This article appeared in the December 8, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg, 2022)
In the beginning, there was light. Steven Spielberg’s earliest memory, he has said, is of the brilliant red glow of the Torah ark at a synagogue his parents took him to when he was just six months old. The Fabelmans, Spielberg’s new film à clef, also begins with light, though not of faith. In the film’s dazzle of opening scenes, the menorah comes later; first, it’s the beam of the projector that irrevocably sears the saucer eyes of 6-year-old Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), Spielberg’s screen surrogate. Despite the cooing reassurances of his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), that movies are just “dreams,” and the clinical explanations of his father, Burt (Paul Dano), that they’re products of cold science, Sammy is stunned beyond words by the climactic train crash of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 circus spectacle, The Greatest Show on Earth. At home, he starts crashing his brand-new model train, a Hanukkah present, over and over again, eliciting a gentle scolding from Burt. Conspiratorially, Mitzi hands Sammy a camera and tells him to crash the toy just once more and film it, so he can revisit the scene until the fear has waned and only the wonder remains.
It’s a little rich—if undoubtedly charming—that Spielberg’s personal histoire du cinéma shares a primal scene with the history of cinema itself: a barreling train that inaugurates cinephilia as a kind of credulous terror. That famous story of an 1896 Paris screening of the Lumière brothers’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat that had spectators fleeing in fear is thought to be apocryphal, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Spielberg’s tale is a tad tall, too. Read interviews with the filmmaker and you’ll find the telltale signs of an inveterate raconteur whose facts often twist to the spin of the yarn. Some might argue that six months is too young to be able to record an enduring memory, even if the image of an infant imprinted by numinous light offers an ideal origin point to a filmography preoccupied with illumination as the source of danger and thrill. There are other maybe-fabulations, some minor—like Spielberg’s age, for years stated varyingly in the press to suit the pull quote—and others meatier, like accounts of how he got a job at Universal Studios by hopping off the tour bus and planting himself in an empty office. (The truer, more trite version is that he landed a meeting with an executive through a family friend.)
In Spielberg’s hands, every story becomes a parable: even his historical films evince the hyperreal texture of plot, rife with signs and symbols weighted with unambiguous import. For some, this mythmaking is the rub—his stories are always a little too good to be true—and for others, myself included, it is the joy: too good to be true is, in a certain sense, more an indictment of the truth than of the telling. Spielberg’s forte is precisely his prodigious ability to alchemize the ordinary, the uncinematic, into an object of awe and delight. Underneath even the luminous otherworldly beings of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the bloody sharks of Jaws, and the logic-stretching shenanigans of Catch Me If You Can are the most banal stories of love, longing, and belonging. The Fabelmans, with its promise of autobiography, is Spielberg’s most formidable feat of narrative legerdemain yet: after all, the tale of how an ordinary, middle-class Jewish-American boy, raised in ’50s suburbia by a frustrated-housewife mother and a dutiful but often absent father, became the most successful, most beloved filmmaker in the world has to be a damn good story. And cinema—Spielberg’s claim to the extraordinary—must do all the heavy-lifting here, both as form and as an object within the film. There is nothing else to gape at, no spaceships or T-Rexes, just the camera behind and within the frame.
All that the camera does in Sammy’s hands is indeed wondrous to behold. Illusion, not illumination, turns out to be the kid’s vital impulse. Moving up quickly from slapstick shorts starring his sisters to grander, western-style productions involving his fellow Boy Scouts, Sammy delights, magician-like, in turning ketchup into blood and punctured film into gunshots, while Spielberg indulges in his own, latter-day form of play, paying homage to Buster Keaton and John Ford in these scenes. The Fabelmans itself is devoid of any flamboyant formal trickery, although it betrays a subtler finish of fantasy. The film is suffused throughout by D.P. Janusz Kaminski with a halcyon glow—the rose-tint of nostalgia, or perhaps the soft-focus of a dream—and at first, Dano and Williams’s exaggerated affect might startle. The dialogue, too, is arch, with aphorisms and wisecracks landing like the beats of a well-rehearsed song, and the film feels insular—a personal history hermetically sealed off from that of the world around it. Yet as we watch Sammy grow from boy to teenage film prodigy (played by Gabriel LaBelle), while Burt’s career moves the family from New Jersey to Arizona to California, this veneer of artifice doesn’t evoke schmaltz as much as the melancholy dissonance of the uncanny valley. Like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or the second coming of the mother in the final scenes of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the movie feels self-consciously unreal, yet it inflicts real pain. And like John Hammond in Jurassic Park, so driven to create something authentic that he unleashes killer dinosaurs, or the child-robot David in A.I., so desperate for maternal love that he accepts one delusional day with his long-gone mother, Spielberg bares his own sincere need, equal parts megalomaniacal and childlike, to redeem reality in the image of desire.
