"The Fabelmans": A new recipe for old ingredients
On the ways we are formed in childhood, and how artists return to familiar places to find new ways forward.
In our beginning, as T. S. Eliot told us, is our end. Freud himself never put it quite so succinctly. It was to the beginning that James Lipton once appealed in explaining the ending of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the film’s own director, Steven Spielberg.
“Your father was a computer scientist, your mother a musician,” Lipton says. “When the spaceship lands, how do they communicate?”
For those who have forgotten the film’s climax, Lipton supplies the answer to his own question. “They make music on their computers, and they are able to speak to each other.” A visibly pleased Spielberg humbly replies, “I’d love to say I intended that, and I realised that was my mother and father, but not until this moment!”
While watching the beginning of Spielberg’s latest (hopefully not his last) film, I was brought back to that interview. The Fabelmans opens with a young Spielberg – pseudonymised as Sammy – standing in line outside of a cinema, waiting to see a feature film for the very first time. His father stands to one side of him, explaining the science of the cinema, describing how the illusion is created; to the other side, Sammy’s mother crouches and assures him that the movie “is a wonderful dream”. Here are the scientist and the artist, harmonising as a duet to sing their own parts to the same song.
There is a lot of the usual Spielberg fare in The Fabelmans: we get wide-eyed wonder, reaction shots in place of the thing being reacted to, mid-century Americana, suburbs and suburban families, and in the end, all is forgiven and everyone is redeemed or ultimately redeemable. Even the scientist/artist dichotomy front-and-centred in The Fabelmans has been used before: in the aforementioned scene in Close Encounters; in Alan Grant’s tactile, traditional palaeontology versus the “cold”, detached computer modelling he rails against; in the feud between primal Quint and academic Hooper in Jaws. The novelty in The Fabelmans – the new recipe for familiar ingredients – is self-consciousness. Spielberg knows who he is, what he does, and he is ready at last to play with that knowledge.
Sure, we get the origin story of the director we know and love today, the expected bildungsroman of the boy discovering cinema and himself through the camera and becoming the man (and something of a myth, as presented here), but this is contrasted against the dissolution of his parents’ marriage. The too-pleasant-to-be-real nuclear family presented to us in the film’s first act is pure Spielberg, at his best and his worst – diabetes-inducing levels of sweetness, sentimentality saturating the screen. And then Spielberg spends the whole film picking this family fabric apart.
Late in the film, Spielberg sets up a familiar scene from many teen movies, in which the bullied filmmaker wins over the jock who made his life hell, and it is the power of cinema that enacts this miracle – except that nothing plays out in quite the expected ways. The jock has a complex reaction to being flattered in Sammy’s short movie, one that exposes a fear of failure beneath his bravado. In a scene that masterfully describes power dynamics between adolescent males, the two boys experience rage, confusion, envy, self-doubt, scorn, respect, and, finally, a cynical rejection of the kind of simplistic, happy ending Spielberg’s lesser films are known for (E.T. and Hook, I’m looking at you).
In fact, this scene takes Spielberg’s newfound self-consciousness right out to the edge of normal for a Spielberg film. When the jock insists that Sammy never tell anyone about his intense reaction to the short film, Sammy swears he won’t. “Unless,” he adds, “I make a movie about it.” I sat up straight at this line, intrigued by this flirtation with the postmodern from a distinctly traditional filmmaker. When the last shot came (and I won’t reveal it here), I was giddy with the joy of watching the work of a director who has been doing what he does for fifty years and can still surprise me. I thought I knew what a Spielberg film was, and with one shot, I had to rethink everything.
In this blend of the pleasantly familiar and the shock of the new, I’m reminded of an essay that holds an important place in my own origin story as a writer. In “Why I Write”, George Orwell says this about the psychoanalytic truth that where we end up has much to do with where we began:
“I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. [...] Before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, or in some perverse mood: but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.”
