Once upon a time, in a quiet suburb in New Jersey, Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) take their son Sammy to see his first movie. He’s apprehensive about the experience, so they do their best to explain it to him. For an engineer like Burt, movies are nothing more than a magic trick the projector plays on your brain. Mitzi, a classically trained pianist, says that movies are dreams that you remember. Their views on movies, while worlds apart, are both correct. Sammy didn’t realize it then, but he will spend the rest of his life reconciling the perspectives of his parents on his journey to becoming a Hollywood film director.
The movie in question, The Greatest Show On Earth, famously contains a scene of a horrific train derailment. That scene terrifies Sammy, to the point where he is compelled to film his Lionel train set crashing over and over. Mitzi believes that Sammy wants to control the fear he feels from the scene in the movie, and her psychoanalysis is probably not wrong. More importantly, Sammy understands the power that movies have, how they can make people afraid of something that isn’t real. After seeing one movie, he realizes that he wants to be the man behind the movie camera, the person who can make people feel any number of emotions from the images they watch on the movie screen.
From those humble beginnings, The Fabelmans charts Sammy’s journey as an aspiring director. The movie shows his humble beginnings, where he used his siblings and household items to stage scenes ranging from a bloody dentist office visit to rampaging mummies. After his family relocated to Arizona, he created a stagecoach movie with the help of his family and members of his Boy Scout troop. Finally, when the Fabelmans move again to California for Burt’s career, Sammy uses footage from the Senior Ditch Day to create a narrative that paints one of his anti semitic classmates in a radically heroic light. In the end, Sammy finally secures a job on the CBS lot and meets one of his heroes, John Ford (David Lynch), an experience that is both hilarious, instructive and concise.
Naturally, Sammy’s journey as a director isn’t all wine and roses. During a family camping trip, he captures moments between his mother and Burt’s friend Bennie (Seth Roban) that explain why his parents’ marriage has broken down. The experience disillusions Sammy to the point where he is ready to give up filmmaking, but receives encouragement from an unlikely source. Eventually Sammy’s parents do split up, creating the fractured family dynamic that has permeated Spielberg’s films for decades.
The Fabelmans is many things. First, the movie provides Spielberg’s fans with the opportunity to play spot-the-influence. (Now we finally know what the monkey in Raiders of the Lost Ark was all about!) This aspect of the movie is fun, but Spielberg’s story (or fable) is much more complex than that. It is his bildungsroman, a term you will be familiar with if you’ve ever had an advanced English literature course in high school or college. Fabelmans tells the story of Sammy’s formative years, showing how he learned the ins-and-outs of being a director, technically and conceptually. It also shows how he came to understand the complex nature of love and its impact on families, both positively and negatively. Fabelmans is also Spielberg’s humble admission that he forever indebted to his family for his career and his success. Finally, the movie encapsulates Spielberg’s feelings about his life as an artist. As his sympathetic Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) states, Sammy, like his mother, will be forever torn between his art and his family. Ultimately, artists like Sammy are happiest while chasing creative fulfillment, a pursuit that will leave him feeling like a gypsy wandering in the desert. Given how prolific and successful Spielberg has been, Uncle Boris couldn’t have been more prophetic. Fablemans is one of Spielberg’s most personal films, and also one of his best. If this were Spielberg’s last film, it would cap an incredible career. Thankfully, he’s not done yet. Highly Recommended.
One of the more curious takes I’ve seen on social media since The Fabelmans was released was how it provides clues for how to interpret Spielberg’s films. Some describe it as a veritable tabula rasa–if you know how to read it properly. I have to admit, the idea of people believing that Spielberg filled Fabelmans with Easter eggs is cute. And sure, a viewer can take certain things away from the movie and apply them to some of his films. The family breakdown in Close Encounters of the Third Kind that was preceded by Roy’s obsessive art projects? Sammy’s mom definitely was an artsy type whose freewheeling behavior led to the breakup of his family. The single mom raising a horde of kids on her own in E.T.? Sammy’s mom did raise his family by herself while his dad stayed in California for work. The monkey in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Sammy’s mom had a monkey. Those flying saucers in Close Encounters? Sammy and his family lived in Arizona, one of the top ten states for UFO sightings. The template for Professor Jones in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Maybe Spielberg based the character on his father. What about the shark in Jaws, or anything in 1941? Sorry, Spielberg offers no clues on those or many of his other movies.
While playing “spot the influence” is fun, it’s a very limited way of interpreting what Spielberg wants to tell us about himself with Fablemans. Actually, I would consider that level of analysis as borderline trivial. I would liken any of the above to knowing that the sound of Darth Vader’s breathing apparatus came from scuba equipment. It’s interesting to know and gives you a different perspective about Star Wars, but as far as interpreting the movie, it barely scratches the surface. Spielberg is saying many important things in Fabelmans, at the level he hopes we engage with it.
