Arielle Angel: Hello and welcome back to On the Nose I’m your host, Editor in Chief Arielle Angel. I’m joined by Senior Editor Ari Brostoff, Contributing Writer Rebecca Pierce, and Associate Editor Mari Cohen, and today, we’re going to talk about two films, autobiographical Jewish filmmaker films, that I think are both pretty much Oscar contenders: the Steven Spielberg film, The Fablemans, and the James Gray film, Armageddon Time. I think we’ll start by talking about The Fablemans Did everyone get The Fablemans reference in the title? Like the fact that he has spiel, the Yiddish word for play in his name?
Mari Cohen: It took me a while.
Rebecca Pierce: Yes, I love that.
AA: Maybe I’ll kick it to you, Ari, since you’ve had such a transformative experience with this film.
Ari Brostoff: It’s true. It’s a transformative experience. I saw The Fablemans last weekend, not expecting to like it and wound up loving it, finding it beautiful and moving, and then being so embarrassed by my own reaction that I decided to double down and watch four more Spielberg movies this weekend so that I could really make a case for why I think Spielberg is actually a great director. The Fablemans is an autobiographical film. It’s about a boy named Sammy Fableman, who discovers the movies and starts using his parents camera to make his own little movies in his house. And the film follows the two paths of his maturation as a director. He’s very precocious as a director as a young boy, and so we follow him through his filmmaking adventures. And simultaneously, we watch his family kind of alternately have a really lovely relationship with each other and also eventually implode. That’s the conceit, is that we’re watching him learn to make movies through his family in many different ways at once.
AA: What did you like about it?
AB: I mean, first of all, in the way of any autobiographical auteur movie–like, I don’t know, 8½, or there’s an Almodóvar movie that I really love called Pain and Glory, or even like Cinema Paradiso, which was like so schmaltzy, but was like a movie I really loved with a kid–I think there’s a way that you get to just see the world through his camera, and he’s showing you the process and what he’s seeing through his camera in a way that teaches you how to watch his movies. And I think one thing that is kind of cool that he does at the beginning is locate his desire to make movies actually in a fear of movies. He goes to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, and he gets really scared in a moment where there’s a train hurtling toward the viewer, and his mom gets him a train set for Hanukkah and suggests that he film a crash in his toy train set so that he can master it and watch it over and over again. I think that that’s a really lovely origin story, and it felt very familiar and also, I think, was a cool window into the way that the fun, action-adventure side of the Spielberg filmography and the dysfunctional family side of it come together, because as the film goes along, he starts trying to master the breakdown of his family also through film. Also, Michelle Williams is, I think, really amazing.
AB: You look incredibly skeptical.
RP: I think Michelle Williams had a lot of heart in this film, but I have to say that this and Armageddon Time kind of Jewish representation-pilled me a little bit.
AA: Oh really?
RP: I sort of see what people are complaining about with having these WASP actresses play Jewish women because there was something that felt very awkward. The Fablemans, I want to say, won me over by the end, but something about the pacing, and the dialogue, and the delivery, and the casting felt awkward to me throughout the film, every place that you had someone who wasn’t Jewish depicting this Jewish family life. And I read a little bit about Steven Spielberg responding–there was a little bit of a controversy around her casting–and he was like, “Well, she really reminded me of my mom.” I don’t doubt that, but there’s like this Jewish sarcasm and warmth that I felt like was in the script but didn’t translate super well into her performance, even as she was bringing a lot of feeling to it. So like, I’m not gonna say it was like totally miscast or anything like that, but I was like, “Oh, I see why people want Jewish women playing Jewish women” a little bit more now.
