Friday, June 14, 2024

Why “The Fabelmans” Is One Of Steven Spielberg’s Greatest Films

The Fabelmans” was the biggest surprise of 2022 at the movies, not because of what it was but because of what it wasn’t. The trailer promised a magic of movies autobiography, a film full of “Spielberg Faces” in awe at Sammy Fabelman’s (Spielberg’s surrogate, Gabriel Labelle) first movies. If “War Horse” is Spieberg’s “Au Hasard Balthazar,” then “The Fabelmans” seemed like it would be his “Cinema Paradiso,” a sentimental love letter to how baby Spielberg fell in love with cinema. And sure, “The Fabelmans” has moments celebrating film’s power and history. Still, instead of taking obvious or easy paths, Spielberg and his co-writer Tony Kushner created a tender and strikingly honest confessional that confronts the audience with rarely asked questions about life and art and how they intermix in uncanny, often unintentional ways.

One of Spielberg’s best movies in twenty years, among the significant achievements of “The Fabelmans,” is how it not only adds context to Spielberg’s body of work but deepens it. Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner have characterized “The Fabelmans” as a semi-fictionalized account of Spielberg’s early life, but then in a way, so are many of his movies. He is the rare filmmaker almost as famous for divorced families and struggling fathers as resurrected dinosaurs or musical themes in C Major. There are the obvious examples (“E.T.’s” recently divorced mom and off-screen dad, the yelling matches in “Close Encounters”) and the less obvious (the helpless father in “Empire of the Sun”), but whether by intent or intuition these familial rifts have penetrated his work so thoroughly that despite Spielberg rarely writing his own screenplays, these motifs emerge whether the time period is steeped in history (“The Color Purple,” “The Last Crusade” & “Lincoln“) or science fiction (“A.I.” & “War of the Worlds”).

There is a popular mythology around Spielberg’s life and how it appears in his work. While “The Fabelmans” reinforces some of these touchstones, Spielberg and Kushner also bravely paint a more nuanced, emotionally frank portrait of family life. For the first time, we see both Spielberg’s mother and father in a new light that sometimes contradicts the public characterizations of a distant father and ever-loving mom. Spielberg’s dad Arnold supported his films more than some previous testimony might’ve suggested, while it was Spieberg’s mother, here presented as the character Mitzi (Michelle Williams), as the agent of disruption in his household, carrying on an emotional affair with another man, and his proxy father “Burt” (Paul Dano) as the sad knight trying to shield his family from more pain.

These revelations invite new meanings to old films, with more than one critic labeling “The Fabelmansa skeleton key for his entire filmography. I dare you to watch “Catch Me If You Can” the same way, as DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale discovers his mother’s infidelity and witnesses his father’s desperation to win her back after a divorce. Or how knowledge of the way Spielberg discovered his mother’s affair by editing together a home movie of a camping trip gives “Minority Report” a different context as Tom Cruise’s precrime cop gazes at a recording of his ex-wife, a cyberpunk ghost reminding him of a family that used to be intact.

Alternatively, some of the biggest laughs in “The Fabelmans” come from Sammy’s squeamishness around girls, from his early fumbles talking to women (pointing out a girl’s booger by accident) or getting razzed by his sisters “he’s too scared of a girl’s boobies.” But on a more Freudian level, some have connected Mitzi’s open sexuality in attire, behavior, and speech––the see-through gown while dancing in headlights, bluntly (over)sharing she hasn’t slept with “Uncle Benny” to her teenage son––as a psychosexual explanation to the lack of sexuality in Spielberg’s filmography. Amusingly, Jesus Christ is more sexualized in “The Fabelmans” than most Spielberg leads, male or female.

Fascinatingly, “The Fabelmans” invites the audience to make these kinds of connections, as though Spielberg is offering himself up to demonstrate how an artist’s life is channeled into their work, purposefully or not. When James Lipton interviewed Spielberg for “The Actor’s Studio,” Lipton asks of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Your father was a computer scientist, your mother was a musician. When the spaceship lands, how do they communicate? They make music on their computers, and they are able to speak to each other.” This emotional revelation seemed to surprise Spielberg as much as it did the audience, responding, “I’d love to say I intended that, and I realized that was my mother and father, but not until this moment.” Lipton excavated a subliminal connection between art and life, revealing a filmmaker who sometimes shared more of himself with the popular audience than he might have realized.

