The Social and Personal Turbulence of Armageddon Time

James Gray explores his own flawed youth in this autobiographical coming-of-age film

James Gray on the set of Armageddon Time (Photo by Anne Joyce / Focus Features)

After exploring the jungles of the Amazon in The Lost City of Z and the furthest reaches of outer space in Ad Astra, James Gray was beat. "I was anxious to try and rediscover what it is I loved about cinema, why I even wanted to make a film in the first place," Gray said. "I wanted to make something logistically simple. But that doesn't mean it's simple. I wanted to make something emotional."

True to his desire, Gray's new film, Armageddon Time (which screened at Austin Film Festival ahead of its Nov. 4 release), is indeed deceptively simple and relatively muted, grounded in a quiet, transformative sense of emotional and societal upheaval. It's projected largely from memory: an autobiographical coming-of-age tale reflecting on Gray's upbringing in Queens, New York, in the Eighties. He manifests himself through Paul (played by up-and-comer Banks Repeta), a precocious, artistic, and restless kid in a middle-class Jewish family who quickly begins to perceive the complicated snarl of class and racial privilege when he befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a Black classmate.

With such delicate subject matter, it would have been easy for another filmmaker to turn the story into a didactic lecture, something a director like Gray, who historically has made features that feel ambivalent to general audience reception, did well to avoid. "You stay away from that when you approach the material with humility," Gray said. "You realize there's no simple solution to what is at the core of your idea. There's been a kind of diminution of the narrative craft over the last 20 years and with that there's been the introduction of a kind of vagueness in storytelling." However, he added, "Vague is not the same thing as ambiguous. What I tried to do was make the story events themselves clear, but their meaning not clear."

“It can be quite roiling to look at your own catastrophe.” – James Gray

Armageddon Time is visualized within a detailed yet unsentimental depiction of growing up during the ominous forthcoming of the Reagan era. The film is in part defined by the general contemporary societal disposition, but also by the period details of Gray's life that help make this as markedly personal as it is. He explained, "The key is to get even more specific. It seems like OCD or meaningless, but the details allow the larger ideas to thrive. The specificity allows the generality. I probably got a little irritating and obsessive about it to people on the crew. The texture that you feel, I think, is the product of being a crazy person and not giving in when otherwise maybe I should have."

Gray's film seems apropos in a time of prominent social justice initiatives and the nation's continued reckoning with the oppression of minority groups, but it wasn't written in light of those events. "The script was written obviously before the January 6 craziness, Trump's contesting of the election and democracy, before George Floyd and those protests," he said, "[so it] took on a different context once I started making it."

In that sense, the film seems borne more as a reflection of the kind of formative events that burn deep into one's psyche rather than a specific reaction to anything. It feels like something of a release in practice, though it didn't necessarily translate that way for its creator. "I achieved or felt no catharsis whatsoever," Gray said. "What I tried to do is say that there are no concrete answers. When you're delving into your own life where the outcome is failure, it doesn't lead you to a place that is about your own personal comfort. It can be quite roiling to look at your own catastrophe. And that's okay, that's what I'm supposed to do. And if I'm not willing to do that, I'm not willing to do anything."

Armageddon Time opens this week.

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James Gray, Armageddon Time, Austin Film Festival, AFF 2022

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