Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Fabelmans – Spielberg opens up about how his family shaped his art

Steven Spielberg knows how to tell a story. You can sit back in your cinema seat, relax, and enjoy The Fabelmans. It’s a tale about endings, about manipulation, and about the tug of war between art and the incredibly rational world of engineering.

The year is 1952 and Sammy Fableman is the eldest child in a Jewish family living in New Jersey. His Mum was a concert pianist, his Dad is an electronics whizz who’s at the forefront of what has yet to become the business computer industry.

Sammy’s first trip to the cinema stirs up his imagination. Back in the family home he recreates a stunt he saw on screen using a trainset, Noah’s ark and his father’s cinecamera. (My own first time at the cinema involved queuing for three hours in the snow outside the ABC picture house in Belfast to see Spielberg’s ET. Thankfully that didn’t inspire in me a career searching for extra terrestrial life!)

You can’t help but immediately appreciate the artistry of the young child and his seemingly innate knowledge of how to sequence shots. Throughout the film, we see how the budding cinematographer/director learns to manipulate who and what he has to hand to create on-screen magic. While he’s socially awkward, boy can Sammy communicate through the medium of film.

And you can see the penny drop as young Sammy realises how his direction and editing can evoke emotion and tell stories and create effects that he has fabricated. A soldier can be caught up in battle one minute and become frail and battle-scarred the next. A school bully can be turned into a popular hero … whether he likes it or not! And all of this through silent films with a simple musical accompaniment. Though all picture no sound could also describe young Sammy’s modus operandi.

Spielberg drops clues about the plot like a toddler throwing food out of their high-chair, so everyone in the audience knows what’s happening with “Uncle” Bennie (Seth Rogan) long before Sammy’s camera captures the evidence. Well-fringed and versatile Michelle Williams plays impetuous mother Mitzi: the revelational scene in Sammy’s bedroom/closet is an emotional highpoint of the movie. Paul Dano captures the awkwardness of a fun-sponge geekish father who values his work and carries on home life as if he’s not deeply conscious that everything is not quite right. The sibling dynamic is incredibly fond – and frank at times – with great performances from Julia Butters, Keeley Karsten and Sophia Kopera as Sammy’s younger sisters.

The subtext of The Fablemans is writ so very large – it’s a very autobiographical representation of the director’s upbringing – that some of the other characters and subplots distract. The arrival of Judd Hirsch as granduncle Boris is humorous but laboured. Anti-Semitism is awkwardly paired with hilarious evangelical fervour as bullying and romance collide at high school.

John Williams’ soundtrack is gentle and effective, dominated by piano playing that leans into Mitzi’s former passion. By the end of the film, Spielberg is more or less speaking lines directly to the audience with a knowing “unless I make a movie about it … which I’m never ever going to do” and a horizon-shifting camera tilt. And we don’t mind. We’ve spent twenty years over 150 minutes in young Spielberg’s, I mean Sammy’s company.

Did I walk out of the cinema with (to quote from an early moment in The Fabelmans) “the biggest, sloppiest smile on my face”? Not quite. But I was incredibly satisfied that Spielberg (along with co-writer and co-producer Tony Kushner) had created a story that could both respect his parents and siblings, but also unpick what was going on in the family home in a way that never papered over the tensions and difficulties.

The Fabelmans is available in most local cinemas, the third in a recent spate of films that celebrate cinema (Babylon and Empire of Light).

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