“No one’s private life runs smoothly. That only happens in the movies, Alphonse. No traffic jams, no dead periods. Movies go along smoothly like trains in the night. And people like you and me are only happy in our work.”
That was how French director François Truffaut expressed his love for cinematography in his masterpiece Day for Night (La nuit américaine, 1973), one of the most extraordinary films ever about the world of cinema. These words of the French filmmaker – playing a director playing himself – like strong brushstrokes, bring into focus the protagonist of The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s latest film: the magic of cinema.
Spielberg’s autobiographical film sensitively sketches the American filmmaker’s childhood and adolescence, revealing his passion for cinematography and complicated family relationships. It is a hymn to the universe of the “seventh art,” to its ambivalent role of evasion-reconstruction of new worlds and deep understanding of reality.
With his customary skill as a storyteller, able to excite, amaze and surprise, Spielberg introduces us to the origin of his passion. In a personal and intimate film we discover the origins of the director we have come to know and love over half a century of cinema. More broadly, we discover why the cinematic universe is so important to the life of someone who, as Truffaut says, is destined to be happy in his filmmaking.
Cinema and life: what relationship?
The Fabelmans begins like a smooth trip on a night train, but a train that crashes spectacularly, with a scene taken from Cecil B. DeMille’s masterpiece The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Chosen for a movie night by the parents of little Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle, Spielberg’s alter ego), against all expectations, the film leaves an indelible impression. Like a spark, it triggers a passion (not just a hobby) that accompanies Sammy through the crucial moments of his childhood and adolescence, and will play a starring role.
The first part of the film is fast-paced. We follow the child Spielberg/Feldman returning home, shocked by his discovery of cinematography, eyes wide open, face to face with a fascination that will not let him sleep, an awe that attracts in the form of a question. Why did the scene of the spectacular collision between a car and a train so captivate him?
It is the beginning of a love story, its early “symptoms” strongly encouraged by his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a promising pianist who feels compelled to set aside her own musical ambitions to fulfill her family duties. It is she who accompanies her son in coming to terms with the emotions he has experienced, that open question sparked by the first viewing of DeMille’s film. “You do what your heart tells you to do,” she teaches Sammy, by word and example.
What struck the protagonist in the scene that so impressed him? Sammy, in a spasmodic quest to relive the wonder he experienced at the cinema, recreates that compelling moment with an electric train he received as a Christmas present. Gradually we see his fascination with the power of film to make reality more interesting, more spectacular. The child is confronted for the first time with a new vision – light years away from his everyday universe – a source of dreams and excitement.
Recreating the crash scene between the train and the car becomes an imperative he cannot escape. Humor – often present in Spielberg’s films in a subtle, barely noticeable way – plays a role in the director’s realization of his dream. To avoid destroying the toy train in recreating the accident many times over, his mother gives him a small camera. Why not film, without too much collateral damage? Thus was born Spielberg’s role in cinema, a maker of dreams and visions that nourish life and – without trespassing on the safe space that is cinema fiction – deliver moments of dizzying emotion. It is a contagious joy that spreads quickly among Sammy-Spielberg’s friends and family. Later in the film, the camera lingers on the mini-sets set up for the child’s first cinematic experiments. The filmmaker quickly becomes the creator of a micro-world of people interacting with each other in new and original ways.
Another central episode of the film depicts a family camping holiday, evoking the power of the film medium and its relationship with life and reality.
There are two focal moments in this narrative.
First, there is Sammy’s shot of an improvised night dance by his mother in the light of a fire and car headlights. It is striking in its lyricism. The teenage director captures the enchantment of the moment; the camera transfigures the mother, absorbed in a dance, bathed in light, portraying her as “outside of time and space.” It is a scene of great lyricism, a yearning for unexpected artistic vitality, an invitation by the director to silent contemplation. The camera becomes the means to capture the implied poetry of some unexpected moments of everyday beauty, to highlight their epiphanic role. For a moment we forget that the real director of the scene is the Spielberg of The Fabelmans; we forget Sammy’s torments: the familiar vicissitudes of the story, and, perhaps, everything that concerns us most closely. Once again, we have an ode to the magic of cinema and an invitation to look differently and see how much in our everyday lives escapes us.
