A Few Ways of Looking at The Fabelmans

illustration by Dani Manning

Review #1

There is a certain unavoidable truth to writing about movies, one simultaneously useful and pedantic to stay abreast of: the written word is so formally foreign to the cinematographic mode as to basically be incompatible.

This truth shouldn’t be the cause of despair. Plenty manifestations of ‘the incompatible’—the sweet-bitter of a Negroni, rigor in a debate of tastes, the sudden and unshakeable dancefloor want of “not my type”—are just the thing for growing a critical relationship to the cultural object, to the world. Difference becomes complementation, tension a way to build muscle. The heart is a muscle.

It’s tempting to invoke that old anonymous aphorism about dancing and architecture. Like most aphorisms, it doesn’t really fit. For instance, there isn’t much dance in architecture, or vice versa. Movies, on the other hand, contain the written language, sometimes spoken aloud by actors or displayed on intertitles, written in screenplays and shot lists. The written word is at the root of movies. And so, writing about movies is not a foolish endeavor. It’s just that the object between setup and critique is ‘movie.’

The written word is the medium of consciousness. It seeks to use the pen to express the inexpressible inexpressibly—writing words is its own meaning. ‘Movie’ is the medium of looking: “YOU really see ME.” We write movies with a pen that sees. It has, at its ballpoint, an eye. ‘Movie’ isn’t its own meaning but a system of them, necessarily metaphoric, magmatic. It moves. ‘Movie’ gets us close to the unconscious by rendering it not in a logical or poetic metric of words, but images—ones we’ve seen and remembered, ones we’ve made up and remembered anyway. It bonds an emotional or psychological state to these images, to our seeing them. Through their tenor and timbre (we call this cinematic language), ‘movie’ navigates the ways in which we not only see but desire or deny seeing.

Words just don’t do movies justice. Movies do living plenty, almost too much.

Here are some words I began writing somewhere between my first and second viewing of The Fabelmans. We’ll call it ‘Review #2.’

(source: The Fabelmans)

Review #2

It would have been reasonable, if ungenerous, to predict that Steven Spielberg’s memoir-movie about his childhood in and around moviemaking might manifest as something between victory lap and genius schmaltz, a master chef’s cheeseburger made with both gourmet ingredients and slathered white American. You need to eat to live. I begrudge no body sustenance, salt, sizzle. I begrudge no body the indulgence of memory, even if I sometimes do not need to see it.

There was plenty of memory in West Side Story (2021)—memory of love (the filmmaker’s for the musical), memory for feeling (the camera’s rediscovery of pure kinetic choreography), memory in story (we keep playing the same tragedies of borders and police, we keep eating our children). I loved West Side Story and saw it as a reminder of why we revive things in the first place: tensions emerge in repetitions, gems in unearthed wrecks, new approaches to walking old blocking. I wouldn’t have faulted Steven Spielberg, going to work every day only to hear the bone-ache of “Somewhere” in his own timing-out bones, for opting as its follow-up to tell a story committed to meaning-making, of both his mortality and art.

We don’t have many days. It would have been excusable, if not exactly transcendent, for the man with the movie camera to find in his movie-life that most sublime of the memoirist’s indulgences: catharsis. 

Instead, it’s indigestion: young Sammy Fabelman has just eaten Cecil B. DeMille. He is watching his first moving picture, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and the trainwreck set piece wallops his eyes with locomotive force. Later that night, the green shadows cast by the oscilloscope warbling his sleeping face (“The lights change how everything looks”), Sammy is choking on the dream. He wakes with a start. He knows what he wants.

Spielberg’s made more than a handful of metamorphic family films—as in, stories about communities forced to transform under enormous pressures. And while it’s tempting to lay The Fabelmans next to the horror-wonder of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) or the digital ghosts of A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), the closest analogue is the panic attack War of the Worlds (2005)—itself a film about cataclysm and divorce, about how the latter isn’t necessarily the former, just a thing that happens in a life story. It feels, however, like a trainwreck.

There’s a few sequences in War of the Worlds where characters channel-surf, a handy narrative dispensation tool that’s also an act of the edit, or choosing what to show and see. In the first of these sequences, the son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin), watches a local news program’s coverage of the power surges foreshadowing the invasion, the collision. He changes the channel to an unmistakably 2005 commercial (a dancing toy robot; artificial intelligence occurs twice—first as tragedy, then as farce) and then to a split-second shot of an unidentifiable man tossing in bed. The channel changes again, again gives us only a split-second of image before moving on, but it’s unmistakably DeMille’s train and car. Even incidentally or accidentally, this memory-moment hums in Spielberg’s subconscious: what is the source of bad sleep, of restlessness? The trainwreck. 