AA: I had a different read. So I love Tony Kushner, but I am like super anti the Kushner-Spielberg crossover. Every time it happens, I’m like, “This is a mistake.” And I think one of the things–it took me until this film to realize what is wrong with it–and it’s actually like, you know when you have a stage actor acting for film, and it’s too big or something? It’s like, on stage, they say you’re supposed to make every expression, everything, much bigger. You’re playing for the people in the back. They need to be able to see and hear you and get something from it. There’s something about the way that this movie was acted and written that is like a play in a not good way. There’s kind of like a denaturalization happening that made me feel like I was watching a movie from like, the time before Brando or something. It was almost like an uncanny valley of where the acting fell. You know, were they trying to be naturalistic, or was it something else? And if I’m being as generous to Spielberg as I can be, I’m thinking like, “Oh, maybe it’s a self-conscious depiction of how things look in memory” or something, and that accounts for the exaggeration, but I still found it extremely strange. And then even that started to feel annoying to me, because in reading about it, he’s like, “Yeah, all this stuff happened. All this stuff is true.” Blah, blah, blah. And then it made me doubt whether any of it was true. It made me feel like that’s the kind of thing that’s true in one’s memory as a way to self-mythologize, but maybe not as true. And then the details started to annoy me, in that regard.
MC: I kind of wish that he would stop going in interviews and saying it all happened that way because it’s just a little bit less interesting. Like I think it’s much more interesting to wonder or to not really be thinking as much about the autobiography. I do think that there is exaggeration in the film, but I think it precisely works, in part, because partly what you’re saying, Arielle, about the way in which it’s about this sort of magnified effective memory. But I think it’s also about the magnified and artificial effect of characterization and films. I felt that it worked for this subject matter because there have been times when I think that Spielberg tries to apply this sort of artificiality or grandiosity, not just in characterization, but also in plot, this sense of neatness and schmaltziness, and he tries to apply that to historical and political events. So like Lincoln, for example, or he has a movie about the Amistad slave rebellion, and it follows this very predictable formula of like, a white man making a very beautiful speech, but it’s this type of arc that was very satisfying when I was like a 15 year old, budding history major, and something I would now recognize as being very frustrating. And I found that that application actually worked really well for this particular story, because it was this story about family, and memory, and film, and magic. And there’s a lot of self-consciousness about that in the film, obviously. I think it comes most clearly in the scene where he’s filmed his senior class and then shows it at the assembly, and then has that intense confrontation with the popular Aryan. And obviously, that’s this clear moment when we’re supposed to see Spielberg acknowledging that he has this artificial touch in films, and I did find that compelling.
AA: Could we zero in on the scene that you’re talking about? So there’s a scene where they’ve moved to California, he’s in a very non-Jewish white school, and he’s being bullied in the classical way–“you killed Jesus,” bagels in the locker, etc., and he’s getting beaten up. And he finds both a means of revenge and a means of acceptance in, first of all, dating a seemingly evangelical girl, who’s popular and really wants him to accept Jesus, and secondly, by filming the class. And he films one of the bullies, who has beaten him up, in a way that makes him into this kind of Aryan God, and then afterwards, the guy is very upset. Like he’s confused by both the impulse of it, and he feels, in a certain kind of way, that it’s a lie, that he’s never going to be able to measure up to the person that he’s put on screen.
AB: I really love that, because I think that the most obvious way that you would go about getting revenge on a bully, by filming them, would be to make them look small, and weak, and undignified. And instead, what Spielberg’s character does is he makes him look, as you said Arielle, like an Aryan God. I mean, it’s like a Leni Riefenstahl sequence. He’s leading his gang of six foot, blond, shirtless, 17-year-olds running through a banner, and they’re being shot from below, and they’re gods. And I know when I first saw the footage, I thought like, “What a weird move.” It seemed like such a desperate, fawning plea for acceptance. And then the other shoe drops, I think, in this really clever way, where the bully confronts him and says, essentially, “Why did you make me look so strong and powerful? What that revealed to me is that actually, it’s you who has control over my image, and I can never live up to that image of myself that you created.” I don’t know, I think that’s really fucking smart as an origin story for a certain kind of antisemitic trepidation around Jews in Hollywood. That like, that’s where the power lies, is in the ability to literally capture the Aryan body and put it on display, and in a way, therefore, also control it and offer the power also withhold that fawning gaze.
