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Newsletter: Spielberg's The Fabelmans Reveals The Man Behind The Fables

This is #CineFile, where our critic Rahul Desai goes beyond the obvious takes, to dissect movies and shows that are in the news. Today: The Fabelmans.

Newsletter: Spielberg's The Fabelmans Reveals The Man Behind The Fables
Detail from the poster for The Fabelmans
  • Rahul Desai

Last Updated: 08.14 AM, Feb 09, 2023

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This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on February 9, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)


WHEN THE MOST FAMOUS DIRECTOR on the planet turns the camera on himself, it’s not just an autobiographical film — it’s an autobiography of Film, too. It’s not just a personal story, it’s an ode to the personality of storytelling. It’s like watching the moment that cultivated our collective sense of time; it’s like seeing the past that shaped our language of flashback.

The Fabelmans is a fictional account of 75-year-old director Steven Spielberg’s own adolescent years as a boy, brother, son and aspiring film-maker. The Jewish protagonist, Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle), falls in love with the craft of movies while recognising its art in the fall of his dysfunctional family. As Sammy navigates the slow-burning divorce of his engineer father and pianist mother — of science and art; of curiosity and spirit; of precision and madness — Spielberg marries his candour of living with the cinema of having lived. Nearly every scene of this memoir has existed in familiar disguises and identities on screen over the decades.

Still from The Fabelmans
Still from The Fabelmans

IN THE INTERSTATE HIGHWAYS that dot a family’s journey between houses and homes, we see the roads from Spielberg’s killer-truck debut, Duel. In the marital spats between a computer scientist dad and a musician mom, we see a bit of the five-note phrase the spaceship uses to communicate in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In a heartbroken teen’s reaction to a marriage where three becomes a crowd, we see a bit of a young conman who learns to lie for a living in Catch Me If You Can. In a noble provider who loses the faith of his family, we see the beta-male protagonists of Jaws and Bridge of Spies. In the cultural misfit who befriends a camera, we see a bit of the relationship between a creature and a child in E.T. In the reckless parent that drives four kids into a storm, we see the apocalyptic conflict of War of the Worlds. In the tech-forward family member whose mind is ahead of his time, we see the cautionary heroism of A.I. and Minority Report. In Spielberg’s own quest to honour his late mother — but also himself — we see a bit of an underdog accessing America to fulfil the wish of his late jazz-enthusiast parent in The Terminal. For more than 50 years, we’ve been seeing the fables created by the man. With The Fabelmans, we finally see the man behind the fables.

Without this context, the film is just another nostalgic riff on boyhood. It’s the equivalent of watching Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun — a story ostensibly about an 11-year-old girl’s bittersweet Turkish vacation with her 30-year-old dad — without noticing that the grown-up version of the girl is actually looking back at that holiday in wistful remembrance. It’s important to detect that the woman is now missing — and decoding — her father through the cracks of memory. That the film is a melancholic blend of sight and hindsight. The ordinariness of Spielberg’s prelude, too, is linked to our reading of his extraordinary career. It’s no coincidence that The Fabelmans, his emotional homecoming, continues to be steeped in the syntax of fantasy. It’s almost fitting that his return too looks like an escape.

The little Spielbergian vignettes are all there. The wide-eyed wonder of a childhood line like “Movies are dreams that you never forget”. A parent spelling out the subtext of her son crashing toy trains: “Because he can control the chaos”. An eccentric uncle arriving as an oracle who steers the boy towards art before it’s too late. A car’s headlights accentuating the wild darkness of a mother who dances for her son’s whirring camera. A teenager catching the truth — of his mother’s secret romance with her husband’s best friend — while editing a home video. A stricken boy imagining himself shooting the real-life scene of his parents announcing their divorce. We’ve felt this tone before. The sentimentality is not new. It’s something Spielberg has been both revered and condemned for.

But in light of a mythmaker who is still learning how to un-edit his roots, this sanitisation acquires the grammar of kindness. The sentimentality adopts the frankness of self-reflection. The edges melt away because he is distant enough to unsee them. He is not romanticising his — their — flaws so much as dwelling on them. He isn’t airbrushing his dirty laundry so much as revealing the cleanliness that once defined them. Michelle Williams has this knack for making grief look radiant, and her role as Sammy’s mother evokes the picture of a human failing to be a fairytale. It triggers the illusion of a family at odds with the sensory details of their story. The treatment of the film is not sappy but disarming — it uncovers Spielberg as an adult who isn’t pretending to have figured it all out.

You can sense that The Fabelmans is his attempt to implicate the role of art and celebrate it at once. You can sense that he is trying to reconfigure the blame he long bestowed on his mother — a woman who inspired the fickleness of the French mom in Catch Me If You Can and the fragility of the airhostess in The Terminal — and make it his own. It’s Spielberg discovering that Sammy’s decision to tell stories is as selfless as it was selfish. He may have thought it to be an act of rebellion all along — a tool to reclaim the childhood that had perhaps slipped away from him. But the movie allows him to concede that it was also an act of love — an instrument to complete the dreams of a parent who never did. His mother never became the world-renowned pianist she hoped to. But perhaps it took him decades to see it as a regret — and a source of familial resentment — rather than a failing.

To put an image to Spielberg’s generosity of feeling, one must summon a precise moment from his interview with the great James Lipton for Inside the Actors Studio. Lipton has just made Spielberg realise that his parents might have influenced a crucial element of Close Encounters. A grateful smile spreads across that famously bearded face. The director’s eyes light up — he instantly admits that it was subconscious, and thanks Lipton for pointing it out; for practically teaching him about himself. It’s a moving reaction that merges myth with man, and conveys that Steven Spielberg has always been an open book seeking the refuge of closed screenplays. More importantly, as the recent documentary on him proved, he has had no qualms breaching — and investigating — those old-school defences.

The soul of The Fabelmans, though, is Spielberg’s rumination on the medium he became synonymous with. The best scene of the film undercuts the triumph of finding his calling with a tragedy of not knowing what it means. It features Sammy being accosted by the ‘hero’ of his film. He has just screened his 16mm Ditch Day movie — which he shot at the beach — for his schoolmates after the prom. Despite the applause, Sammy looks perturbed. Seconds later, we see why. In the hallway, he is confronted by his long-time bully, a jock who is confused and pained by his positive portrayal in Sammy’s film. He demands to know why Sammy glorified him and made him look invincible (“like I can fly”) — a standard he knows he will never measure up to in life.

It’s in this moment Sammy, and Spielberg himself, acknowledges that his gift is also his curse. He looks like a boy who has registered that cinema is the licence to not just process the pain but also forget the truth. A truth that had only just started to emerge — only for his fiction to prolong it by five decades. Sammy looks worried because he perhaps suspects, at this point, that his unique power to glorify and vilify those who deserve neither will tide him over. He knows that he will now imagine his family instead of remembering them.

But little does Sammy know that aeons later, his 34th feature will help him come full circle. Little does he know that it will be called The Fabelmans, a film whose significance can be summarised by one of the final exchanges of his 21st feature. It goes like this. A young criminal flees yet again by impersonating a pilot — someone who flies — only to be confronted by the FBI agent at the airport. But the agent is not pursuing him anymore. He’s letting him run. He trusts him to return. A little shaken, the master of escapes asks: “How do you know I’ll come back?”. The clear-eyed agent points to an empty tunnel leading to the ‘Lobby and Baggage Claim’ area. “Because nobody’s chasing you,” he shrugs. Today, Steven Spielberg is both of these characters. The boy came back a man — after claiming his baggage at the end of that long tunnel.