However, this is a potential of cinema that is not without risk. If the camera becomes the magnifying glass with which to probe reality to catch glimpses of light, truth and beauty, it likewise brutally confronts us with what we would not want to see. This is what happens in the second central moment of the mountain vacation episode.
Sammy, urged on by his father, Burt (Paul Dano), concerned about his wife’s suffering following the death of her mother, begins editing the material to make a small film for Mitzi. Carefully handling the filmed material, he discovers a detail that is anything but negligible (for cinephiles, it echoes the celebrated scene in Antonioni’s Blow-Up). The shocking discovery has an explosive effect on Sammy and his parents, paving the way for new and disruptive tensions in the family.
Here is the other side of the coin: cinema not only reconstructs or transfigures reality, but also makes explicit its inherent beauty. Its revelatory power brings us face to face with the truth of personal experience, including what one does not want to or cannot see. The scene in which the teenage Sammy becomes aware of the extent of what the film shows with inescapable evidence is splendid. The camera rotates several times around him, frozen in front of the screen, and the editing relates, caught up in a melancholy dance, the astonished boy and his parents, far and near, in the next room. The emotional drama of the moment is emphasized by the melancholy musical accompaniment: it is the mother herself on the piano who plays the heartfelt notes.
Another pivotal episode focuses on the possibilities of filmmaking (and editing) and is the one in which Sammy produces a film of a school holiday at the beach. For one thing, the teenager-Spielberg shows that he has creatively mastered camera and editing to produce moments of comedy. By juxtaposing the sequence of a pigeon in the sky with that of some ice cream falling on some students’ faces, he achieves a hilarious comic effect. Again, by portraying a little bully as a kind of Titan, an idol of the crowds, he unexpectedly upsets him, exposing his weak points and vulnerability. While Spielberg highlights manipulative power vis-à-vis reality, he also, with great immediacy, offers a powerful reflection on art in general. Each work turns out to be larger than its producer, the impact on its audience goes beyond the artist’s intentions and opens up new horizons that appeal to the innermost truth of each person.
Finally, the key scene of the film is Sammy’s meeting with director John Ford. We experience a few minutes of great cinematic wisdom, a synthesis of Spielberg’s cinema in his latest film. Arriving at a studio, Sammy is invited to meet the greatest director who ever lived. Arriving at his office, waiting for the filmmaker whose identity he does not yet know, he excitedly runs his eyes over the playbills hanging in the secretary’s office. The others in the room, along with him, discover with amazement that it is John Ford. The protagonist-viewer identification is well played out, thanks to a subjective shot (the gaze scrolling over the playbills takes up the protagonist’s point of view), ending with a widening of the field that inserts Sammy himself into the frame.
The now unbearable wait is abruptly interrupted (as is the accompanying music) by the director entering the room, a role masterfully played by one of the greatest contemporary directors, David Lynch. The camera highlights his cheek, stained with traces of lipstick. Spielberg’s humor emerges in the zealous and serious secretary hurrying to remove compromising clues with a handkerchief. Then follows a dialogue in which the director in close-up fills Sammy, as well as the viewer, with expectation and curiosity.
John Ford invites the viewer to look at two pictures and delivers a great lesson in filmmaking (and photography). When the horizon line is at the top of the picture it is interesting, and also when it is at the bottom. When it is in the middle, it is somewhat less so. (To be precise, Lynch-Ford expresses himself in other terms). Brimming with enthusiasm, Sammy leaves the studio. The camera frames him in the center and, suddenly, shifts the horizon line down: the resulting, more expansive shot suggests a boy on his way to the sky. This is an invitation from the dreamer-Spielberg to shift the line of your horizons, take charge of your life (and dreams) and make a masterpiece of it.
