One of my favourite observations about a filmmaker is made during an episode of Inside the Actors Studio. Host James Lipton is asking Steven Spielberg about Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “Your father was a computer scientist, your mother was a musician,” he says. “When the spaceship lands, how do they communicate?” Spielberg smiles. “Very good question.” He doesn't answer, so Lipton continues, “They make music on their computers and they are able to speak to each other.”
Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano) is a computer scientist. Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman (Michelle Williams) is a musician. He’s extraordinarily good at what he does; engineering is his passion and most of his personality. Mitzi is also talented, but her full-time job is being a mother to four children, not piano-playing. Theirs is a difficult marriage: he “kills her with kindness”, she’s in love with his best friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen). After a while, they aren’t able to speak to each other.
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In the Actors Studio episode, Spielberg tells Lipton he hadn’t realized till that moment that he had put his mother and father into his film. The Fabelmans gives him a chance to do it knowingly. It’s not like Spielberg’s parents' divorce hasn’t shown up in his films, which are marked by separated couples and a slew of absent fathers. Still, by making a film that’s explicitly about his own childhood, he’s finally addressing the ache that's the emotional counterpoint to the cozy warmth of so many of his famous films.
The first film Sammy Fabelman is taken to see by his parents is Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth. He’s traumatized and fascinated by a trainwreck in it, and takes to crashing his model trains at home. Mitzi tells him to film this, so he can watch it over and over (she sees the potential in destruction, unlike her husband, who can't look beyond building things). This, even more than the DeMille film, sparks something in young Sammy, who starts making home movies with his sisters. As he grows into a teen, these become more elaborate; in one of them, a Western, he figures out how to make gunshots flash. He’s on his way, even if Mitzi is the only one who realizes it. Burt, dependable, serious and impossibly square, cannot conceive of it being anything more than a hobby. When Sam (Gabriel LaBelle) declares he wants to make movies, he urges his son to put his mind to “something real, not imaginary. Something someone can actually use.”
Inspiration arrives in an unlikely form: a short visit from Mitzi’s uncle Boris, who worked in the circus and the silents. The 10-odd minutes that Judd Hirsch is on screen is a blizzard of Jewish cliches. But it’s also the motive force of the film. As Sam is showing him the storyboards for a war movie he’s planning, Boris realizes the boy, like his mother, is an artist, but doesn’t have the self-belief to break away. “Family. Art. It’ll tear you in two,” he growls. He pinches Sam’s cheeks, hard enough to make him retreat to the other side of the room. “You will make your movies. You will do your art. And you will remember how it hurt.”
Longtime Spielberg-watchers will note something unusual in the opening credits of The Fabelmans: he’s a co-writer, along with Tony Kushner. Spielberg hardly ever has a writing credit on his films, just Close Encounters, Poltergeist (which he produced but didn’t direct), AI: Artificial Intelligence and this. It’s an indication of how closely this film must hew to his life that he couldn’t entirely entrust it to someone else. There’s very little spot-the-future-Spielberg, though he can’t resist casting Sophia Kopera, who so resembles the young Drew Barrymore in E.T., as the youngest Fabelman sister.
While editing his footage of a camping trip, Sam discovers his mother and Bennie are having an affair. That realization—and the dissolution, a while later, of his parents’ marriage—weighs heavy on Sam, as it evidently weighed on Spielberg all these years. The details of his life weren’t a secret—what we perhaps didn’t realize was how central they were in determining the kind of artist he would become. Mitzi is treated with sympathy and understanding—though it takes Sam’s middle sister (played wittily by Julia Butters) to change his perspective—but The Fabelmans might also be seen as an apologia to all those deadbeat dads in Spielberg films. Williams has the showier part but Dano is perfect as a kind, boring, steadfast man, skeptical of his son’s interests but nevertheless coming through for him. Labelle is just right too; his Sam, quick-witted, obsessed and resourceful, splits the difference between Spielberg and quintessential Spielberg protagonist.
“It’ll rip you apart.” Boris’ advice is repeated at the end, this time by John Ford (David Lynch). We know, of course, that it won’t. He'll soon be directing for TV, then he'll make a movie about a truck, then another about a shark. All that success, all those accolades, just down the road. I teared up a little seeing the credits of Janusz Kamiński and John Williams at the end. It must be nice, when putting your life up on screen, to have your lifelong friends beside you. It’s crazy to think that the most nakedly emotional of storytellers had to build up so long to get to the point where he could say: “I forgive you. The eggs are burning.” Who knew Spielberg needed catharsis?
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