Co-written by Tony Kushner, Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical account of his own childhood, The Fabelmans, is one of his very best films, and one of the great odes to cinema – perhaps the last of a certain kind of ode, an elegy for elegies of cinema, penned and envisaged by someone who grew up when film was still a genuine mass medium. It opens with Sammy Fabelman, played as a child by Mateo Francis-DiFord, and as a teenager by Gabrielle LaBelle, attending a screening of The Greatest Show on Earth, with his parents Burt and Mitzi, played by Paul Dano and Michelle Williams. In the primal scene of the film, and of Spielberg’s career, Sammy is so fascinated with the climactic train wreck scene that his parents give him a train set for Christmas, which he uses to restage the wreck in his basement, watching it over and over again until Mitzi gives him a primitive camera to film it. He then captures the wreck from every conceivable angle and, in the absence of a proper screening space, first watches it projected right onto his outstretched hands, in a mystical moment of auteurist self-discovery.
It’s the first step in a cinematic education, a kunstleroman that unfolds as a kind of westward expansion, as the family moves from New Jersey, to Phoenix, to Northern California, immersing Sammy ever deeper in the heroic horizons at the bedrock of American cinema, and culminating with a coda in which an ageing John Ford, played by David Lynch, condenses a lifetime of wisdom into a particular orientation towards these horizons. It’s quite incredible to see a director whose filmography is so focused on childhood embedded back in his own childhood, and this brings out one of Spielberg’s greatest gifts – namely, his capacity to be exquisitely sentimental without feeling maudlin, manipulative or saccharine. Most of The Fabelmans plays out through beautifully observed vignettes that are as quiet and soulful as Spielberg’s best ever visions of childhood. These vignettes gradually crystallise into a body of work, a catalogue of Spielberg’s first ever shorts, an entire hidden filmography that contains traces of his feature-length films, in the same way the mysticism of the Old Testament, such a continuous point of reference here, was retrospectively understood to anticipate the new dispensation in Christian thought. For Spielberg, cinema is this new dispensation, transmuting his Jewish upbringing into the decicate tissue of an entire artistic vision, fully-formed enough at times to reveal the entire ambit of his subsequent work, from Jaws to Saving Private Ryan.
As the title might suggest, Sammy’s experience of film is also inextricable from his parents, both of whom are somewhat film-adjacent in their predispositions and proclivities. His father, Burt, is a brilliant scientist, with a backdrop in computer tape, a patent on an “electronic library system” and a future in proto-digital media, meaning he appreciates the technicality of young Sammy’s visions, and is intrigued by their logistical ingenuity, even if he doesn’t consider film a viable or intellectual profession. By contrast, Samy’s mother, Mitzi, is a brilliant pianist who has been frustrated by the demands of family life, and whose very abstraction and absences ultimately provide Sammy with the lesson in autonomy that he needs to pursue his passion. Mitzi is present as much as she is absent, however, and immediately and intuitively understands both the artistic dimension of Sammy’s films, and the depth of his passion (and in some ways sees his revelatory potential long before he does). For that reason, Mitzi often feels like the protagonist of The Fabelmans, and provides Sammy with his artistic education, turning his body of work into a sustained tribute to her genius, vision and courage, and the film as a whole into a tribute to Williams’ performance, one of the best of her career.
The first and most fundamental lesson that Mitzi teaches Sammy is in the pleasure and power of mise-en-scene. While his toy train, and camera, permit Sammy to stage a spectacle, he doesn’t have any sense of the broader power of atmosphere and location until a tornado hits their Midwest town. Mitzi has never seen this kind of weather in New Jersey, so she sets out to chase the storm, or at least come as close as she can to its core. Bundling Sammy and her other children into the back of the car, while Burt watches on, powerless to intervene, she takes them through a downtown that has now grown strange – debris thrown in the sky, trolleys blowing across the street, sparks of stray electrical wires, and a palpable plasticity and granularity to the air itself that makes it feel we have penetrated to the very heart of cinematic language. It is the first of many sublime airborne spectacles that will preoccupy Spielberg’s classic era, and cause chaos in the midst of his Midwestern backdrops, presented here as his mother’s vision first and foremost, a gift she provided without him recognising it.
