‘The Fabelmans’ And Steven Spielberg’s Love-Hate Relationship With Subjectivity In Cinema


There are a lot of movies about making movies or falling in love with the art of making movies. You have probably heard of “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Artist,” “Sunset Blvd.,” “Barton Fink,” “Hellzapoppin’,” “The Aviator,” “Cinema Paradiso,” “Sherlock Jr.,” “Chaplin,” “Mank,” “Me & Earl & The Dying Girl,” “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” “Adaptation,” and “Hail, Caesar!” There are definitely more, but they are slipping my mind right now. But I can assure you one thing: “The Fabelmans” is going to be one film that is never going to leave me until the day I die. Because in this semi-autobiographical movie, Steven Spielberg doesn’t just talk about how he fell in love with cinema; while tackling all the professional and personal issues in his life. Spielberg also reminds us how we, the audience, fell in love with the medium, be it through his work or someone else’s.

Major Spoilers Ahead

The Survival Of Cinema In The Tug Of War Between Art, Family, And Science

The first hour or so of “The Fabelmans” is very chaotic and kinetic, as Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner cover a lot of ground. They pinpoint the moment Sammy falls in love with movies and start to hint at why exactly he loves them. It boils down to the fact that Sammy likes to have a sense of control over the things that are happening around him. Cinema allows that kind of control. Every living thing, every inanimate object, and even the duration of every moment can be manipulated until it is the way he wants it to be. But that brings up the question: where does this need for control come from? Maybe it’s partly genetic and partly circumstantial. I say that it’s genetic because Sammy’s mother, Mitzi, has always reacted to situations instead of having a firm grasp on her life. She had to choose family over being a professional pianist. She had to choose Burt over Bennie for some inexplicable reason. And she copes with it by reminding herself that everything that happens happens for a reason and also by equipping Sam with everything he needs to pursue his passion.

That’s where Burt comes in. He isn’t necessarily the villain of the film. But he’s certainly the antagonist. He doesn’t actively stop Sammy from making his movies. However, he keeps mentioning that Sam should only see it as a hobby. That’s because he doesn’t see it as a viable career option. He is a man of science. He thinks that something that exists in a tangible fashion is important. Whereas something that is made of imaginary stories and fictional characters shouldn’t be taken seriously. Yet, when Burt doesn’t know how to cheer Mitzi up, what does he turn to? That’s right! Sammy’s ability to manipulate emotions via cinema. In complete contrast to that, Uncle Boris gives Sam the lowdown by saying that his love for his family, the norm that scientific stuff is a viable career option, and his love for movies is always going to be at odds with each other. However, he has to commit to one of those choices before life makes him do it and stick with it until the very end. Or else, what’s even the point of going down this path? This explanation of why an artist decides to become an artist can seem pretty rigid. That said, it does highlight the importance of not just standing behind your kid’s passion with words but giving them the tools, they can use to pursue their dreams.

Steven Spielberg Screams That Everything Is Subjective In Cinema

From the first frame to the last, Steven Spielberg repeatedly underscores the fact that nothing about cinema is objective. Cinema is purely subjective in nature and should be treated as such. Propaganda movies are objectively bad, though (which is something that even Guillermo del Toro has highlighted with “Pinocchio”). But, yes, apart from that, every single piece of entertainment is driven by emotions, the storyteller’s personal experiences, and the films that have personally influenced them. If you think that documentaries are factual in nature, through Sammy, Spielberg disproves that notion. He records everything that happens on the camping vacation that the Fabelmans go on, along with Benny. However, when he starts to edit it, he realizes that those hours of footage contain two stories. One is that of Mitzi entertaining her family, and the other is that of Mitzi’s affair with Benny. He chooses to show one narrative publicly and the other narrative privately, and they attract polar opposite reactions from their target audiences, even though the two short films share the same origin. The only two people who know about what Sammy has presented and left on the editing room floor are Sammy and Mitzi. Because, as the filmmaker, Sammy makes that choice.

