THE FABELMANS is Spielberg’s best work in 15 years

Introduction

Hello Kweens and Kings. This is a review for The Fabelmans. The Fabelmans is a coming-of-age drama film directed by Steven Spielberg. I enjoyed this movie. It’s probably my favorite Spielberg film in the past 15 years – going all the way back to Munich or War of the Worlds. I think it’s one of the most personal films Spielberg has made which makes sense since it is basically autobiographical.

There are two things I want to talk about with this movie. I want to talk about the strokes of filmic genius throughout this film, but I also want to talk about my main critique which is its incomplete storytelling.

Background

Steven Spielberg is the most famous and commercially successful director of all time. His legacy is bizarre to look at now because Spielberg has been both a hero and villain for the filmmaking artform at different points in his career. Spielberg was guaranteed a footnote in history after he made 1975’s Jaws which is now known as the first blockbuster film and is considered the beginning of the “New Hollywood” era. Prior to this era, film production was guided by studio heads and a battalion of producers but the New Hollywood era gave directors complete authorial license. This wasn’t done overnight, it was the result of French film theory through the 50s and 60s promoting the idea of “auteurs” – directors who have complete control over every aspect of a film. The idea was known but Spielberg – and later George Lucas – proved how this approach could create cultural powerhouses that were far more profitable than anything conceived under the studio system or the “star system” that took its place. If Spielberg ended his career in the 70s he’d go down in history as a beloved filmmaker who brought the artform back into the hands of artists.

However Spielberg’s success had staying power. The financial success of his films was noticed by the financiers of Hollywood and it fundamentally changed what type of movies directors were able to get funding for and as a result it changed how audiences engaged with the artform. Spielberg’s style is classical filmmaking – or what some people today consider “filmmaking.” All of his films are designed to completely immerse the audience and he goes to great lengths to never break the audience’s illusion of the film. The editing style follows a straight-forward cause and effect with no jump cuts or jarring montage sequences. The narrative has a clear beginning, middle, and end with no fantastical moments in between. In fact, I can’t even think of a single Spielberg film that has a dream sequence or flashback. He also heavily relies on non-diegetic soundtracks to heighten or exaggerate the emotion of each scene. When Spielberg started making films, his competency at classical filmmaking was novel. He was a clear master of the craft and his embrace of more dramatic camera angles made his work distinct from the films of the 60s and 70s before his time. This is the style we see in all the well-known blockbusters of past eras. ET, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park were Spielberg’s own contributions to the blockbuster genre but other blockbusters had an identical style and you can see that in films like Star Wars, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Rocky, Top Gun, etc. It was for this reason that Spielberg began to earn a reputation throughout the 90s as the man who influenced the death of artistry in filmmaking. Once Spielberg became popular you saw less and less of movies like The French Connection or Apocalypse Now. You can draw a throughline from the industry’s widespread adoption of Spielberg’s style to the modern-day creative devastation we experience with Marvel films and franchise-oriented filmmaking.

But the thing about Spielberg is his style isn’t the result of a cynical calculation of how to make a profitable product. He just likes making movies the way he does. He’s not one to have strong opinions on what other people do with their art. And if you need any further proof that Spielberg hasn’t benefited from the environment he indirectly contributed to, you need only look at his past few years of work. Spielberg worked for the first time with Disney on the 2016 film BFG. He was actually hand selected by Kathleen Kennedy, but that film ultimately became Spielberg’s first ever box office bomb. Spielberg is known for how easy he is to work with but even he couldn’t turn Disney’s worst decision-making into something salvageable. Spielberg had his second bomb last year when his remake of West Side Story was abandoned by studio heads in favor of a streaming-focused release which ultimately didn’t pan out. It’s almost like people prefer musicals in the theater rather than in their living room. Spielberg made these movies because they interested him, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say his films have lacked the heart they once had earlier in his career. This is why I was tepidly excited for The Fabelmans because it was a more personal story than anything Spielberg has made in more than a decade.

Spielberg first conceived of the story that would go on to become The Fabelmans back in 1999. The Fabelmans was written to be an intentional autobiographical story about Spielberg’s own upbringing and how he became a filmmaker as well as the influence his parents’ divorce had on his relationship with the artform. Spielberg has held the project for more than 20 years because he was concerned his parents – who are still alive – would take offense to his depiction of their marriage. Spielberg changed his mind over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic apparently due to “nagging” from his parents to make the film before they died. This project is undoubtedly the most personal film Spielberg has ever made which I think is what made it immune to the coldness evident in his late-career work.

