‘The Fabelmans’ is the rare great film about the ecstasy of cinema

When I saw Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” at the Toronto Film Festival in September, I loved it. And while I never expected the movie to be a breakthrough, I’m hoping – and my cautiously optimistic prediction – that it would find a hook in the culture. I assumed that a drama about how Steven Spielberg became the genius that he is would resonate deeply with movie fans across generations. Okay, not so much with those under 35. But that still leaves a lot of us!

“The Fabelmans”, I think, is poorly titled – it sounds like a sitcom with David Schwimmer and Mayim Bialik as the parents. But the film is an immersive and enveloping experience, a true memoir on film. (If Spielberg had written the story of his childhood in book form, without changing the names, I doubt it could have been more intimate or detailed.) Like all good memoirs, the movie is about a few things at once – in this case, the adventure of growing up, the joys and dangers of becoming an artist, and the anguish of seeing your parents split up.

“The Fabelmans” carves its own place in divorce cinema, as the relationship of Mitzi and Burt Fabelman, played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, disintegrates over time, almost in slow motion, more in grief than anger. It’s not that the two hate each other; they just don’t fit together. Over the decades, the pop drama of divorce has generated its own fight-and-revenge clichés, to the point that it almost never captures this all-too-common reality the way “The Fabelmans” does.

But of course, the saga of Spielberg’s parents’ divorce, which he has spoken about many times in interviews and which became the model for the broken families in his own films, dating back to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), is not a topic that is likely to appeal to many viewers. The appeal of “The Fabelmans” is how Spielberg, as a Central American kid growing up in the ’50s and early ’60s, fell in love with filmmaking – and how he reinvented filmmaking from the ground up in the process. That’s because he was flying blind, making it all up.

You could say, “Spielberg and the scratchy 8mm home movies he made as a kid?” Sorry, but that sounds like some serious inside boomer baseball. Except that Spielberg holds a special place in our culture. What other film director has simultaneously been as cathartic a populist entertainer as Alfred Hitchcock and as pure and bravado as an artist as Martin Scorsese? Answer: None. Only Spielberg. His films have excited people – to their souls, but on a massive scale – in a way that is unique. He is a filmmaker who, by following his muse, has remade the language of Hollywood. And that’s what I mean when I say that “The Fabelmans” felt like a film that could and should have broad appeal. The best movies Spielberg has made are part of us. A movie drama about his filmmaking is in a funny way about us – about his discovery and cultivation of a gift that changed pop culture, and perhaps changed the world, period.

It has become clear this weekend that the audience for that film is much more limited than it was a few years ago. There are reasons for that: the streaming revolution, the continued reluctance of older moviegoers to brave theaters in the wake of the pandemic. But let’s disregard the cash register. “The Fabelmans” is a marvel of a movie, with Gabriel LaBelle’s performance as Sammy Fabelman – the teen Spielberg – that’s the most subtle and lived-in performance as a teen protagonist I’ve seen since John Cusack’s in “Say Anything” and maybe that by Jean-Pierre Léaud in ‘The 400 Blows’ I realize I don’t mean to compare a movie like “The Fabelmans” to a timeless Truffaut classic, but the performances are actually quite similar – LaBelle shows us, like Léaud, the quiet hum of the hero’s mind, the internal reactions he won’t say aloud It’s possibly the best performance by an actor I’ve seen this year.

What “The Fabelmans” shows us, quite thrillingly, is the obsession with filmmaking that took hold of Spielberg. True obsession is a hard quality to dramatize, but Spielberg, working from the intricate and nut-perfect script he co-wrote with Tony Kushner, does it in the smartest of ways. He turns the story of what he did as a budding children’s film director into a journey, an adventure we follow, with tingles of triumph and ingenuity along the way. He invites us to share in the temptation, deception and ecstasy of filmmaking. He does it by showing us at every stage how Sammy discovers who he is in the films he makes. He forges his identity in what the cinema can do to see, in the way it reflects and shapes life. Here’s how that happens.