The Fabelmans” takes this idea and runs with it, structuring the entire film around a series of Sammy Fabelman’s short films that invariably relate to what was going on at that time in his life. As a young teen, the kinetic action in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” inspires Sammy and his friends (with help from dad) to rent a stagecoach, recreate zippy shootouts, and create muzzle flashes by brilliantly puncturing holes in the film. While Sammy is still reeling from the traumatic discovery of his mother’s affair by combing through a camping trip’s footage like the Zapruder film, he goes to work on his next cinematic venture: “Escape to Nowhere,” a WWII riff about a military commander who lets his squad down as they’re massacred before him.

When directing the lead actor, Sammy gives the notes, “you could have protected them, okay?” and “You’re just looking at this thing you’ve done, and you can’t save them anymore.” In speaking this direction, Sammy found in his film a truth that hit all too close to home, a guardian letting their unit––their family––down, becoming increasingly emotional as he speaks. In that sudden geyser of emotion, Sammy transfers an undercurrent of his trauma to that lead actor, now sharing confused tears. Played as a comic beat, the performer becomes so absorbed by that mysterious transference of heavy feeling; he walks off set in a daze. Later, when showing “Escape to Nowhere” to an audience, no one is more affected than Mitzi, crying her eyes out as Sammy peers at her from the sidelines, almost as though he’s studying her reactions to see if his festering angst successfully radiated into her from his ostensibly unrelated movie.

But of all the short films Sammy makes, none are more revealing than the first. What’s so striking about how “The Fabelmans” begins is that Sammy Fabelman discovers cinema not with excitement or joy but with fear and alarm. The train crash in “The Greatest Show On Earth” terrified young Sammy to the point of a nightmare, sparking a chain reaction of circumstances––a toy train, a need to see it crash––that resulted in a mother’s love accidentally creating Steven Spielberg. It’s Mitzi who diagnoses what’s going on with her disturbed son, “That’s why he needs to make them crash. He needs to get some control over it.” She hands Sammy an 8mm camera––to film the crash, to see it as many times as he wants without destroying the physical train. Here, Mitzi is a maternal Prometheus, delivering to Sammy the gift of fire, a device equal part engineering, and sorcery that allows him to create a new kind of reality, projected at 24 frames per second to bottle his fears. And just as James Lipton revealed the familial connection in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Sammy found in his vocation a perfect marriage between art and science, mother and father, giving him the protective lens he yearned for in waking life.

When I interviewed Tony Kushner, he described Sammy’s “need for control” as the thematic spine of “The Fabelmans,” a through-line that connects Sammy, the budding artist, to Sammy, the child of a fractured home. In one devastating moment of visual brilliance, Sammy dissociates while processing the news of his parent’s divorce. He stares off into space across the room until the camera pans to a mirror, revealing Sammy’s conjured a phantom projection of himself. The camera is on his shoulder, filming the news. The only way he could take the heat of the blow was inside the imagined safe space of a filmmaker behind his camera, an imposition of filmmaking fantasy onto the reality of his parent’s separation across the country.

In untangling Spielberg’s dubious relationship between his camera lens and the pain of his youth, “The Fabelmans” may explain why so many of Spielberg’s movies deal with imposing mythical, imagined meanings onto a harsh and unloving world. In “Empire of the Sun,” Christian Bale’s earnest Jim Graham valorizes enemy planes just as much as the pilots, unable to resolve the paradox of a machine’s beauty and soldier’s noble courage with the destruction they have wrought. In “Catch Me If You Can,” Frank runs away, literally, from the detonation of his once nuclear family, instead taking on a magician’s hat of disguises and personae; through grifting, he first becomes James Bond, the ultimate male escapist fantasy; then he’s doctor, learned not from studying for the MCAT but television; Frank then finishes as a lawyer, less a byproduct of legal expertise than media literacy, each a fiction to help his retreat from the painful truths awaiting him back at home.

