I’d venture to say that Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans is nearly impossible to dismiss or dismiss. Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical story is simply too sincere, personal, innocent, and wholesome for any film fan not to connect with. A film about a young boy who falls in love with cinema and decides to devote the rest of his life to it. I mean, really? I was finally aware that someone was paying attention to me.
The year is 1952, and the state of New Jersey is the place to be. Mateo Zoryan shines in this scene as young Sammy Fabelman, a character based on Spielberg’s own childhood who is terrified of going to the movies for the first time. He is terrified of a large screen filled with powerful actors and loud music. Burt (Paul Dano), a computer engineer, and Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a pianist turned housewife, are kind to their son and tell him not to worry. Sammy, on the other hand, had reason to be concerned. Things that happen in that theatre will stay with him forever. Maybe not in the way he expected. Sammy is completely engrossed by the fact that the screen has been flickering to life for several minutes. The film in question is Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth, which was released in 1952. Sammy is taken aback by everything that is happening around him, but one scene in particular seems to swallow him whole. It’s a stunningly staged train wreck (I love watching classic films because you can see that elaborate use of special effects and cinematic trickery in large-scale productions is nothing new).
The sequence is stuck in Sammy’s head. That he has been forced to beg his parents for a train set. However, unlike most kids his age, Sammy isn’t interested in playing with it. He intends to intentionally crash it in order to recreate the train derailment scene. Given his tenacity and numerous failed attempts, his mother eventually caves and buys him a camera so he can film a replica of a locomotive crash whenever he wants. What happened after that, well, that’s history.
If The Fable Man is Steven Spielberg’s superhero name (I’ll admit, it took me an embarrassingly long time to get the winking-at-us title), The Fabelmans is his superhero origin story. We follow Sammy from boyhood through high school and into his first job in the film industry over the course of a massive 2.5 hour film. A sprawling coming-of-age story in the style of Boyhood (but shot on film) wrapped in a quietly tense family drama. Thinking about where he came from is a wonderful idea. What about the fact that Sammy’s mother is a pianist and his father is a machine builder? Filmmaking is the result of combining an artistic sensibility with a scientific method.
For me, the most moving parts of The Fabelmans are those that focus on Sammy’s artistic development and the filmmaking process rather than the tense family dynamics that ultimately define him. For example, in one scene, young Sammy is seen chasing after his sisters while carrying a Super 8 camera to film some delightfully creative sketches and skits. Or, not long after, when Sammy (a sincere Gabriel LaBelle) is a teenager and makes movies with his scout group. These videos are no longer endearing; they are grandiose, professionally staged productions filled with gunplay and innovative framing. Visit the young up-and-coming filmmaker who is making big films on a shoestring budget. If you stick around, you’ll see a fantastic scene in which Sammy struggles to prepare one of his actors, a simple-minded jock, for an emotional sequence, but only succeeds when the actor becomes immersed in the role, taps into genuine emotion, and sobs uncontrollably.
Though these scenes have all the elements of a great film, they are buried beneath an uneven family saga and the growing tension in Sammy’s parents’ marriage. Michelle Williams, who played Sammy’s mother Mitzi, irritated me greatly. This free-thinking, eccentric character appears to be missing pieces of herself, despite her apparent wholeness. She comes across as impulsive and, dare I say, annoying in this scene, which I attribute to the film’s exploration of what happens when an artist represses their art and identity. Maybe it’s just my simple mind, but I have a hard time understanding her frequent flights of fancy, such as when she suddenly breaks into a dance during a family camping trip. As when she attempted to drive into a real tornado while her young children were in the backseat.
Above all, The Fabelmans made me think about the nature of biopics in general. Regarding the hazy line between story and setting. Would we have felt the same way about this film if we hadn’t known it was based on Steven Spielberg’s life? We wouldn’t care about this boy’s journey if we didn’t know and love who he would become. No, I don’t believe so. When read out of context, the Fabelman’s lacks its usual energising effects.
Regardless, the film’s thoughts on storytelling and what inspires it will stay with me long after I’ve seen it. It’s not a difficult concept, but it has the potential to have a significant impact. If you want to see the true magic of the movies, turn the camera away from what’s happening on the screen and focus on the audience’s expressions of awe and wonder.
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