The Fabelmans

The Fabelmans

"Movies are dreams that you never forget."

Stress on the never, as Mitzi Fabelman would have it, minutes before marching her young Sammy into a screening of Cecil B. De Mille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. The first few shots of The Fabelmans offer this pre-show explanation of sorts. Here are the movies, as Steven Spielberg understands them, as he was introduced to them. Burt (Paul Dano) kneels down to explain to Sammy how persistence of vision works. Sammy is both dumb-founded and nervous, reluctant to enter the theatre. Perhaps Mitzi’s definition of the movies, ‘dreams you never forget,’ is given in terms that the child can better understand. Still, he takes some convincing. Of course, the explanations amount to the same thing: that vision should persist, a lingering phantom of imagination, is that a dream should be remembered. But what to do with such a terrifying apparatus, an unforgettable dream? Understanding the mechanism of the cinema gives us little control over its total facility, the unalterable emotional power of the movies. Spielberg, technical wizard that he is, attained this control long ago. But such promethean talents warrant reckoning, and since A.I., Spielberg has been interrogating the import of his own abilities. Here with The Fabelmans this interrogation reaches a logical endpoint: the filmmaker’s origin.

Sammy’s concern is valid. The little first-time moviegoer is in less for a treat than a profound shock. His first glance upon the big screen is about to change his life. It will also change the life of the movies themselves. So goes the myth of Steven Spielberg, the most skillful and most influential American filmmaker of my lifetime. Soon after Sammy is seated, we see the birth of the ‘Spielberg-face,’ so achingly replete with affect. And where should that famously wondrous gaze, those eyes held upwards and carried into the sublime, be born besides a movie theatre? 4-year-old Sammy Fabelman here experiences a spectacle that will permanently affix itself to his psyche. Importantly, it’s a rupture. This first variation of the film’s many Spielberg-faces is not given in the filmmaker’s usual form, that is, attached to the beatific push-in. Instead, Sammy sits up higher and higher, closer and closer, his face magnified inch by inch, and spliced, ultimately, with the wreckage of a train, Hollywood’s most accomplished images of death, mass murder in technicolor. This is not the birth of Christ, pointedly, but of Frankenstein’s monster, amalgam of man and machine, fated outcast and observer. Spielberg doesn’t owe anybody his life. Yet he devoted it to the movies, his creations.

It's appropriately Freudian that Michelle Williams, the stand-in for Spielberg's mother, should first give voice to a permanent attachment fixed upon the movies. The director's reverence for the mother-figure is well-known. His cinema constitutes an oedipal shrine of sorts. Where Spielberg's heroes are children and their fathers are fallible - kooky, absent, short-sighted, loserish workhorses - his mothers are edenic, graceful, willful, and worst of all, unattainable. These qualities extend to Burt and Mitzi Fabelman, analogues for Spielberg's own parents, but only so far. Burt, we discover, has good and noble reasons for being absent. And his slight coldness, his embrace of all things technical, to the detriment of the artful, is what enables him, we understand, to provide for his family.

Mitzi is a skilled artist and loving mother, capable of beautiful music and, one senses, truly devoted to her children. She's in love with her world, and happy to share it. But she's also immature, irresponsible, manic, fragile. However committed she may be to revealing the sublimity of the world to her children, the power of cinema to Sammy, Mitzi can't help but be lost in the effects herself. (Perhaps this accounts for the larger-than-life performance from a brassy, breathy Michelle Williams, who plays Mitzi less as a person and more as an indefinable confluence of wills and performance ticks.) A tornado touches down in the suburbs, and trace seconds pass before Mitzi pawns off her baby to Burt and gathers the children in the station-wagon for a dangerous bout of storm-chasing. After a narrow brush with a crashing telephone pole, the best she can do to reassure her wee ones is to tell them "Everything happens for a reason." This, as Sammy comes to learn, is Mitzi's principle of self-justification. Some skepticism of the mother, herself a faithful though flawed woman, is earned. A successful parent can access their inner-child; Mitzi is simply in thrall to hers.