For Sammy, cinema begins with the imagination of a disaster. “The Fabelmans” begins with Sammy going to see his very first movie “The Greatest Show on Earth”. He’s an 8-year-old tyke (played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), and the scene in the Cecil B. DeMille schlock epic that grabs and chases him is the climactic train crash – he’s traumatized by it. But where does trauma end and fascination begin? In the young Spielberg, they are a whisker apart. At home, Sammy asks for and is given a toy train set, then takes his family’s 8mm home video camera and tries to re-stage – and film – the crash using multiple camera angles, all as a way to overcome his fear, to master that. crash by controlling it. It’s surprising when you consider the dark place the DNA of Spielberg’s virtuosity came from. But it’s actually not that big of a leap from that staged toy train disaster to “Jaws” or “Duel,” the 1971 TV movie about a demon truck that put Spielberg on the map. The whole reason we watch movies like “Jaws” or “Duel” is that, in their rotating axis of fear and danger and excitement and death, they metaphorically express the existential fear and anxiety of everyday life. Spielberg knew this as a child because he was possessed by it.

He becomes a poet of reality. As a teenager, Sammy makes a Western. When he looks at the footage he took of a gunfight, he is disappointed; it looks fake. So he gets the idea to punch small holes in the film reels, creating the effect that every shot is a shocking, blinding bang. The effect is kinesthetic; with one seemingly crude visual effect being necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention, he’s actually gotten ahead of mainstream Hollywood – he lets you to feel the bullets. It’s the impulse behind it that will take him far. Spielberg has always taken the reality that other films show us and amplified it, most spectacularly in his war films and films about alien visits, but also in countless other ways.

He decides for himself what films are. In “The Fabelmans,” we don’t really see Sammy watching movies or TV. He does bring along a screening of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and it’s not like Spielberg pretends he hasn’t seen any other films. Of course, that’s where he steals his teen home movie footage of World War II stagecoaches and battlefields. But the way he shoots them is another story. He moves the camera with a gliding freedom, imitating less Hollywood than what you’d see on a Hollywood set and shooting it with his own high-flying, anything-goes enthusiasm. Hitchcock famously said of Spielberg after seeing “Jaws” that “he’s the first of us not to see the proscenium arc.” Above all, it was Spielberg’s eccentric way of framing a shot in the 1970s that defined him as a revolutionary talent. His framing imparted an eerie quality of awareness; it’s like he’s shooting a movie and circling the movie you were watching at the same time. “The Fabelmans” shows that he never saw the proscenium arch. He was too busy to let the camera drift right through it.

He learns that movies can see more than we know. “The Fabelmans” is not a drama without intrigue. For a while, it turns into a visual suspense thriller like “Blow-Up” when Sammy discovers his mother’s romantic feelings for his “Uncle” Bennie (Seth Rogan) – actually a family friend – by noticing their hidden interactions in the home video he has made. made from a camping trip. I think Mitzi and Bennie are meant to be in a platonic relationship right now. But what Sammy inadvertently filmed speaks volumes. It’s not just this gesture or that knowing caress; he has captured their unspoken feelings in silent film. Talk about realism! This is his discovery of the hidden power of film – to show us what is true, perhaps more than reality.

He turns reality into mythology. In ‘The Fabelmans’ we see that Sammy acquires things as a filmmaker: techniques, tricks, insights, better equipment. He puts it all together when he’s asked to make a movie of his class’ Senior Ditch Day trip to the beach. It will be his magnum opus – and also his revenge against the WASP bully who tormented and beat him up because he was Jewish. But the most fascinating thing Sammy does, and the most mysterious part of “The Fabelmans,” is when he uses his cutscene to turn the bully’s friend, Logan (Sam Rechner), into some sort of Aryan golden god. Is Sammy mocking him or elevating him? Maybe both. But when Sammy is confronted by Logan in an empty hallway, we see that Logan doesn’t just feel mocked or guilty. (He feels both.) He feels steamed through the power of how a movie could change its identity. And what Sammy has shown herself is this: movies can be revenge, they can be transformation, they can be lies – but more than that, movies can be mythology. They have the power to elevate everything to its own truth.

Meeting John Ford gives him a lesson in turning Hollywood classicism on its head. The film’s final scene, which reenacts a teenage Spielberg’s encounter with John Ford, gives the film its wonderful zinger of an ending. What it’s all about – aside from the swearing attack that David Lynch plays Ford – is the lesson Ford teaches Sammy, after asking him to look at several paintings of the Old West, each with the horizon in a different place. Ford’s message seems to be his elementary rule for framing a photo. Still, Spielberg used that lesson to reinforce his own intuitive sense of “off” framing so that audiences would see an image like they’d never seen it before. At that point, Ford passes the baton to Spielberg, but Spielberg will turn Ford’s classicism on its head. (That’s the sublime gag of the movie’s final shot.) For Ford, it was about keeping the compositions “interesting.” For Spielberg, with his spell, it was about realizing that the essence of life almost never takes center stage.

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