Those early influences are in all of Spielberg’s greatest work, as they are in The Fabelmans. Early influences are present, more or less detectably, in many if not most great films, books, albums, and so on. Without the past and its early influences, we’d have no Marcel Proust and his search to remember them. Reading Jonathan Franzen’s memoir, The Discomfort Zone, alongside his novels won’t necessarily open up critical paths for exploring the fiction – it’s always a mistake to look for one-to-one correlations between the artist and the art – but it offers illumination on how the author of those books was stitched together by time and circumstance to become the only person who could have written his particular stories.
Staying for a moment with Franzen, in one of his essays he writes about the work of linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath, which reveals the crucial role that early influences play in the shaping of a reader. There are, her work suggests, two essential types of what she calls the “life-long reader”. The first encounters serious reading at home early in their childhood, reading done by parents, older siblings, or teachers. Importantly, at some stage after having picked up the habit for herself, the reader will meet someone with whom she can share this interest, someone with whom their relationship will be informed by a shared love of reading. “Lots of kids who have been lone readers,” Heath says, “get to college and suddenly discover, ‘Oh my God, there are other people here who read.”
The second type of reader is the “social isolate”, the child who:
“from an early age felt very different from everyone around him. [...] What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world. But that world, then, is a world you can’t share with the people around you – because it’s imaginary. And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read.”
I seem to sit somewhere between these two types. Like the first kind of reader, I grew up conscious of my father’s love of books, and I eventually met a woman whose own love of reading was the centre of gravity around which attraction and love grew. (Reader, I married her.) But these bookends to my adolescence were filled with the second kind of reading, in which my loneliness found solace in books and was transformed by their words, and my community was made up of the authors I read, rather than the football-adoring boys I went to school with.
It may be more than a coincidence that I found my life’s work in words and that Heath says that it is the isolated reader who typically becomes a writer. I can recall being made to write the shortest of short stories at school when I was seven or eight and not connecting this act to the books I read. By the age of twelve, I was writing in my own time and imagining my words one day filling the covers of published novels. At some point between these ages, I had realised that the books I loved were written by people not a totally different species to myself, and therefore I could become one of them, one of the magicians who used words to transform people.
There is a moment in The Fabelmans where we see Sammy glimpsing his own future in the midst of receiving the awful news that his parents are divorcing. As his family is torn apart, Sammy sees his own reflection in a mirror, but his mirrored self acts independently, camera in hand, eye to the viewfinder, filming the action of this familial breakdown as it unfolds, predicting the very film we are now watching. Sammy’s mind has split in the way all artists’ minds do; he is both a participant in the scene and its documenter. Again, Orwell describes such an early revelation of what it is to be an artist in “Why I Write”, where he tells us of the discovery that, unlike him, ordinary people don’t keep a running transcription of reality into words in one’s mind:
“For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: ‘He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a match-box, half open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoise-shell cat was chasing a dead leaf,” etc. etc. [...] Although I had to search, and did search, for the right words, I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside.”
It is often the realisation that there are essentially two ways to translate experience – ordinarily, into something intelligible to ourselves; in the case of the artist, into something we can express to others – that leads the writer to understand that this is exactly what he is: a writer. The same is true of the filmmaker, the musician, etc. This moment in the mirror, to borrow Spielberg’s literalisation of the phenomenon, is what Graham Greene describes so beautifully in The Power and the Glory:
“There is always a moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in...”
We hear a lot about the trauma of childhood informing the fallout of the adult, but there is something to be said for the positive ways our past shapes our present and directs us towards the future. We also undoubtedly face an epidemic of infantilisation in our culture, a collusion between authorities who treat us as incompetents (while frequently failing to demonstrate their own proficiencies) and those who hold onto nostalgia as a balm against the uncertain present, preferring the simple over the complex, perpetual youth over developing maturity. But this should not make us mistrustful of all the childhood forces that first formed our interests, our passions, and our talents. The trick is to do as Spielberg has done in so many wonderful films and most recently in The Fabelmans – return to the beginning to find a way forward.
• Best Interview Question Ever - Steven Spielberg “Thank you for that.” Best Of Humans [YouTube] (2017)
• “Why I Write”, in Why I Write, George Orwell (2004 )
• “Why Bother?” in How To Be Alone, Jonathan Franzen (2002 )
• The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene (1940)