RP: There are two antisemitic bullies in this film. The one who’s more physically violent is the one that he captures in that Aryan God way that you’re talking about, and then the other bully, who actually makes a lot of antisemitic comments and is leading that and puts the bagel in his locker, is shown as totally pathetic in the film. You see him trying to pick up girls and getting rejected, and losing in volleyball and slinking off. So it’s interesting, there’s the two powers that the camera has, which is to put someone on a pedestal and to put them down, and they’re both angry at him. And so it’s just this interesting thing to see that kind of dual power, and I think the power is really about the gaze. But also, it really visibilized how that jock/nerd trope has been Jewish coded all along. Like this idea of the Aryan male versus the like shrinking Jewish nebbish, it’s throughout cinema history, but then the Jewishness gets removed to make it a universal story. And so, I thought that it really contextualized that whole trope in this legacy of antisemitism, for me, in a way that made me really appreciate that, and then made that final scene after the film is shown just have that much more payoff, because you can see like, “Well, that’s the power of the camera.”
AA: I was glad you brought up that there were these two bullies. It’s interesting, in terms of thinking about two strategies navigating an antisemitic environment One strategy is capturing someone, the other strategy is humiliating someone with the camera. It’s interesting to think about what he was doing as a navigation, and Sammy Fableman is kind of like, “I don’t know why I did it.” And I very much believe the way that Sammy behaves in that situation, but I still come back to like, what’s up with this suddenly hyper self-aware bully? And this is where I get to the “we are speaking for those in the back” thing that I just feel a little bit weird about. There could have been a way to play that scene, where that guy has less of an awareness about what has happened to him and is just as confused about it as Fableman is. But yeah, I love what you were saying, Rebecca, about the gaze and the ways in which that has been a part of a lot of cinema.
MC: And I think also, what I liked about it was I liked that it had a sense of humor about all of it. Like in terms of when he’s like, with the girlfriend, and then she’s trying to get him to pray, there’s just some sort of sense of humor about it, like an acknowledgment that what he’s going through is very hard and very overt, but it’s not being talked about as if he’s being persecuted by the Gestapo.
AA: And it’s not melodramatic. I do think that that’s commendable.
RP: And also, the way he gets with this girl is, after the first time they’re bullied, he gets back at the jock, who later is portrayed well in his film, by telling his girlfriend “Oh, I just saw him making out with this redhead on the stairs.” The jock then is like, “You have to go tell my girlfriend that that was a lie,” and he tries to do it, and they bust him, and her best friend is the Christian girl. So there’s this way that he’s worked his bullying into him getting some that I found very funny and brought self-awareness to it. Like he’s not he’s not just suffering, he’s working this situation to his advantage by being smarter, and more sincere, and better than the people who are messing with him. Although he’s not necessarily a faultless person, certainly better than the people who are messing with him.
AA: I want to give Ari a chance to give their grand Spielberg theory. But I mean, I think we should talk about the mother character.
AB: Yeah. I mean, I think I really agree with you, Arielle, about Michelle Williams playing the mother in just a totally different register than everybody else. I definitely agree that it kind of denaturalizes the movie.
AB: To be clear, I don’t think she’s the only one. I mean, I think Paul Dano is also acting that way.
AB: Right, he’s like melodramatically recessive or something.
AB: I mean, what I have learned is that Spielberg is totally obsessed with mothers. There’s a sort of larger-than-life mother or maternal figure in every one of the five Spielberg movies that I’ve now seen. And part of what I think is interesting about that is The Fablemans is the only one where you would expect that going in, just from the premise. So I think part of what is so uncanny about The Fablemans, but that I liked about it, is that the kind of sci-fi, metaphysical, unnatural aspect of the world that you always have in a Spielberg movie, hovering around the edges in some cases or as the actual genre of the movie in other cases. In this case, it actually locates itself in the mother itself.