When Sammy watches the trainwreck, as when Steven Spielberg watched the trainwreck, the cinematographic image is irreversibly converted into memory. The Fabelmans is a film that attempts to convert the memory back to its root source. Inevitably, all the static baggage of the interim life is communicated in this transmission. 

(source: The Fabelmans)

We understand that Sammy Fabelman both is/isn’t Steven Spielberg, but Sammy Fabelman doesn’t. He merely has the impact of this image, the way in which he cannot deny it. Sammy Fabelman doesn’t ask for a camera for Hanukkah but a Lionel train set, models to crash, crashes to model. The camera, at this point in the child’s consciousness, is an incidental appendage. Right now, he just needs to re-see it, and for that he needs corporeal materials, not the ephemera of dreams.

The audience understands that Sammy’s fascination with the collision is Steven’s, to an extent. Sammy’s father, Burt, doesn’t understand the compulsion, scolds his son when Sammy stages a model collision of the train and a miniature car. It’s his mother, Mitzi, who cracks the code, who recognizes in her young son the simultaneously occurring apprehension to witness and desire to watch: “That’s why he needs to watch them crash. He’s trying to get some kind of…control over it.”

But even these narrative gestures have to be understood as psychoanalyzations beamed from the present-day Spielberg. Sammy doesn’t know of this. This isn’t Sammy’s memoir, this is his life. The former possesses reflection. The latter: instances, circumstances, ephemera. The gambit of filmmaking is that reflection itself can trade rational meaning-making for not-knowing, that contemplation can cede the distance of history for images that emerge directly out of memory. The gambit of the movie (The Fabelmans, certainly, perhaps all others) is that movies move like memory. And so, at his mother’s encouragement, Sammy makes a movie of the model train collision.

I was prompted, perhaps, to receive The Fabelmans generously. I anticipated that any sequences of the old filmmaker’s young avatar making films would be thrilling and moving, tributes to the many movies in Spielberg’s life that I have also found thrilling and moving. These sequences are, thankfully, all of this and more. But the wrinkle of The Fabelmans elevates it past the sublime into the turbulent. Sammy films the model train collision, sculpting a thrilling and moving slice of amateur home movie-making, betraying a prodigious eye and a mind to which images might be instinctual. Steven Spielberg is a good movie-maker. Let him sing a song to himself.

He does not. Sammy drags his mother into the closet to watch the film with him. And he watches her, as he will for the rest of the story. Spielberg’s memoir-slide depicts the way a life might make a movie-maker, but it’s about the abject terror of watching others watching your life. As we watch Sammy’s life, Sammy watches us. As we watch The Fabelmans, it watches us watching, placing us in the closet while the filmmaker peeks through the cracks. It has a kind of artificial intelligence, its episodic structure a series of automatic recalibrations, as if they emerge from one of the body’s systems. It is a treatise on Spielberg’s working life and a compulsion-confession more obtuse and Terminator-like than anything he’s made before. When Sammy promises that the narrative of The Fabelmans will remain unsaid “unless I make a movie about it,” we laugh. It’s pitched as a joke, the rememberer’s outline a little more visible through the sheer fabric. But this offhand line is an admission to the tractor-beam, consumptive side of art-making. I could kiss Steven Spielberg square on the mouth for including it. 

Spielberg and Kushner’s screenplay articulates Sammy’s tragic (as in, automatically occuring) unconscious best, I think, in a moment when the characters don’t speak, but watch:

Mitzi is unable to take her eyes off the film. The car, driven by Noah, is coming right at the lens of the camera. Another flash of light, then a side angle as the train smashes into the car. The car flips up and Noah goes flying! Another flash, then the camera itself is speeding towards the ark! Another flash, and the train is heading straight at the lens! It collides into the camera! Mitzi gasps! Sammy takes her arm and watches her closely, seeking her approval.

Only in the afterglow of the movie do they speak. Mitzi’s reaction is seemingly taken to heart: “More! More! More! More! More!” Sammy, as per the screenplay, grins hugely.

(source: The Fabelmans)

Spielberg confesses that he has not historically had a therapist. This, I think, we should take at face value: Hook is not the work of a man who fully understands the pathways between adult and child, of mother and mommy. The Fabelmans is Spielberg’s first attempt to consciously address his primacies. It is scritchy and anxious. It wibbles with weird currents of want that manifest most clearly in Mitzi’s Oedipal ember dance. This is a film that slyly introduces the director of Blue Velvet (1986) as “the greatest film director who ever lived,” and then spends its runtime subjecting the filmmaker’s mother avatar to a sequence of slatted closet doors and secret voyeurisms. The Fabelmans is like Mitzi’s dress in her campfire dance: translucent. You can almost see through it, but something remains in your way. You keep looking.