Premise

The Fabelmans follows the story of Sammy Fabelman, a boy about the age of 6 when we begin this story, and we follow him to high school graduation as he explores his interest in filmmaking. Sammy’s relationship to film is torn between the views of his father – a practical man who encourages Sammy to make tangible things people can use, and his mother – the artist of the family who supports Sammy’s interest in film. Sammy’s relationship to his parents, their view on his work, and his own attachment to film changes as their family situation morphs and develops over multiple years.

Filmic Genius

The Fabelmans is the first time in a while I’ve felt a Spielberg film possessed true magic in its filmmaking. I got the sense Spielberg has been thinking about how he would tell this story his entire life and it shows through the perfection of his execution. The very first scene in The Fabelmans is Sammy outside the theater for what will become the first movie he’s ever seen and he’s getting reassured by his parents that he won’t be scared. His father – dressed in a dark-colored outfit – attempts to defuse Sammy’s nerves by explaining the technical intricacies of a projection theater. He explains it’s just a beam of light passed through celluloid and blah blah blah. Meanwhile his mother – dressed in a light-colored outfit – says to Sammy that movies are “magic” and there’s nothing to be scared about. This opening scene is perfect. You have the entire conflict of the film summarized in four lines and one shot. Sammy’s relationship to film is uncertain, his father is practically minded, his mother is artistically minded, and based on how they’re dressed, how they’re shot, and what they say it seems like these two views are incompatible with one another. All of this is accomplished without being overtly metaphorical or cheesy. It is a convincingly natural moment with this family of characters, but it conveys so much more because of how the scene is executed. It’s done so well you could miss it if you weren’t paying attention.

That’s the good and bad about Spielberg’s style. When you haven’t seen it in a while – or when you’re inundated with movies that try to do something similar and fail – then it is genuinely thrilling to watch his work. It feels like the movie is rewarding your attention. You quickly become captured by the experience and drawn into the world. Spielberg wants to keep you in that world and I was repeatedly impressed at how effectively the filmmaking dissolved away and all that was left was my experience with the movie.

Another example I had to stop and appreciate how effectively I forgot I was watching a movie is when Sammy discovers a secret about his parents’ relationship. This is discovered through him editing a home video of a camping trip they took together. The film establishes Sammy is in his room editing the footage while his family is in the living room. In the living room, his mother is practicing her piano while everyone else watches her performances. All of these elements work together in a way that is both straight-forward and natural but also a powerful montage. Sammy sees something in the footage, then we see how that footage is contrasted with what’s happening in the living room, and it’s all set to the soundtrack of his mother playing the piano. It’s a beautiful sequence that’s easy to miss and that’s the flipside of Spielberg’s style. Once you spend some time with that style, it becomes invisible. Spielberg’s authorial intent is to make himself invisible. He wants to keep you in the movie and have you forget you’re watching a projection or a screen. He wants the world to feel real. And for much of The Fabelmans, it works.

It works especially well in this film because this is the story of how Spielberg became a filmmaker and his passion for the artform is clear. If not through the events that happen in Sammy’s life, but through the artful and considered sequences he crafts so beautifully throughout the film. The Fabelmans is actually part of a trend of veteran filmmakers indulging in creating cinematic worlds about their own upbringing. The other two movies that come to mind are Once Upon a Time in Hollywood serving as Quentin Tarantino’s opportunity to write alternate history for his favorite time period in filmmaking, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza which is effectively what it was like to fuck around as a teenager in the late 70s or early 80s. All of these projects have been successful because the passion the filmmaker has for the content has been evident. Spielberg benefits from his closeness to the work, but especially so because a lot of his late career work has been so stale. The Fabelmans feels distinct. It feels passionate and considered. That makes each sequence a real joy to watch because it’s emotional when it wants to be emotional. It’s funny when it wants to be funny. And it’s heartfelt when it wants to be heartfelt, which is often all the time. Spielberg’s command of the filmic language to achieve this reliable success is what made him famous, but it’s also been – in my mind – the limiting factor to his work.

