Monday 30 January 2023

How we used to live: "The Fabelmans"

By his own admission, Steven Spielberg has long unpacked elements of biography into his movies: the chaotic but broadly genial West Coast childhood (
E.T., Close Encounters), the Jewish lineage (Schindler's List, Munich), the abiding love of popular culture (Ready Player One, West Side Story). Advance word on The Fabelmans has been that it marks a final unburdening - the most personal film yet by the most commercially successful filmmaker of all time. This claim turns out to have the ring of truth about it, but it's ironic that Spielberg should have undertaken his most personal work at a point where his commercial track record has, for the first time in a fifty-year career, started to look a shade wobbly. Parsing the past decade's receipts, more than one industry observer has been led to wonder whether Spielberg has lost touch with the audience who, once upon a time, helped crown him box-office king. The version of The Fabelmans now playing in UK cinemas is preceded by a short introduction from Spielberg himself, thanking us for leaving our homes and coming to see his little movie - an extraordinary state of affairs, given that this is the man behind Jaws, E.T. and Jurassic Park. (By contrast, James Cameron, the filmmaker who seems most likely to inherit Spielberg's crown, didn't appear to care if you liked Avatar 2, just that you bought a ticket for it.) The history books will eventually show that, among its many other legacies, the novel coronavirus humbled the cinema, obliging even Steven Spielberg to put himself before a camera and sing for his supper anew. But this prologue isn't just about advocating for the primacy of the theatrical experience; it's advocating for a particular type of cinema, one that allows space for creatives whose fortunes are bound up with the American studio system to broach quieter, more personal, more human stories, that isn't just spectacle, brand consolidation or an extension of pre-existing IP. There's another irony here: Spielberg only gets to do this - to insert himself in your scheduled multiplex programming - because he made more money through spectacle than anybody else, and in so doing became a brand himself.

The Fabelmans, then, finds both Hollywood and its foremost representative wrestling with themselves, in ways that prove largely absorbing and occasionally fascinating. Part of its project is to evoke a certain way of life: as its title and 151-minute running time imply, it's far more of a sprawling family saga than, say, James Gray's similar but essentially anecdotal Armageddon Time. What it evokes, though, is the stifling conservatism of the post-War years. Heading into his first movie - 1952's boxy The Greatest Show on Earth, with its all-star cast and enlivening train crash - boy scout-in-waiting Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan) is given two definitions of how the cinema casts its spell. Engineer dad Burt (Paul Dano, with his now perfectly round face) is all scientific rationalism, citing lights and lenses and frames per second. The kid's mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), an aspirant concert pianist to whom Sammy is already painfully close, instead compares the medium's effects to the way we dream. From the off, Spielberg and his regular writing collaborator Tony Kushner (the Angels in America playwright who wrote Munich, Lincoln and West Side Story) clock that everyone on screen is playing the deeply gendered roles society expected of them in 1952. (If we take Sammy as the half-pint, the Fabelmans even have 2.4 children.) Having discovered the movies, with their plots, tropes and formulas, Sammy is about to get a lesson in human relations, understood here as far trickier to get a read on. Mum, it transpires, is straying from the family home with her upright husband's more spontaneous best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen, weaponising that Fozzie Bear laugh); Sammy accidentally catches evidence of this betrayal on camera, graduating from filming model trainwrecks in his parents' basement to documenting the derailment of a once-happy marriage. Everyone's running on such straight and narrow lines you spot how easily things could go awry. Our next, sliding stop: Unhappiness Parkway.

There's a jolting admission at the heart of The Fabelmans, and it's this: that Spielberg first shot (at least a version of) this story six decades ago, but can only now bring himself to share it. That confessional quality is the new film's strength. Whenever The Fabelmans threatens to become too cosy or middle-of-the-road, it digs just a little deeper, and invariably pulls out something that goes against the genteel grain. Yes, we get reassuring reminders of Spielberg the virtuosic imagemaker, the Spielberg we've known all our lives: when Mitzi snatches up her brood to chase a tornado - moving in sympathy with a fellow hurricane - her station wagon is brought to a careening halt by an out-of-nowhere snake of supermarket trollies, loosed into the wild. (And we realise the real world has the potential for wrecks, pile-ups, smash-ups.) Mostly, though, Spielberg can here be observed undertaking the hard work of revisiting past, ugly behaviour, roughly as painful as that Gray depicted in Armageddon Time - an acknowledgement that the people closest to him in his formative years didn't always conduct themselves perfectly, and that - furthermore - neither did his teenage self. There's still fondness and joy in the mix: watch how the gentrified Fabelmans are thrown into renewed disarray with the arrival of the old-country Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch, lending his wonderfully abrasive rasp to the juiciest of awards-season cameos), a sequence in which you feel the teenage Spielberg's fascination with this distant-bordering-on-extraterrestrial relative meshing with the adult Spielberg's fascination with Hirsch as a screen presence. But it's cut with vividly remembered shock and pain. Shortly after discovering the affair, Sammy tells Mitzi he wishes she weren't his mother and turns an unclothed back to her; we feel her clumsily misdirected slap - square between Sammy's shoulder blades - as surely as Spielberg himself must have done at the time. Few moments in recent American film have struck me as more therapeutic in their methods: show me exactly where and exactly how much it hurts.

Dismiss Spielberg as a sap or sentimentalist if you like, but such scenes only work as drama with a substantial investment in their human elements, a fundamental curiosity about the people positioned front and centre. At some point, the cinema became more than just a train set to this filmmaker: it's why Jurassic Park operates some level above and beyond its largely mechanical sequels and reboots. Yet for the first time, towards the middle of The Fabelmans, Spielberg seems to be working towards a full recognition of how complex human beings, human lives, human emotions can be. (His partnership with Kushner looks to have been key to this process.) I suppose once they've filmed and confronted some small part of the Holocaust, a filmmaker might feel they've made all the statement they need to with regard to the darker side of human nature. But there are shades of grey, lesser indiscretions and misdemeanours, points where even a nice, normal middle-class family takes a turn for the regrettable. The Fabelmans is not without its own flaws: Williams gives a very odd performance, varying her level of spaciness from scene to scene, and all we can do looking on is defer to her director's judgement that this is true to the spirit of his mother. And I have reservations about the film's shape: the high drama of the affair dissipates after the halfway mark, leaving Sammy to endure high-school anti-Semitism, the ministrations of a thirsty Christian girl, the arrival of a monkey in the Fabelmans' household, and a fun cameo from one of Spielberg's peers. All of this may well be true, but the combined effect of the last hour is to throw a consoling arm (and a few John Williams tinkles) around us after the strongest and most affecting material. We know this story turns out all right - that Sammy Fabelman turns into Steven Spielberg - but something of its maker's crowdpleasing muscle memory takes over. We're left with a rare Spielberg movie that allows itself to have flaws, to show weakness - charmingly so, in its closing seconds - but also a very good movie stuck within a very sweet movie, as if Spielberg were still reconciling the two sides of his personality, the instincts that led him to make Schindler's List and Jurassic Park in the same twelve months. Still, for an hour or so, for a few miles of bad road in the middle of memory lane, we get to watch Steven Spielberg - the great pop artist of our age, the Peter Pan of the modern multiplex - growing up before our eyes, on screen as behind the camera. If we can't rally an audience to buy tickets for that, we might as well pack up and stay home for good.

The Fabelmans is now playing in cinemas nationwide.