If the global lockdown of 2020 gave us an opportunity to reflect on our humanity, four of film’s most lauded writer/directors used that time to ponder… themselves. As one of them, James Gray, has said, “Sitting on your couch for three months demands introspection.”
Now those films are landing in the multiplex, one after another, like planes at the airport: Gray’s Armageddon Time opened Nov. 4. Bardo, from Alejandro G. Inarritu, landed Nov. 18, and on Netflix Dec. 16. Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans arrives Nov. 23, followed by Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light on Dec. 9. These films are not just autobiographical – they’re personal. Proving my theory that a filmography is a biography, they’re a distillation of the subjects that have obsessed each writer/director throughout his career.
Spielberg’s film is about family dynamics. Mitzi and Burt Fabelman (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano) take their son Sammy (played first by Mateo Francis-DeFord, then by Gabriel LaBelle) to his first movie, the cheesy spectacle The Greatest Show on Earth, and a populist filmmaker is born. With his home camera, Sammy happily churns out westerns, thrillers and war epics (specific shots from Saving Private Ryan may have originated here) – until he discovers that cinema can also be a shiv. It can reveal family secrets, as Sammy learns by accident while filming the restless Mitzi; and it can laud or ingratiate, as Sammy does intentionally, turning the blonde anti-Semites at his California high school into golden gods, in footage he shoots during his senior class beach day.
Critics are having their own field day, using intel from The Fabelmans to parse Spielberg’s oeuvre: His dad was an engineer and his mom was a pianist, so when he combines tech with music at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he’s really reuniting his divorced parents! All those complicated mothers (Catch Me if You Can, A.I: Artificial Intelligence)! All those lurking monsters (Jaws, Jurassic Park)! All those targets of racism and anti-Semitism (Amistad, Schindler’s List, Lincoln, West Side Story).
Spielberg, to his credit (and slight detriment), is a master of nonchaotic filmmaking – his conflicts are clear, his crises are resolved, and usually goodness prevails. So I’m amazed that this autobiographical film has such gaping blind spots. When I saw The Fabelmans at the Toronto International Film Festival, I turned around several times to see if the audience was clocking what I was: the blatant Oedipal conflict, and more surprisingly, the homoerotic charge between Sammy and his bully – which Spielberg seems unconscious of, even after filming it. He told NPR’s Terry Gross that he “never knew” why his bully reacted the way he does in the film, so he just wanted to leave it “a mystery.” In his own life story, as in his films, he prefers mythic to messy.
Speaking of chaotic filmmaking: Bardo, the most shamelessly egocentric of the four. Innaritu strides over the shoe prints of Fellini’s 8 ½ and Fosse’s All That Jazz, lauding himself as a misunderstood sex-god cultural hero. Silverio Gama – played by Daniel Giménez Cacho, a ringer for Innaritu – is a hotshot journalist turned documentary maker, beloved in L.A. and in his native Mexico, and conflicted yet certain about everything.
We meet him in the bardo, the Tibetan Buddhist liminal space between life and death. But if you think that humbles him, think again. He beds his wife, mentors his children, schools his frenemies, provides a primer on Mexican-American relations from Cortez to drug cartels, and makes pronouncement after pronouncement. “If you don’t know how to play around, you don’t deserve to be taken seriously.” “I seek approval from people who despise me.” “Success has been my biggest failure.” It’s all visually stunning and as-ton-ish-ing-ly self-involved.
I interviewed Inarritu once, several years ago. He was handsome and charismatic, and as we spoke, he ate charcuterie, flinging meats into his maw the way Game of Thrones characters toss scraps to snapping direwolves. Much of his work touches on how our passions devour us – Amores perros, Birdman, The Revenant. The latter two won him back-to-back best director Oscars, so that love/hate relationship with L.A. is literal. The bits of Bardo where Inarritu looks outside himself, to how the U.S. brutalized and marginalizes Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, are the most interesting, worth a film on their own. But he can’t stop turning his lens back to his own navel.