AB: My grand theory of Spielberg that I came out of this with was–In the way film history is told, from the 70s onward, it’s like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg both made these blockbuster hits like Star Wars and Jaws that fundamentally ended a regime of independent cinema and brought in this Hollywood blockbuster era. And I kind of hate Star Wars, and part of why I think I hate Star Wars is just that you have to fucking deal with the Star Wars Extended Universe everywhere. And that’s really not true for Spielberg. And I started thinking about why that was, like there’s a kind of kid–and indeed, a kind of adult–that’s a Star Wars guy. And I was thinking about why is there no Spielberg guy, because there really isn’t despite his immense impact on American filmmaking. That is not a kind of guy. And what I came out of this week of Spielberg fandom is that I think it’s because the Star Wars movies are famously daddy movies, and the Spielberg movies are such intensely mommy movies, in a way that I think makes them both supposed to be for everyone, like they’re for the American people, and they also repel subculture because you kind of just can’t be that public about being that obsessed with your mom. That doesn’t translate into fandom. But Spielberg just continually fucking does it. I just feel very impressed by his tenacity.
RP: Yeah, I loved Animaniacs.
RP: I want to offer a different theory of why there aren’t Spielberg nerds. I think that there kind of are, but they become film nerds. Because Star Wars, because there’s so much of the property, it becomes this self-contained universe. Spielberg is someone who–this was a love letter to film, but everything he does is a love letter to film. Spielberg was involved in Animaniacs, which, did y’all watch that growing up?
RP: It made us all these culture nerds because it brought in these influences. Spielberg cites his sources in a way that makes you a film person at the end of that, versus this particular subset of pop culture sci-fi.
AA: One quick plug since we brought up the Animaniacs is the Scorsese Fiddler episode, where like the Goodfeathers, who are like a play on Goodfellas, are perched on a statue of Scorsese, doing Fiddler, but about Scorsese.
[Clip from “Scorsese’s Head” from Animaniacs]
AA: It’s kinda like The Simpsons in terms of the layers of reference happening. I want to talk about Armageddon Time through the frame of merit. I mean, definitely there’s an American Dream thing happening in The Fablemans with this like manifest destiny, where they move further and further west as the father gets more and more money, and also with Sammy Fableman’s own meritorious ascent through the ranks of filmmaking, although we don’t see that stuff, it’s all off screen. And Armageddon Time is a really different story, but nonetheless is really concerned with the question of merit. One of the very loud things in the film is that the main character, whose name I don’t even remember–Paul, Paul Graff–is not book smart, like school’s not really his thing, but he has the money to go to a private school, and in that private school, there are the Trumps. Fred Trump is the main donor to the school, and Mary Trump, who at the time is District Attorney or something, shows up, and the speeches are very much like, “You will get there from working hard. And that’ll be the reason why you make it, and nobody will ever be able to tell you that you didn’t make it for working hard.” And it seems like that’s a real flashpoint in the film, which obviously contrasts Paul to his friend Johnny, who is a Black kid living with his grandmother, the grandmother is very ill, the foster care people are coming by and trying to get him into foster care, he doesn’t really have a lot of home life to speak of, or supervision. And so, there’s this question of like, “What if their roles were reversed?” I mean, the intelligence of the film is asking us, in a very unsubtle way, to think about merit, the question of merit. What do people think about it?
AA: The ending, I liked kind of the best.
AA: I agree.
RP: But it didn’t quite earn it. So the title of the film comes from The Clash cover of a ska or reggae song, Armageddon Time, and that song is playing throughout the film. So it’s referencing this idea of rebellion and rejecting your unearned privilege, kind of, but that never actually happens.
RP: You know, the reason that Paul ultimately succeeds in life is because his Black friend takes the fall for a crime that was his idea. And the reason that happens is because his dad had done something for the cops on the case, and also just because he’s white. It felt like being tortured, for me a little bit, to watch this film, because you can just see where that’s heading, and like, why are you giving me this like smart, interesting Black character, who loves NASA and all this stuff, when I know it’s just to tear him down in the end so that the white kid learns a lesson? Even if that’s what happened in the director’s life, I don’t personally need to watch that again. It hurts me. And then you have The Clash playing in the background the whole time, and I’m like, “Why?” The closest explanation for that is that scene where the grandfather is telling the son that he has to stand up against the racism at his school when he moves to the private school. They’re incredibly, even more overtly racist than when he was in public school with Johnny. But he never actually does that. So there’s no payoff.
