The Fabelmans

(Steven Spielberg, USA, 2022)


Meet the Feeblemans


I have long held a theory that Steven Spielberg’s work is driven by an unconscious impulse that he shows no real signs of recognising, although he lets it drive him to some of his best work. It’s simply this: within all the treacly, all-American, light-drenched, self-consciously iconic depictions of home and family, vocational destiny and heroic obligation, life-journeys and epiphanic illuminations, Spielberg sometimes gives vent – and very dramatically so – to a profoundly anti-social drive: something in him wants to tear it all down, smash it all up, kill everybody. The alibi can be revenge (as in Tarantino), but not even that is strictly necessary for Spielberg’s anti-social thrill.


This drive expresses itself in the spectacular action scenes of devastation in the Jurassic Park films (1993-2022) and War of the Worlds (2005). It is also everywhere in the splendid A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), which originated as a project with Stanley Kubrick. More generally, I would observe that when the director hires writers to produce an overtly “Spielbergian” script for him, we get the sentimental redemption angle (as Meaghan Morris once encapsulated it) played up to the hilt; whereas if it’s, for example, the Coens providing the screenplay for Bridge of Spies (2015), the result is more astringent – and dramatically more complex and interesting.


The Fabelmans is Spielberg’s worked-over autobiography (he co-wrote it with playwright Tony Kushner, who served that role also on Lincoln [2012] and the abominable Munich [2005]). Out of the gate, it tackles a foundational, formative primal scene: his big-screen viewing, as a kid, of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). But what sticks in the boy’s mind is not the circus animals and acrobatic stuff that his parents promised him as an enticement (and still less his Dad’s rapid-fire explanation of the phenomenon of persistence of vision); it’s the spectacular scene of a train piling first into a car (driving headlong into it on the tracks) and then, once that obstacle is flipped away, destroying all the other carriages of a train. My interest, as analyst, was immediately piqued.


Let’s note something in passing: the scene is about destruction. It is also, logically, about human death – and plenty of it, presumably – but this is something that goes under the radar of perception in the way that Spielberg (and perhaps also DeMille, I haven’t gone back to check) intercuts the scene with this own. This evasion of death is something we will frequently find in the grown-up’s subsequent action-adventure epics. The curious 1941 (1979) is, in its cartoonish style, the closest analogue to the pure, artificial, smash-‘em-up thrills of that ‘50s Greatest Show. It ranks (for whatever this estimation is worth) among his least well-regarded efforts.


Back to the primal scene, and its after-effects. Little Sammy (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord), alter ego of Steven, begs for a model train set, complete with sound effects (an echo of the adult toy-train enthusiasts in Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Routine Pleasures [1986]!). He arranges it all with the help of that science-expert father, Burt (Paul Dano); but, once running the show alone, he craves only one thing: to see the crash, all over. Over and over!


Why does he crave the crash? This is the question to which Sammy’s mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), devotes approximately 30 screen-seconds of deep thought. She does not head for the Freudian textbook of psychic drives (as I did). Her answer is, to me, almost entirely illogical, irrational and counter-intuitive; it may just be plain wrong! She comes to the (swift) conclusion that Sammy needs to control things. Not anarchically smash them to Hell. And so she acquires a movie camera to film the only-once-again train-crash event, and – seemingly magically edited (we’ll see plenty of this unstated magic later on) – that reel, projected in a closet, appeases the child. I am convinced neither by Mitzi’s pop-psychological analysis, nor its therapeutic outcome (the kid becomes one of the most successful and lauded filmmakers of all time on Planet Earth, blablabla).


Let’s be fair. The theme of the child begging for control has a wider justification in the overall schema of The Fabelmans, because the family unit itself will, in time, fly apart – a major catalyst in this situation being the constant presence of Burt’s work colleague and faithful family friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen). The prospect of divorce – and the looming spectre of a mother’s active sexuality – are bitter pills for children or adolescents to swallow in the Spielbergian Universe; the filmmaker, in the tradition of many artists, still seems to be struggling to come to terms with these facts of life in adulthood (Spielberg is now 76). But at least he’s trying, and the actors help him out enormously. (Obvious aside: despite the 10-second disclaimer written into the mouth of one of Sammy’s three sisters, the experiences of the women in this family still don’t get much of a look-in.)