Empire of Light, by contrast, is the least strictly autobiographical work here, but it highlights the personal and social upheavals that shaped Mendes’s adolescence in his native England, “the things that made me as a child, as a grown-up, the things that have obsessed me all through my adult life, and the central experience of my life,” he told Deadline.
In the early 1980s, the aptly named Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) manages the Empire Cinema in an English seaside town, but she never watches the movies. She’s too busy totting up the box office receipts, eating lonely meals, having a stultifying affair with her boss (Colin Firth) – and most crucially, trying to recover after a mental breakdown. Then a budding relationship with a new employee, Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young Black man, makes her believe she can thrive without the lithium that numbs her.
Mendes was 15 and 16 in 1981, when race riots tore across his country. This film is part lamentation that racism remains robust in England, and across Europe and the U.S. But it’s mainly about Hilary’s struggles with mental illness, which mirror those of Mendes’s single mother. (As her only child, he was deeply affected by her cyclical highs and lows. He touched on mental health issues in his earlier films, American Beauty and Revolutionary Road.)
Empire of Light is also a paean to the healing power of art, especially cinema. The films he celebrates here aren’t art-house obscurities, but mainstream successes: The Blues Brothers, Raging Bull and especially Chariots of Fire, which briefly made pale British runners into world heroes. “If you’re an outcast,” he has said, “it’s possible that movies and art and literature can put you back together again.”
My favourite of the four is Gray’s Armageddon Time. Like many of his films, it’s about place – here, as in The Yards and We Own the Night, that place is Queens, New York. Again, we’re in 1980. Gray was 11 then, obsessed with the Beatles, Muhammed Ali and The Clash’s remake of Willy Williams’s titular reggae song. But the culture is shifting: By the end of the year Ali will lose to Larry Holmes, John Lennon will be murdered, and Ronald Reagan, whose stump speeches warn of Armageddon, will be elected U.S. president. The egalitarian promise of the sixties has finally died; the self-interest of the eighties is ascendant.
In the film, the shift is made manifest as Gray’s alter ego Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) changes schools. A budding artist with a rebellious streak, Paul leaves behind the public education that introduced him to his best friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb), who is Black and puts a human face on systemic inequity. Paul lands at Forest Manor, a private school where striving is the centrepiece of the curriculum (“You are the elite,” the kids are told again and again); Black people are excluded; and Fred Trump (yes, Donald’s daddy) endows the school dance.
It’s all so subtle and specific – specifics are Gray’s superpower – that it isn’t until the third act that I really understood why Gray is giving us his autobiography now. It’s not simply for personal reasons, but also for social ones: Forty years later, history is repeating itself, in a way that saddens and terrifies him.
Movingly, Gray uses his experience to show us how this happens – how a modest family like his got caught up in that most American of pursuits, rising from have-not to have. Paul’s parents Irving and Esther (Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway) and grandpa Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) don’t mean anyone harm – they just want to give Paul his best shot at life. That means some people, like Johnny, “get a raw deal,” Irving tells Paul. “But you have to make the most of your break and not look back.” It’s thinking like that, Gray wants us to know, rather than out-and-out cruelty, that got us here. That’s harder to see, but important to note.
There’s one more reason these four filmmakers hastened to release their autobiographical works now. The COVID pandemic accelerated what was already happening: Audiences abandoned cinemas for their couches, and series eclipsed movies. These four, who are nothing if not cinephiles – films shaped their world, are their world, and mean the world to them – had to get their stories out to big screens while they still could. They are proponents of and believers in the magic of the movies – so much so that both Paul Dano in The Fabelmans and Toby Jones in Empire of Light (he plays a projectionist) deliver nearly word-for-word speeches on how film works.
“Film is nothing but static frames,” they say. “But there’s a flaw in our optic nerves. So when you run film at 24 frames per second, our brains create the illusion of motion. The illusion of life.” And what is autobiography if not the illusion of life?
Special to The Globe and Mail
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