Arts and Crafts
By Michael Koresky

The Fabelmans
Dir. Steven Spielberg, U.S., Universal Pictures

Cinema may or may not be in its death throes—again, but few who care about the form would deny that the low-risk dictates of conglomerate monopolies and the variable business acumen of streaming giants have made the future of “going to the movies” a dicey proposition at best. Thus, watching Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans is a satisfying and strange experience in 2022. It’s a movie made by the most commercially successful filmmaker we have ever known sacrificing many of his instincts as a great showman for something looser and pleasurably baggy in the service of reminding viewers that he's a great showman. If Spielberg weren’t so tricky, so generous, and, working with Tony Kushner on a generative script, so willingly playful in excavating his own past, the film might have come across as little more than self-mythology. Instead, poignantly aware that the world his classicism inhabits is gone, he has created something sneakily complex and, in its consideration of identity formation, a movie about movies compelled by the emotional and social determinants that make those movies possible.

Anyone with a passing interest in Spielberg-as-auteur will recognize the autobiographical markers—set in the American suburbs of New Jersey, Arizona, and Southern California in the 1950s and ’60s, The Fabelmans is a return to Spielberg’s twinned primal scenes of destruction and creation: his parents’ divorce and his discovery of moviemaking. Narratively and emotionally, these are never separate, but instead cross-pollinations of the same fertile endeavor. Within creation there is destruction: the moment of little Sammy Fabelman’s first encounter with cinema, Cecil B. De Mille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, in December 1952, leaves him in a state of both wonder and terror, so haunted by the film’s frightening circus train crash that he must create it over and over with his own Hanukkah-gifted trainset. And within destruction there is creation: later, teenage Sammy, learning that his mother is leaving his father, following their marriage’s agonizingly protracted mortal spasms, will stay silent in the back of the living room; Spielberg cuts to an image of the same scene, only now it’s as though it’s shot on 8mm film—entirely subjective, creating a buffer zone that promises a false safe distance.

The camera sees the world differently, but it cannot protect you, the film seems to be saying in this brief, remarkable moment. It’s a noteworthy idea for a director who has long contended with critics claiming his films sanitize reality in pursuit of an alternate American dreamscape, one fueled more by nostalgia than truth-seeking. Similarly, moviemaking has had to defend itself as an art form even longer than people have been proclaiming its imminent death. Way back in 1933, film theorist Rudolf Arnheim wrote, “There are still many educated people who stoutly deny the possibility that film might be art.” He wasn’t referring to film’s commercial capacities, but defending it against those who thought its chemical and technological composition was itself dubious: how is it art if it merely and mechanically reproduces reality? Could the play of light itself, and how it’s reflected on the object being recorded, possibly compare to what Vermeer or Hammershoi accomplished? Without shame and at a crucial juncture in the history of the form, The Fabelmans is definitive in positioning the movies as art—illuminative of their maker’s needs and desires—while at the same time acknowledging it as limited by one’s blind spots and fears.

Spielberg’s film is less driven, then, by “magic of cinema” bromides than something more forcefully elemental about the way we engage with art and why we create it. This is why the film’s focus on Mitzi Fabelman, a not-at-all subtle fictionalization of Spielberg’s mother, Leah Posner, inhabited with marvelous, dark-toned vivacity by Michelle Williams, is so crucial and provocative. Early, we see Mitzi bestowing upon wide-eyed five-year-old Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) his first movie camera in a visual set-up that’s nearly identical to the programming scene between Monica and the robot-boy David in Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence: the moment of connection that forever hardwires the child, emotionally, technologically, and perhaps Oedipally, to his mother. From this point forward, he’s irrevocably drawn to both the technical apparatus and the ineffable interior world it can capture, as well as methods for how it can manipulate reality.

As Sammy comes of age, he finds himself most thrilled by imitating American boy adventures of conquest—stagecoach westerns and corpse-strewn war sagas. Yet while Sammy (now Gabriel LaBelle) trains his kid lens on violent, weapon-heavy spectacle, The Fabelmans devotes the lion’s share of its running time to evoking the inchoate malaise of Mitzi, who is delicately panged with regret at not having had a career as a concert pianist despite her immense talent and whose marriage to Burt (Paul Dano) has long been doomed by her inescapable attraction to Bennie (Seth Rogen), Burt’s best friend and the family’s frequent vacation companion and dinner guest. Because Spielberg’s films rarely represent suburban life with anything other than fascinated reverence, never does the film imply that being the mother of four kids (Sammy and his three sisters, Reggie, Natalie, and Lisa) or the wife of a well-meaning, computer engineer husband has been an unwanted burden for her; the film allows Williams to fill in the emotional gaps.

