ARGUABLY Steven Spielberg doesn’t need to do an autobiographical film, he’s been doing them all his life — Sugarland Express features a mother as a driven force of nature, Jaws includes the subplot of ship’s captain bullying a nerdy scientist, Close Encounters of the Third Kind follows a man so obsessed with his quest that he abandons his family, ET described a lonely child with his head crammed full of dreams, and, as it turns out, Duel and 1941 (knew it!) allude to one of his most formative traumas — the massive car-and-train collision in The Greatest Show on Earth, which he saw as a child. That said, Spielberg at this point in his career insists on an autobiographical feature — a direct one this time — hence The Fabelmans.
Spielberg’s memoirs turn out to be a straightforward affair: Sammy Fableman (Mateo Zoryan as a child, Gabrielle LaBelle as adolescent and young man) tags along with his chaotic family as they move from Haddon Township, New Jersey to Phoenix, Arizona to Saratoga, California. Sammy (it’s suggested) was terrified by the first film he ever saw (the aforementioned Greatest Show) and by way of therapy records his own staged Lionel Train collision on 8 mm and projects it onto his bedroom closet; with this scene Spielberg points out one power of movies — capturing moments to replay again and again, in total safety and under our complete control.
Filmmaking becomes a ruling passion in the boy’s childhood: Sammy’s three sisters are lassoed into acting in a stagecoach holdup; the household’s entire supply of toilet paper is requisitioned to make mummy wrappings. The results (both the filming and screening of it) are delightful in that toy train-set manner, children using their inventiveness to improvise a story — holes punched into film strips suggest gunshots (an audience of classmates and neighbors gasping in appreciation), buried sticks kicking up sand in imitation of ricochets, youths slap blood-filled condoms on their chests to simulate bullet wounds — all captured by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski in the slightly burnished glow of fond recollection. Which is Spielberg’s way of showing us another power of movies — their making is a most elaborate form of play, capable of inspiring the players to give their all.
Spielberg has been directing movies for upwards of 50 years (officially; unofficially he’s been directing since he was six), so it makes sense that his grasp of dramatic storytelling has improved. His scenes of family meals and domestic squabbles here have the off-the-cuff quality of improvisation, with generous helpings of overlapping dialogue (his movies have had had plenty from Sugarland Express to ET, but for some reason the practice has tapered off; glad to see it back).
Easily the film’s finest scene is when Sammy tries to tell his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) a secret so big and corrosive and difficult he can’t tell her in words, so he sits her down in his preferred screening venue (bedroom closet), and sets up his projector. Spielberg has the camera at chin level pointed to Mitzi’s upturned face when the projector clatters into life behind her.
The shot is classic Spielberg, one he’s repeated a bit too often in his career, with the actor (police chief, scientist, lonely boy) gazing in slack-jawed wonder at an often-fantastic creature (giant shark, mother ship, creature with luminescent chest); here mother watches her son’s assembled footage and the moment has the force of revelation, the subtly monumentalized feel of the image for once completely and overwhelmingly earned. Here Spielberg shows yet a third power of movies: to observe and expose and, on occasion, cause tectonic fractures in our lives.
Can’t resist comparing this to the other autobiographical film from a director of Ukranian-Jewish ethnicity: James Gray’s Armageddon Time is set not in the 1950s and ’60s but in the ’80s. Both feature a stylized palette representing their respective filmmaker’s attitudes to their respective periods: Spielberg the washed-out colors of Arizona (and later, California) sunlight, Gray the lightly honeyed glow of Queens, New York in the ’80s. Spielberg cuts to the frenetic pace of off-the-cuff filmmaking and evokes the intensity of self-confession; Gray assumes a steadier tread, gazing at his family and himself with a cooler contemplative eye.