AA: Yeah, it’s so interesting. They’re definitely reaching for something. There are some sophisticated things that are happening in the film, like the grandfather is really kind of antiracist in his own particular way, but his wife is a total racist. And I was glad that they did that. These two people are married, he’s getting one kind of messaging from one person and one kind of messaging from the other. And I also was glad that it wasn’t like a white savior narrative, either, where Paul is able to help Johnny in some way where everybody gets to feel good about it. I was kind of glad that he screwed up. But then again, it does seem to suggest, in a way, that there is some way out of the failing that we never see. Because it ends on this idea of, “We’re just gonna keep fighting,” but we haven’t seen him begin to fight. And in fact, the opposite, like he never really even stands up to his friends. The most that he does is tune out Fred Trump. I mean, what did you guys make of the scene in the car with Jeremy Strong, who I just want to shout out, I think was very convincing and very good.
AA: So just to lay it out, Paul has suggested to his friend Johnny that they steal a computer from his school, and they go do that, and Johnny takes it into a pawn shop. The pawn guy calls it in, the cops arrest Johnny and also catch Paul in the process. Johnny’s in there in handcuffs, Paul’s not handcuffed, the cops interrogate them and are very concerned about Paul and what he’s mixed up in but not very concerned about Johnny. Paul seemingly is gonna say that it was his fault. I guess he does say it, but Johnny takes the blame for some reason. And we should talk about why that is written in that way, why Johnny takes the blame. And at the same time, the father shows up, he has a relationship with the cop–he fixed something for him for free, and they get to take him home. So in the car on the way home, the father–who, by the way, we’ve already seen him be very violent with Paul, so we’re kind of expecting some outburst or temper tantrum–basically recognizes what Paul’s going through and says, “Listen, I’m sorry about your friend. It’s fucked up. But if somebody gives you a leg up, you have to take it, and this is your leg up and we have to take this opportunity because it’s come to us.”
MC: Yeah, I feel like that does become this send-home monologue in a way. It’s placed in the movie where the moment of emotional resolution or clarity might be placed, and so the question is like, what exactly is James Gray doing by placing it at that moment in the film and making it this emotional climax?
AB: The way that I read it was like, there’s so much political incoherence in Paul’s family. Like they consider themselves liberals, they’re booing for Reagan, versus once he winds up in prep school, the kids are cheering for Reagan. There’s these kinds of messages that the grandfather was giving about historical persecution that seem like they’re going in the direction of solidarity and antiracism. But then, at the very same kitchen table, you have other people saying either just explicitly racist things or precursors to the idea of “when someone gives you a leg up, you have to take it.” And I think what is really striking about the scene that you’re talking about, Arielle, is that that’s the moment at which those contradictions become acute and unbearable for the adults in the room. Their earlier incoherence doesn’t necessarily play out as an argument, necessarily. I think it’s actually very realistic, and the way that these conversations sometimes go, it’s like, somebody’s kind of racist, somebody else doesn’t really like that, but it’s all conducted through passive aggression, or like “pass me the potatoes,” like it doesn’t come to confrontation.
AB: And in that moment, circumstances have gotten to a point where Jeremy Strong has to actually confront himself. And that is where he lives. It’s a profoundly unsettling answer that basically amounts to his own admission of moral cowardice, you know, it’s him standing behind his own cowardice. And that seems to be the jumping-off point for Paul to eventually take the symbolic depth out of his prep school at the very end, where it seems like he’s running away, or like he’s no longer going to be complicit. But I think what complicity means here, or what refusing complicity means is extremely unclear. And I do think that it’s not a white savior narrative, but it almost feels like the kind of punk antifa version of a white savior narrative. Like no, he can’t overcome these structural forces on his own, but he is, in some way, saved by the fact that he walks out and is sort of ennobled by that, and The Clash song is playing overhead. And you kind of get the sense that what we’ve been watching all along, because he’s also this very sensitive artist kid, and you get the sense that what you’ve been watching all along is a white kid in the 80s who is going to become an artist, and get into punk rock, and be an outsider and a rebel, and that his soul will simply be saved because of that.
RP: I think the problem, just to continue on what you’re saying, is that it’s just the aesthetics and none of the action. Like what makes The Clash actually punk was playing things like Rock against Racism and being involved in actual antifascist cultural movements. Whereas this is just playing the soundtrack to that, and you get the feeling of it. There’s a truth to that, though. There’s a truth to how this generation did that, and I kind of love that the film ends and it’s the Reagan era, you know?
