Steven Spielberg has always had mad filmmaking skills. Nobody doubts that, I should hope. Jaws? The D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan? Big chunks of Lincoln? Probably many other sequences that I can’t think of now because I tend to hate Spielberg movies so much? All fantastically effective.
But Spielberg’s overall sensibility is so frustratingly dull and solemn and sentimental and corny, dragging down the possibilities of his talent, he’s always been the bane of my film-loving existence. Or at least, one of the main banes.
And The Fabelmans, currently playing in theaters, is Spielberg’s own autobiographical account of how he got that way. So it’s a massive, meta-Spielbergian tribute to himself, and for me, largely torture to watch.
To my surprise, the film is playing in indie art house theaters instead of in the big exhibition venues. But then, he’s courting “artist” status assiduously and has been for many years, since he’d so thoroughly conquered the box office with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, and the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park franchises, there were no more profit-motivated worlds to conquer. He’s been trying to make the Alfred Hitchcock move from ultra-popular film entertainer to legendary genius auteur since the mid-1980s with serious films like The Color Purple (1985), Empire of the Sun (1987), Schindler’s List (1993), Amistad (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998), A.I. (2001), Munich (2005), War Horse (2011), Lincoln (2012), and so on.
The Fabelmans continues this quest by treating Spielberg’s onscreen alter-ego, young Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), as a budding cinematic genius in a family divided into two camps — the artists versus the scientists. “Sammy’s like me,” says his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a vivacious and gifted pianist steadily losing it in her entrapping wife-mother role, while Sammy’s mild-mannered workaholic father Burt (Paul Dano) charts an ever-upward career path as a brilliant electrical engineer getting in on the ground floor of computer development at RCA, GE, and IBM.
Of course, Sammy will actually represent both the artists and the scientists with his mastery of a form that combines the aesthetic with the technological. And some of the better moments of the film show how the kid Sammy ingeniously works out practical filmmaking problems on his own, like how to make it appear that guns wielded by kid cowboys in a bare-bones Western are actually firing — by poking tiny pinholes through the film itself, creating bursts of light at the end of the barrels.
Spielberg, working with his frequent collaborator Tony Kushner (Munich, Lincoln, West Side Story ), puts together a script that’s overly schematic and explains everything right into the ground. Take the first sequence that features the child Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) going to his first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). I wish I could say it was somehow meaningful that Spielberg would choose this notoriously mediocre spectacle by a director who made steadily less interesting but more popular films over a very long career. But it’s quite a literal-minded choice — that is, it’s actually the first film little Stevie Spielberg ever saw.
Little Sammy, though, is suddenly frightened about seeing the movie. So his father reassures him in rational engineering terms by explaining how film projection actually works, while his mother reassures him in expressive, emotional, arty terms by urging upon him the beautiful, exteriorized dream that is the cinematic experience. Neither parent realizes there’s going to be a big train-crash dramatized in this circus movie or that their son is going to be so terrified by it he’ll have to reenact the trauma repeatedly for some time afterward by crashing his new toy train set repeatedly. Ultimately, he finds that filming the crash spares the train set and is just as satisfying to watch.
Anxious that the audience won’t understand this common psychological process, Spielberg and Kushner have Mitzi say, long after it’s already clear, “Oh I see, he wants to get control over it.”
Yes. That is correct. By doing so, he converts frozen fear into just enough scariness to be manageable and therefore thrilling. I guess we should be grateful Mitzi didn’t say all that too.
Overall, The Fabelmans is a sententious slog, like most of Spielberg’s attempts at profundity. Poor Michelle Williams has to strain every nerve and muscle to bring some vibrancy and tension to the film, mirroring her role as Mitzi, who’s marooned in the dull conventions of the 1950s middle class and trying to Auntie Mame her way through them. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen Williams, a marvelous actor, pushed over into moments of goofy — almost clownish — overacting.
At first, I thought this was meant to be signaling serious mental illness, including developing psychosis. But it turns out that Mitzi is only deeply depressed at her stalled career as a concert pianist and a trained dancer, as well as by the loss of her true love, gregarious Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen). He’s called “Uncle Bennie” by the kids because of his omnipresence in their lives. He even moves with them from New Jersey to Arizona when Mitzi insists on Burt getting Bennie a new job with GE too.
Note that by preferring Bennie to Burt, Mitzi is simply choosing the livelier electrical engineer. Both men are nice, smart, stable, nerdy, bespectacled Jewish guys who are kind to the kids. The killing off of Mitzi’s serious artistic endeavors, and her desperate extroversion as a way of compensating for her loss, is the most interesting thing about her, but it gradually devolves into a duller tale of being torn between two engineers.