Gray’s onscreen equivalent Paul Graff (Michael Banks Repeta) has an angelic face framed with a halo of red curls and right off we see a difference: where Sammy is consistently sweet if needy in his youth, Paul can be a loud rebellious brat, his sense of entitlement more than a little overwhelming, his adventures a half-step short of being a juvenile delinquent’s (where Sammy pours all his time and effort into fashioning amateur movies, Paul has enough leftover energy to raise hell in school and the outside world). Sammy’s family has issues — what family doesn’t? — but the hostility comes mostly from the outside, in the form of anti-Semitic classmates who oppress and even hit the youth; Gray’s Paul is beaten not by some school bully but by his father.
The outside world intrudes on Sammy in the form of abusive anti-Semitism; Paul encounters this too but subtler, in the form of the condescension shown him by white upper-class students in the private school he eventually enters. The public school he just left had issues but to its credit Jews were not singled out — too many ethnicities jostled each other for room — and it’s in public school where Paul meets Johnny (Jaylin Webb), an older student held back a year. They would bond over astronaut badges and the space program, and through Johnny Paul would be taught a variety of lessons, not necessarily the positive kind — the inequities of race and social class, the Faustian bargain middle-class Jewish families had to make with the larger society, the frustration and sense of impotence a high school student can feel in the face of it all.
The voice of an older generation speaks to Sammy in the form of his Uncle Boris, with Judd Hirsch (as he did decades ago in Ordinary People) representing Jewish warmth and wisdom; Gray has Anthony Hopkins dispensing advice to Paul as Grandpa Aaron, encouraging the boy to speak up when encountering racism. Uncle Boris speaks with the force of prophecy (he foresees the birth and agony of Steven Spielberg) but Grandpa Aaron’s advice comes across with more ambivalence: Paul is already in trouble for speaking out, will get into his worst trouble yet out of friendship with Johnny. Is speaking up really the best thing for him at this point in time? Grandpa Aaron pays for Paul’s tuition at his elite school — should the old man really be talking about the marginalized and social inequality? Gray raises more questions than answers, more unease than comfort — compare Sammy’s cheerfully Chaplinesque saunter into the sunset (yes, tomorrow is another day) — with Paul’s sombre walk out of the school gym into the dark.
How do the two autobiographies compare in a fairly crowded field? Folks seem to forget that Richard Linklater came out with his own childhood story (Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood) — aside from the obvious stylization of the rotoscope-style animation (actually veering from rotoscoped into outright abstraction) Linklater doesn’t appear to have much of an overt agenda beyond capturing the look and feel of his time and rewriting a largely uneventful childhood to include a little adventure, but in some ways that makes his film more evocative (you’re free to read whatever you like into its stylized surface), not to mention more creative (an autobiographical fantasy?). A few years ago, there was Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which was beautiful in its persistently austere way but felt too passive for my tastes.
Not an especially big fan of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander but its scope and at times frosty, at times candlelit-warm look marks it as a major example; much prefer Federico Fellini’s earthier Amarcord, and (leaving out childhood) I Vitelloni and the narcissistic, impossibly beautiful 8 1/2 (like Spielberg, you might say much of Fellini’s work is autobiographical). Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is hugely influential, and you see Gray paying homage at one point in his picture.
If I had to pick favorites, I’d pick two: Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct and Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. Vigo’s draws directly from his childhood at a boarding school but can hardly be called a docu-drama: radical and surreal and dreamlike, it assumes a heedlessly, even heroically defiant, attitude and raises the banner of anarchism whatever the consequences. The Magnificent Ambersons may have been an adaptation of the Booth Tarkington novel but Welles identified with it so intensely he adapted it twice — once on radio and once, magnificently, on film — and claims the character of Eugene Morgan was based on his own father Richard Welles, who was a friend of Tarkington’s.
In terms of witheringly confessional self-exposure, few onscreen portraits match that of George Minafer, the monster brat in Ambersons who becomes an equally monstrous young man, of which everyone has at one point or the other wished his “comeuppance” — that quaint term for karmic justice feeling inadequate (hence beautifully appropriate) to describe the scene of unblinking heartbreak awaiting him in his future. Spielberg approximates some of the delights of Amberson’s early passages (that snow sled!), Gray channels a bit of Welles’ dispassionate tone — the two do their best and are quite good in their own ways, but Welles in my book sets the standard for the autobiographical film.