Thursday, November 24, 2022

Visions of Light: THE FABELMANS

In the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, it’s a snowy night in 1952 and a little boy is a little nervous about going to see his first movie. The prospect of giant people filling a wall in the downtown movie palace makes him leery. So his parents cheerfully try to calm his nerves. His father (Paul Dano), a meek, bespectacled engineer, launches into a technical explanation. Movies are just an illusion, he says: still photographs passed quickly before a light projecting the impression of moving pictures. His mother (Michelle Williams), who we’ll learn is a frustrated musician who battles depression, takes a more metaphorical approach. Movies are dreams, she says: dreams you never forget. Right there, in the opening dialectic between mother and father, science and art, reality and dreams, is the whole picture. It’s also a whole life, and a whole career. Anyone with an understanding of Spielberg the man and Spielberg the filmmaker will recognize that that boy, though he’s Sammy Fabelman here, is little Spielberg himself. Those are his parents’ occupations and personalities. And there he is, at his first movie, ready to discover The Greatest Show on Earth.

The movie that follows finds the boy’s growing interest in moviemaking, and dawning awareness that his parents’ marriage isn’t happy. These two aspects of his personal education are seen through a broader dawning of awareness of the world around him, and we see how a variety of influences inform who this young person starts to become—as an artist, and a man. Co-writing with Tony Kushner (in their fourth productive collaboration), scenes spanning his youth and teenage years are rich with character details that build out the world of this family, and their small circle of friends and relatives, as well as the reactions and habits that suggest their inner lives. We get amusing dinner-table chatter and passive-aggressive sniping and warm expressions of sympathy and acceptance. We also get those cross-currents of competition and concern that can push and pull on the decorum of a family. And further still, we get lots of happy moments, where the boy and his sisters and buddies make elaborate home movies and eccentric relatives float through and long car trips give a child new landscapes to feed his sharpening eye for noticing. (Great classic movies are doing that for him, too.) The scenes are framed in such a way that an adult eye can pick up on the unspoken details a child might not, but the perspective does so with such subtlety that there’s a fine-tuned generosity, and a lack of judgement. This isn’t a movie about a boy sometimes angry with his parents that is actually angry with the parents. There’s a lot of love here, foregrounded in the story, and some regret in the telling.

Spielberg approaches this semi-autobiographical sketch with the sensitivity to portray the dynamics honestly, the empathy to extend understanding to all involved, and the distance to deepen and resonate its ideas. This isn’t a retelling for self-aggrandizement or self-pity. Instead, it draws on a rich understanding of the relationships involved, and a lack of judgement on their actions. The boy finds much to be angry or sad about, and solace in honing his craft, but the movie itself is too compassionate to give in. This is a mature, even-handed look at specific moments in one particular family’s life. He keeps up the motif of the mechanical and the metaphorical, the technical and the emotional, light’s illusion and reality, throughout. The contrast between father’s machines—something to be taken apart, retooled, repaired—and mother’s music—piano practice filling the house with melancholy classical works—stand in for their ability to be complementary influences in a relationship. But it also stands in for their incompatibility. They’re trying, and there’s genuine affection there, but it just can’t connect consistently for the long term. It’s the figure of the boy, whose love for the movies becomes a love for the process—in long, loving montages behind-the-scenes of ingenious amateur filmmaking tricks and the procedural montages of previewing and cutting and adjusting 8mm reels—becomes the join between the head and the heart, the machine that makes ideas.

For that’s what the movies are: a technical feat that hits the heart. That’s what makes it a craft and an art. (So, too, says the movie, a calling.) By looking with such thrill of discovery at the makings of beginners’ films—and a beginning filmmaker—The Fabelmans reminds us that the movies are illusions that show us the world. They are collective dreams that hold us captive and can reveal something beyond the real and tangible—the deeper truths any great art form can access. Families are like that too, sometimes, built on shared dreams and memories, fueled by careful editing and elisions, motifs of light and shadow, rules and intuition. It’s about the framing, in what you see and know, and when, and how. It’s about whose perspective we share, what conclusions can be drawn, or faked, or ignored. Spielberg makes this movie with a clear-eyed love for family and film. It’s perhaps his most restrained work, with great blocking and image-making, but little of the obvious virtuosic camera moves or soaring scores for which he’s known. But it’s still, as so many of his movies are, about people seeing, or realizing, something amazing, and puzzling over its implications.

Moviemaking may be artifice, but the resulting art is, at its best, beautiful, and true, and real. And personal. Scenes of Sammy showing his movies to crowds are electric with pleasures and tensions. Seeing the audience react to one of his filmic tricks, you can see satisfaction sharing space with the wheels turning about how to grow and evolve as a technician and artist. Late in the film, Sammy, having shown one of his movies, is startled to discover he’s accidentally reframed reality for a character—and the gap between the screen and their daily existence opens up a crisis about how they’ll never live up to that image. This is a mirror of a scene in the middle where a few characters see an uncomfortable truth in some raw footage, a family secret hidden in plain sight. The movies can hide as easily as they reveal. And in the alchemy that takes them from an idea, to a camera, to a process, to art—there it is, real and unreal and all its consequences.

This is a movie about the thrilling act of creation, and the feedback loop between artist and audience. And it’s about how transporting and fulfilling it can be to see that screen light up with images you never knew you needed. Few movies about movies get this as right, perhaps because it’s not simply an ode to the form, but about the feelings and talents that come out of life lived full of complicated situations and shifting relationships. In the end, the movie’s final shot reminds us that all of this is framed with intentionality, considered for its implications, and shifted to clearly communicate its ideas. Here’s a movie from a master filmmaker, making the argument that everything one experiences goes into one’s art, and the results, with enough hard work, talent, and luck, can be transcendent. He’s right.

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