Valuing Auto-Critique

Major Spoilers for three 2022 films — “Armageddon Time.” Minor spoilers for “The Fabelmans” and “No Bears” — all now available to watch on different streaming platforms.

It’s always thrilling to see filmmakers upend conventional film narratives and forms. Doubly so, when the established template that’s deviated from is the autofiction film — usually conceived as a glowing reminiscence of a director’s past life, whose undying love for cinema and its protagonist (a stand-in for the director) is, at best, genuinely endearing, and, at worst, sickeningly cloying. (For a classic example that’s a mixture of both, think Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso).

There’s nothing particularly wrong with these nakedly sentimental and shamelessly nostalgic approaches to autobiography. (The past two years have given us different variants of this in Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light and Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast). Except they often seem to contradict their deeply personal, confessional nature. They feel too caught up in highlighting the eternal glory of themselves and of the cinema that changed their lives to become anything more than affectionately assembled photo albums. Sure, that makes everything look pretty. But their unwillingness to look beyond that curated prettiness is limiting, disingenuous even, as it buries any potential to explore the uncomfortable aspects of a director’s life and their not-so-perfect relationship with cinema.

Three films from last year turned inwards to embrace the messiness that introspection entails. Two modestly budgeted Hollywood productions — James Gray’s Armageddon Time and Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans — adhered to established conventions without ever succumbing to them. Both films are fond recollections of their directors’ coming-of-age but are not too fond of their protagonist’s past selves or their obsessive affinity to the camera. Jafar Panahi’s No Bears — the fifth independently produced film by the director since Iran’s theocratic political regime imposed a filmmaking ban on him for making movies against it — is the third, most critical film of the lot. The film’s narrative complexity and formal reflexivity make it most different from the traditional autofiction film; Panahi’s heartbreaking self-reckoning poses questions at every turn without providing easy answers, embodying the ethos of the autocritique film.

Armageddon Time (James Gray, 2022)

Armageddon Time hardly questions established filmmaking form (Gray firmly operates in his preferred mode of Hollywood classicism) but is consistently haunted by the filmmaker’s irresolvable white guilt, rooted in his Jewish family’s exclusionary quest for assimilation. The film’s setting is 1980s Queens, New York City — a time the filmmaker defines as the “beginning of the end of everything.” He captures that feeling too. The muted browns of the interiors and the cloudy greys of the exteriors complement the film’s autumnal color palette; the oversized, freely comforting sweaters on our bratty, naïve protagonist, Paul Graff (the stand-in for young James Gray, played by Banks Repeta), get a suffocatingly formal make-over, with buttoned-up blazers and tightly knotted ties making it hard for him to breathe, let alone move. And the open playgrounds where he once hung around with his underprivileged African American friend, Johnny (Jaylinn Webb), disappear in the film’s latter half. Instead, we get private school playground cages segregating Paul and his friend.

While these details make the film sound like a self-pity party, it’s far from that. Yes, times were terrible — Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan, both overtly mentioned in the film, were on the rise. But Gray doesn’t use that as an excuse to put himself off the hook.

He positions his younger self as torn between two diametrically opposite ideologies proposed (or implied) by the film’s most benign presence — his Jewish grandfather (Anthony Hopkins). The veteran actor’s affectionately warm performance and his character’s lack of strictness (especially relative to Paul’s patient but moody mother and all-together intimidating father) may make him seem like the film’s angel; he is, in fact, the only person who tells Paul to remember the Jewish struggle during Shoah, to learn from it, and always help those unjustly marginalized by the majority. Yet, he also persuades Paul to join the private school that thrives on further dividing the privileged from the underprivileged and promoting white superiority.

The film’s conflicting concluding scenes retain this tension. Paul silently walks away from the school that encourages these regressive beliefs. But does that excuse his despairing silence in the prior sequence when he had the opportunity to save Johnny after mistakenly putting him in grave peril? The film’s defeated, mournful tone suggests not.

The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg, 2022)

By comparison, The Fabelmans feels like the happiest movie ever. It features Sammy Fabelman (the stand-in for adolescent Steven Spielberg in the film, played by Gabriele LaBelle) frequenting cinemas to watch movies that made him fall in love with the medium; we see him (re)produce several student films, some of which contain Easter eggs to his famous works like Jaws (1975) and the Indiana Jones films. Spielberg even recreates his brief, comical meeting with legendary director John Ford (played by legendary director David Lynch), who gives him filmmaking advice that the director then uses as a visual gag to end his movie. It’s all a mix of geeky, self-congratulatory, and masturbatory: the prototypical characteristics of the autofiction film.