Before “The Fabelmans,” “E.T.” was widely considered Spielberg’s most personal feature, a suburban fable about a family processing a new divorce. It’s also his most dreamlike film, surreal not only because of the fantastical imagery––bikes take flight, an army of astronauts invade a living room––but because the world of “E.T.” and E.T. himself acts as a subconscious manifestation of Spielberg’s need for care, an alien therapy session to bring a family together when they needed it most.

The Fabelmans” also interweaves auto-biography and a certain kind of low-key suburban surrealism. There’s the way Spielberg and Kushner connect dreams to life; Sammy’s Holy Pilgrimage from Middle America to Los Angeles began not with a moment of inspiration from a movie but because of a nightmare. Mitzi had either a midnight visitation by her mother’s ghost or a vivid dream prophesying the arrival of Uncle Borris––an uneasy coincidence or a moment of supernatural intercession. Mitzi’s campfire ballet is abstracted in the astral glow of a car’s headlights. Or the final “home movie,” a quasi-dream sequence featuring the Fabelmans entering their newly built Californian home. It’s a borderline Lynchian interlude of pantomimed glee and exaggerated smiles entering a glass house, a wish for a kind of domestic bliss that long escaped this family. The casting of David Lynch might have been a recommendation from Tony Kushner’s husband, Mark Harris. Still, in keeping with the theme of exploring what was intended or what wasn’t, Lynch’s presence solidifies the way “The Fabelmans” explores the uncanny possibilities of film.

And finally, that brings us to the best scene in “The Fabelmans,” the now infamous hallway confrontation where Sammy tells his anti-Semitic bully the all-timer line, “I made you look like you could fly.” It is the moment that binds the personal with the metaphysical, the subliminal with the real. If Mitzi armed Sammy with the power of cinema as a way to reshape his reality, this is the first time he wielded that power to reshape somebody else’s. In his “Ditch Day”‘ Documentary screened at his high-school prom, through editing, low camera angles, and triumphant music, Sammy transformed a fallible jock-bully into a greek god, an übermensch figure of unlimited beauty, strength, and power. The bully’s name is Logan, and Logan breaks down. He has a full-force existential crisis, unable to reconcile the him standing in that hallway and the him projected on the silver screen. He asks Sammy why he did it. Sammy doesn’t know. For Sammy and for Spielberg, “artistic intent” is elusive. Logan’s mind melts as if he had just opened the ark of the covenant in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or The Great Whatsit in Robert Aldrich’s “Kiss Me Deadly.” For Logan, the Ditch Day Documentary became a moment of cosmic horror, an encroachment on his sense of reality, what Burt Fabelman would call his self-possession. All Logan can do is confess, “you make me feel like I’m some kinda failure or a phony or, or like I’m supposed to be some guy I’m never gonna be, not even in my dreams.”

Recently on “The Tonight Show,” Stephen Colbert asked Spielberg, “do you have a conscious sense that you can see more in the lens than you can see in your daily life?” Spielberg answered, “the film told me the truth where my eyes couldn’t.” The trailers for “The Fabelmans” promised movie magic. It delivered, but rather than do the obvious and show how cinema can play to the heart, Spielberg and Kushner used Spielberg’s personal stories to demonstrate the power of cinema to tell truths about ourselves it’s hard for our naked eyes to see—intended or accidental. Few “movies about movies” so elegantly show the immaterial essence of a material medium, reminding us that the magic of cinema can be as mysterious and profound as it is intimate and personal, ever so more when shared by one of the film’s greatest teachers.

What do you think of “The Fabelmans?” Do you think it deserves more Oscar buzz than it is receiving? Which categories do you think it will win on Oscar night? Please let us know in the comments below or on our Twitter account, and check out our latest Oscar predictions here.

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Brendan Hodges
Brendan Hodges
Culture writer. Bylines at Roger Ebert, Vague Visages and The Metaplex. Lover of the B movie and prone to ramble about aspect ratios at parties.

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