From this point on, Mitzi is Sammy’s biggest champion – often his only champion – producing a pervasive link between the gorgeous materiality of his early film production and the nuances and tics of her bodily presence. Early on, we cut from a highly tactile scene in which Sammy prepares his film stock to the Fabelmans sitting on a couch, joined by their “uncle” (actually Burt’s best friend and co-worker) Bennie Lowey, played by Seth Rogen, entranced by what appears to be some kind of cinematic spectacle. Instead, it is Mitzi, rehearsing a recital on the piano, where the tics of the film sprocket re-emerge as the click of her long fingernails on the keys. When the family teases her for this sound, she throws the music at them playfully, accidentally steps on it with her high heels, and forms a perfect circle that she gazes through, before Spielberg match cuts back to the lens of Sammy’s own camera. In this one beautiful scene, cinema, music, Sammy’s auteurism and Mitzi’s genius are fused into a radiant whole.
Mitzi’s next lesson for Sammy is in the primal relation between cinema and death. When the Fabelmans go away on a camping trip with Bennie, Mitzi drifts out of her tent one evening, and enters a trance-like reverie in front of the car headlights, lilting and swaying to and fro, her naked body almost visible beneath the translucency of her night gown. As she drifts away from Sammy’s father and family towards another future she might have had, Sammy both contains his fascination with her, and helps propel her towards this future, by filming the entire process, and so providing her with a second life. The entire scene is remarkably close in feeling to E.T., as mother and camera become a pair of otherworldly presences, or a single alien presence, that Sammy has to navigate and negotiate. Doing so brings his first real awareness of mortality, by way of another tableau that seems to reveal cinema to him. Shortly after, when Mitzi’s mother lies on her deathbed, Sammy’s gaze shifts to that of his grandmother, who opens her eyes at the exact moment that the pulse in her neck ceases. Between his grandmother’s sudden visibility, and the simultaneous visibility of her death to everyone but herself, Sammy discovers the power of cinema to provide us with an image that is both always alive and already dead, sculpted forever in time. Burt senses this too, and provides Sammy with a task to cheer his mother – namely, to compile the footage he took at the camping trip, culminating with her ethereal dance, to bring her back to life once again.
In that project, Sammy discovers another aspect of film, through and around his mother’s body – its almost mystical power to disclose new truths. As he is compiling the footage of the camping trip, he starts to notice his mother and Bennie together, but never as the focus or centrepiece of the shot. Instead, they find ways to commune around the margins and in the background, leading him to parse his own footage, and comb through apparently unremarkable sequences that upon closer inspection disclose a whole new sense of his mother’s life. Finally, he slows down the film so he can pinpoint the mercurial expressions of love that galvanise his mother’s face or animate her body language whenever she is in Bennie’s presence, discovering the entire character and history of their affair in the random serendipities of these shots, even or especially when they were focused elsewhere. In Christian Keathley’s terms, Spielberg somewhat traumatically encounters the pleasure of cinephilia for the first time here; the pleasure of those fleeting figments of space and time, mercurial material moments, that can transcend and exceed the subject matter of any film. When she watches the film, Mitzi somehow intuits Sammy’s process of parsing and perusing it too, turning to him and uttering his first and perhaps best ever review: “You really see me.”
