When in doubt, do it like Steven Spielberg. This common adage and its variants, often slung at budding filmmakers, is a popular term when it comes to designing big set-pieces in blockbuster movies.
With The Fabelmans, Spielberg’s self-indulgent, delicately painted portrait of his young life, the term lends itself just as naturally to autobiopics.
Autobiopics: now that’s a domain seldom ventured into that yields spectacular results.
The category, often at the mercy of perspective-driven documentary filmmakers, leads to two creative pathways: one of fictionalised self-reflective port-overs (Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation and Guru Dutt’s seminal Kaghaz Ke Phool), or the other, recently championed by Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and James Gray’s Armageddon Time, where the auteur chooses to author a section of one’s own young life.
Spielberg’s film falls on the latter side of creativity. It is a tricky undertaking — one, forever teetering on the brink of intemperance, prone to exhibiting faux dramatics designed to wow critics and award juries.
As fact-laden as it is fictional, as deep as it is simple, as radical as it is conventional, Steven Spielberg’s quasi-autobiographical The Fabelmans is basically a story of a kid holding the camera
The Fabelmans, which dramatises a young Spielberg’s journey from the moment he sees his first film at a movie theatre (Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth), to when he lands his first job at a television studio (CBS), is a craftily made, engagingly acted masterpiece, about an unremarkable family’s eventual dissolution, and a boy’s love for moving pictures.
The screenplay by frequent collaborator Tony Kushner (Munich, Lincoln, West Side Story) and Spielberg (whose last screenplay credit is A.I.: Artificial Intelligence), builds its case in four key sequences.
The first, at the opening shot of the film, sees a young Sammy (Spielberg’s avatar, played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), when his mom, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and dad Burt (Paul Dano), take him to see DeMille’s film; the second, when Sammy (now a teenager, played by Gabriel LaBelle), is forced by Burt to edit their family’s vacation film to conciliate Mitzi’s depression (she had just lost her mother); the third, when Sammy films and edits a high school daytrip at the beach; and the fourth, at the climax, when he meets John Ford (David Lynch).
The DeMille sequence introduces Sammy to his eventual vocation. However, rather than be wowed by the showboat-y glitz of The Greatest Show on Earth, the young boy’s imagination is seized by the climatic train crash of the film.
Before long, Sammy is crashing his expensive train set — a Hannukah gift — and irking his complacent father. To keep Sammy from destroying his trains, Mitzi tells the boy to film the sequence on Burt’s 8mm camera, so that he can revisit the train crash whenever he wants to.
Sammy’s shot-taking and edit — an impressive, narratively coherent, linear collection of camera angles and cuts — is perhaps more striking than DeMille’s 1952 movie, considering that it is coming from a wide-eyed child who has only seen one movie in his life so far. The sequence also gives us a glimpse of the connection between Sammy and Mitzi.
Mitzi, also prone to the arts, is a trained pianist who has willingly surrendered to her role as the stay-at-home mom.
Gradually, we begin to see a subtle shade of Mitzi in Sammy, because they share a proclivity to attune their senses to what matters to them. For Sammy, it is the camera. For Mitzi, it is the piano, and the not-so-subtle display of affection she has for Bennie (Seth Rogen), Burt’s best-friend and co-worker.
By the second key sequence, Bennie and Mitzi’s relationship is hard to ignore, especially for Sammy who has unknowingly captured several reels of their indiscreet romance. The revelation fractures Sammy’s and Mitzi’s relationship, as the teenager navigates through high school, bullies and a zealous Christian girlfriend (Chloe East).
Meanwhile, Sammy’s natural flair for creating narratives continues to manifest as he purposely makes one of his bullies (Sam Rechner), the star of the school’s day trip film. When the bully confronts Sammy on why he did this — make him bigger than who he is — Sammy confesses that he has no idea; maybe he did this because he knows how to shape narratives and emotions to his whim.
While the teenage version of Spielberg should be full of egotistical bravado at his age, this patronising, narcissistic move by Spielberg, the director, lacks humility, but proves the film’s key point one sees coming from a mile away.
Spielberg knows that he is the master of his art, who has been showcasing his life experiences, their influences and cinematic reinterpretations not-so-subtly in his films (one can see them vividly in Sugarland Express, E.T., Catch Me If You Can and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence). And why would he not, especially in service of telling a story that should be up for mass consumption, which is how he deems cinema to be.
Throughout The Fabelmans — especially in its last hour — Spielberg continues to delicately massage the narrative and performances to his own whim, softening their lacerating edges, as the story heads towards his token feel-good ending.
By the climax, when John Ford gives him the golden advice of framing horizons — the horizon, when they lie in the middle are boring; it is best to place the horizon at the top or bottom of the frame, Ford says — one realises that Spielberg has been breaking the fourth-wall since the film began.
When Sammy walks away on the studio lot, the camera that had placed him in the centre, jarringly reframes the shot by placing the horizon at the bottom. The move makes you chuckle, but in the meta-ness of The Fabelmans story, it makes perfect sense.
Spielberg has been leading the audience by the hand since the frame opened, showing only what he wants you to see, making you feel what he wants you to feel, keeping your attention away from what he deems inconsequential.
What you see is as fact-laden as it is fictional, as deep as it is simple, as radical as it is conventional — but at its most basic, this is a story of a kid holding the camera; a kid, who knows what he is doing, even if he’s only 76 in age.
Featuring excellent, perhaps award-winning performances (expect Michelle Williams to lead the award race), The Fabelmans is released by Universal Pictures and is rated PG-13
Published in Dawn, ICON, December 25th, 2022