Inspiration and Disappointment At The New York Film Festival
Much-anticipated titles didn’t exactly deliver what our critic expected
The sun has set on the 60th year of the New York Film Festival. With this second week came two of my most-anticipated titles, one an American coming-of-age cine-memoir, the other an Iranian bit of metafiction. Both proved to be challenging in very different ways, for both well and ill.
Armageddon Time, the latest film from James Gray, is a return to form for the American filmmaker after his in-over-his-head attempt at science fiction, Ad Astra. Alongside Steven Spielberg with his upcoming film The Fabelmans, Gray is the second major filmmaker this year to mine his own childhood experiences for dramatic material. But Armageddon Time is a much darker, more unsparing work than Spielberg’s film, one which turns out to have as much, if not more, to say about the state of American society as it does about what Gray learned about himself and the world while growing up in Queens in the early 1980s. There are no rosy-colored glasses of nostalgia here.
Gray deftly, even at times devastatingly, sketches in a portrait of a mischievous young kid, Paul (Banks Repeta), shaped by a volatile home environment, enduring occasional bouts of abuse at the hands of his hot-tempered father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), while his loving but firm mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) looks the other way, with only his grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) proving to be his most consistent oasis of familial warmth.
The main dramatic thrust of Armageddon Time, though, is Paul’s friendship with Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a friendship that’s challenged when, after they’re caught sharing a cigarette in a school bathroom, Paul’s parents decide to pull him out of public school and enroll him into a private school—one that counts none other than one Fred Trump (John Diehl) as a benefactor. Jessica Chastain pops up in a cameo as Maryanne Trump, a US attorney in 1980, the year in which Gray sets the film.
The appearance of both these Trumps signals the film’s larger thematic terrain. So does the fact that Paul is white and Johnny is Black. More than just a coming-of-age auto-fiction, Armageddon Time also attempts to be something of a state-of-the-Union address about how American society got to our current, extraordinarily divided moment. And it’s on that level that the film gives me some pause.
The main problem with Armageddon Time in that broader regard is its characterization of Johnny, the film’s only Black character. “Character,” though, is putting it generously: As energetically as Jaylin Webb plays him, Gray doesn’t imagine him with nearly enough detail for him to function as little more than a glorified device for Paul’s burgeoning awareness of his own white privilege. You might expect that from a film that operates entirely from Paul’s own limited perspective. But then, for some viewers, that may well beg the larger question of what exactly is the use of yet another film that essentially adds up to an attempt to assuage its white maker’s liberal guilt? Your mileage will vary in terms of whether you find Armageddon Time deeply moving or deeply condescending.
Another artist who is unexpectedly taking a long, hard look at himself is Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who screened at the New York Film Festival this year with his latest film, No Bears. The film comes to NYFF on the heels not only of Panahi’s recent six-year imprisonment at the hands of the repressive Iranian government, but of the recent protests that have sprouted up worldwide as the result of the death of Mahsa Amini after the Iranian government arrested her for simply not wearing her hijab in accordance with government standards.
If Panahi’s recent films—everything from This Is Not a Film (2010) onward, all of which he technically made under a filmmaking ban imposed by the Iranian government—have suggested anything, it’s the inspiring imagination and resourcefulness of an artist maintaining his creative fire amidst repression. No Bears, however, finds this usually inquisitive, playful, and humanistic artist in an especially dark and melancholy mood.
No Bears is made up of two narrative threads: one in which Panahi is attempting to direct a film from a distance while hiding in a small village, the other in which Panahi gets involved in intrigue in the village revolving around two lovers, Gozal (Darya Alei) and Soldooz (Amir Davari), hoping to escape arranged marriages. The film he’s directing is also about two lovers desiring to escape their home country: Zara (Mina Kavani) and Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Panjei), the latter of whom, at the beginning of the film, has procured a stolen passport for Zara, which she rejects in order to wait for Bakhtiar to get his so they can flee Iran together.
We eventually learn that Panahi is basing his movie-within-a-movie in large part on his two stars’ own experience—a typically Panahi-an bit of metafiction. But he tinges his postmodernist playfulness with a bitter, self-critical edge this time around. Without spoiling too many of the twists of the film’s double-stranded narrative, No Bears eventually reveals that Panahi, to some degree, is also acting a kind of master manipulator, engineering a happy ending for his fictional couple, one that his lead actress eventually rebels against. And his manipulations have perhaps inadvertently come at a tragic cost in the village in which he’s staying. The devastating final shot of No Bears sees Panahi coming face-to-face with the limits of the medium he loves most in the human truths it can capture, the empathy it can generate.
In a bid not to close out my coverage of this year’s NYFF on a bum note, allow me to alert you all to a relatively unheralded independent gem that I saw earlier in the festival: Queens of the Qing Dynasty, an independent Canadian production that played as part of its experimental-leaning Currents section. Its director, Ashley McKenzie, first hit my radar in 2016 with her previous film, Werewolf, in which she found fresh visual and aural ways to render the experiences of a codependent couple of drug addicts. That visual invention continues to be evident in this sophomore feature: disorienting soundscapes, off-kilter mise-en-scène, even dips into digital surrealism this time around.
Compared with its visual style, the film’s story is relatively simple, chronicling the friendship that develops between Star (Sarah Walker), an unstable teenager with a history of suicide attempts who is about to age out of a local mental hospital, and An (Ziyi Zheng), a new nurse who the hospital assigns to look after her. But these characters are by no means cliches—particularly the queer, genderfluid An, whose more open perspective towards life gradually helps break down Star’s emotional defense mechanisms. This is the kind of film in which an impromptu rendition An does of Céline Dion’s “A New Day Has Come” in a high-pitched Chinese-opera falsetto proves to be something of a bonding moment between the two, the strangeness of the moment cutting through any sense of sugary whimsy or pathos.
In fact, the film is ultimately most noteworthy for its lack of sentimentality. McKenzie tells something of an inspirational story in Queens of the Qing Dynasty, but she isn’t interested in telling it in a conventionally inspirational way. Both Star and An ultimately find a way forward in their troubled lives, but they do so through a messy path mired in difficult fits and starts. It comes by its inspirational bent honestly, organically. It’s enough to remind you that, in the ever-self-renewing art form that is cinema, there are still possibilities for artists with fresh visions to tell even the most familiar tales in unfamiliar ways.