With her tight blonde bob (identical to photos of Leah from the era) and a bright, free-spirited demeanor that feels ever on the verge of drawing back the curtain on some profoundly sad revelation, Williams does something miraculous, a consistent evading of maternal cinematic conventions for something that feels genuinely drawn from the life. Her devotion to her son’s burgeoning creativity burns bright, both out of parental support and her own staunched artistry, yet Williams’s Mitzi never acts out of resentment or guilt. It’s a performance free of stereotype yet which, I suspect, in its outsized, heart-on-its-sleeve non-naturalism, might feel familiar to viewers raised by post-WWII American Jewish parents or grandparents. She feels like the generous, complicated culmination of so many of Spielberg’s screen mothers—the ones who are reckless yet loving, given to astonishment, desirous of something grand and thrilling and out of this world, even as their instinct for protection overcomes all, like Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express, Melinda Dillon in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and especially JoBeth Williams in the Spielberg-scripted Poltergeist, whose initial run-toward-the-danger reaction to her house’s haunting is echoed in an early scene of Mitzi driving her kids in the direction of a tornado rather than seeking protection. This is not an act of destructiveness but a kind of intuitive need to share her fascination and awe, and a futile attempt harnessing control from chaos.

At its most charged, The Fabelmans expresses the impossibility of representing such a complicated woman on-screen. In a centerpiece scene, set during a family camping trip, Spielberg expresses the discomfiting panoply of feelings that come with turning the camera lens on one’s mother. It’s nighttime, and Mitzi begins to dance by the bonfire, perhaps for her family, perhaps for Bennie, perhaps for the 8mm camera Sammy has begun rolling on her. Most likely, she is performing for herself, as she’s become lost in balletic reverie. After Sammy floods her with illumination to better capture her ethereal movements, his sister exclaims with alarm that the light is penetrating her gossamer white nightgown, making her outfit see-through and the outline of her figure visible. This moment of panic—at the (literally) sheer inappropriateness of sexualizing Mitzi in this family setting—is instantaneously passed over for a hushed appreciation. Like a warmer version of the remote Frances O’Connor in A.I. or Nathalie Baye in Catch Me If You Can (among Spielberg’s most disturbing portrayals of family as lost paradise), she is Oedipal desire. In this moment, Mitzi is made sexual, feminine, maternal, transparent, a camera subject who skirts easy readings. Spielberg cuts to the various reactions; they’re all looking at her, yet each seeing a different version of the same human being who is often obscured by the roles she inhabit as mother, wife, lover. In a pointed, wrenching transition, the very next scene—in which she lies atop her dying mother in the hospital—reminds us that Mitzi’s also a daughter.

The contradictory limpidity and mystery of Williams’s performance is the film’s gravitational center, and it treats her with reserves of compassion even if she becomes, in essence, the film’s only sustained source of narrative conflict when her secret and long-standing love for Bennie catalyzes the family’s demise. Rogen, with his aw-shucks avuncularity, may be less than sexually magnetic here, but this makes Williams’s performance all the more compelling. We aren’t aligned with her perspective (the film is clearly told from the eyeline of the young filmmaker), but we’re invited to empathize with the impossibility of her situation, her almost hapless attraction to Bennie, love as a force beyond her control. When Sammy discovers the affair, of course it’s framed as evidence captured on film: footage from the summer camping trip on his Mansfield 8mm film editor, pored over with the indefatigable curiosity and growing terror of David Hemmings surveying evidence of a possible murder in Blow-Up—a surreptitiously held hand, a warm smile, a tender touch on the lower back. LaBelle’s look of horror at the revelation of his mother’s potential infidelity—like he’s watching a snuff film—feels apt. It’s a kind of death, one to which he’d be returning. Spielberg’s career is, after all, riddled with films about broken families, some of which are repaired through fantastical intervention (E.T.), others remedied by the creation of chosen surrogates (The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Catch Me If You Can), and still others too fragmented to ever be put back together (Close Encounters, A.I.).

The film’s philosophical triangulation of art, spectacle, and family is cemented in a midpoint set piece featuring a surprise Thanksgiving visit from Mitzi’s long-lost Uncle Boris, arriving after the death of her mother. Played by a sinewy, vaudevillian Judd Hirsch with a wisdom too fussy and neurotic to be fully rabbinical, Boris is “meshuga for art” and he both mesmerizes and terrifies Sammy with his late-night stories of working in show business. Hirsch’s appearance as Boris is a self-consciously theatrical cameo—he essentially arrives with a bow and leaves in a flourish—but without it, the film’s delightful, summative coda (which offers a few final words on artistic perspective) wouldn’t hit as hard as it does. “Art is dangerous…it will tear your heart out,” he passionately entreats to the burgeoning teen filmmaker. The danger of which he speaks is not presumably of the Jaws variety but something more like the difficult truth Sammy discovers in his family footage.