According to Spielberg, his career as a movie director can be tied back to one key moment in his childhood. In the movie, Sammy’s parents took him to see The Greatest Show on Earth, and he was both terrified by and fascinated with the train derailment scene. That night, he asks for a toy train set for Hanukkah and crashes shortly afterwards. Sammy then uses his dad’s 8mm camera to film a recreation of the train crash in the movie. His mother posits that he’s trying to gain control over the experience, which is true. It’s also true that he’s figuring out how the movie had such a powerful and lasting impact on him. Eventually Sammy deduces that through camera placement and the use of models, the director convinced the audience that they are seeing an actual train collision. Upon this realization, Sammy wants to be a movie director.
Movies love to employ this kind of storytelling, where a character’s motivation can be reduced down to a single critical moment from their childhood. For example, in Citizen Kane, Welles delayed the revelation of why Kane bought and hoarded everything until the very end, when we learn everything he did was all due to being separated from his beloved sled as a child. I won’t try to delve further into Kane here other than to say that Welles knew that the revelation of the sled was the least important thing we would learn about Kane over the course of the movie, and took impish delight in saving it for last.
As a student and master of cinema, Spielberg knows that audiences anticipate that biographical or autobiographical movies tend to simplify a person’s life to the point where the person they became is reduced to a single incident from their childhood. I’m not saying that seeing The Greatest Show on Earth wasn’t very important to Spielberg discovering that he wanted to be a director. However, I would think that there was more than one reason why Spielberg turned out the way he did. If I were to apply this same logic to a screenplay about my own life, I would probably have a scene when I was young where I watched Siskel and Ebert’s Sneak Previews on PBS and decided I wanted to write movie reviews from that point on. This is certainly true, as this blog attests. However, my interest in reviewing movies was also influenced by reading reviews in the paper, reading about movies in magazines and discussing movies with my father. That said, a scene of me being enraptured by Siskel and Ebert discussing a movie like Scanners plays well and drives home the central idea succinctly. Spielberg only has so much time to cover his life story, so in the interest of good storytelling, I suspect he boiled down what probably were multiple influences into something economical and cinematic.
I really enjoyed how Spielberg showed his evolution as a filmmaker. Being a director requires having a good eye and Spielberg apparently was born with it. But a director needs more than vision and knowing where to point the camera. Over time, Sammy learned the technical aspects of the filmmaking process: editing, set design, lighting, costumes and special effects. He didn’t have a crew, so he needed to figure all of that out on his own. Spielberg is telling us that he became a great filmmaker because he was forced to wear all of the hats necessary to make a movie.
Because he has little money to spend on anything other than film stock and equipment, Sammy achieves what he can by using items around the house: ketchup for blood, toilet paper for mummy bandages, candy corn for teeth. He uses his family and friends for his cast. His film scores are LP records. Since he can’t film with sound, his early films are basically silent movies. Sammy constructs narratives using basic movie constructs: editing and emotive acting. Before Spielberg ever set foot in film school, he had already graduated from his own apprenticeship program. Spielberg may have been born with a gift, but as he sees it, he got where he wanted to be due to hard work and dedication.
Through Sammy, Spielberg shows that becoming a director also required knowledge of the equipment used to capture the action and stitch it together. His growth as a filmmaker tracks with his use of increasingly complex cameras and editing machines. For his first movie, when he was still a child, he couldn’t do any editing at all. He then learns how to manually cut and glue scenes together. When he has access to money as a teenager, he can afford to rent a better camera and buy a Mansfield 8mm editing machine (for $100, or $1,00 in 2023 dollars). Like all directors, he needed to not only know how to use the equipment involved, but evolve with the technology.
Making a movie involves more than technical craftsmanship, however. Sammy also learns how to direct actors. Early on, he tricks his sisters into screaming on cue by scaring them with a skeleton. Later, when he makes his movie for his Boy Scout merit badge, we see how he has evolved as a director. He can now give basic direction to the actors in terms of hitting their marks (stand here, run over there) as well as to the stage hands and prop masters. Finally, when he makes his World War II movie, he’s able to take his leading man to the mindset required for the emotional scene.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Since Fabelmans ends before Sammy gets his first professional opportunity to direct, the movie never actually shows him suffering for his art. This would come later, when he cut his teeth directing episodes of shows like Columbo and Night Gallery. Instead, the movie explores the lessons he learned along the way.
The movie Sammy made from the family camping trip footage taught him that there are boundaries he shouldn’t cross as a director. Using what his performers give willingly is acceptable, while taking advantage of their vulnerabilities is not. His mother agreed to be viewed and filmed in her revealing nightgown. She did not, however, agree to have her private interactions with Bennie be put up for scrutiny. Perhaps because of his close and protective relationship with his mother, Sammy learned to always respect actors and not abuse his position of authority as a director.