All of these cinematic lessons crystallise when the Fabelmans move from Arizona to Northern California, where Sammy develops the core of his auteurist signature – the idea of cinema as a surrogate family hearth. Interestingly, this means that Spielberg’s vision both comes out of and occupies the same domestic space as television, at least as The Fabelmans presents it. While Burt is a talented scientist, he works on the side as a television technician, and the primal scene in which Sammy recreates the train wreck from The Greatest Show on Earth occurs in front of a bank of these television. Similarly, although the cut to Mitzi’s piano recital somewhat presents it as a quasi-cinematic spectacle, it’s just as much a televisual spectacle, and perhaps more so, since it takes place in the Fabelman living room, and is in fact a dress rehearsal for a live television rendition that Mitzi is performing that same night. As a frustrated pianist, television gigs are the best that Mitzi can get, but her compromise becomes the substrate for Spielberg’s vision, and also contours the deterioriation of her marriage too. Later on, we learn that whenever she tried to talk about her affair with Bennie, or the state of her relationship, Burt would simply deflect it back into a discussion of their television aerial. This need for the domestic warmth of television is exacerbated by the fact that the Fabelmans rarely seem to watch television. Sammy relinquishes his camera when it reveals Mitzi’s affair, but picks it up again, and starts filming, when their issues reach a breaking point in California.
If the move to Northern California crystallises Sammy’s auteurist vision, then it also embeds his camera in Jewish kinship and ritual. For while The Fabelmans may be named after a family, it is ultimately structured around a broader sense of Jewish community, driven by uncles and avuncular figures as much as the middle-class Christian nuclear norm. Back in Arizona, Mitzi has a dream of her uncle Boris Schildkraut, played by Judd Hirsch, who abruptly turns up the next day, and provides Sammy with a potted history of film. Boris lived through two critical transitions in the history of cinema – from circus and sideshow attractions to cinema as we know it, and from silent to sound cinema – both of which correspond to Sammy’s two projects in the film; namely, continuing to translate his train set into film language, and to perfect the use of sound. With that heritage behind him, Boris, like Mitzi, gives Sammy permission to devote as much time to his genius as to his family, reminding him that “you love family, but art is an addiction.” Likewise, Sammy’s “uncle” Bennie gives him a camera before he leaves for California, both as an unspoken apology for his affair with Mitzi, but also an injunction to take in what he has learned from that affair about cinema, and use it to explore his genius. This becomes their final meeting, outside a photo store, a Cinerama sign on the far horizon.
Despite this avuncular kinship, however, Sammy doesn’t fully commune with his Jewish background until the family move to the conservative wilds of Northern California, where he experiences being a visible minority for the first time. At first, this is somewhat oppressive, but his difference quickly seduces him, and becomes a critical part of his film practice, much as it seduces his first girlfriend, Monica Sherwood, played by Chloe East, who also provides him with another step up in his film career. Upon learning that he Jewish, Monica expresses a desire to convert him, which she does by sequestering him in her bedroom, for a circus of Christian pageantry that imperceptibly mutates into fetish, bringing them both to maximum arousal by the time they share a first kiss. Sammy thus discovers gentiles and women at the same time, and in the process discovers his own Jewish libido, which he translates back into film when Monica provides him with her father’s coveted 16mm camera for his last project before he heads off to Hollywood – Ditch Day 1964, a documentary about the end of school.
Not only does cinema become a surrogate hearth, but more specifically a way of imagining Jewish homeland in the reactionary miasma of Northern California. This need for his hearth only intensifies when the Fabelman marriage breaks down entirely, as we cut from Super 8 footage of Burt lifting Mitzi over the threshold of their new home, to the diegetic space of the film proper, where the two soberly tell the children that they are separating so that Mitzi can return to Bennie in the Midwest. In response, Sammy declares his love for cinema by declaring his love for Monica at the prom, which brings an abrupt end to their romance, and to her fascination with his exotic Jewish culture, but also allows him to finally claim that culture as his own, and commimgle it with the last stage in his film education, provided by Monica’s father’s film equipment, and encapsulated in Ditch Day 1964, the last of his shorts we see.
