who is Jewish and experiences a small degree of discrimination himself — isn’t.

The movie is Gray’s follow-up to “Ad Astra,” a space tale starring Brad Pitt that proved to be a difficult experience for the director. The released version was not his cut, he said, citing a voice-over he didn’t write. With “Armageddon Time,” he said, “I wanted to rediscover what it is I loved about movies. And that’s not an easy thing when you’re 53.”

Though Gray, a devoted chronicler of New York’s outer boroughs, has lived in Los Angeles since 2012 (“It’s sort of like the La Brea Tar Pits, you know? You put your foot in the tar, you can’t pull it out again”), he returned this month for the New York Film Festival. During our conversation, he would take out his smartphone to show me a picture of the grandfather, Aaron, on whom Hopkins’s character is based, or to call up a graph of the annual gross domestic product to reflect on what he sees as a raw deal for the American middle class.

Opening at a time when antisemitic incidents have been on the rise, “Armageddon Time” frankly depicts the intergenerational dynamic of a Jewish family and the trade-offs of assimilation. The film is topical in another way: Trump relatives are characters. When Paul’s parents put him in a private school, based on Gray’s alma mater, the Kew-Forest School, he is almost immediately buttonholed by Fred Trump (John Diehl), Donald’s father, who was on the real school’s board of trustees. Donald’s sister Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain) visits the school to give a speech about the value of hard work and how, ostensibly, no one handed her anything for free.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

It’s clear that “Armageddon Time” tells the actual story of your upbringing. But anyone who saw your first feature, “Little Odessa” (1995), would assume you were born and bred in Brighton Beach and the child of Russian immigrants.

My family had a strange divide because my father’s father and mother spoke no English, only Russian. Whereas my mother’s father, a Jew who had come through Southampton [England], was very different. Kind of urbane. There was almost a class difference, too. The movie that I’ve just made is much more my mother’s side.

You’ve made — not in order — a trilogy about arriving in and adapting to America. In “The Immigrant” (2014), you have the arriving part. “Little Odessa” and maybe “Two Lovers” (2009) are about being a first-generation American. And this is quite explicitly a movie about being a second-generation American.

You’re obviously correct, but it was not some grand design. I guess it’s a way of trying to be as personal as you can with the work. And what I saw as so integral to my own experience was the migration from Ukraine to the United States, and what that meant for my grandparents and of course what it meant for me. My grandfather on my father’s side — he would sit on the couch and cry, and he would talk about how much he missed the old country. On my mother’s side, there was the push to become Americans that had both good and very devastating effects.

One of the most potent scenes occurs when the grandfather tells Paul that he has a last name — Graff — that doesn’t sound Jewish, and that that’s going to help him in life.

I find that horrifying. It’s his way of trying to do the right thing, and in his own way contributing catastrophically to the problem.

Paul goes from being in public school, where he thinks of himself as the king of the school because his mother is the P.T.A. president, to private school, where he’s immediately put in his place by Fred Trump. Fred Trump implicitly sneers at Paul when he discovers he’s Jewish.

The thing that was conscious was the idea that you can be king of the hill in one place and garbage in the next. The system itself has a way of constantly ranking us, humiliating us, building us up, knocking us down.

Did Fred Trump hang out in the hall at your school and give you a hard time?

That happened almost exactly as depicted in the movie. He would just sort of stand there with his arms like this. [Crosses arms.] I was like, who is this sort of evil clown figure? “You. What’s your name? You a student at this school?” “Yes.” That whole thing. I must have looked a little ridiculous. I had this attaché case that my father had given me. I remember having this product Dippity-Do [hair gel] put in my hair and sort of shellacked it down. He targeted me immediately. “What are your parents’ names? Irwin and Esther Gray? And you’re a student at this school?” Today’s my first day. And I remember being terrified. Donald went to the school. Mary Trump [Donald Trump’s niece], who’s now been fairly courageous in speaking about her family, went to the school as well. My brother knew her; I didn’t. She was a bit older.

And Maryanne Trump, she came just that once?

That was a speech to an assembly. I tried to see if I could ever find the exact transcript. I couldn’t — I was relying on my memory and my brother’s memory, and also a teacher I’m very close with. She kept talking about how hard she had to work and what adversity she faced. I remember even at the time thinking it felt screwed up.

The Variety review accused you of using the character of Johnny. “The story just kind of tosses him away,” the review said. “He’s there, in effect, to provide a lesson for Paul.” How do you react to that?

I think it’s very lazy criticism. I don’t toss him away — you know exactly what happens to him, and it’s horrible. And it’s also not the only thing the movie’s about. Part of the problem is you can reduce anything to that kind of conclusion if you want. What matters is nuance. When we make works of art, what matters are the details and the dedication that the creative people have to the humanity of the people or the subjects in the work. I ask myself: Do we know what Johnny wanted in life? What his dreams were? And the answer’s yes. Do we know what his external struggle was against those factors? Yes. Do we know what his internal struggle is? Yes. Do we know something about his background? Yes. To me, that means I’ve acknowledged his humanity. And he’s not used. I think the ending is quite open.

From Telluride, A.O. Scott, who has since made the film a Critic’s Pick, wrote that the movie “is vulnerable to criticisms of sentimentality and wishful thinking, but it wears that vulnerability on its sleeve, and seems conscious of its limitations rather than defensive of its noble intentions.”

To me, it seems so unsentimental. I don’t think I come across all that great personally. All works of art are almost necessarily limited. You don’t get a sense of the beauties of the natural world in Picasso’s “Guernica.” You look at something like “Raging Bull”: It’s not told from Vikki LaMotta’s point of view. She is a secondary character, but the movie acknowledges her humanity. I knew that a movie with supposedly liberal Jews as the main characters is going to be in some way limited in that way. But I was trying to acknowledge that we can only see Johnny’s world very dimly. And that any attempt to do the right thing is fraught and filled with potential failure.

Part of what both critics are speaking to is who tells whose stories. It also came up that some of the actors playing Jewish characters — particularly Hopkins — don’t jump out as obviously Jewish.

I take huge offense to that as well. Because that means what people want is [puts on a Yiddish accent] “Hello, I am the Jewish grandfather!” But that’s not what my grandfather was like. And I’m Jewish — I reserve the right to cast someone like Anthony Hopkins. Does that person watch “The Godfather” and complain that Marlon Brando is from Omaha, Neb., and not an Italian New York guy? At some point, we have to acknowledge that our whole function as artists is to try and step into the consciousness of someone else and find compassion and find something of emotional power in doing that. The criticism, may I say, would be valid if I tried to tell the story from Johnny’s perspective. That would be asinine. But it’s my story. And you don’t have to say that my story is of value, but that’s a different criticism.