How incomparably difficult it is to divest a parent of their mythic status in the eyes of the child. This is a necessary process for any adult, and Spielberg has been making attempts throughout his working life (and, The Fabelmans suggests, long before). But his attempts have never been so direct, never so self-reflective, and rarely as engaging as this. This is a truly delightful movie, full to brim of wonderful moments, effervescent joys, canny performances, a love letter to cinema truly worth reading. It’s also an eminently touching and complex tribute to Spielberg’s family.

In bringing his young life to the big screen, Spielberg has attempted to show us, and perhaps to convince himself, that his parents were real people. In a certain sense, he fails and he must fail. Movies are not real life, as Burt so unhelpfully reminds Sammy, over and over. They may transform the ways in which we see real life. But they cannot shield us from its course, its dangers, our most inevitable and terrifying disappointments. That some aspects of Burt and Mitzi remain necessarily fantastic, marred in the artifices of Hollywood of which Spielberg is the supreme master, is strangely poetic nonetheless.

This is to say that I’m not entirely convinced of this film’s functioning, as some have put it, as simple therapeutic balm. Judging by the film’s more uncanny sequences, Spielberg’s not entirely convinced either. The film’s most troubling image comes during the re-staging of his parents’s first pronouncement of divorce. Gathered in the living room, Sammy’s sisters plead and scream. Mitzi stands, vulnerable to all blame. Burt fails to reassure anyone, least of all himself, that things will be business as usual. And then there’s Sammy. Complicit in his mother’s accidental infidelity, Sammy can only see the scene of traumatic estrangement play out, no doubt in some form of what he’s already envisioned happening. As he watches his family fall apart, a vision of Sammy then appears in the living room mirror. Pictured is the curse of the filmmaker: he’s in the dream world, filming the real, reconstituting the break of mother and father as the break of fantasy from reality. Dissolve to Sammy’s brilliant eyes, splayed across the screen, crossed with the fatal movieola which granted him such traumatic access to his parents’ inner lives. Art grants us a perspective, The Fabelmans would suggest, often a penetrating one. But it does this only by forcing distance upon us, screening us from the real.

Likewise, Mitzi discovers her love for Benny, but only when seeing it from Sammy’s perspective, in the confines of his closet (cue one of the finest, most affecting Spielberg-faces, courtesy of Williams). That Sammy’s footage occasions his parents’ divorce suggests that Spielberg blames himself for his own parents’ separation. This is a common feeling among children of divorce, but few would have the pictorial evidence to justify it. Fewer would forget.

A dream that you can’t forget is a terrifying proposition, especially when this dream shows you the dissolution of your life as you have previously known it. This is the underside to Spielbergian sentimentality: that nagging feeling that I shouldn’t be feeling the way I do, that I should suspect that which enthrals me, that the ground never existed and I've only ever been falling, crashing. “I need to see them crash.” 

In this sense, there’s a keen irony to the spectacle of forgiveness shown during Michelle Williams’s final, tender appearance in the film. The kitchen, suffused with the ethereal glow of morning, is as inviting as any set could be. But I can’t shake its eerie resemblance to the simulacral childhood home from the ending of A.I.. Upon this final goodbye, are we seeing therapy or euthanasia? Where are the rest of the Fabelmans, we might ask?

Mitzi begs Sammy to forgive her for slapping him. He does. Then she reassures him that he can indeed be his own person: “Do what your heart says you have to, because you don’t owe anyone your life.” Mitzi thus affirms Sammy’s personhood, but this gesture, following her apology, is reciprocal. Here she might as well be asking him to forgive her not just for the slap but for all her transgressions, her failings as a mother, her instability, her inability to remain the person who Sammy needs, in short, her personhood. And this personhood is what Spielberg has sought to represent in this film. If it can’t be rendered exactly, we collect, it can still be understood, and thereby forgiven. Thus, Sammy can forgive his mother, and Spielberg his, and me mine, and you yours. Catharsis.

But Spielberg’s mother never saw this film.

Block or Report

haydenbtw liked these reviews