The Fabelmans: Spielberg’s candid autofiction is disappointingly schematic

Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical opus, co-written with Tony Kushner, feels safe and neat; its most interesting revelations seem to surface in spite of, not out of, its steadfast attempts to plumb its maker’s psyche.

26 January 2023

By Jonathan Romney

Mateo Zoryan as young Sammy Fabelman in The Fabelmans (2022)
Sight and Sound

The most telling revelations a filmmaker can provide about themselves are surely the inadvertent ones, those emerging from their films’ unconscious. That’s what makes Steven Spielberg’s autobiographically inspired The Fabelmans so surprising, but oddly disappointing: he seems so perfectly aware of the psychic roots of his cinema, which emerge with candid transparency as if the film were the end result of a satisfactorily completed process on the analyst’s couch. The Bildungsroman of a young aspiring filmmaker named Sammy Fabelman, it begins with his formative discovery of big-screen thrills (the train crash in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952), and concludes with a flippant coda as Sammy encounters a cinematic mentor, the great John Ford (a peppery cameo by David Lynch), who imparts no-frills wisdom about the art of image-making.

Quite how thoroughly, and literally, Spielberg seems to understand himself is apparent in the schematic depiction of Sammy’s parents Mitzi and Burt, who embody the instinctive and the rational respectively: she tells the boy films are like dreams, he explains the mechanics of persistence of vision. Computer scientist Burt knows how things work (but not the human heart), while Mitzi, who’s missed her vocation as a classical pianist, is a romantic given to surges of artistic euphoria, and an expert in the science of the soul. It’s notable that while Spielberg has for decades depended on composer John Williams for providing the emotional cues in his work, in this film Williams’s contribution takes second place to the economical restraint of the piano pieces by Satie, Bach et al that Mitzi plays – most movingly when, amid the quiet, we hear the tips of her fingernails clatter gently on the keys.

Terrified and inspired by DeMille’s crash, little Sammy becomes obsessed with recreating it with his toy trains, and filming it. Mom instantly understands his response to onscreen catastrophe: “He’s trying to get some sort of control over it.” What’s striking about the films Sammy makes as a boy and a teenager (based on Spielberg’s own early experiments) is how much they seem to be about control rather than joy. Family tensions, however, are something that Sammy cannot control – especially the emotional triangle he discovers between Mitzi, Burt and the latter’s friend and colleague Bennie, who’s secretly in a mutual but unconsummated romance with Mitzi, their cautious courtship accidentally revealed in Sammy’s footage of a camping trip. Like the tightly buttoned Burt (played by Paul Dano with soft-spoken delicacy, very unlike the cinematic stereotype of the 1950s company man), Sammy shies away from the traumatic truth that his home movie has revealed. What he really fears is his mother’s excess of emotion – in other words, her sexuality. On the trip, she dances ecstatically in the car headlights, leaving Sammy and his sisters alarmed that her legs are showing through her skirt. Exploring Hollywood codes of maleness in his youthful experiments at Westerns and war movies, Sammy is fleeing female sexuality – as Spielberg’s cinema has itself tended to. The Fabelmans suggests that in all the momentous spectacles of Spielberg’s career – the battles, the attacks by sharks, dinosaurs and Martians, the safely asexual tales of children and aliens – it’s always Mom’s skirts that he’s running from, trying to get some sort of control over.

A more startling revelation, however, is that Spielberg’s cinema might also represent a form of revenge. When the family move to California from Arizona, the children encounter blond, athletic teenagers who tower over them: an alien world of “giant sequoia people”, Sammy says (a Jewish adolescent’s own Jurassic Park?). The reception he faces illuminates what has been at issue all along in Hollywood high school movies: the brutal oppression of outsiders and underdogs, enshrined in the whole ‘jocks vs nerds’ mythology, is nakedly exposed in this case as antisemitic bullying by, essentially, teenage Nazis. Sammy gets his revenge in two ways. One is through his comic liaison with Monica, a religiously enthused shiksa, whose devoutness is directly wired to her libido: “Jesus is sexy,” she tells Sammy, “a handsome Jewish boy – just like you.” The other comes when Sammy films his school’s beach outing – a ritual celebration of idealised teenage physicality – and glorifies one of his abusers, Logan, as an Aryan golden god. It’s a disturbing moment – and so troubling for Logan that he totally panics, unable to comprehend why his victim has filmed him in this way (maybe it just makes a better movie, Sammy suggests).

Significantly, neither Paul Dano nor Michelle Williams, who plays Mitzi, is Jewish, and certainly neither looks stereotypically ‘screen Jewish’. Apart from Mitzi’s testy mother, some domestic religious practice (Chanukah rather than Christmas) and snatches of Russian at table, Spielberg downplays the obvious onscreen signifiers of Jewishness (which makes the high-school antisemites all the more convincing: they will find Jewishness even when it’s hidden, and ‘other’ it mercilessly). The one embodiment of haimishe folksiness is Judd Hirsch, terrific as charismatic Uncle Boris, who dispenses cracker-barrel showbiz wisdom, warns young Sammy about art (“it’ll bite your head off,” but he should let it) and generally comes on like a wild, hairy Old Testament prophet who’s worked the carnival circuit.

The film’s strangest moment perhaps gives a more indirect clue to the Spielberg psyche. Early in the film, before the family has relocated from New Jersey to Arizona, a tornado is seen whirling on the horizon. Mitzi puts the kids in the car and drives towards it, determined to experience the phenomenon up close. “Of course it’s safe,” she tells her worried brood, “I’m your mother.” Here in a nutshell is the Spielbergian dynamic of danger and safety – for has any filmmaker been so consistently preoccupied with peril while retaining so quintessentially reassuring a signature? Mitzi’s drive into the tornado suggests that cinema isn’t just a means of control – it is the mother that makes terrible things safe to experience, that lets you immerse yourself in the storm while telling you that you’ll be all right. That reassuring maternal dimension means that Spielberg’s films rarely feel truly dangerous – even when staging the Holocaust – and the same lack of real psychic danger takes the edge off The Fabelmans. The film may be permeated by filial anxiety, but it’s powerfully underwritten by the voice of maternal reassurance.

The Fabelmans is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

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