The director of Armageddon Time reflects on how his childhood inspired his deeply affecting drama about societal tensions in 1970s New York.
A profoundly honest filmmaker, James Gray frequently takes inspiration from his own life and his family’s history to create moving portraits of contemporary American life. In his latest drama, Armageddon Time, Gray reflects on being an 11-year-old in the late 70s, as Ronald Reagan’s premiership loomed in the near distance and tensions flared between communities in New York City.
LWLies: The close relationship you had with your grandfather very much inspired this film. Why do you think the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren can be such a source of creative nurturing for children?
Gray: My parents really struggled with putting food on the table, particularly in 1977. They had an extremely difficult time, needed government assistance with food stamps, and they were quite humiliated by that. I remember, my grandparents had retired at the most opportune moment. They didn’t make a lot of money, they were both teachers, but they had saved and lived frugally, so they had some money. I think so much of my father and mother’s anguish was about trying to make sure the family could function on a daily basis, the struggle to survive, and the expressions of love and tenderness, empathy, sympathy – those things couldn’t really take hold when the struggle was daily, and so heavy.
I remember my parents taking me out of public school and putting me into a private school. They never once just said to me, “Are you okay? How are you doing?” I mean, maybe it’s a good thing. I have a lot of flaws, obviously, but I have grit, I fight for what I want. My brother has this too, and maybe that’s a product of a certain toughness. On the other hand, you don’t just raise people so that they can be ferocious. There’s more to life than that. I have this fantasy that my brother and I have discussed, where upon my father’s death, we would have found some safe deposit box and opened it up, and then there would be a note saying “I was really tough on you and I didn’t baby you because I knew would help you later in life, but I love you.” Of course, there wasn’t that note, but I kind of feel like that’s at the basis of a lot of his actions.
I think you get something like a do-over as a grandparent. You already know what to do. Part of what the grandparent gives you is love without judgement and the pressures of the daily raising of the child. When you’re a kid, you only have to have one person who says you’re wanted and loved. That can be enough to save you. And for me it was him. I think grandparents have the benefit of a little distance and a little experience.
How do you choose what details to include and what to omit when drawing from family history?
Wasn’t it Hitchcock who said that movies are life with the boring parts cut out? I remember I asked Paul Thomas Anderson once, if he did outlines and he said, “No, I don’t ever outline. I make lists.” I thought to myself, “What? A list is an outline.” So you make lists, you make an outline – I wrote down maybe 200 or so scenes or episodes from my life – and then you try to find the ones that are the most dramatically important. The ones that actually change the direction.
It’s not easy, because sometimes momentous moments are very small. Somebody says the wrong thing to you, and it seems like a tiny thing, but in reality, your whole life changes. Sometimes you need a little distance to say “What is it that shaped this?” So many things go into history. It’s not reducible to one thing. And so it’s vexing – if you try to solve a problem or answer a question, you’re in trouble as a creative person. All you can do is present a series of incidents or episodes with as much honesty as you can, and not try to make an answer.
I feel like that lack of an answer or solution in Armageddon Time is what makes the film difficult to grapple with.
It’s funny, another interviewer asked me “Is this another film where the Black character teaches the white character a lesson?” And I responded by saying “What lesson?” There’s no fucking lesson. Both of these kids get thrown into a world of cognitive dissonance. Even Paul’s grandfather does that. He says, “Your name is Graff now, so you can fit in,” but in the next breath he’s telling Paul to “Be a mensch” and stand up for what he believes in. One of the things that I always found disturbing, but essential, was the idea that not only was there no answer given, but that the white kid in this story is thrown into this appalling world order, from which he actually benefits. That is not typical Hollywood I felt, and certainly worth pursuing.
My family was really fucked up. The neighbourhood wanted us out, they didn’t want Jews on the block. So am I a creature of privilege? No. And yes. Those two things co-exist, and I think contribute to arguing against this simplistic idea of white guilt. My father – was he the creature of privilege? Did white privilege mean anything to him? No. He fixed boilers. But you see in the film, that’s what he does for the cop, that means Paul gets off lightly. So he is the product of privilege, and there is a pecking order, but it’s just not a simple thing.
