Right before the unnerving camping incident, Sammy has been told by his uncle Boris, who once tamed lions used in movies, that art is a dangerous undertaking and that it does not mix well with family; the experience of trying to make a film about the camping trip would seem to confirm this view. As much as the episode problematizes Sammy’s relationship to filmmaking, it also marks the discovery of his need to separate his art from his personal life. Such an awakening corresponds to a similar one undergone by Stephen Dedalus, whose theory of art, which postulates that the artist must be like the God of the creation and remain “within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails,” not only echoes the impersonal aesthetic doctrine of Gustav Flaubert but speaks to Stephen’s desperate need to distance himself from the oppressive claims made on him by both his family and his country.
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Following in the footsteps of Federico Fellini, the Italian filmmaker whose 8 ½ chronicles the artistic struggles of an Italian filmmaker, Steven Spielberg’s most recent film invites us to regard it in an autobiographical light. In contrast to 8 ½, however, which captures the cinematic auteur in middle age, The Fabelmans focuses on his formative years. The cinematic equivalent to the novelistic künstlerroman, Spielberg’s film centers on the education and development of an artist figure. A subgenre of that staple of nineteenth-century fiction, the bildungsroman, the künstlerroman was revolutionized by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a useful intertext for our understanding of The Fabelmans. In A Portrait, the Irish modernist eschewed the narrative conventions he inherited from the genre to create a more aesthetically stylized and symbolically rich story of an Irish writer’s artistic awakening and search for social and artistic independence. Joyce notoriously chucked an earlier, more conventional draft of the manuscript of his novel into the fireplace (his lifelong partner Nora Barnacle would rescue a portion of the manuscript from the flames). The singed draft of Joyce’s first attempt at writing a künstlerroman would later be published as Stephen Hero, and the distance between that bathetically earnest title and the more impersonal, aesthetically refined one that Joyce finally settled on reflects the artistic maturity he gained during his years of revision.
Like A Portrait, The Fabelmans centers on a young man’s drive to become an artist, and like Joyce’s künstlerroman, the film endows this narrative of becoming with a fable-like quality, one gestured to in the film’s very title. Both works might be said to counterbalance a mythic understanding of artistic genius with an interest in the craft or techne of artistic making; indeed, one of the pleasures of both A Portrait and The Fabelmans is witnessing the acquisition of technical know-how necessary for creating even the most rudimentary works of art. For both Stephen Dedalus and Sammy Fabelman, the tension in their early artistic efforts between originality and generic conformity – for the aspiring young poet, the stiff villanelle form, for the would-be filmmaker, canned horror and western shorts – rather comically falls on the side of conformity, but this merely reminds us that even the greatest of artists at one time produced juvenilia. As the great Joyce scholar Hugh Kenner once noted, one should emphasize the word “young” in the title of Joyce’s novel, which is to say, the youth portrayed in the künstlerroman is not yet the mature artist capable of producing an artistic masterpiece such as A Portrait.
If both Joyce and Spielberg reveal that no artist is born fully formed, they also seem to locate the origin of their inspiration in the childhood experience of trauma: personal, familial, and historical. A Catholic living in colonial Ireland in the post-Parnell era, Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus confronts the twin oppressions of the Catholic Church and the British State while also witnessing the collapse of a once comfortably middle-class family ravaged by alcoholism and financial decline. As the member of a Jewish family in postwar America, Sammy Fabelman also occupies a marginal social position. And yet the Fabelman household, in contrast to the Dedalus family, is shown to be increasingly prosperous owing to the father’s expertise in early computing technology. Still, Sammy’s unhappy parents appear to be just as incompatible as Stephen’s.
Whereas A Portrait locates Stephen’s earliest linguistic awakening in the “peculiar” sound and sense of words such as “belt” and “suck,” The Fabelmans identifies young Sammy’s fascination with cinema in the experience of seeing The Greatest Show on Earth. Traumatized by the movie’s cataclysmic car/train crash, Sammy ultimately recreates the scene with his Lionel train set and films the staged collision with his father’s home movie camera. Much to the annoyance of his father, Sammy breaks the train set, which his mother Mitzi justifies as her son’s way of coping with his fears. Sammy seems to have stumbled onto a version of something like exposure therapy; yet this represents a peculiar – and highly artistic – form of therapy, especially since the source of Sammy’s fear is not in fact an actual train wreck but rather the cinematic representation of one.
Moreover, as anyone familiar with the history of cinema will recognize, the filmic representation that the boy has cunningly recreated in miniature visually echoes the Lumière Brothers’ 1895 “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” a short film that was said to cause panic among its first audiences, who mistook the cinematic projection for reality. And if the young Sammy’s fears are meant to recall those experienced by the first generation of moviegoers, his surprisingly convincing train wreck film suggests that he has begun to master not only his fears but the very medium that gave rise to them. Indeed, Sammy’s earliest attempt at filmmaking anticipate Spielberg’s mastery of the kind of visual spectacles found in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. (By ironic contrast, Stephen Dedalus’s villanelle gives little hint of the compendious genius we associate with Joyce.)
Both A Portrait of the Artist and The Fabelmans share a deep interest in the genesis of artistic impulses as well as the acquisition of artistic craft – technical skill that ultimately allows for the creation of a work of art not unlike the one we experience as either reader or viewer. Thus, in a radical departure from its mode of third-person narration, Joyce ends his novel with Stephen’s witty and self-probing diary entries, which allow the reader to intuit that Stephen may one day become not just a writer but the author of a novel as intellectually rigorous and formally complex as A Portrait; in this sense, the text is like a Möbius strip, with character and author seemingly both entirely separate and one-in-the-same.1
So too The Fabelmans suggests that the kid with the handheld 8mm camera at the beginning of the film will one day develop into the mature filmmaker capable of making The Fabelmans, a full-length feature. Indeed, the film cheekily implies in its last shot that the movie’s director, or at least its cinematographer, is in fact Sammy Fabelman; acting on the advice that Sammy has received from the great film director John Ford – hilariously played by the director David Lynch – about the visual interest of placing the horizon either low or high in the shot, the camera bobs to reframe the final shot of Sammy so that he is seen from below.
But lest we too readily see this adjusted last shot as a literal and figurative nod confirming the consubstantiation between real-life auteur and fictional character, we should recall that this last shot takes place on the Hollywood back lot where Ford has his office, a mise en abyme that leads us to ask whether Sammy Fabelman is a true-to-life portrait of Spielberg as a young man or rather the movie version of his artistic self. Or, to put the question another way, has Sammy by the end of The Fabelmans become just another character in a Steven Spielberg movie?
Furthermore, Spielberg’s alter ego shares something with that most pervasive of contemporary American feature-film protagonists, the superhero. Sammy uses his special powers – the ability to create captivating visual representations of reality – to reshape the world around him. Ultimately, his cinematic skills allow him to triumph over his foes, namely the high school anti-Semites and jocks whom Sammy artfully records in his filmic celebration of senior Ditch Day. Approaching The Fabelmans as a superhero flick reveals the mythic, fabula-like aspect of the film. Take, for example, what might be termed the “origin story” of Sammy’s superpower, which centers on overcoming the traumatic experience of having seen The Greatest Show on Earth. It is one thing for a child to overcome the fear engendered by his first movie by becoming a regular moviegoer, but quite another to triumph over such fears by ultimately becoming a Hollywood filmmaker.
The highly contrived origin story of the incident that awakens Sammy’s genius is supplemented by the seemingly more formative experience of his parents’ failing marriage, a narrative that harmonizes with that most powerful twentieth-century myths, Freud’s family romance. Like Stephen Dedalus, Sammy is a sensitive boy whose love for his mother would seem to set him apart from other boys. As a talented amateur pianist, Mitzi is far more attuned to young Sammy’s artistic impulses than is his analytic father. Yet Mitzi’s encouragement of Sammy’s filmmaking comes back to haunt her when Sammy turns the camera on the family, as Sammy inadvertently captures footage on a family camping trip that reveals his mother is having an affair with Benny, his father’s co-worker. (Ironically, Sammy’s father has the idea that Sammy should record the camping trip as a gift for his nature-loving wife.) When Sammy starts to film Mitzi dancing in a semi-transparent nightgown in front of car headlights, his older sister objects, clearly troubled by the erotic aspect of her mother’s nocturnal campground performance. Here Spielberg provides us with a portrait of the young artist as an Oedipal voyeur.
Once again, philogeny might be said to mirror ontogeny, for this fraught episode caught on film harmonizes with the history of the medium that the young artist has chosen (or been chosen by); from its earliest incarnations, cinema has been the fertile ground of erotic (and pornographic) imaginings, in which the aperture of the lens itself becomes a “peephole” purporting access to the private lives – and hidden sexual doings – of others. (Joyce himself, who came of age during the invention of cinema and was himself at one point the co-owner of the only cinema in Ireland, was well aware of the conjunction between movies and sexual fantasy; in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom recalls the erotic “dream of well-fed hoses” provided by Dublin’s mutoscopes – a cinematic predecessor to the movie projector.) It hardly matters that Sammy only comprehends the troubling, erotic subtext of his filming after he develops the footage and closely scrutinizes its individual frames on an editing machine purchased for him by his father; as Freud would have it, there are no accidents.
Sammy’s footage of the camping trip would seem to contravene the lesson of mastery offered by the filming of the toy train crash; rather than allowing him to control his fears and anxieties, his camping trip footage ironically engenders them. Employing his technical know-how splicing film – the artful “cuts” put on display in these very scenes are one of Spielberg’s strengths as a filmmaker – Sammy goes on to edit the incriminating footage of the camping trip into what might be called a maternal sexual indiscretion highlight reel. After increasing tension with his mother, Sammy invites her to watch the edited footage by herself in a closet, a highly contrived scenario that invites a comparison with Hamlet and his production of “The Mousetrap.” As with Hamlet’s production of the Mousetrap performed before his mother, it’s difficult to know whether Sammy shows his mother the film because she has betrayed his father’s love or betrayed his. The playwright Tony Kushner shares script credits with Spielberg on The Fabelmans, and Kushner surely knows of the long tradition of reading Shakespeare’s play in a psychoanalytic light.
The incriminating film is both the cause of Sammy’s grief and anger and its expression; like the apparition in Hamlet, the edited footage commands him to “remember.” Yet in contrast to Hamlet’s play-within-a-play, which publicly reveals Gertrude’s betrayal, Sammy’s film is seen only by Sammy’s mother. Sammy’s actions invite a psychoanalytic reading; the film becomes their “secret,” like her affair itself. And yet the episode also reveals Sammy’s evolving maturity about the complexities of adult life, a counterpart of sorts to his unwillingness to accept a film camera as a gift from his mother’s lover Bennie without paying him for it.
Right before the unnerving camping incident, Sammy has been told by his uncle Boris, who once tamed lions used in movies, that art is a dangerous undertaking and that it does not mix well with family; the experience of trying to make a film about the camping trip would seem to confirm this view. As much as the episode problematizes Sammy’s relationship to filmmaking, it also marks the discovery of his need to separate his art from his personal life. Such an awakening corresponds to a similar one undergone by Stephen Dedalus, whose theory of art, which postulates that the artist must be like the God of the creation and remain “within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails,” not only echoes the impersonal aesthetic doctrine of Gustav Flaubert but speaks to Stephen’s desperate need to distance himself from the oppressive claims made on him by both his family and his country.2
Although Sammy does not articulate a theory of art in The Fablemans – he is not as intellectually precocious a character as Stephen Dedalus – the movies he makes suggest his ability to transcend his own personal experience, as in the WW II movie in which he employs his Boy Scout troop to play the role of a doomed brigade. Significantly, Sammy is absent from the movie he makes about senior skip day; as much as a means for achieving personal expression, the quasi-professional movie camera he borrows from his girlfriend’s father becomes a tool that allows him to distance himself from the scene of his artistic making and become, like Stephen’s God-like artist, an impersonal figure. In a sense, the independence that Sammy gains as an artist comes at the expense of the classmates whom he objectifies by means of the camera’s lens, a fact that is intuited by the class jock who, despite being celebrated in the film, berates Sammy for indulging in a willful artistic fantasy that does not accord with reality despite its ostensible verisimilitude. (His criticism might well be applied to a good deal of Spielberg’s own work.)
Earlier I suggested that the film intimates that Sammy’s “artistic” sensibilities derive from his mother, but the objectifying aspect of his artistry might actually be connected to his emotionally distant, analytically minded father. Here we might recall that in the diary entries that conclude A Portrait Stephen invokes an “Old father, old artificer” – presumably not Stephen’s actual father but rather the spiritual father of his namesake, Daedalus, the crafty fabricator of the labyrinth. Such artistic craftiness is self-reflexively at work throughout The Fabelmans, including in the episode involving the camping trip footage; as with the train crash movie and its hard-to-miss allusion to one of the most famous early works of cinema, the filmic scenario involving Sammy’s unhappy discovery of his mother’s betrayal echoes an earlier movie: Antonioni’s 1966 Blow-up, in which a fashion photographer comes to believe that he has inadvertently photographed a murder in a London park. (Blow-up inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation as well as Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, both of which replace the medium of photography with recorded audio.) What would seem to be among the most authentically raw moments of Sammy’s early filmmaking career invites a deconstructive reading of The Fabelmans, whereby the film’s mimesis references only other cinematic (and in the case of Hamlet, theatrical) representations. Spielberg’s films often possess a self-referential character that emphasizes their aesthetic autonomy. For example, as much as Close Encounters of the Third Kind is about the arrival of extraterrestrials on earth, it is also about the making of a movie of the event, a point emphasized by the casting of the great French director François Truffaut as the lead scientist at the landing site: an audacious choice that sacrifices realism for allegory. Notably, Truffaut himself made a movie about the making of a movie, La Nuit Américaine, four years before Close Encounters hit the screens.