It’s by no means an erotic film, but it has its kinks. Sammy’s sisters tease him about being “too scared of girls’ boobies”; Spielberg teases himself by filming his mother avatar like a Hollywood Jocasta, especially following Sammy’s closet-bound screening of Mitzi and Bennie’s chemistry. There’s Sammy’s girlfriend, Monica, and her “shrine to guys” both Jesus and Jesus-adjacent: “Ask Him to come into you, ask him to enter you!” There’s Sammy’s antisemitic high school bully, Logan, filmed by his victim like a Riefenstahlian Übermensch, seething and pacing and practically rippling in front of the embarrassed and allured Sammy. “You made me look like this…this golden kind of THING!” he says. “Kisskisskiss!” the boys behind me in the theater say.

Despite its third-act detour into American Graffiti, the film isn’t a bildungsroman so much as it is the creation of a golem, an exercise in unconscious consciousness-rendering. Despite its good humor with inchy perversity, it is not a film about connection. It ultimately does not show the crash of this disconnect, machinating itself towards an optimistic new horizon of an ending. As Sammy Fabelman walks away from the movie into the Animaniacs backlot light at the end, we know the feedback loop has already started. He is walking into his future, which includes making this movie—an artist (and he is an artist) compelled to distort by looking, to decay by watching. The film he’ll make will be itself a distortion, a decaying refrain. We have to make a movie to make a life. Being semi-conscious of this fact does not necessarily feel good, but it does feel like living.

Somewhere after the post-movie dark of The Souvenir Part II (2021), I begin carrying around the phrase “You have to make a movie to make a life,” a no-sense totem I do not fully understand; sometimes it’s helpful to have the words first, finding the meaning to bond them to. I think I stand by it. There is still some value in not-knowing. We are our first cameras. We experiment in life and diarize in film, which is/isn’t analogous to memory. You have to make a movie to make a life.

It isn’t about knowing the meaning of your life, I don’t think. I don’t want movies that seek to discover that, and I certainly don’t want a life that subsumes itself to it. I suppose it could apply to actually making a movie, as in The Fabelmans, as in Armageddon Time (2022), but I think it’s more about what makes movies essential (or: essence-all)—the world through our eyes, or another’s, and the way we come together or apart. We are always watching, we are always being watched. Moviemaking makes ‘cinematic language’—perhaps Spielberg’s native tongue—a form of that fact. It bonds watching with all the repulsions and lusts and excretions and excitations that living culls. We don’t find ourselves in making movies, we are found by them. 

And so, when I say, “The written word is so formally foreign to the cinematographic mode as to basically be incompatible,” I don’t mean that we should not do it. Rather, it’s in the incompatibility—the tension of the translation between thought, word, and image—that something better than meaning emerges: turbulence. Most of my favorite words about movies exist in that turbulent mode. A lot of them are by Jonathan Rosenbaum, whose 1988 review of Midnight Run is to me what The Greatest Show on Earth is to Steven.

I have not seen Midnight Run. You don’t need to know a life to vibrate with a movie made by it; you don’t need to know a movie to glean possibilities from writing about it. “When I started reviewing for the [Chicago] Reader,” Rosenbaum writes in a 2022 parenthetical, “and discovered that I had to assign a rating, from one to four stars…my impatience with this requirement, which struck me as both arbitrary and absurd, is part of what yielded the following.” What follows is a numbered, sectioned piece, imagining four different approaches the film writer might take in entering into Midnight Run

This 2022 contextualization of that critical exercise is enough of an inspiration, enough of a genuine clarification of the younger critic’s point, that words can promise possibility as much as the image can, can be subject and suspect to interpretation and alchemy as much as any Brakhage or Deren. It’s the grace note that Rosenbaum ends his parenthetical with that brings his critical experiment into the bad (bold) and beautiful (anguishing) business of being alive: “Another part is the sometimes necessary pretense of knowledge by reviewers about matters they know little about.”

Review #3

Mitzi Fabelman is gossamer-dark, clicks piano keys, seeks life. She is Peter Pan’s shadow personified in Michelle Williams’s false smiles and bombed-out glances. She is the cloud above the horizon line, a perfect mirror of Burt, the engineer, the meaning-maker, the father who does not know best but knows most, and knows most of all not to laud or lord his knowing over others. He also does not know how to show what his knowing means, even and especially to his loved ones. Paul Dano walks like a theorem, precise and absorbent; as if the mystery of living means knowing anything is worthless, knowing everything might be a kind of gravitational rest, a locomotion that looks still, a free fall that does not—cannot—end.

