Photo credit: By Screenshot from the film’s trailer., Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71734123
The Fabelmans is plainly the capstone in Steven Spielberg’s remarkable career. It is many things: a cautionary warning about the effects of divorce; a celebration of family; a memoir of what life used to be like in 1950s suburbia. But above all it is a film about vocation and what it means to know what it is you want to do in life from an early age.
That’s because Sammy Fabelman, who we trace in this film from early adolescence to early maturity is to all intents and purposes Spielberg himself – it is as close to an autobiography as we’ll get from him, to the extent that we don’t need one now.
The film shows quite clearly that cinema hit Spielberg early on with unusual force – as it must have done almost everyone who encountered this new art form which would so come to alter the world. We first meet Fabelman, played by Gabriel LaBelle, in 1952 about to attend a performance of The Greatest Show on Earth by Cecil B. De Mille. He is nervous about entering the cinema, and then watching in astonishment as the film unfolds. Actually at this time, the film industry was already being impacted negatively by the invention of television: the U.S. Census Bureau, shows that weekly attendance dropped from 80 million in 1940 and 90 million in 1946 to 60 million in 1950 and 40 million in 1960.
Yet something happens of lasting significance to Spielberg/Fabelman at the performance; the scene with the train accident takes hold of him, and later on, he tries to replicate it at home using his father’s 8mm camera. A film director is born. One of the insights in the film is that the first steps required an interest in the technology: the young Fabelman isn’t shown reading books about story-telling, but fiddling with film, and learning to operate the equipment. It’s a reminder that some form of technical knowledge often precedes true creativity.
Fabelman is growing up in a talented home. His mother Mitzi, played by Michelle Williams, is a brilliant concert pianist who has failed to pursue her dreams due to the 1950s norm of staying at home to raise a family. Meanwhile, Fabelman’s father Burt is a high-flying electrical engineer in the world of computers, and a genius. It feels as though Spielberg himself is composed of a mixture of his mother’s musical sensibility and his father’s natural aptitude for technology.
Like so many parents faced with creative children, Burt views Sammy’s film-making as a hobby, no doubt worried – as a parents usually are with good reason – about Steven Spielberg’s financial future. A brief glance at Spielberg’s current net worth shows he needn’t have worried – but then he couldn’t have known that his son was destined to be the most successful filmmaker of all time.
But this tees up the best scene in the film when Fabelman’s uncle Boris comes to stay. Sammy’s mother is ultimately too depressed – and caught up in an extramarital affair with Seth Rogen’s Bobby, an employee of her husband – to really have enough mental space to understand what ambitions are burning in Sammy. His father meanwhile doesn’t understand that play is really the ultimate seriousness if it can be made to alter hearts.
But Boris, fresh from the circus, turns out to have Sammy’s number rightaway. He sees the situation clear. For instance, he observes the similarity between Sammy’s nascent gifts, and Mitzi’s thwarted potential: “He could have been that concert piano player. What’s she got in her heart is what you got.” Marching around the room in a stringy vest looking remarkably elastic and even powerful for an octogenarian, Uncle Boris also speaks the movie’s most memorable lines: “Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on Earth, but also, it will tear your heart out and leave you lonely. You’ll be a shanda for your loved ones. An exile in the desert. A gypsy. Art is no game! Art is dangerous as a lion’s mouth. It’ll bite your head off.”
Art is indeed a game played at high stakes, but work generally is too – it is especially so for Burt whose computing genius cuts him off from humanity just as much as Sammy’s skills as a filmmaker. It’s this which ultimately distances him from his wife: it’s not easy to love geniuses since their thought patterns tend to land everywhere except their marriage.
Watching the film, you are conscious that Spielberg all along had a great sadness in his life, but for the majority of his career – really until this film – he hasn’t tended to make art of high seriousness. His films, as Terry Gilliam has pointed out, tend towards the schmaltzy and the straightforward: he isn’t an auteur in the line of Stanley Kubrick. He is slicker than that – to the benefit of his bank account but probably to the detriment of art. This film shows that all along there was a serious filmmaker waiting to get out. But he chose to entertain instead, and this has given people much joy. Spielberg is an escapist, and we now see what it was he was escaping from.
The film culminates in a marvellous scene where the young Spielberg writes to filmmakers looking for a job as a runner. His letter lands with Bernard Fein. Job-seekers will often find that life is changed by the generosity unique to people who actually reply to letters: many a career is begun by the fluke of finding them, and stymied by the lack of them.
Fein mentions that the greatest living filmmaker is working across the corridor and this turns out to be John Ford. What follows is a marvellously cantankerous mentor-mentee scene, where Fabelman is asked to discuss some pictures on the wall.
The takeaway is that pictures will be interesting if the horizon is slow, or if it’s high – but never interesting in between. It’s as good a piece of advice as any, but I think is offered with more than a small dose of: “You’re on your own.”
We all are to some extent, but we take what advice we can and we do the best we can. This is a film which tells us that sometimes our best turns out to be much more than enough – and insodoing makes us optimistic about beginning again.