Implicitly communicated in Hirsch’s monologue is the belief that the film we’re watching—The Fabelmans itself—is risk-taking for the way it chooses to turn the camera back on itself and the difficult past that has long haunted its director. Most would, I think, hesitate to call Spielberg’s filmography dangerous, at least in terms of the themes he’s frequently drawn back to (the strength of American democracy in the face of negative forces; the bonds of domesticity), yet I’d argue that his career is riddled with moments of risk-taking, whether in terms of ambition against odds (Jaws), scale of production (1941), make-or-break robotic or computer effects (E.T., Jurassic Park), dramatic career swerves (The Color Purple, Schindler’s List), visionary passion projects (A.I. Artificial Intelligence), or one politically nervy Hitchcockian spectacle that was unlikely to please either “side” with which it engaged (Munich). Compared to all of these, The Fabelmans feels decidedly unrisky (that’s not a knock, since risk can be deeply personal and entirely beheld in the eye of the artist). It’s perhaps most remarkable for opening up a new emotional rhythm in the filmmaker. There is compositional beauty and economical visual storytelling, of course, and the soft, lullaby-like glow of Spielberg’s reliably reverent DP Janusz Kaminski, but productively absent is the cinematic razzle dazzle we might expect in such a so-called love letter to the movies—the kind of camera calisthenics and percussive editing that made last year’s West Side Story, for instance, such a shot of pure exhilaration. With its episodic structure, The Fabelmans is lightly unmooring. It’s very much not a contraption, and though it’s perhaps the ultimate Spielberg film, it doesn’t move or feel like one. He is going for something else: a thoughtfully unshowy aesthetic that heightens one’s awareness of being a viewer. Watching, we’re rarely thinking about what the camera is doing, but rather what it is showing and why.

The pleasing specificity of The Fabelmans keeps it from relying on universalizing platitudes about cinema (Mitzi’s claim that “movies are dreams,” despite being used ad nauseam in the trailers, is just a quick mention overheard at the outset). As the film continues, Sammy’s evolution as a filmmaker becomes reflective of a particularly mid-century cultural Jewishness. In one of many welcome developments in the film’s second half, once the family relocates from Arizona to Southern California, Spielberg and Kushner work through questions of assimilated cultural identity and sexuality using the basic confines of a coming-of-age high school comedy. Functioning in an insightful comic mode that feels like PG-13 Philip Roth, the script dramatizes how Sammy uses his unathletic, Jewish otherness to his advantage. First, he becomes an object of exotic, erotic fixation for horny, Jesus-obsessed shiksa Monica (Chloe East); later, affirming his filmmaker-observer status, he shoots his class’s beach trip, savvily framing his number-one tormenter, a blond anti-Semitic stormtrooper named Logan (Sam Rechner), as a god among men, a bronzed volleyball hero. The class erupts in cheers upon seeing the edited film at the prom, yet Logan is outraged, embarrassed—is he the butt of the schlemiel’s joke or an honest-to-goodness movie star? The film never quite answers, though one suspects Sammy’s choice is at once defense mechanism, revenge, sexual envy, repressed attraction, self-loathing, and a preternatural sense of what makes for good movie imagery. Perhaps most provocatively, the scene psychologizes Spielberg’s (and the larger industry’s) penchant for goyim heroics in everything from the Indiana Jones films to Schindler’s List; it’s a savvy distillation of assimilationist survival methods surely recognizable for many Jews living in largely gentile America. (Judaism itself, as a religion or philosophy, is an abstraction; cinema is the real looming G-d here, or maybe, to echo Martin Buber, Sammy is the “I” and cinema is the “Thou.”)

In all these ways, The Fabelmans’ angle on filmmaking as a personalized art is inherently auteurist. Movie production is framed as less a result of collaborative process than as a scrappy, DIY expression of a single director’s personality and psychology—a matter of aesthetic perception. This is certified at the film’s epilogue, based on a vivid bit of personal apocrypha that Spielberg hasn’t been shy about sharing in interviews over the years. Disillusioned college freshman Sammy, interviewing for a job on Hogan’s Heroes, gets a fortuitous fantasy meeting with none other than John Ford, flaunting full regalia: eyepatch, safari jacket, cigar, lipstick smudge on his cheek. (The kid’s sudden idol worship is a bit jarring; Sammy, consummate kid craftsman, had been swept away by The Greatest Show on Earth and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but his awareness of DeMille or Ford as, respectively, the men behind the camera was left unclear.) In a savvy choice, to play Ford Spielberg has cast a modern filmmaker whose artist status has never been in question and whose work would unlikely ever be caught in an art-vs.-commerce tug-of-war. It’s a deft (and very funny) bit of casting, invoking the work of an uncompromising artist—one who has spent his career making films one might justifiably call dangerous, to recall Uncle Boris’s mandate—to win over anyone on the fence about the film’s central thesis.

Sammy walks off into the horizon in a playful last shot that comes as a direct response to John Ford’s final, foul-mouthed mandate; one might say that Sammy’s future practically shimmers with Spielbergian possibility. His parents have officially separated, leaving him a young person untethered, although as we all know from a life at the movies with Spielberg, the trauma of those years will not be so easily forgotten. Dismiss it as self-mythology if you wish, but Spielberg’s mythology is already so deeply encoded into our cultural DNA that such a criticism feels redundant.