(source: The Fabelmans)

These are the titular characters of Steven Spielberg’s 2022 timeslide, The Fabelmans. They will separate when Mitzi falls in love with Burt’s best friend, Bennie, who, as played by Seth Rogen, is the only adult in The Fabelmans who acts like the 21st century is possible. The fracture of the Fabelmans is not quick-loud like a highway slam but full of tragic and tractor-beam gravity: a train leaves a station long before its brakes falter. Their split does not pull their son in opposite directions so much as it reflects him in different tones. Sammy Fabelman (in youth, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, and in adolescence, Gabriel LaBelle) is a trainwreck his whole life. To cope and quiet the combustion, he finds solace in filming, first his Lionel trains, then his Scout troop, then his senior year classmates. Sammy’s chief interest in filmmaking is in the mitigation of the mystery-anxiety he finds in living, by utilizing—and perhaps using—the matter of his life as raw material. His coping mechanism turns from interest to obsession, his obsession to compulsion.

The Fabelmans introduces the Fabelmans twice. First, consciously, as the de-bodied gods standing over Sammy standing in line for The Greatest Show on Earth. As the shot goes on, they become human, enter into the frame, or rather are entered: the camera moves to accommodate them. They reveal their primacies in attempting to describe moving pictures to the nervous Sammy: Burt maintains that there’s nothing to fear at scientific process. Mitzi assures him that they’re only dreams, a blot of phantom desire. “That was basically how we wanted to establish their characters,” Spielberg says. “We wanted…Burt to define his right brain and for Mitzi to define her left brain. And just so it was very clear at the outset that this was a family of artists and scientists.” 

Sometimes you have to say the obvious; most often, it’s the utterance rather than the matter of the utterance that reveals. For an artist who works so much from instinct, Steven Spielberg seems to spend a lot of time thinking about how his images will be received. I don’t think he’d like to control the audience so much as block them in-scene, such that their response resonates with the great ache of the good lie (storytelling). He mirrors his desire in them, I think. The Fabelmans is itself an object and its mirror image, usually showing a conscious, crafted choice while simultaneously manifesting a sub- or unconscious utterance, too.

I think, maybe, the trick of the mirror is that it shows us by removing us. I don’t think movies render our living so much as they reflect it. I think I’d like to make a study of this one’s looking glasses:

1. In the basement dark, Sammy collides his Lionel trains for the very first time, is so taken aback that he’s taken aback. He crashes into a basement shelf, wakes his parents. We see them bolt upright in bed. Actually, we see their reflection bolt upright in bed—the camera initially rests on their bedroom mirror before swinging over to reveal them in their flesh. It pushes in on them. There is no science or art in their eyes, just the rattled jolt of having to leave the quiet of dreams for the mess of living again. They do not know what to do, least of all with this child who looks too hard. The camera lingers on this image.

2. The camera fixates on one of the busted television screens that litter the Fabelmans’ basement. In it (in its reflection), Sammy fixates on the Lionel locomotive. The camera pulls back, multiplying that same image on all the darkened TV screens. Mitzi steps into frame. “Sammy,” she says. The reflection of Sammy looks up, not entirely unlike David in A.I.—a mirror is a kind of artificial intelligence. “Sammy, we’re going to use Daddy’s camera to film it,” Mitzi says. “Then, after we get the film developed, you can watch it crash over and over ‘til it’s not so scary anymore.”

3. Art de-bodies its maker. Maybe there is a freedom in that. The next mirror in The Fabelmans is of the artist in over their head: Mitzi plays piano while her family and Bennie look on. She practices the Beethoven sonata she’s scheduled to play on television. Reflected in the black of the Steinway’s siding are Mitzi’s hands, glittering back the reflection of her art. No other part of her matters at this moment: all she needs are those hands—they make the connection, excerpted from the body, the life, the memory. 

(source: The Fabelmans)

This scene immediately follows Sammy editing his Western—we are invited to see the memory slide of The Fabelmans as a constant spillage. New scenes start while the same song plays: our impressions press on top of each other. The Bach and Beethoven and Kuhlau that Mitzi plays seeps right into John Williams’s minuet threnodies. The Fabelmans shows its seams, a piece of nearly unorganized pieces. It may uncouple at any moment.