For example, when he makes his WWII film, Sammy is able to coax the actor into the emotional state necessary without manipulation. I can’t imagine Spielberg filming an actor in the throes of a nervous breakdown like Coppola did to Sheen on Apocalypse Now, or forcing actors to do up to a hundred takes of a scene like Kubrick. Spielberg is too nice of a guy to ever abuse an actor. For him, they are like extended members of his family.
Sammy’s Ditch Day film teaches him that it doesn’t matter if actors are horrible people in real life, so long as they look good on camera. Even though Logan (Sam Rechner) hates Sammy, the camera loves him. Unlike Chad (Oakes Fegley), there is no way for Sammy to make Logan look bad on film. Trying to do so would be disingenuous, so instead he focuses on Logan’s natural handsomeness, because it better serves his art. Chad, however, is pathetic in real life, so Sammy plays up that aspect in his movie, turning him into a creepy comic foil to Logan’s shimmering Sun God.
After realizing that the camera loves Logan, Sammy decides to turn him into his movie’s hero. This is a surprising move, considering how badly Logan has treated him. However, as a student of movies, Sammy knows that people love hero narratives. By making Logan out to be a hero, it serves his purposes because it gives his movie a narrative thrust that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. Additionally, as a student of film, Sammy knows the powerful effect cinematic narratives can have on people. He sees the idealized representation of Logan as a hero as a way to reach Logan and perhaps change his feelings about him. By way of his movie, Sammy showed Logan a better version of himself and when confronted with it, Logan changed. Sammy has gone from making art that is a representation of life to making art that influences life.
Finally, through his various early films, Sammy came to realize that sometimes the best art involves being uncomfortable. Whether it’s filming his mother’s natural beauty, creating a scene of dead soldiers or using your enemy as your subject matter, the artist’s responsibility is first and foremost to his art. The worst art is created when the artist feels safe and comfortable. Over time, Sammy learned to trust in his vision, even when he didn’t like where it took him.
Through Sammy, Spielberg explains how both of his parents influenced him as a director. Before seeing his first movie, Burt and Mitzi assure him that he has nothing to be afraid of by explaining what the experience is like. For Burt, the engineer, movies are an illusion created by a mechanical device that convinces the brain that static images are moving. Mitzi, artistic and empathic, describes a movie as a beautiful dream that you never forget. Their viewpoints are as opposite as can be, but in combination they sum up what every great director has: mastery over the technical and the creative. With Fabelmans, Spielberg shows how he needed to grow in both aspects of filmmaking in order to become the director he wanted to be.
Like his father who enjoyed figuring out how physical things work, Sammy figures out how to make a movie. He learns how to operate a camera, use an editing machine, create effects and so on. Once Sammie is adept with the practical aspects of filmmaking down, he begins to indulge his creative side. He learns how to tell a story through editing, to create an emotional response through images, and finally how to create a narrative using his imagination.
With Fabelmans, Spielberg is emphatically telling us that he wasn’t born a great director. Instead, he makes the argument again and again that his parents were the main reason why he was successful, and not just the talent he was born with. Their love, support and different personalities made him the person that he is. Fabelmans is Spielberg’s acknowledgement of their influence on him and how critical their love and support was for his professional development. Considering that Spielberg is one of the greatest living filmmakers today, this is an incredibly humble admission to make.
To Spielberg’s credit, Fabelmans also shows how his childhood was far from perfect. Sammy had to insist on forging his own path despite his father’s dismissive attitude towards his career choice. Additionally, confronting his mother over her feelings for Bennie almost drove him to give up filmmaking for good. Life eventually turned around for Sammy, though. He eventually earned his father’s respect, and his mother was happier raising her family on her own. From Spielberg’s perspective, families are important because they teach you what life is about, both the good and the bad, before you’re an adult. Like an artist, he took the pain from his broken family and used it to influence his art, to great effect in E.T. and Close Encounters.
I’ve been watching Spielberg’s movies ever since I was a teenager. I saw E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark during their original theatrical releases. Almost every one of his films expresses a belief that when the present looks bleak, things will turn around for the better. For example, Brody will kill the shark that’s terrorizing the beach. E.T. will find his way home. The Nazi’s will be defeated. Humans will survive dinosaurs (Jurassic Park). Virtual reality will be freed from corporate interests (Ready Player One). The Pentagon Papers will be released (The Post). In other words, good will triumph over evil. (The pessimistic Munich is a rare outlier in Spielberg’s body of work.)
