Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Portrait of the Artist, Part III: Aftersun and Armageddon Time

Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in Aftersun.

Aftersun was inspired by the Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells’s memories of her father. It’s a first feature by someone who has made only shorts before, and it has a distinctive voice and a hazy, meandering, experimental style; the angles are unusual and the images often seem off-kilter. The main character, Sophie (played by Frankie Corio), is an eleven-year-old girl who lives in Glasgow with her mother; her parents have split, and her father, Calum (Paul Mescal), has been trying to restart his life in England, so they seldom get to see each other. Just before Sophie goes back to school for fall term, her dad takes her on a trip to Turkey.  They stay, with other English-speaking tourists, at a vacation hotel called Ocean Park, where she hangs about the pool or the game room or the arcade when she and Calum aren’t on touring the shops or out on day trips. The movie isn’t linear, and as Calum lets Sophie use his video camera, especially when they loll around their hotel room, it’s meant to evoke the feel of home movies, like Jim Sheridan’s magnificent, magic-realist In America, which has an Irish video-camera buff heroine not much older than Sophie. But whereas Sheridan’s picture has a strong narrative, Aftersun is casual, anecdotal. Not much happens. Sophie plays pool with some British teenagers and observes them drinking and making moves on each other; a boy her own age spends time with her and they indulge in a little mild petting. And she and her dad work hard to make their time together count because it’s so short.  He wants her to have a good time; she wants to find out things about him that she doesn’t know, such as what he was like when he was eleven and what sort of future he envisioned for himself.

Corrio, who has a fine, un-actressy presence, peeks out at the world through intense dark eyes; she looks like a juvenile version of Barbara Hershey.  But underneath her childish posing there’s an air of sadness that wells up in her cheekbones, and as the movie goes on our sense grows more acute of tragedy waiting just out of reach. We learn a great deal about Calum, generally either indirectly or in references that are never fully fleshed out. He confesses to his daughter that he never felt he belonged in Scotland, and his recollection of his eleventh birthday is an unhappy one: it slipped his parents’ mind, and his bringing it up occasioned a fight between his mother and his father. It’s clear that he’s now at loose ends and has been for a long time; he and a friend were supposed to open a cafĂ© but their plans fell through. Though Calum doesn’t mention money, Sophie is always conscious of strains on his pocketbook. When she loses her scuba mask in the water, she feels guilty; during a karaoke evening at Ocean Park he offers to pay for singing lessons for her, and she grows irritated – she tells him not to promise her things he can’t afford. We work out that he has a drinking problem: when she asks him about a cast on his wrist and a shoulder wound he says he can’t remember how he acquired them. After karaoke he goes up to bed but, still pissed at him, she insists on staying downstairs with the other hotel guests. When she returns to the room she’s locked out; she can’t rouse him to answer her knocks, and when she does get in (through the good offices of one of the hotel staff) he’s passed out, naked, on her bed. In the morning, when she tells him what happened, he’s horrified and apologetic. Later Wells provides a clip of him, weeping alone in the room, that Sophie obviously couldn’t have witnessed but which may be her grown-up guess at what might have happened before she made it back to the room. In the second half of the movie Wells slips in images of Sophie as an adult (played by Celia Rowlson-Hall) and we begin to understand that the movie is part memory, part speculation, part wish fulfillment.

In last year’s The Lost Daughter Paul Mescal played a young man who has an affair with a woman (Dakota Johnson) on a Greek island while her husband is away, and though the role was small, his characterization was so precise and evocative that you got a full idea of what he was playing. His performance in Aftersun extends that approach – everything he does is suggestive, everything has emotional weight. The moments when he’s tender with Sophie are ringed with melancholy, and his boyishness when he smiles at her is especially touching because he often looks depleted; we seem to be glimpsing a reflection of someone he once was but perceive that he’s lost the path back to that younger, freer man. (At one point he admits off the cuff to one of the workers at the hotel that he has trouble believing he managed to make it to thirty.) In the penultimate scene he tries to get Sophie up to dance but she refuses so he dances alone, momentarily contented in his athletic body. When she finally accedes to his request, the flickering images, lit by Gregory Oke, of them moving together to the music are intercut affectingly with others of Sophie in her thirties, once more on the dance floor, once more partnered with the father who, in fact, she never saw again after Turkey. The lyrics of the song tell us, piercingly, “This is the last dance.” The concluding scene is of Sophie taking leave of Calum at the airport, posing for his camera. The frame freezes and Wells cuts again to grown-up Sophie in her apartment, and we see the photo from the airport and her own movie camera next to it. Wells’s method is allusive, but this ending rounds off the whole story of the eleven-year-old whose life was altered in ways she couldn’t have imagined by that week on vacation with her father.

Anthony Hopkins and Anne Hathaway in Armageddon Time.

By contrast with Aftersun, where the power of a childhood reminiscence is suggested without didacticism or symbolic overlay, James Gray’s Armageddon Time, set in Queens in 1980, is so emphatic that, though Gray based it on incidents in his own childhood, I didn’t believe any of it. Like The Fabelmans, Gray’s movie is self-conscious and overdetermined. The protagonist, Paul Graf (played by a young actor named Banks Repeta who’s more or less a blank slate), is a talented artist on the verge of adolescence with a mediocre school record whose middle-class Jewish parents (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong) want to get him out his public school and into a private academy like his more successful older brother (Ryan Sell). They’re liberals, but the world they’re pushing him into is elitist:  once he starts attending the new school he’s on the fence about what to do with his neighborhood best friend, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), who’s Black. Maybe I would have been more likely to accept Gray’s portrait-of-the-artist story as authentic if he hadn’t modeled several scenes on Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. But I doubt it, because the movie, which is considerably worse than Spielberg’s, wears a civics-class sensibility around its neck like a dog collar; there’s even a scene where Mary Ann Trump (Jessica Chastain) shows up at an assembly at the private school to give the boys a speech about being the future of America. Strong and Anthony Hopkins, as Paul’s beloved grandfather, work hard at a kind of Group Theatre-style self-seriousness that came naturally out of the real Group Theatre actors (like John Garfield, Morris Carnovsky and Luther Adler). Hathaway is the best thing in the picture: she sinks into her role. And as Jimmy, Webb has a vividness that the rest of the movie sorely needs more of. 

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.    

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