And so, when we watch Mitzi rehearse her Beethoven for her family, we can’t help but feel what Sammy’s just said to himself a scene earlier, as if we’d looked at the sun too long and could still see its imprint corona through our closed eyes. “Fake,” says Sammy (to Mitzi). “Totally fake.”

4. Sammy scrutinizes his back in the full-length mirror, scrutinizes the ugly red hand welting up. Impossibly, it begins to move closer to him, collapsing in on him until his second self (his reflection) has melted away, leaving: Mitzi. It’s canny blocking, the consideration of the camera angle, the placement of the actor, the timing. But it creates magic purely cinematically, melting the anguished Sammy—harboring knowledge of his mother’s secret desire—into the very image of the mother whose very visage anguishes him.

5. Logan—not the chief instigator of Sammy’s high school bullying, but (and this is maybe uglier) its chief enabler—checks himself in one of prom’s hanging mirrors before Sammy’s Ditch Day 1969 is presented to the class. After the screening, Sammy sits crumpled in the pink effervescence of a high school hallway: he doesn’t know why he turned his antisemitic bully into a man-of-steel Olympian, letting the camera linger on lines of sinew and the precise flop of perfect blond hair. Logan stalks the linoleum. He doesn’t know why it feels like he’s just been hit by a train. Crucially, none of Spielberg, Kushner, or either of the actors involved in the scene seem to know what exactly they are saying, or should be saying. Is this scene the movie-maker first realizing the full gravity of star power? Confessing a deeply buried guilt about his ease with propagandistic, even fascistic images, so long as they serve his imagination? Is homoerotic subtext about to breach into the text itself? “Is something about to happen?” Sammy asks. There is no answer.

The Fabelmans is not a coming-of-age story. There is no answer. It is neither an instructive memoir nor a hinting inside-baseball story. It isn’t a parable or lesson or meditation. It reflects, renders in real time, its creator’s relationship to his memories. This relationship necessitates the adoption of a tendency that copes with runoff trauma via the creation of an art that dissociates. Creation becomes a thing you have to stand at least three feet away to do. This isn’t a despair for our living and our dying, nor is it a condemnation of seeing the world in images before you see it in echo. It’s just a yelp of what we actually do when we make a film.

6. Sammy is witnessing his parents’ divorce crash into the station: they have told their children, who pepper them with questions and outbursts. This is the moment The Fabelmans has pointed to as foundationally arresting, nearly epic in its formative energy. It’s the train crash. And, in sharing the fallout, Spielberg changes the image to a grainier, 16mm feel, wobbles the sound, then drops it out. As his family dissolves around him, Sammy imagines capturing the images on his camera, sees his imagined pan reflected in the hanging mirror of the living room. Sammy is capturing the image and missing it at the same time, isolated and isolating.

But it’s not just the imagined filmmaking, it’s also the reaction. Spielberg makes sure we see it. Sammy recognizes what he’s doing, and the reaction shot is a face full of terror, apprehension, wonder, repulsion. His compulsion is not unconscious. If it’s instinctual, it’s not unconsidered. He cannot help himself and he knows it. He looks down the hall of mirrors. He keeps looking. 

In its bravura node, its heart attack, Sammy nonchalantly edits the Fabelmans’ camping trip until it reveals his mother and Bennie’s chemistry, not their violation. The camera circles Sammy in full rotation as he circles the footage. For a moment, I thought the filmmaker would be forced to reveal himself: if the presence of a photographic image implies a looker on the other side, this circumnavigation would have been the moment when spectator’s gaze—moving to the other side—would have been able to see the filmmaker behind the lens, the looker behind the camera. He’s not there, of course; it’s an impossible shot, nearly magic. It’s Spielberg seeing as a virtuoso, not unlike his work just outside the gym-heart of West Side Story. But the upshot beyond the craft is that even filming filming doesn’t reveal, only complicates. We have to make a movie to live. We have to disappear to make a movie.

Review #4

(source: The Fabelmans)

Once, I was a baby movie-maker, a kid full of “movies are dreams!” I worked where they showed movies. They didn’t make movies but they did make memories. I got to watch it with my eyes, that place. Some of those people aren’t around anymore. And my Slurpee smile turns alkali these days, but I still think about the sound of the platters. I think maybe they have a language all their own. I don’t know: I think if words can write and if images can write, film platters can write too. When they hum, the air moves like memory.

The ur-image of The Fabelmans, the 34th feature directed by Steven Spielberg, is the baby movie-maker watching his first home-movie crash on the flesh of his palms and fingers instead of the projector wall. The movie’s already in the air, always is. All we have to do is reach out and touch to make it.