Shallow Emotion

The flipside of Spielberg’s invisible style is you begin to scrutinize the events of the story more intently and if every movie is made like a Spielberg movie you may find yourself wanting for more depth than what’s provided. That’s ultimately where I got to over the course of The Fabelmans. This movie had every reason to be Spielberg’s magnum opus, but ultimately it’s just another Spielberg movie and I think it’s because he hesitated to go any further than he has in the past.

Almost all of Spielberg’s marquee films feature characters who are the result of broken families. Kids with estranged parents, fathers with dead kids, divorced couples, and etc. Without ever knowing anything about Spielberg’s personal life you know from watching his films that he experienced a broken home in one way or another. This experience was so formative, he has managed to insert this theme in virtually every film he touches. It’s never been the central plot – it’s not like Spielberg made a movie like Marriage Story or Kramer v Kramer – but it’s always lingering in the background. He generally makes adventure movies that just-so-happen to have the background of family troubles. Perhaps the biggest exception to this rule is Catch Me if You Can where Spielberg adapted the story of a real-life con artist but inserted the fictional back story of the character beginning his spree of fraud out of a desire to escape the reality of his parents’ divorce. This was the closest Spielberg has gotten to telling a story about how divorce impacts a kid when they’re growing up. And it isn’t surprising that Catch Me If You Can began production six months after Spielberg officially tabled his work on The Fabelmans because it was too “too personal.” It seems whatever lingering thoughts he had about that project made its way into Catch Me If You Can – which by the way I consider Spielberg’s best film. All of this is to say that if there was ever a moment for Spielberg to graduate his background theme of divorce into the central point of a film it would be with The Fabelmans… but he doesn’t.

I mentioned the details of the opening scene for The Fabelmans earlier in this review and one of the reasons I liked that scene is because it frames the conflict of the story. The obvious difference between the worldviews of Sammy’s father and mother and how that might influence his relationship with film. For a lot of this film there is that dynamic of Sammy’s mother and father giving different advice, but ultimately that dynamic doesn’t go anywhere. At some point the father stops commenting on his son’s hobby, even though he later claims he was never supportive of it from the beginning. Sammy’s mother similarly fades into the background of his life and becomes this oddly eccentric crazy person who’s used for comedic relief sometimes. The film begins from this strong position of being about a love for filmmaking and the impact of a parental divorce, but it becomes a very general coming-of-age story with some window dressing on divorce. And sure, it’s a decent coming-of-age story. I liked the scene with the crazy religious lady and the high school bullies and whatever else – it’s all fine, but it’s not the personal story I thought Spielberg was uniquely equipped to tell. It didn’t feel any deeper than Richard Linklater inserting storylines about divorce and photography in Boyhood which is weird since Spielberg has been thinking about this story his entire life.

And maybe the mundanity of the experience is true to what happens in real life. Maybe you had a passion, but then you sidelined it for a few years until you decided to pick it up again for no real reason. Or maybe you spent many years feeling like your parents were going to get divorced and then they just did and life moved on with no real sense of import to that event. I can believe life is that mundane. And there’s something to be said about how I’m not engaging with the movie on what it is but instead on what I hoped it would be – which is something I criticize other people for doing all the time. So while I thought the film’s shallow exploration of divorce was a disappointment for me personally, I can’t hold it against the film.

Closing thoughts

The Fabelmans is another compelling story from the most competent director who’s ever lived. I’d give this movie a 4 out of 5. It is the definition of above average. I loved a lot of specific scenes and sequences in this movie. I thought they were some of the best examples of Spielberg’s classical filmmaking style and that’s why I enjoyed this film so much. At the same time, I thought the story set up that this movie would be about the relationship someone builds with filmmaking while experiencing a failed family unit, but it didn’t do that to the degree I hoped. This may sound strange, but I feel like Nocturnal Animals did a better job explaining the relationship between art and failed relationships. Maybe that’s a crazy tangent. The Fabelmans is my favorite movie from Spielberg in the past 15 years. I wonder how many movies the man has left in him or if he’ll continue making movies that are relevant to me personally. All of that contributed to my fondness for this film. If you have a similar relationship to Spielberg as I described in this video, I’d recommend you check it out.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: