The Fabelmans: A Review and Analysis
For over 50 years, Steven Spielberg has been the artist who has captured the minds and imaginations of moviegoers everywhere. In his new movie, Spielberg explores the roots of his movie-making magic through a fictional family, “the Fablemans,” heavily inspired by, if not directly mirroring, his own. The movie depicts the beginning of his interest in film and his first steps as a young filmmaker (directing his sisters as his first actresses.) The film then traces his progression into an amateur high school filmmaker, creating films for his boy scouts troop and his high school and taking his films from a pastime to a passion. Over the course of the film, the audience sees him develop cinema tricks and direct actors for the first time and impress his family and friends with his craft. We witness the growth of his own understanding of the power of cinema and the importance it has on his life and the lives of those around him. If there’s any artist who has earned the right to create art that tells the story of how they fell in love with their craft, it’s Steven Spielberg, and he has done that with his new movie, “The Fabelmans.”
“The Fabelmans” revolves around a character based on Spielberg: a young moviemaking enthusiast, Sammy Fabelman. In direct parallels to Spielberg's life, Sammy is the son of a computer engineer father and a concert pianist mother. This tension between the artists and scientists is evident at the beginning of the movie as Sammy’s parents take him to the movies; his father explains movies scientifically as pictures that the brain processes together, and his mother describes movies as “dreams that you never forget.”
“The Fabelmans” explores the themes of family, passions and the interrelationship and coexistence of the two. In a pivotal scene in the movie, I noticed this theme explored perfectly in the triad of protagonists, Sammy and his parents.
This three-minute sequence reveals Spielberg’s fluency in the language of cinema. There is no dialogue between the characters, rather, the camera tells a story with its movements and the details it chooses to highlight. The scene is a microcosm and demonstration of the full control Spielberg possesses over his movies. If I had the time, an entire book could be written analyzing every scene and its implications for the movie, but for this piece, I chose to focus on a particularly moving scene in the movie.
Sammy is in the midst of uncovering a compromising truth about his family through the footage that he took over a family camping trip. Sammy’s father, Burt, is seated on the couch in the living room looking over computer plans and listening inattentively to his wife, Mitzi, playing the piano, the hauntingly beautiful melody of Bach’s Concerto BWV 974 in D minor emanating from the keys.
This scene is anchored in the relationship between family and passions; Sammy is grounded in the world of film and struggles the most with the balance between his interests and the people he loves. Cinema consumes him and is the lens through which he views the world. For this reason, he discovers the family secret not on the camping trip itself, but when looking at the footage. Additionally, throughout the course of this revelation, the camera revolves around Sammy signifying both the reality-upending effects of this truth being revealed, but more implicitly, symbolizing that cinema is constantly on his mind. He is locked into the world of the camera; art surrounds him on all sides. The majority of this scene focuses on Sammy analyzing the film from the trip and only lends a few frames at the end to his reaction to the truth. His priority was analyzing the film; the harsh truth of the family is secondary.
Throughout the scene, the camera cuts between Sammy, Mitzi and Burt as a further demonstration of the tension between family members and the lens through which we the audience view that family: the camera. Mitzi’s relationship with her art is more consuming than Sammy’s; she focuses on the fun and whimsical in life, even at the expense of her family. She plays the piano somberly, focusing on the keys alone, even though her husband sits on a couch directly across from her. The camera raises above her head signaling to the audience that for Mitzi, passions separate oneself from the world. They raise us out of this reality and become an all-encompassing experience. The camera moves away from her to demonstrate that her music, her form of artistic expression, removes her from those around her.
Sammy’s father has the healthiest understanding of the balance between passion and family. He is seated on the living room couch, the same room as Mitzi and the piano, and is introduced in the scene with a wide shot; he is involved in this scene, but the focus is not directly on him. He flips through his computer engineering papers, which are his personal preoccupation, but, due to the wide shot, he is not the main focus of this scene, at least not yet. As the scene progresses, cutting between Mitzi, Sammy and Burt, the camera slowly zooms in on Burt, gradually transitioning into a close-up and indicating that we should take note of the father as he takes up more of the screen. As the camera zooms in, we notice Burt paying closer attention to Mitzi’s piano playing. Eventually, he puts down his papers and focuses all his attention on the music. He is devoted to his wife and places his own passion aside so that he can give respect to hers. He realizes that family takes precedence over personal interests. Similarly, he initially discounts Sammy’s filmmaking as a hobby and wishes he would go into something more practical like engineering, but by the end of the movie, he understands that filmmaking is Sammy’s ultimate passion and acquiesces.
In this brief, three-minute sequence, Spielberg proves yet again why he is the master filmmaker whose movies stand the test of time — he uses the medium of movies to their fullest degree. There’s a mantra in filmmaking: “Show, don’t tell.” The audience should be able to ascertain the message and intent of the filmmaker through the images on the screen, not necessarily through dialogue. Famously, Steven Soderbergh, an acclaimed American director, noted how Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” conveyed its story just as well without audio and in black-and-white. He remarked, “I operate under the theory a movie should work with the sound off, and under that theory, staging becomes paramount ... how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are.” In other words, the character blocking, cinematography, camera movement and expressions of the characters would succeed in conveying a message just as well as dialogue.
With “The Fabelmans,” Spielberg didn’t make a whimsically creative and imaginative movie like he was known for in his early days. There were no killer sharks, dinosaurs or extraterrestrials. However, the theme of family, a theme that often appeared in those movies, was explored in full force in this movie. Spielberg analyzed his own life and the core memories which shaped him into one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. He demonstrated mastery of his craft: his ability to connect with an audience, visually explore a story through the full use of cinema as a medium and bring life to the seemingly mundane story of a boy's high school experience. “The Fabelmans” is a brilliant movie and the backstory of one of the most beloved and celebrated directors. I highly recommend a trip to the theater.
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Photo Caption: Camera
Photo Credit: Flickr