Sammy learns early on to sublimate through cinema—to master the shock of a crash by committing it to film. Years later, when his parents announce their divorce to Sammy and his distraught sisters, he imagines himself—in a mirror that turns momentarily into an 8mm projection—as director, capturing the scene on camera. But the wreck of his parents’ marriage, its component parts exposed and scattered about, is harder to assimilate. To represent one’s own parents is to wrest them out of metaphor, to confront them as more than characters in one’s own story. In The Fabelmans, the figure of Mitzi (and Michelle Williams’s voltaic, bundle-of-feelings performance) finds the chink in Spielberg’s armor. She is so beyond the grasp of the director’s tendency for archetype that the film must distend, in a digressive shape unusual for his typically tight-structured oeuvre, in accordance with her whims. A classically trained pianist who forewent her ambitions in order to raise a family, Mitzi defies the dictates of plot as she packs her kids into a car and drives them, eyes mad with existential hunger, close to a tornado, or erupts into a spontaneous dance during a family camping trip, intoxicated by liquor and sadness. In the latter sequence, she is backlit by car headlights so that Sammy can film her, but the glare also makes her thin white dress translucent—to record her is also to see too much of her. Sammy yearns to tame her with his camera, even as Spielberg evidently regards Mitzi’s escape of capture with awe.
Another long-held Spielberg legend that The Fabelmans undoes is the locus of blame in his parents’ divorce: for years, the filmmaker suggested, through his movies more than outright accusations, that he believed his father to be the culprit in their separation. The film divulges a secret he apparently quietly shared with his mother. While editing the rushes of a home movie, Sammy zooms in on the covert exchanges of intimacy between Mitzi and his father’s happy-go-lucky best friend, “Uncle” Bennie (Seth Rogen). It’s yet another heart-shattering moment of genesis, fashioning Sammy into the classic hero of many of Spielberg’s influences: the man who knows too much.
The movie swivels around the erratic, magnetic Mitzi: it’s from her and her larger-than-life, lion-tamer uncle, Boris (Judd Hirsch), that Sammy receives the requisite platitudes about the dangers of an artistic life and the necessity of following your heart. Yet cinema emerges not so much as a romantic calling in The Fabelmans as a plot device that reveals Spielberg as the truer child of his sensible, cerebral father. A computer whiz fascinated by technology, Burt yearns to transmit to Sammy his own curiosity about how things are made. “I want to make movies,” Sammy says, to which Burt responds, a little dismissively, that his own pursuit was always to “make something real, something people can use.” Burt’s calm practicality and endless desire to please are also his undoing, but that utilitarian approach to cinema—as something people can use—seems to be the match that ultimately lights Sammy’s creative fuse. If The Fabelmans revels in cinema’s technical wizardry, it is most enamored with how moviemaking fulfills and transforms humans: how Sammy’s sisters shriek and gasp at his canny little cons; how his Boy Scout actors are suddenly matured by performing World War II battle scenes; how a home movie enlivens Mitzi when she is destroyed by the loss of her mother, because, as Burt explains to Sammy, “you made it for her.”
The powers of the camera-tool come into full view in Sammy’s miserable final year of high school in California, where he’s picked on by blond, anti-Semitic jocks. When he volunteers as videographer for a senior trip to the beach, he crafts a short film brimming with sea-swept, ebulliently edited antics that turn his bully, Logan (Sam Rechner), into a gleaming hero. The athletic, tanned young man’s muscles ripple in the sun and in luxurious, slow-motion close-ups, articulating wordlessly what may be the guiding principle of this movie: that filming can, in itself, be a gesture of love, valorizing whomever it holds in its gaze. But the jock is furious at Sammy: “Why did you make me look like that?” The film is just too good to be true, and to Logan, it exposes his own inadequacies. As is Spielberg’s wont, the filmmaker spells out the subtext: “Maybe I wanted you to be nice to me for five minutes,” says Sammy, “or maybe I wanted to make my movie good, I don’t know.”
But somewhere in between those two possibilities lies the raison d’être for all of Spielberg’s hyperreal fantasies: the belief that a good enough movie will transform its viewers, exposing the poverty of their moral lives by exhilarating them with the richness of its fictions. One wonders how Spielberg feels watching his own, projected self on screen, embalmed in that chasm between redemptive fantasy and the hard truths we know about ourselves. The light of Spielberg’s cinema is both illuminating and disillusioning, and by turning it onto himself, he has spun a yarn as generous, as open-hearted and hopeful, as it is savvy: The Fabelmans may be self-mythology, but he made it for us.