The theme of the closet – as in secrecy, not homosexuality – is another evident motif of the film. In what seems to be a highly ambivalent moment, Sammy (now played by Gabriel LaBelle), decides to suppress the evidence of his Mom’s (potential) infidelity that hits his eyes when editing family-holiday Super-8 footage. But he broods over it, turns sulky and nasty, and eventually submits Mitzi to the assembled Hidden Reel of off-cuts. At that point, it becomes their shared secret, a pact of complicity. A strange vocation, this filmmaking bug: so much repression is generated and necessitated by it. All part of the ethos of control, one assumes.


And yet we will hear, several times, how alike Mother and Son are deemed to be. Alike in which ways, exactly? (Because they run away from their problems? Everybody runs away from everything in this film!) I find the answer to this prime question elusive. Because – to attempt a superimposition of the main thematic lines so far identified – Sammy’s pursuit of control in all things, including the expression of emotion, separates him decisively (as a guy) from the Woman Under the Influence-type drunken, transparent-skirt pirouettes of his idealised-mother-archetype, not to mention her bouts of depression (one of several affinities, alongside Jewishness and a gregarious Uncle or Grandfather figure, between The Fabelmans and James Gray’s better Armageddon Time [2022]).


Yes, Sam (ex-Sammy) does give up his Cinema Dream for a while in a depressive funk; yes, he does suffer the teen-movie trial of bullying (cueing a minor revenge motive). But there’s something that never, ultimately, bursts forth from this character, as any kind of real self-revelation or probing self-analysis.


The Fabelmans shares a certain debilitating, conceptual circularity with Agnès Varda’s Jacquot de Nantes (1991): we learn there that Jacques Demy’s films draw on the events of his life – he worked in a garage, staged and projected images on his bedroom wall, and all that – but those events are interesting only insofar as they have been already transmuted into the grand cinema of his films! Ray Davies of the Kinks probably speaks for many artists when he writes in his unusual autobiography X-Ray: “Maybe my real life has existed as a sub-plot to my songs” – or films, as the case may be.


Tellingly, the emotional release that Sam does ultimately get to experience is granted a last-minute, displacing shunt (prepared for by the youthful viewing of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance [1962]) – from only murkily resolved family issues to his fortuitous encounter with cranky, cigar-chomping, smoke-puffing, elderly John Ford (David Lynch, stealing the show): advice about camera angles is what sends this lad dancing off down the studio lot (with a jolt of Spielberg’s camera framing the scene as a farewell wink to the audience). (Useless Aside: I would rather that Spielberg had given us a vignette of his weeks as an assistant on John CassavetesFaces [1968]. Ah, well.)


So, Dad is a super-rational scientist and Mom is a sensitive (if unfulfilled) artist, and little Sam/Steven is the sum of these opposites? Rather than the eternally contradictory non-fit between them, as the garrulous Granduncle Boris (Judd Hirsch, who co-stars with Williams in Showing Up [2022]) helpfully prophesises? (Double-bill idea: The Fabelmans and James Toback’s Fingers [1978].) The affirmative option is clearly the self-congratulatory, Bildungsroman lesson that Spielberg wants us to take away. (Gray, to his credit, avoided almost all such direct ‘portrait of the artist as a young man’ conceits in his autobiographical tale.)


