The Fabelmans: A Tender Ode to Filmmaking or Just a Self-Indulgent Autobiography

Spielberg’s overall sensibility is so frustratingly dull and solemn and sentimental and corny, dragging down the possibilities of his talent: he’s always been the bane of my film-loving existence. Or at least, one of the main banes. 


By Lorenzo Polverari (Matthew staff) | | Edited by Gioia Kunst

Steven Spielberg has always had mad filmmaking skills. Nobody doubts that, I hope. Jaws? The D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan? Big chunks of Lincoln? Probably many other sequences that I can’t think of now because I tend to hate Spielberg movies so much? All fantastically effective. 

But Spielberg’s overall sensibility is so frustratingly dull and solemn and sentimental and corny, dragging down the possibilities of his talent: he’s always been the bane of my film-loving existence. Or at least, one of the main banes. 

His latest release The Fabelmans meticulously follows the same trope, picturing the adolescence and early childhood of Spielberg’s cinematic alter-ego, Sammy Fabelmans (Gabriel LaBelle), a visionary kid with a passion for film alongside a family that is split into two: the artists and the scientists. “Sammy’s like me,” says his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a silly talented pianist who’s losing her mind while being trapped in the duties of a good housewife. His dad, instead, the hardworking Burt (Paul Dano), is a brilliant engineer who’s managing to promote the development of the first computer for RCA, General Electric and IBM.  

Clearly, Sammy is positioned right in the middle of this dualism, encompassing and representing both the artist and the scientist. His expression through film is precisely what combines aesthetic and technology. Some of the best moments of the film are arguably when we see Sammy’s wit coming through. During a scene, we see him managing to replicate a gunshot sound by simply making a hole on the film strip.  

What, unfortunately, The Fabelmans ends up being is a moralist fatigue, just like the majority of Spielberg’s approaches to more profound topics. Poor Michelle Williams had to stretch out every single one of her muscles to bring some vibrancy to the pale role of Mitzi, who’s caught up in monotonous 50s middle class-like conversations and is too busy resembling the atmosphere of Auntie Mame to overcome her sadness. Mitzi’s frustration for the never taken off career and her desperate obsession for the piano, used to compensate the loss of the love of her life, Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen) who moves to Arizona, is the gem of the film. However, this gradually fades away. Mitzi’s arch takes a different route as Spielberg decides to highlight the sentimental loss -instead of the artistic one- eventually picturing a dull tale of a woman being torn between two engineers.  

The romantic affair between Mitzi and Bennie, caught by Sammy’s camera, should be the main conflict of the movie but is reduced to a couple of frames. Yet, Spielberg decides to turn it into a study of everything that the camera can reveal that the eye cannot catch … Interesting study, for sure, if it was Spielberg’s debut film or a Film Studies 101 class.  

Later, we see Sammy obsessively playing back and forth the small clip as the reality unfolds before his eyes. Spielberg illustrates this transgression and the eventual divorce of the parents as tragedy worthy. As per usual, in his movies, Spielberg pictures divorce as the worst evil that could happen to humans: “but, of course, the saga of Spielberg’s parents’ divorce, which he’s discussed in interviews many times, and which became the template for the broken homes in his own movies going back to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), is not a subject that’s .” 

However, I cannot help but feeling annoyed by Spielberg’s approach of a typical 50s bourgeois who argues that life must always turn out for the best and when it doesn’t, then it is an inescapable outrage. And, realistically speaking, I can’t see how Sammy’s (or Spielberg’s) life couldn’t torn out for the best: his father was a pioneer in computer engineering, the income of his family was on a steady rise. The only unpleasant thing was the rented apartment they were staying at while waiting for their luxurious Californian house to be renovated. Spielberg himself, reached, early in his career, unthinkable goals and, most importantly, while always pursuing his passion.  

The last scene, however, is what I found most irritating. A marvelous John Ford plays David Lynch – the anti-Spielberg par excellence – as he teaches Sammy the valuable lesson to always make his movies formally interesting and perfecting his framing. A lesson that Spielberg, the king of ‘normal’ cinema, has rarely followed. However, what’s most upsetting about the scene is the blatant symbolism of the ‘passing of the torch’: Lynch, by many considered THE director of his generation, even praised by legendary directors such as Orson Welles, passes down the torch to Spielberg, making the director of the following generation. 

Clearly, the main reason why are watching this movie is because we know what happened after the end of The Fabelmans: Spielberg fame will skyrocket through Hollywood, from tv to feature films and directing the incredibly mature Duel (1971) and the young age of twenty-five and Jaws at twenty-nine. 

We get it, Steven. You were very very very successful. Congrats. Now, please, don’t make a sequel entitled Fame, Fortune, and The Fabelmans or something along the lines, okay?