So where does the critique lie? Right there. Sammy’s life is cinema to the extent that he thinks and breathes his real-life problems through it. He believes that exerting control over the camera equates to gaining control over his real life. But the film’s central drama — theatrically verbalized by Judd Hirsh’s over-the-top Uncle Boris — argues the opposite. It’s about “Art vs. Family,” not “Art and Family.”

Spielberg visualizes this in the film’s central sequence — a mesmerizing musical montage that sees Sammy’s family life blow-up because of the camera. The scene begins with him editing the footage he took during the family’s camping trip because his father has told him to present it to his grief-stricken mother. Initially, everything seems in control — his parents, three sisters, and Uncle Benny (father’s best friend) — are cooking, eating, enjoying. We get brief glimpses of his mother and Benny talking about something separately from the rest of them. But Sammy ignores it. Passively watching another reel of the camping footage, he notices the two together again. This time, Sammy pauses the frame and gradually zooms in on it. In the top-right-hand corner of the grainy freeze frame, he sees Benny and his mother holding each other’s hands. Shaken, Sammy immediately rewinds the other reels. Scanning them for clues now, he sees what he had ignored before. He sees that the camera has revealed something to him without his consent; cinema becomes a destructive tool despite Sammy instructing it to be constructive.

Teleport this interplay between filmmaker and film-within-film into the present-day, make it the central focus of the entire film, and expand its scope from the personal to the political — you get No Bears.

No Bears (Jafar Panahi, 2022)

The interaction between two films — one meta-fictional, the other, conventional drama — is present throughout No Bear’s puzzle narrative. The first, shot chiefly with hand-held cameras to make the drama feel documentary-like, is about Panahi — still under a filmmaking and travel ban imposed by the Iranian government — attempting to direct a feature film from a remote village situated right on the Iran-Turkey border. Struggling to find a network connection to communicate with his crew members online, he spends ample time roaming around, clicking photos and (gently) probing the people housing him about the rationale behind their traditionalist beliefs. Before he realizes it, though, his curiosity gets him entangled in village politics. He has taken a photo of a couple not meant to be seen together because the girl, according to Sharia law, has been engaged to another man since birth. The village folks want to use this photo as evidence to incriminate the boy and potentially force the girl into marriage with her predestined husband. Panahi lies to protect the couple.

Parallelly, the film he is directing (subtly distinguished from the first visually by its use of noticeably orchestrated camerawork) is also about a couple trying to escape from Turkey to Europe. They have been in transit as refugees for over ten years. But, the man, Bakhtiar, has finally arranged forged documents to allow his wife, Zara, to flee to Paris. She refuses to go without him, demanding they leave together. So, with the help of Panahi (heard talking to actors and crew members while the camera is still rolling), he tries to find a way out for himself too.

Both the film and film-within-the-film in No Bears reflect Panahi’s current anxieties and his potential solution to them. His feeling of profound isolation, of feeling homeless in a place supposed to be his home manifests itself in both couple’s stories. His only way out, his only means of connection, seems to be cinema; Panahi’s presence in both films is of an ally who understands what the couples are going through, so he tries to help them out.

But Panahi is not interested in deification. Or in reasserting cinema as a means of liberation. Gradually, the film and film-within-a-film come crashing into each other, with his presence becoming more intrusive than instructive. This tragic collision prompts two key questions — Is the director’s obsession with documenting (however good the intentions may be) ethical if it comes at the cost of the people he’s documenting? And, who gives him the right to create, as Zara says, “false happy endings” for these couples when all the camera has done is revealed their secret lives without solving their problems? No Bears’ gut-wrenching conclusion offers no easy answers.

By revealing the potential corruption of eyes that otherwise seem like the most curious, unassuming, and kind, Panahi, more than anyone, demonstrates the value of autocritique. He asks us to ask, even when we think things are most certain, to look beyond our preconceived notions to discover something hidden behind what seems safe, familiar, and comfortable.

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