At a certain point in an illustrious career, many a writer has turned to autobiography. That moment usually arrives when an author has become so famous that he or she is more fascinating to the public than any work of fiction they may produce. It does, however, require a special kind of ego. Gore Vidal might write a lengthy memoir, but J.D. Salinger would have sooner jumped off a cliff.
Then there are those writers such as Marcel Proust, and more recently, Karl Ove Knausgaard, who use their own lives as the basis for works that blur the line between fiction and autobiography.
Telling one’s life story in the form of fiction is the basis of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, which shows us the evolution of a famous filmmaker, from childhood to early adulthood. It’s a classic Bildungsroman, a family saga of unusual grace and distinction, that seems destined to win big at the next Academy Awards.
At the age of 75, after having dominated the box office like no director of his (or any?) generation, Spielberg has earned the right to be his own subject. One of the pleasures of The Fabelmans is the realisation that Spielberg has spent his career revealing tiny snippets of his personal history. Saving Private Ryan(1998), for instance, echoes an ambitious home movie made while he was a teenager. There are many such Gotcha! moments, but I’ll leave it for the fans to make a definitive list.
There has always been debate as to whether Spielberg is truly a great director – in the sense of being a great artist – or a great showman with well-developed commercial instincts. Looking back over so many features, it’s clear that he is both, with films such as Jaws (1975) and Jurassic Park (1993) drawing the crowds, while movies such as Lincoln (2012) have won over the critics.
Alas, with the publication of the 2022 Sight and Sound poll of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time, it seems that the gulf between the public and the critics has become unbridgeable. When the so-called critics decide that Chantal Akerman’s three-and-a-half hour arthouse movie, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) is the greatest film of all time, relegating Vertigo and Citizen Kane to second and third, and banishing Lawrence of Arabia from the top 100, one can only conclude that criticism is in trouble.
Spielberg, like Alfred Hitchcock, has always believed a film can appeal to the largest possible audience without compromising on quality. Even his most obvious blockbusters have a technical brilliance and fluency of storytelling that lifts them to another plane.
The Fabelmans is not simply Spielberg’s autobiography, it’s a manifesto on behalf of popular film – a passionate affirmation that movie making is an art, not a hobby (as his father believed), or a product.
The film begins with Sam Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) aged five or six, being taken to the pictures for the very first time. When he seems hesitant and fearful, his father, an engineer, explains the mechanics of a motion picture. His mother, a talented pianist, tells him that movies are “dreams that you never forget.” Already we can see the chasm that separates Burt Fabelman from his wife, Mitzi. He belongs to the realm of science, she is devoted to art. He is composed, thoughtful and a little boring; she is spontaneous, extroverted and reckless. Opposites attract, but eventually the differences will tell.
The understated Paul Dano is perfectly chosen for the role of Burt, a good-natured workaholic who worships his wife but can’t connect with the way she thinks. Michelle Williams is tremendous as Mitzi, torn between her need to be the centre of attention and her love for her family. Williams’s performance has made her the hot favourite for this year’s Oscar for Best Actress.
The film young Sam is taken to see is Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), a melodrama that ends with a dramatic train crash. It has a cataclysmic effect on him, creating an urge to reproduce the same event. He will achieve that goal with a train set and a home movie camera, laying the foundation for a lifelong career.
Throughout Sam’s childhood and teenage years, where Gabriel LaBelle takes on the acting duties, the movies will remain an obsession. As his homemade productions become increasingly sophisticated, Mitzi can see that her son is an artist, but Burt keeps hoping he’ll get over this phase and do something practical.
The film motif threads its way through an irresistible saga of family life, as we get to know Burt and Mitzi, Sam, and his three younger sisters. The two eldest, Natalie and Reggie (Keely Karsten and Julia Butters), will be the guinea pigs in Sam’s early film experiments. The unofficial seventh member of the family is “Uncle Benny” (Seth Rogen), who is no relative, but Burt’s best friend. Wherever the Fabelmans go, Benny goes too, even on a camping trip, where he keeps everyone entertained while Burt tries to explain the finer points of lighting a fire.
It’s on this trip, which includes a mesmeric sequence in which Mitzi dances an impromptu ballet solo dressed in a translucent nightie, that Sam discovers the power of the camera to reveal hidden truths. What he sees is that Mitzi has grown far closer to Benny than to Burt.
Sam sees a crisis in the making, but it won’t come to a head until the family moves from Phoenix to California, after Burt scores a top job at IBM. Without Benny, Mitzi goes into meltdown while Burt plays the stoic. For Sam, the move means that he finds himself the only Jew in a class of tall, waspy jocks and bullies. His salvation is a girl named Monica (Chloe East), who wants him to learn to love Jesus, and the movie camera, which is transformed into a weapon in his hands.
It would take a long time to relate the entire story of this film. Spielberg and regular collaborator, Tony Kushner, have taken events that have the unmistakable feeling of reality and crafted them into a series of skillfully written chapters, each with its climactic moment. Along with Mitzi’s dance in the woods, there’s a scene in which she bundles the kids into the car and speeds off to watch a cyclone. Upon realising how dangerous this is, she has them recite the mantra: “Everything happens for a reason…”
When eccentric Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) turns up for an unexpected visit, he gives Sam a lecture on art, and how it must always take precedence over family. Years later, Sam will be amazed at the impact of the movie he shoots at the end of the school year, and the disarming effect it has on his enemies. Eventually, he will get to meet his hero, John Ford (played magnificently by David Lynch!), and receive another short, brutal lesson about the power of art.
There have been some impressive films made in 2022, but it’s hard to think of one that’s so completely satisfying as The Fabelmans. We can all be experts on ourselves, but it takes a special genius to collect all the beautiful, sordid, joyful, painful fragments of one’s family life into a story that keeps the viewer in a constant state of delight while a tragedy unfolds by degrees. In support of the cinema’s claims to be art, Spielberg has made a compelling case.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Steven Spielberg & Tony Kushner
Starring: Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogan, Judd Hirsch, Julia Butters, Keeley Karsten, Jeannie Berlin, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, Chloe East, Sam Rechner, David Lynch
USA, M, 151 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 14 January, 2023