RP: And they’ve achieved their little safety, their little foothold into the train of white supremacy, and they’re going to be good. And they can be uncomfortable with that, but the train is moving forward. And for people like Johnny, it’s just getting worse. There was some truth to that.
AA: Totally. I just did not enjoy watching the film, but I feel like the more we talk about it, the more I have an appreciation for the sophistication of some of the choices, just in terms of like presenting the fact of Jews doing these things to get by, even if they, quote unquote, know they’re wrong or whatever, in ways that are not wholly condemning on some level, like in ways that are just looking at them. I think that is kind of a sophisticated move, but I agree that it’s sort of unsatisfying, because it still wants you to believe that Paul is going to be different, but it gives you no evidence that he will be. It suggests more redemption for the characters than they deserve, and it may have been a better choice to leave a lot less light there in terms of how we’re supposed to see Paul.
MC: The supposed conclusion to the narrative that we do get, knowing that it’s an autobiographical film, is the fact that the director then grew up and made this movie, right? Like that’s the imposed ending. And it’s almost the opposite of the Spielberg message, which is like, “Holy shit, you’re gonna make a movie about this, and that’s gonna change everything.” Whereas in this situation, it’s like, “Okay, what, you’re gonna grow up and make a movie about it?” Like, that’s it?
AA: Yeah. Right.
MC: And so that also feels unsatisfying.
AB: I will say, I think that there was one really amazing scene when the boys are in the police station together, and they’re being interrogated. There’s a moment where the cops are out of the room, and they’re having this exchange with each other, where Paul is saying, like, “It’s my fault. I’m gonna take the rap.” And Johnny is saying, like, “Don’t even bother. What’s the point?” I think that both kids actually just give really remarkable performances throughout, but in that moment, I actually thought something happened, where the hovering of the Holocaust narrative that you get through the grandpa actually gets reactivated through them. I don’t exactly know how deliberate that seemed. Maybe it wasn’t. But I did think that there was that one moment where, I don’t know, it’s like the camera comes down to eye level for them. And you know, they’re little boys, but they suddenly take on the features of adult men in like a life-or-death prison camp scenario. And you just see them processing incredibly existential facts that will follow both of them for the rest of their lives, though in entirely differential ways. I thought that that, for me, was the moment where the Holocaust background, which had felt actually a little bit gratuitous before it, and it felt a little preachy or something to me before, in that moment, those two sides of the movie came together.
RP: I think, for me, that’s the moment where Paul becomes aware of something that Johnny has clearly known from the beginning, which is just how stacked the odds are against him, from the first time we see him. He’s been held back, he’s just never given a chance. And then Paul, in that scene in the police station, becomes aware of it. Like before, he’s like, “Oh, I would stand up for you if you were really in trouble,” and he realizes how hollow that promise is. Which Johnny kind of treated as hollow from the beginning, like, “What are you going to do?” And that moment on the subway earlier, when Johnny gets bullied by the other Black kids for having dreams, and he’s pushing Paul away, and Paul’s, so hurt by that–I think Paul comes to understand, what the resignation of that moment was. Like everyone becomes resigned to it, so you see this darkness of the system.
AA: I mean, how would the movie be different if Johnny didn’t take the rap?
AB: Well, I think what the movie is strongly suggesting is that it wouldn’t have mattered. He would have gotten the rap whether or not he had taken it. And so, he makes some kind of choice to like, jump off the cliff into the future that he has already been told is going to await him. But I don’t think that it’s done as a noble act. I think it’s done as like, this is like an act of suicidal knowingness.
RP: I hate that. Like, okay, it’s realistic, but I hate that this character existed for that.
RP: It’s grim.
AA: I mean, it’s part of the reason why the movie kind of doesn’t work.
RP: It also feels like you never see anyone who cares about Johnny. Except for like one second, you see the grandmother, and she’s just sort of nodding as he says, “I’m leaving.” I feel like a grandma might be like, “Where do you think you’re going?” Even if she was sick. You got a sense that like, Paul, and by extension the director, never really got to see that part of Black life and that someone might actually care about a Black kid.