The power of choices when it comes to filmmaking is further emphasized through the movies that Sammy makes for a larger audience. While making his war film, Sam chooses to put a piece of how he feels about the inevitable and irreparable conclusion to Burt and Mitzi’s marriage into his lead actor’s performance. The actor thinks he is simply playing a role. The audience believes it as well. But only Sam and we, the viewers, know that he’s lamenting about the eventual demise of the Fabelman household through this film. Before making his “Ditch Day” film, he faces loads of antisemitism, bullying, and straight-up abuse. He also finds love and sees how this person, whom he thinks is the love of his life, views Jesus Christ. Burt and Mitzi finally call it quits. And all of this governs his filmmaking decisions. He sees Chad as a loser and chooses to show his loner moments in his film. He shows that Logan has a chance to be something more if he distances himself from Chad, and Logan realizes that. Even when he fails to save his relationship or that of his parents, he manages to reunite Logan and Claudia. Why? Because he makes a series of intentional and instinctive decisions that resonate with him. Since it resonates with him, it does so with the public as well.

For the most part, it does seem that Spielberg loves to deal with this aspect of subjectivity, where he gets to fine-tune the emotional quotient of his movies to the T. But there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment where he showcases how he probably hates the moral side of it. It happens during the scene where Mitzi and Burt reveal that they are getting a divorce, and Reggie, Natalie, and Lisa have a full-blown breakdown in front of them. And Sammy imagines himself documenting that moment for a potential movie, which is essentially what “The Fabelmans” is all about. It shows that maybe not just Spielberg but any filmmaker who is trying to talk about real-life events through a fictional lens is mining those emotions for the sake of entertainment. This is a very icky gray area when it comes to biopics or semi-autobiographical films. However, if the filmmaker doesn’t address it, they come off as the type of person who is oblivious to the tools, they are using to tell a story. Hence, it is better to show that you are aware that you are recreating real-life events for a film (or a show) and that it is what it is.

My Love Letter to Steven Spielberg for Existing

After spending nearly 2 hours and 17 minutes pontificating about his own life, his family, his friends, his love life, and his short films, Spielberg ends “The Fabelmans” on a very nerdy note. Sammy meets John Ford, i.e., the man who has directed “The Informer,” “Stagecoach,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “They Were Expendable,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “The Quiet Man,” “The Searchers,” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” and Ford talks to him about the horizon. He tells Sammy that, in a frame, if the horizon is on the lower half, it’s interesting. If it’s at the top, it’s interesting. But if it’s in the middle, it’s boring. When Sammy exits the building, in yet another super meta moment, the camera readjusts itself to make sure that the horizon is not in the middle. Now, if you go back and watch any movie that Spielberg has made, you’ll see that in most of them, the horizon is never at the center of the frame. What does this mean? Well, it means that Ford fundamentally changed the way Spielberg viewed the world. No matter where he went or what he saw, if he wanted to picture it literally or metaphorically, he probably always ensured that the horizon was at the top or at the bottom.

Similarly, Steven Spielberg has shaped the way I (and many others like me) view the world. “Jurassic Park” is the first Hollywood film of my life and the second film in general that I laid my eyes upon. I fell in love with cinema and the medium’s capabilities because of him. I also started to view everything around me in a completely new light. It might have happened on a subconscious level. But I think I’ve always yearned for that sense of wonder, intrigue, awe, adventure, humor, romance, emotion, and action that Spielberg and only Spielberg can bring to the big screen. Every year, I watch thousands of films, seek out new experiences, and learn more about the known universe to satiate my soul. However, the year that Spielberg put out yet another piece of his heart and mind on celluloid, I became that kid from the summer of 1993 again as I got to watch those picture-perfect frames and feel every sentiment on the proverbial spectrum. Nothing else comes close to emulating that sensation. And I’ll always be thankful to Steven Spielberg for that. So, in conclusion, go and watch all the movies that this legend has made. Watch them with your family, your friends, or on your own, and keep looking at the horizon because Spielberg still has more to offer this world.

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Pramit Chatterjee
Pramit Chatterjee
Pramit loves to write about movies, television shows, short films, and basically anything that emerges from the world of entertainment. He occasionally talks to people, and judges them on the basis of their love for Edgar Wright, Ryan Gosling, Keanu Reeves, and the best television series ever made, Dark.

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