Fantasy touch-ups and work-arounds, small and large, abound here, as in virtually all attempts at autobiography; they are par for the auto-(portrait)-course, and part & parcel of Spielberg’s aesthetic, for sure. But they also clash oddly with the moment when Sam damningly judges considers some of his film-work to be “fake” and “phony” – whatever the heck that’s supposed to mean in this context. At the level of movie-magic short-cuts, for instance, it’s intriguing to see Spielberg join the queue with productions like the TV series Fosse/Verdon (Michelle Williams again!) and merrily suture together these pristine projections in which Sam’s silent movies sync exactly to the flows and pauses of whatever classical music album he’s whacked onto the record player …


I am not convinced by The Fabelmans (or Meet the Feeblemans, as my unconscious prefers to call it). Spielberg gives us a limited, superficial understanding of his life, times and roots. And, for me, this Fabergé egg cracks apart in what is supposedly the big, resolving, turning-point scene: Sam screening his beach-fun film to assembled classmates. As they begin to ecstatically whoop it up, Sam awakes from his depressive slumber, looks around and (silently) realises that, by god, he can actually affect people with his work (both positive and negative affects, as he will learn and we shall see).


I detect a suspicious allegory here: this fun-film is, after all, a commission that Sam only reluctantly accepts. With this smash-hit premiere, Spielberg seems to be justifying all the ‘commercial’ assignments he has ever taken on. Commercialism and industry, that is, on the royal road to the ‘personal’ apotheosis of The Fabelmans. (I recall the director’s confused public statement, at Awards time for Schindler’s List [1993], about the need to draw upon ‘real life’ and his new-found success at depicting ‘a life’ – just not yet his own one!) Since the film has made it to the cover – complete with dossier treatment – in so many cinema publications, from Caimán in Spain to Cahiers du cinéma in France (the latter’s editorial: “a true event … without doubt the most important and singular film of his career”), this reach for the Big Brass Ring has evidently succeeded. Yet I nurse my doubts …


The scene that follows on from the Big Show makes the least sense of all, at least to me. Logan (Sam Rechner), a dopey, sporty hunk, is somehow disconcerted by the heroic presentation of himself in Sam’s film as … well, exactly what he is, a sporty hunk, cheered on and worshipped by his spectatorial admirers (including the girlfriend he had previously lost). This leads, surprisingly, to a split-second identity crisis in Logan. He pours his heart out to Sam (lurking in the locker-filled school corridor – classic teen setting) about how he will never be that ideal image. Why would he think this, if he’s so stupid and un-self-aware to begin with? I have no clue.


In the meantime, Logan bashes his former companion-bully, the sycophantic Chad (Oakes Fegley) in Sam’s defense (and on his behalf) – it’s a typical piece of Hollywood moral calculus, with the raving anti-Semite Chad positioned on a sliding scale as same-but-worse than the manipulable Logan, and hence deserving of the righteous fist and a fast exit. Logan then appears to come to an instant broad-mindedness about religious and ethnic Otherness. Movies can do so much for the world!


Let’s return to John Ford’s lesson. Although I couldn’t detect (or just couldn’t be bothered to search for) allusions to past Spielberg films in The Fabelmans, I do see him replaying all his well-worn craft tricks: for example, his skill in inventing iterative scenes that jump-flip through the years on the basis of a habitual action; or the notorious push-ins on ‘the Spielberg face’ (especially in the dancing-before-headlights scene).


But now I will venture to say something mildly controversial (if I haven’t managed to do so already): Spielberg is just not terribly good at mise en scène. His approach is relentlessly pictorial (as in the remembered-imagined Ford’s advice), in the sense that every scene is schematically plotted around a specific ‘key image’: a dramatic angle, a static configuration of bodies (bathed by light, etc.), a stark play-off of foreground and background. But when it comes to the mobile, flowing interplay of characters in relation to their environment – bodies in space, as the classic mise en scène motto goes (and the real Ford was an absolute master at this) – there’s almost never anything interesting happening in Spielberg. The only moves in a scene are those that allow him to get, as quickly and painlessly as he can, to his key image (and then back out of it, if he doesn’t conclude the scene on that high note).


It is, in my view, a dreary, repetitive, bloodless formula for filmmaking, and it effectively dampens down on anything that else that might break out of the set mold. Control! Sammy longs for it; Spielberg’s cinema would be better if he longed to smash it, and truly pursued that longing. That, at any rate, is my dream.


MORE Spielberg: Catch Me If You Can, The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan, Hook, The Terminal

© Adrian Martin 4 February 2023

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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