By using Fabelmans to tell the story of his formative years, Spielberg answers why his movies are so optimistic at heart. After years of hard work, Spielberg’s dream of becoming a movie director came true. To his credit, Spielberg never denies or tries to obscure the fact that his childhood was privileged. He had the love and support of his family every step of the way, and his middle-class upbringing provided him with the money to support his interests. However, Spielberg makes it clear that his life was not a Horatio Alger story. Instead, he repeatedly emphasizes that his success was a team effort from the beginning. Spielberg’s optimism originates from his experiences with his own family. Put simply, he believes that we can all do great things when the people closest to us support us.
A great example of Spielberg’s philosophy is E.T. Elliot was raised by his mother in a single-parent household, an experience that speaks directly to Spielberg’s life. Elliot’s mother loved him and did the best she could under the circumstances. Elliot also had siblings who he didn’t always get along with, but who supported him when he needed it. Instead of dwelling on what he doesn’t have (a father), he’s a good-natured kid because he appreciates what he does have (a loving family and friends). Because of their support, he’s able to help an alien return home. Elliot’s optimism, by way of the family, gave him the confidence to do something amazing.
Of all of Spielberg’s films, Close Encounters is probably the best example of Spielberg’s eternal optimism. Even though Roy’s family leaves him and Jillian’s son is abducted, they join together to seek out the meaning behind their visions. They also gain some unlikely allies along the way in the form of two scientists (played by Bob Balaban and François Truffaut) who are sympathetic to their cause. In the end, even though his family had abandoned him, Roy, with the help of his surrogate family, made it to the Devils Tower National Monument and was taken aboard an alien spacecraft.
Through his movies, Spielberg tells us again and again that your life doesn’t need to be perfect in order for you to accomplish great things. All you need to do is believe in yourself and those you love will help you when you need it.
The Lion Tamer
I loved the scenes in the movie with Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch). The way Hirsch played him reminded me of Quint in Jaws: a coarse, tough old man who loves talking about his near-death experiences with lethal predators. Boris also is a vehicle that Spielberg uses to communicate how he feels about his career as a director. When Boris tells Sammy that he loves making movies a little more than his family, it comes across as a personal confession from Spielberg. As a director, every film is an act of creation that fulfills him at a deeper level than any of his personal relationships. As soon as his movie is completed, he’s already thinking about the next movie he’ll make.
Through Boris, Spielberg reveals that he understands that living his life as an artist means that his work is never finished. Even after the incredible financial and critical success he’s had over the course of his career, he’s always looking forward to the next project. Like all artists, he wants to do better the next time, challenge himself in new ways and reap a different level of success than before. This speaks to Boris’ gypsy categorization. Creating art is intoxicating for Spielberg and he’ll never stop until he’s no longer physically able to do it. Making movies is his passion. Spielberg may love his family, but he’d be a happy man if he died while directing a scene.
While Spielberg admits to his preference for the gypsy life as a director, he doesn’t regret it. Like Uncle Boris, he understands that his life as an artist will always be at odds with his family. The key to happiness is to find a balance between the two, so that they don’t, as Boris puts it, tear him in two. I’m reminded of the Robert Downey Jr. film Chaplin, where his latest wife asks him if his previous wives divorced him because of his devotion to his movies. Chaplin says that she should ask them. Fortunately for Spielberg, it has never come to that.
The Director in Five Movies
The Great Train Crash – Sammy’s first movie. He uses a camera to objectively capture events as they happen. Because there is no narrative attached to the images, the result resembles an abstract piece of art.
Gunsmog – With help from his Boy Scout troop and his family, Sammy constructs a narrative using standard Western movie tropes. The story he tells is purely fiction and told without a point of view. The movie is harmless fun.
The Family Camping Trip – Sammy learns that his camera is an unblinking, all-seeing eye. While recording his family, he accidentally captures a secret hiding in plain sight. When he assembles and edits the footage for his family, he decides what to include and what to exclude. He creates a movie just for his mother with the exculpatory footage. Sammy applies his personal subjectivity to his art for the first time to create a different film for both of his intended audiences.
World War II – Sammy’s confidence as a director grows. He is able to direct complex action scenes that utilize many actors and special effects. He also shows a knack for coaching actors.
Ditch Day – Shows Sammy in complete control as a storyteller. Instead of objectively capturing what happened, he used camera placement and editing to construct narratives from the footage. While Sammy’s movie does show what happened that day, he repurposed the events to tell the stories he wanted to tell. As the director, he bends reality to his will in order to convey his own message to the audience.
Some of his constructed narratives are done purely for laughs, particularly when he edits images of seagulls with shots of ice cream dropped on sunbather’s faces. When it comes to his high school tormentors Logan and Chad, however, he creates character arcs for them that, while not fabrications, emphasize his opinions of them. He shows Logan as a handsome figure who can achieve greatness if sheds himself of Chad’s anti-Semitic influence.