We’re told different things when we’re children, and it’s assumed that we’ll gather the moral and ethical framework necessary for existing in the world just from the air or something, but we don’t and we can’t. It demands a long term process. Religion used to fill that hole. You know, parables in the Bible, for example, but I’m not religious, a lot of people are not religious now. My friend when I was young – he was not religious. So I’m not proposing we go back to religion. What I am saying, though, is you do have to fill that hole or else children are adrift. And I was adrift.
A friend of mine noted that it was interesting to think about the fact that in the 1970s many working class Jewish people were still very much subject to anti-semitism, but also benefitted from being able to assimilate and fit in with white society.
Yes. Nuance and detail matters. I don’t think it’s quite white guilt in this film, because as a Jewish person, you’re caught in a very strange place. You do benefit, but at the same time, you’re not really in the club. And you can be the oppressor and the oppressed at once – the striving that my parents had to fit in contributed to their foot on the neck of Johnny. I don’t know if I see that in movies all the time. I tried to also acknowledge the limitations of my own experience. It was never my intention to try and tell the story of someone who is Black in the United States. I don’t feel a limitation is the same thing as a flaw…all art has limitations. The beauties of the natural world are not depicted in any way in Picasso’s Guernica. That doesn’t mean it’s a piece of shit.
I think social media has contributed terribly to a debasement of discourse, and you can pay attention to the details and different threads of a narrative that do matter, or you think you’ve seen it already. I believe that’s somewhat lazy. It’s the some nauseating new strategy where we think everybody’s point of view has to be represented in a work. That’s not possible. The need to hear from a wide variety of voices is not the same thing as all voices needing to be in one work. This is my voice. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. You don’t have to see it, or if you do see it, you don’t have to like it. But it’s the only voice I’ve got.
I can’t emphasise this enough, because I think this is, in some ways, the crisis of our age, culturally. The thing that motivates me as an artist is the need to express myself honestly, and for you, for a specific amount of time, to have a window into my consciousness. That’s why it’s there. It’s not to see me giving you 82 different opinions on something. And no work of art can explain everything. On social media everything gets reducible to two sentences, and nuance and meaning gets lost in the race towards virtue signalling. I guess in some ways this is the anti-virtue signalling film as I’m trying to say I was a very unpleasant kid in a lot of ways. I’m supposed to show you all my vulnerabilities. That’s the reason I do it.
At the Venice Film Festival, Paul Schrader was talking about how his view on the world has changed since he began making films, and he said “Now I never wanna leave the room without saying I love you” which I thought was a beautiful way of articulating it. How has your worldview changed since you started making art?
Well, I’m not at the same place in my life that Paul Schrader is, and it’s very hard for me to have enough distance to be able to answer that with clarity. But do you know Hokusai, the Japanese printmaker? He had a great quote, and I’d like to read it to you. [Gray asks the PR for his phone]
During the lockdown, my son would take me out to the backyard to look at insects. I was moved to tears almost all the time by it, in a way that shocked me. I was reading about Hokusai, but I didn’t fully understand this quote until I was locked down, until I spent time with my children. Until I started to get older and my mortality became ever more clear to me. And I’d like to read this to you: “From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things. And since the age of 50, I have published many drawings. Yet of all I drew by my 70th year, there is nothing worth taking into account. At 73 years, I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grass and plants. And so at 86, I shall progress further. At 90, I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by 100 I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvellous and divine. When I am 110, each dot, each line shall possess a life of its own.”
I guess the reason I’m reading this is because the older I get, the less I understand about the world. And the more heartbreak I feel on a daily basis, and maybe it means I should take a pill or something. I think it’s advancing age. It’s my father’s death. It’s the lockdowns, it’s my children that have been born. But The Beatles had it right. You lose the anger. And you realise more the importance of achieving a feeling of love.
Armageddon Time is released November 18 in the UK by Universal.
Published 16 Nov 2022
James Gray interrogates his fraught childhood in Regan-era New York City in this masterful, unflinching drama.
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