' ' Cinema Romantico: The Fabelmans

Friday, January 20, 2023

The Fabelmans

If “Hook” is sometimes considered Steven Spielberg’s midlife crisis movie than “The Fabelmans,” thirty-one years later, is a septuagenarian reflection, a potent personal mythology. It’s right there in the title, not a fable, but a fabel, a critique of the director’s individual story. It’s a movie as much about the making of movies as Jordan Peele’s “Nope,” albeit in a different way, and not just where the former focused on Black representation in Hollywood while the latter is about its auteur’s Jewish heritage. If Peele was bringing to life and exploring Martin Scorsese’s notion of what’s in the frame and what’s out, Spielberg is interrogating the idea of the image as illusion, delusion, and the truth, sometimes all three at once. 

“The Fabelmans” begins with the young version of Spielberg stand-in Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-Deford) and his first trip to the movies to see Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Sammy’s feeling a little anxious, though, and his parents reassure him by way of establishing their divergent personalities: his computer engineer father Burt (Paul Dano) explains how motion pictures work on a practical level, essentially copping to them as make-believe, while his one-time concert pianist mother Mitzi (Michelle) compares movies to flickering myths, to dreams. Dressed in white, Mitzi is lit to look very much angelic in this moment against the wintry, washed-out cinematography, suggesting where Spielberg’s heart might ultimately lie. Of course, it also suggests both his and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s sometimes frustrating tendency toward verbal explication. After DeMille’s famed train wreck traumatizes Sammy, he begins wrecking his own toy train set and filming it. “He’s trying to get some kind of control over it,” Mitzi observes.

Sometimes you wish the Spielberg behind the camera would heed the lessons of his onscreen doppelgänger, with Gabriel LaBelle taking the reins from Francis-Deford as Sammy progresses into teen life, employing an 8mm camera to craft short silent movies like the delightfully derivative “Gunsmog” where gestures, expressions, and a delightful prop like Monopoly money tell the story with nary a word. (I’m going to give serious consideration to placing “Gunsmog” in my 2022 Top 10.) This western homage and Sammy’s poking holes in the film to approximate the flash of gunshots evoke cinema’s illusory power, though Spielberg is eschews rubber-stamping The Magic of the Movies. When Burt moves the family to northern California for a job opportunity in the film’s back half, Sammy does not so much confront antisemitic bullying by the towering, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Logan (Sam Rechner) as deflate and complicate it by filming and then editing his class’s trip to the local beach in such a way to make his tormenter appear as a mighty Aryan movie star cut straight from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia.” Dangerous is not necessarily a word I would associate with Spielberg, but that’s how this subplot feels, demonstrating cinema’s power not merely to inflate or exaggerate but invent. It concludes with Sammy and Logan in a weird detente, essentially commiserating over a moving image as a lie.

If there “The Fabelmans” dares suggest cinema is false truth 24 times a second, elsewhere we see Sammy making sense of the world through his camera. A child’s sanctuary is his bedroom, after all, and Sammy’s bedroom doubles as an editing bay. It’s there, poring over footage collected from a family camping trip, that he first realizes his mother and Bennie (Seth Rogen), his honorary uncle and his father’s best friend, are romantically involved on the sly. During the camping trip itself, Spielberg noticeably creates scenes of flirtation between the two that we, the audience, sense but that pointedly go unnoticed by Sammy. And rather than confront his mother outright, Sammy can only bring himself to acknowledge what he has seen by literally showing it to her via home movie.

It is in California where the rifts in Mitzi and Burt’s marriage finally rupture into divorce. In the scene when Sammy and his siblings learn of the break-up, he turns toward a mirror and catches a vision of himself filming the scene, suggesting how at a moment of such emotional shock, he would rather be behind his camera, and that he may well only be able to make sense of what is happening from that vantage point. If the key subtext of so many Spielberg films is his parents’ split, here it becomes text, and though “The Fabelmans” sort of seems to rewrite the long-held armchair psychologist view that Spielberg held his father responsible, both the character of Burt and the performance of Dano (responding to the character as envisioned) remain so passive, that he still seems to recede right before our eyes, leaving Mitzi front and center, the person who looms largest in Sammy’s childhood.

Williams’s performance is a lot, too much, in fact, until you realize that too much is the point as much as Dano’s passiveness. It’s not just that Mitzi is a performer, whether playing piano or not, but that through the camera of “The Fabelmans” itself, Spielberg sees her as the movie star of his own life and films her accordingly. And yet, even then he can’t quite capture her. When Sammy is still young, a tornado whips up in the Fabelman neighborhood and Mitzi piles Sammy and his two younger sisters to go chase it, leaving a confused Burt and the baby behind. The moment suggests Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” barreling off after the UFO without a second thought, and though “The Fabelmans” is littered with such easter eggs of Spielberg’s prior work, this feels sharper and purposeful, hinting at a director attempting to exert a sense of control over childhood feelings though his movie. Watching them careen after a cyclone, however, Sammy’s face stricken with fear in the backseat, it looks an awful lot more like Spielberg is conceding that sometimes a filmmaker has no control at all.

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