They are portraits of the young man as an artist.
In Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” which opens today, we meet Sammy, a precocious moviemaker who even in grade school is putting together ambitious film projects. In James Gray’s recently released “Armageddon Time,” we’re introduced to Paul, a budding artist who spends his days doing detailed sketches.
Both movies are frankly autobiographical, sticking close to the facts of their filmmaker’s lives. What both movies share — and where they diverge — reveal a lot about the men who made them.
Spielberg, 75, released his first theatrical feature in 1974. It was the age of the “movie brats,” when a generation of young, mostly film-schooled talent — Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma — were already busy making the art, and in some sense, remaking the studios, in their image.
Yet Spielberg — their spiritual kid brother — was always more creatively conservative. He generally avoided Coppola’s operatic excesses, Scorsese’s downbeat endings and ambiguous protagonists, De Palma’s cynicism and sleazy sex. His genre movies embraced the classic form rather than trying to subvert it. He was genuinely, unabashedly, positive.
The quintessential Spielberg shot? Someone looking up, in wonder.
Gray, 53, released his first theatrical feature in 1994. It was the height of the Sundance Era, when a generation of film-festival sensations — the Coen Brothers, Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino — were busy rewriting the rules again. Their movies were aware they were movies. They were sardonic, even cynical.
Gray didn’t share his contemporaries’ deliberate self-consciousness or sick humor. Yet while, like Spielberg, he worked in a variety of genres — crime movies, period pieces, adventures, sci-fi — he also distrusted the old heroic formula. The characters in his melodramas tend to be morally compromised; when his explorers venture into outer space or the jungle, they’re likely only to discover disappointment.
A typical Gray shot? Someone looking down or away, in embarrassment or regret.
Which is why it’s fascinating that two largely opposite filmmakers have made two seemingly similar movies.
Both begin in childhood (although Gray’s film stays there; Spielberg’s continues into his protagonist’s late teens). They focus on culturally East Coast, secularly Jewish families (Gray grew up in 1970s Queens; Spielberg spent his early years in 1950s Haddon Township).
In each family, the main character is a boy whose artistic yearnings go largely unappreciated. The fathers are remote. The mothers are unfulfilled and emotionally fragile. In each film, an older relative dies: in Gray’s story, his maternal grandfather; in Spielberg’s, his maternal grandmother. In each, the loss shakes the hero’s mother deeply. And in each, the young man has a random encounter with a celebrity — Fred Trump in Gray’s story, John Ford in Spielberg’s — which leaves a lasting impression.
But once you get past those odd similarities, the movies diverge widely.
Spielberg’s movie is about memory, and embraces the exaggerations of family lore. (It is, after all, called “The Fabelmans.”) When Sammy’s long-lost great-uncle reappears, he’s a thick schmear of schmaltz, a Yiddish cliché straight from the Borscht Belt; when Sammy has his first date, it’s with a sexy, cartoonishly ultra-religious gentile who can’t decide whether she wants to swap spit or save his soul. Few supporting characters, including the villainous anti-Semites at school, feel real.
One who does, though, is Sammy’s mother, played with heartbreaking grace by Michelle Williams (whose tremulous line readings, very appropriately, conjure up the wounded vibrato of Judy Garland). Perhaps because her own dreams of a musical career have been stifled, she supports her son’s movie-making obsession; he adores her in response, but with such dangerously uncritical worship he’s devastated when he learns she is not as perfect as he dreams.
But they make up. Hell, even Sammy and the bigoted bully at school make up. Because “The Fabelmans” is, like so many Spielberg stories, about recognizing and forgiving flaws, in others and ourselves. It’s about happy endings. And, playing to the mass audience he has always understood, it’s about leaving the theater in a better mood than when you came in.
Those aren’t Gray’s concerns at all. In fact, “Armageddon Time” has a quite opposite agenda: To make us confront the past, and our own personal history, and perhaps acknowledge some sometimes-embarrassing truths.
This is not a movie filled with much old-school Yiddish (the Jewish grandfather in this story was born in England, and is played by Anthony Hopkins). Nor does it have much Old World warmth. Paul’s mother can be chilly at times; his father, physically brutal.
And Paul himself is no hero. He has one friend in public school, Johnny, a bused-in Black kid who lives in a cheap apartment with his senile grandmother. Paul genuinely likes Johnny; they hang out, play hooky and get into some minor scrapes. But when Paul transfers to a private school and his new, racist friends spot his old pal, Paul pretends he barely knows him. And when things get really tough for Johnny, Paul moves on, alone.
Which, his dad glumly tells him, is just the way the world works, and it’s time he learned it.
Both films are essentially origin stories — this is how I became the person I am today! But unlike Spielberg, Gray doesn’t view his roots with affection or even bittersweet nostalgia, but embarrassment and withering self-criticism. I had so much to learn then. I still have so much to learn.
You can see the difference in the lessons the directors take from the early, celebrity encounters.
As a young man on the Universal backlot, Sammy meets the curmudgeonly John Ford. The ancient auteur regards him sourly, gives him some basic advice about composition, and dismisses him. Sammy leaves with a useful tip, a story he’ll be telling for years, and the sense that, yes, in some small way, he’s become part of the movie business. Quietly triumphant, he now knows he belongs.
As a young preppie, Paul attends an assembly addressed by school benefactor Fred Trump. The self-satisfied real estate mogul tells the students they can do anything, that anyone can succeed, that all it takes is hard work. But Paul already knows that’s not true. His classmates are all rich kids. The only reason he’s there — and Johnny isn’t — is that Paul’s grandparents are footing the bill. Glumly walking out, Paul knows it’s all a lie.”
And that, perhaps, is the crucial difference between two very outwardly similar films. One is about finding your confidence. The other is about losing your innocence. One is about finally fitting in. The other is about beginning to be different. And not only do both pictures tells us a lot about their directors, which one resonates the most deeply with you may tell you something about yourself.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.