It’s too bad, because the other loss is the far more riveting one, which reaches its bizarre and haunting peak midway through the film, during a fateful family camping trip, when Mitzi suddenly does an impromptu ballet performance in her nightgown, lit by the car headlights. Her daughters (Julia Butters, Keeley Karsten, and Sophia Kopera) are in an agony of embarrassment, especially because their mother’s body is visible through the nightgown as she dances, but the male campers — Burt, Bennie, Sammy — are all transfixed by this sudden, poignant, eccentric, erotic display of artistic expression that has no other outlet.
The emotional affair of Bennie and Mitzi that gets accidentally captured on camera by young Sammy during the camping trip amounts to tiny looks and gestures and touches, no more. Spielberg turns it into a study of what the camera can reveal that’s not seen by the naked eye, which is Film Studies 101 stuff, but always works like magic when dramatized well. As Sammy runs repeatedly over the same shot, backward and forward, in slo-mo, then in freeze-frames, the eye contact, the smiles, the hand on the waist that’s quickly withdrawn, seem to emerge from the celluloid itself and grow in dimension before our eyes.
Spielberg is going to represent this mild transgression and the eventual breakup of his parents’ marriage — after Mitzi tries for years to stay the course as the faithful housewife and mother — into tragedy worthy of grand opera. He’s long been noted for his representations of divorce as practically the worse fate that can befall a suffering humanity:
But, of course, the saga of Spielberg’s parents’ divorce, which he’s discussed in interviews many times, and which became the template for the broken homes in his own movies going back to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), is not a subject that’s likely to get a lot of viewers revved.
I don’t see why it wouldn’t get a lot of Americans revved — it always has before. And it’s always worked on my last nerve, Spielberg’s stodgy 1950s middle-class attitude that life should all be smooth sailing and it’s an outrage when it’s not. I mean, how well do you expect everything to go? Spielberg’s father was a hugely successful pioneer in computers — the family income was steadily rising — the one not-nice home the family lives in is a rental house they have to put up with for a few months while their own splendid California-modern house is being built. And Steven Spielberg himself has been about as successful, from youth onward, as a human being can get, doing exactly what he always wanted to do.
Though admittedly, it’s shocking that, in the film’s depiction, antisemitism is worse in California than it is in Arizona, and teenage Sammy gets bullied by a couple of bigoted jocks. But through the power of cinema, he gets his revenge and thoroughly owns both of them by cutting together the graduating class tribute film to make one of them (Oakes Fegley) look like a total loser and the other one (Sam Rechner) look like a member of an Aryan master race winning athletic contests in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia.
The master-race jock takes it the hardest because Sammy’s film has mythologized him in a way he can’t live up to. Though tall and handsome, he’s basically a weak, insecure mess of a teenager. He threatens Sammy about never telling anyone he broke down crying over the film, and Sammy says brightly, “I won’t — I mean, unless I decide to make a movie about it!”
And we’re watching that movie! Hah-ha!
Spielberg’s triumphal march through his own youth ends with his meeting one of his filmmaking heroes, John Ford, memorably played by David Lynch. (It seems Lynch turned the role down repeatedly for weeks, but Spielberg wouldn’t let it go.) It’s interesting, because Lynch is pretty much the anti-Spielberg, and for one short scene, Spielberg lets a kind of mild Lynch-like vision of American weirdness reign. When the irascible, eye-patched Ford lights one of his cigars, it seems to take a full minute of puffing at the huge flame, watched by the bug-eyed Sammy, till the act of lighting a cigar becomes divorced from its ordinary meaning and turns into an alarming act of igniting some incendiary inner force of Ford’s. And sure enough, Ford suddenly explodes into his usual choleric demands and questions that he answers himself, giving Sammy an intense, humorous, impious tutorial on how to make formally interesting art.
Which, by the way, is advice Spielberg — the king of normcore cinema — has rarely ever taken.
So although it’s more vivid than most, the last scene is ultimately the most irksome, teeth-grinding interlude of the film, because of the obvious torch-passing implication. Ford, often considered the greatest American filmmaker of his generation, even by other fabulous filmmakers such as Orson Welles, hands the flame of cinematic genius off to Spielberg making him the greatest of the next generation.
And of course, the whole reason we’re watching the film is because we all know that not long after the self-congratulatory end of the film, young Fabelman/Spielberg shot upward like an arrow through Hollywood, soaring from TV work to feature film directing the amazingly accomplished Duel (1971) at age twenty-five, then making it big — huge — with Jaws at twenty-nine.
We get it, Steven Spielberg! You’re very, very, very successful! Congratulations! Now please don’t make an autobiographical sequel entitled Fame, Fortune, and Fabelman or something, okay?