The Fabelmans invites the viewer well-versed in Spielberg’s oeuvre to discover in Sammy’s early filmmaking efforts visual motifs and scenarios that appear throughout Spielberg’s films: a frightening puppet that comes out of the closet in a horror film Sammy makes with his sisters anticipates the scenes involving the hiding of the alien in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial; the amateurish battle scenes acted out by his Scout troop looks forward to the more elaborate – and realistic – combat of Saving Private Ryan; and even the ethereal scene of Sammy’s mother dancing in the dark backlit by car headlights recalls the atmospheric ending of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and thus emphasizes Mitzi’s otherworldly nature. (The plot arc of The Fabelmans, in which the more psychologically intense partner in a marriage abandons their spouse and ends up with someone ultimately more compatible echoes that of Close Encounters, which, like The Fabelmans, includes tense family dinner scenes.)
We might wonder whether Spielberg has in fact pulled back the veil on his early life in The Fabelmans or instead added another shimmering screen. Are viewers of the film being given access to the personal origin of various themes and motifs in Spielberg’s work or simply witnessing the recycling – or to be more charitable, embellishment – of Spielberg’s greatest hits? This somewhat rhetorical question brings me to the monkey that Sammy’s increasingly unhappy mother adopts in order, she says, to make her laugh. Although I have no way of knowing for sure whether Spielberg’s real mother kept a capuchin monkey for a pet – in the documentary Spielberg the director reminisces about his mother’s simian pet – the capuchin monkey that appears in The Fabelmans recalls the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a creature that unwittingly sacrifices himself – and saves Indiana Jones – by eating poisoned dates. These two very similar-looking monkeys play two very different roles in their respective films; and yet, as with almost any monkey on film, the two frenetic capuchins inevitably capture our attention. Like the high or low place of the horizon in the pictorial frame that John Ford calls Sammy’s attention to at the end of The Fabelmans, the antics of little monkeys might be said to be naturally interesting: so too are aliens, sharks, Nazis, foul-mouthed Irish sea captains, sexy tomb raiders, intelligent robots, psychics, pirates, spies, con men, and Abraham Lincoln (literal and figurative giant).
Spielberg is hardly alone in recognizing the need for movies to keep our attention first and foremost. Indeed, the ostensible irony of having John Ford played by David Lynch – the auteur who might be regarded as the highbrow art-house Other to Spielberg’s middlebrow multiplex populism – is somewhat undercut when we recall that Lynch began his career with a film of domestic distress that features an alien-like baby (Eraserhead), made two films that feature catastrophic car crashes (Wild at Heart and Mulholland Drive), and most recently directed What Did Jack Do, which features Lynch himself as a hardnosed detective interrogating a talking capuchin monkey.
The Fabelmans explores the traumatic origins of Spielberg’s life and art, but it does not reduce the making of films to a form therapy. Whether or not his dedication to his craft in his oeuvre as a whole amounts to a kind of earned mastery or to something more like escapism is impossible to say; indeed, such a judgment would inevitably reflect on the nature of cinema itself as a medium that has always been attracted to artifice and the fantastical. Notably, the sequence from The Greatest Show on Earth that appears in Spielberg’s film not only includes the car/train crash but its aftermath, in which we see lions gamely escaping from their mangled railway car cages. Spielberg’s greatest talent as a cinematic director might be said his ability to counterbalance those two emotions experienced by the earliest cinematic audiences: terror and wonder, which is a kind of freedom. His fabulous art, like that of the circus ringmaster, intends to shows us a world, however contrived, beyond the one we know.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.
- For the definitive account of this aspect of Joyce’s self-reflexive fiction, see chapter 2 of John Paul Riquelme’s Teller and Tale in Joyce’s Fiction: Oscillating Perspectives (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1983). [↩]
- James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ed. Jeri Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 181. [↩]