No surprise, then, that Ditch Day 1964 is also, in its own way, the most accomplished of Sammy’s films. On the surface, it’s the most lowbrow, reflecting, as it does, the beach films of the 60s, but its complexities gradually reveal themselves both during and after the screening. This is Sammy’s first comic film, his most sophisticated action film, and his biggest crowd-pleaser so far, providing him with a glimpse of the blockbuster as a new film entity, especially since so many of the beach vantage points echo and anticipate Jaws. Likewise, Ditch Day 1964 echoes the camping film in its capacity to bring out cinephilic textures and nuances of the day that nobody else saw, even or especially when they were directly involved. The difference is that Sammy is in charge of the process this time, helming the film at both a conscious and unconscious level, alive to all the serendipities that might burnish his frame.
Yet the most profound lesson of Ditch Day is that of the power of cinematic fantasy. Upon moving to California, Sammy is confronted with two bullies, who he now disposes of in two different ways. He presents the first bully, Chad Thomas, played by Oakes Fegley, in a variety of humiliating and abject poses throughout Ditch Day – the kinds of things people do when they are certain nobody is watching. However, his strategy for the second bully, Logan Hall, played by Sam Rechner, is considerably more sophisticated. Rather than cutting Logan down a peg, Sammy elevates him to a heroic position he can’t possibly occupy, presenting him in one adoring and reverential pose after another. In that way, he confronts Logan with his fantasy, reveals that is is a fantasy, and so deprives him of that fantasy, and takes control of it himself. Accordingly, Logan becomes subservient, as if realising that Sammy is now the arbiter of his fantasy, rather than a target he can use to articulate that fantasy to other people. None of this is done sadistically – in fact, Sammy is somewhat confused by Logan’s (initial) rage and reflects he shot the scene intuitively, without any specific agenda in mind. Figuratively, though, this is the moment when Sammy transmutes his cinematic heritage and his Jewish heritage into a capacity for fantasy-building that provides its own kind of homeland.
With all these cinematic discoveries now in place, The Fabelmans returns to Mitzi as the driving source of vision. She’s just as powerful in her absence, once she moves to the Midwest, much as her divorce is in itself a paradoxical moment of inspiration. Sure, it’s a somewhat selfish move (at least according to the mores of the time), and leaves an absence that Sammy has to fill with his own cinematic hearth, but her very willingness to follow her own path is also what gives him the strength to pursue that cinematic hearth as his own lost object. To his credit, Spielberg never presents her as a villain here, or even as all that compromised, so much as the prototype for the compulsion and artistry that led him to this exact moment in his career: “I’m doing this thing. I don’t know if it’s the right thing, but it’s a life-or-death thing, and everyone else will have to hang on for dear life.” In the pivotal scene in the film, the point where it reaches back to the wisdom of the Jewish scriptures, she tells him “You do what your heart says you have to. You don’t owe anyone your life, not even me.”
This empathy for Mitzi never demonises Burt either, making for a remarkably beautiful portrait of a family, and an affirmation of family as it endures in all its permutations, whether on screen, in real life, or at the cusp between the two: “We’re never not going to know each other Sammy.” “You and Mum don’t.” “Yes we do – we always will. We’ve gone too far in our story to say “The End.” In a kind of apotheosis of his entire body of work, Spielberg glimpses a quantum family here, an endlessly fractallating universe of Jewish kinships, at once old-fashioned and strikingly modern. And Spielberg’s own signature emerges from this paradox – his distinct mixture of traditional sentimentality and cutting-edge spectacle – producing a weird normality, or a normalised weirdness, that crystallises in the final scene. For all we see of Sammy’s time in Hollywood is his only meeting with John Ford, played here by David Lynch, who somehow simultaneously plays himself, delivering a cryptic aphorism that is as much Gordon Cole as John Wayne: “When the horizon’s at the bottom, it’s interesting. When the horizon’s at the top, it’s interesting. When the horizon’s in the middle, it’s boring.” And on that parable of steering just clear of the middle of the road, Sammy walks outside, looks at his feet, and then at the horizon, as the camera amateuristically-auteuristically corrects itself, and he walks off into the cinematic career whose bedrock is so sublimely encapsulated here.