RP: You just saw him on his own in the system, and so that lack of deeper knowing of Black people and Black community– Like he had a cousin coming to take care of the Grandma, why isn’t the cousin– I don’t know, I have a lot of questions.
AA: I also had a lot of questions about how completely alone he was, and how it felt like a device.
RP: Yeah, it reduced him to a device so he didn’t feel like a person. And so there’s also less stakes of like, you know, part of an individual’s tragedy is how that impacts the community, and him disappearing seems to mean nothing to no one. And I think that, for me, took this from something that’s maybe based in real dynamics to something that’s like a different version of the Mammy trope, in a way, because he’s like, guiding Paul through this learning process, and that’s his whole existence.
AA: Yeah. I feel like there’s one more thing that I feel like we didn’t get to touch on, which is these older Jewish male figures in both of the films. Mara, you said you wanted to talk about the great uncle in The Fablemans, but I also think that the grandfather in Armageddon Time deserves a little bit more attention. It’s interesting that it’s both these grandfathery figures that are kind of like the knowing characters. It’s almost like they’re magical grandfather’s, you know, accented, marred by real antisemitism, who have all the answers.
RP: In my reading, it’s a commentary on assimilation, in a way. Like there’s something that these real, OG Jews who experienced Europe know that Jews in America have forgotten. And I think it’s in part a lesson about what it means to be an oppressed person, what it means to have solidarity, what it means to be a Jew, and that part of Jewishness that they’re trying to reach for and hold on to is exemplified in these characters, and the harshness of how the world really is when you’re not in this American, white bubble.
AA: Can I just share a little family story that happened to me recently, which I think Ari and Mari may know? I went to a family reunion in Columbus, Ohio a couple of months ago, maybe last summer or something, and I was sitting at a table with some cousins of mine, mostly Boomer generation, and they were asking me how my work was going and whatever. And then they started asking me if I supported the terrorist BDS movement, and it became a very intense argument about Palestine. And my great uncle, who has gotta be close to 90 now, leaned over to me, and he said, “You’re wasting your breath. You’re talking to people who have never suffered.” I mean, that’s really the grandfather from Armageddon Time, in a nutshell,
MC: Well, it’s a version in which personal oppression and experience of suffering leads to greater solidarity and greater empathy, which I think we know is also not always the case, and not always the role that these people play. But it is interesting. I mean, I think it’s not totally clear, also, the extent to which the grandfather himself–isn’t it a story like his mom had watched her parents murdered by a Cossack? And then they went to Liverpool, his mom went to Liverpool, and then they emigrated to the US, but I guess it’s not totally clear what the circumstances were. But it’s kind of interesting how like, even the grandfather himself is slightly removed. And also, in some ways, it is interesting for this movie to even tell that story, just because I feel like in a lot of US popular culture, there’s this idea that all the Jews who came here actually fled the Holocaust, when often it’s actually people who left before the Holocaust, or fled pogroms, or just other economic isolation or whatever. So it was kind of interesting in that way, but I just wasn’t totally sure what the payoff was. It felt a little bit Pollyannaish, in some ways, for him to be spouting these great messages of solidarity.
AA: Well, again, they don’t do anything with it.
MC: I liked the great uncle in The Fablemans I mean, I think it was gimmicky for sure. I just felt like this question around art and family, even though it was like so obvious, like, he just, grrrr, tears you apart. Like, he literally screams it in your face, but I thought it was kind of fun. But it was something I had actually been thinking about at that moment, and it’s also just interesting to think about how the movie itself handles it, because then, this question of how his art is going to impact his family becomes a major plot point.
AA: Is that guy Jewish? Because if that guy’s not Jewish, then I don’t care about anything.
MC: I don’t know.
RP: It’s Judd Hirsch, he is Jewish.
AA: Yeah yeah yeah yeah. Okay, forget it. Okay, fine, you have to cast Jews sometimes.
AB: I love that that’s where we’ve landed.
