There’s a now infamous moment from Steven Spielberg’s appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio. The host James Lipton poses a question to the filmmaker about the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind that suggests it was inspired by his parents’ complicated relationship. In Litpon’s words, Spielberg’s computer scientist father and musical mother communicated when the spaceship landed by making “music on their computer” which finally allowed them to speak to each other. It was not intentional on the director’s part but Spielberg is so struck by the observation that he’s inclined to agree with the interpretation.
It’s tempting to imagine this as the moment where the great director realised he wanted to make a film about his own upbringing. For decades Spielberg has been using his films to gently confront that traumatic divorce and prod at, if not fully exorcize, the demons which have haunted him ever since. Now with The Fabelmans, he’s decided to face the issue head on and just do away with any of that pesky subtextual stuff about parental schism and its impact that we saw all over E.T., Close Encounters.., and even Jurassic Park. Of course, there is plenty of playful fictionalisation going on to ensure some of the curtain isn’t peeled back. It isn’t called The Spielbergs after all.
Right from the off Spielberg wants us to know this is a film about two things; movies and separation. It’s the early 1950s and on a trip to a New Jersey cinema, young Sammy Fabelman is mesmerized by a train crash scene in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Both enthralled and petrified, he soon gets his hands on a camera to film his train set crashing in order to gain a modicum of control of something he can’t seem to let go of. If you haven’t figured out that this is also what the director himself is doing with this very film then what are we doing here?
Perhaps the more crucial moment around the cinema visit occurs right after, when his parents take differing approaches to help Sammy understand what he’s just seen. The mild-mannered, methodical Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano) informs his son of the mechanics involved in the projection process, about how the way we perceive the 24 frames per second as a moving image is a mere trick of the light and of the brain. Sammy’s more outwardly sentimental and artistic mother Mitzy (Michelle Williams), however goes for the heartstrings and tells him that “Movies are like dreams that you’ll never forget”.
Neither are totally wrong of course. Filmmaking is a process that combines technical knowhow and logistical foresight along with creative passion. Of course that’s the point, Burt and Mitzy present young Sammy with life lessons he can take into his future career but the two views they express also tells us they’re doomed. Their conflicting world views and desires for their son, which they seem resolutely against expressing openly, can only end one way. For Burt’s profession, the family will move to Arizona and then onto California, but they can’t accept the fact that it’s each other they need to escape from.
The Fabelmans is a strange beast. As a rousing drama about finding your voice, it’s mostly a successful endeavor. There’s no denying there are some of the most moving sequences in the director’s oeuvre here. A teenage Sammy showing his mother her own desire for infidelity with a family friend (Seth Rogen) via a camping film is maybe a blunt metaphor for the sacrificial cost of his art. That doesn’t mean the scene doesn’t also hit with the required emotional wallop. Judd Hirsch also steals the film as a curmudgeonly great uncle who figuratively and literally grabs Sammy by the scruff of his neck to make him wake up to the reality of life in the entertainment business.
It’s in the Arizona years that the more laidback rhythm and thematic exploration works best. The late California excursion is a mixed bag. There seems to be more of a tension between the filmic memoir the movie initially tries to be and the crowd-pleasing drama it ends up as. Screenwriter Tony Kushner can still write bitterly funny interplay, like in a bedroom scene involving a evangelical Christian girl eager to convert the Jewish Sammy. Elsewhere though, The Fabelmans can, on occasion, veer into wish fulfillment storytelling. Sammy winning over the anti-semetic jock through the power of cinema is maybe a step too far.
It may be my least favourite of Kushner and Spielberg’s collaborations but it is still a Kusnher and Spielberg collaboration. In an Oscar season besotted by ‘love letters to cinema’, this could have been a nauseating disaster and it’s far from that. Spielberg’s parents may never have made “music on their computer” together, but The Fabelmens is him making that music with them.