‘The Fabelmans’ – Spielberg’s cinematic technique in a film
In The Fabelmans, Spielberg’s filmmaking shows us his love of cinema. In an intimate film he recounts his childhood and adolescence in the light of his boundless passion for cinema, the seventh art. The artist in him turns a personal work into a universal one, capable of awakening the dreamer in the viewer. If “movies are dreams you never forget,” Mitzi reminds Sammy, films about cinema make you dream twice.
In addition to the suggestions about cinematography evoked by the filmmaker in recounting Sammy’s adventures, the magic of cinema shines on the faces of viewers every time a film is on screen during The Fabelmans. How can a filmmaker describe the enchantment of cinema if not by showing the reactions of those who, gathered in front of the screen, allow themselves to be touched by the images and letting their emotions run free? A short film could be made by bringing together all the sequences from Spielberg’s latest work in which characters in a movie theater express surprise, disquiet, joy and amusement.
We are confronted with a simple, and effective field-counterpoint: shots of the projected films alternate with those of the characters in the cinema. The dynamic interaction of film and audience so effectively sketched speaks of an encounter, which solicits and captures attention, and in some cases transforms. The theme of the unexpected encounter with an alterity that changes the course of one’s life is a cherished Spielbergian theme; one need only think of some of his major successes such as Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
In the latter film the encounter is with the cinematograph itself, and the effect is no less disruptive. Equally significant in The Fabelmans is the fleeting encounter with his circus performer uncle: the eccentric old man, without concealing the difficulties in reconciling art and affection, urges him with volcanic vigor to cultivate his own artistic yearning.
But let us return to the theme of the explicit emotions of the characters in his film, an effective expedient for creating a strong bond with the viewer. This is an aspect that recalls a central dimension of Spielberg’s cinema: the search for emotional rather than intellectual involvement, the heightening of immediate impact rather than the opening of a horizon of reflection. The tendency to excessive sentimentality, the insistent reaching out to touch the viewer’s sensibility at the risk of oversimplifying reality or flattening it, is an often criticized weakness of the American director. It is a characteristic that makes his films simple and immediate, continuing the tradition of classic cinema, easily accessible to the general public, at the expense of thematic and stylistic originality. However, in his latest work, Spielberg skillfully orchestrates moments of strong emotional impact and more intimate sequences, slowing the pace to let the humanity of the characters involved and the complexity of relationships and situations surface. The parents themselves, despite their obvious limitations, are portrayed by the director in a benevolent, nonjudgmental way.
With this in mind, the second half of the film may be too slow for Spielberg’s loyal audience, accustomed to a more brisk pace. The narrative slows down to focus on Sammy’s painful experience following the family’s move to California. Between the impact of anti-Semitic bullying (Sammy’s family is of Jewish descent) and family difficulties, the situation seems to reach a dead-end.
On closer inspection, the slow pace of this second part, after the cracking beginning, once again highlights the filmmaker’s skill in storytelling. The slower pace not only provides an opportunity to closely follow the personal journey of teenager Sammy, but also prepares for the determined return of filmmaking in the young man’s life after a period of interrupted directing experiments. It will once again be the love of cinematography, resolutely reemerging, that will bring new rhythm, freshness and enchantment to Sammy’s life and to the film itself.
Finally, crucial to the film’s success is the skill of the actors involved, from the mother, Michelle Williams, lovingly portrayed in her vulnerability as a confused dreamer, to the father, Paul Dano, a brilliant and pragmatic engineer with a good heart, to the young Gabriel LaBelle. After all, the skill of the actors is an asset that Spielberg has always been able to rely on, thanks to his fame in Hollywood.
A question remains at the film’s end: after The Fabelmans, an intimate, emotional coming-of-age film and passionate hymn of love for cinema, what can we expect next from Spielberg? We can only speculate.