MC: This is a question I always have when this stuff is happening. So say you’re just like a white, Christian-background, American, theatergoing, and you’re going to these movies, and they’re just like, all about the Jews. Like I’m so fascinated by that. Are you like, “Okay, we get it. The Jews again?” Are you like, “Oh, this is really interesting. Oh, they really suffered, and these conflicts are so interesting. And wow, he was called Bagelman.” I just like, I’m not saying it’s bad. I think it’s obviously very interesting. I just sometimes wonder what Jewishness is doing in these movies for a general audience. And what does that mean? I’m so curious about how people react to that.
RP: I think that for people who are white Christians, white Jewish stories, ones that don’t directly indict them, are a way of feeling like there are oppressed people you can relate to, actually. I think that if you watch this film from a white, Christian lens, there’s not that much that you wouldn’t relate to other than the specifics of being Jewish and the experiences of antisemitism. They’re situated in a cultural context that is very visible in our country, if you haven’t experienced it, and after a certain point of assimilation, not so different from what a WASP or Catholic person or whatever might experience. And I think it’s a little bit safer way of getting a view into an experience that has some legacy of oppression without like, if you’re watching a Black story or a native story or something, you’re gonna feel like the bad guy. I don’t think a lot of white Christians watch things like this, even if they are showing antisemitism like in The Fablemans, people aren’t going to feel like “Oh, I’m like the bullies.” They’re gonna be like, “Oh, I’m like Steven Spielberg.” I think that it’s an opportunity for vicarious experiences of otherness that doesn’t feel so other. And I think that’s why people tend to eat up stuff like this.
AB: And I also think that, in a way, it’s a very circular question, because I think it is movies that helped create the particular structure of assimilation that white Jewishness in the US has taken. So the fact that The Fablemans can exist at all, like it’s also sitting on the shoulders of several decades of filmmaking and other kinds of cultural production that have told, essentially, that story over and over and over and over and over and over again. I actually don’t think that we even have any idea what the post-60s iteration of Jewish assimilation would look like, if it was not in this continuous loop of mass-market storytelling.
AA: That’s interesting. I feel like it’s kind of newer. Like what are the major Jewish assimilation stories? I mean there’s some, but I feel like I can count them on one hand.
AB: Well, I don’t know. I’m thinking of just some very basic, Jewish American cultural touchstones, from Fiddler to, you know, Portnoy’s Complaint.
AA: Yeah, yeah.
AB: I think it actually has a lot to do with filmmaking and casting that doesn’t even always tell the story directly. But you start having Jews, particularly white Jewish men, cast in leading roles. I mean, I don’t know, I think Spielberg is such a good example here. I don’t know how many of his movies, pre Schindler’s List, actually dealt with Jewishness at all. But the fact that you have that particular gaze with its particular interest in the kid that gets beat up–
AA: Right, like what Rebecca was saying, that kind of coded Jewish experience.
AB: Yeah, exactly. Like if you put that code in the opposite direction–The code works both ways, I guess, is what I’m saying.
AA: Both also in the direction of what Americanness looks like.
AB: Yeah exactly.
RP: Jewish assimilation stories are incredibly old. Like The Jazz Singer, one of the first talkies with synchronized music, is also a story of a guy from a Jewish family who takes up this performing art, it’s not cool with his family, but it’s his way into Americanness. And also, he puts on blackface in the process. So there’s something that’s actually foundational to film about Jewish stories. And because of the fact that the film industry was open to Jewish folks at a time when not all industries were, we got in there, we were telling these stories. And there’s something quintessential about American assimilation as it happened to Jews, it also happened to these other groups, that makes these stories feel universal. Like if you’re Italian American, you might feel something watching this based on your own family history, or Irish American, or whatever. There’s something that’s repeated and happened to a lot of people, because of who Jews are, culturally, in the United States, and who Jews are, culturally, in the West, because we are a reference point for Christianity, in some ways.
AA: Well, I think we probably should close out. Thanks, everyone. Thanks, Rebecca, and Mari, and Ari for joining me. This has been On the Nose If you like it, please share it, leave us a review. Visit JewishCurrents.org, subscribe, do all the things. Thanks a lot. Bye bye.