Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Nov 25, 2022 6:37 pm 
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GABRIEL LABELLE IN THE FABELMANS

Spielberg makes cliché delight in his self-portrait

The Fabelmans is Steven Spielberg's self-portrait of the artist as a budding filmmaker. What's so astonishing is how corny and clichéd this film is and yet how well every single scene works, what a pleasure it is to watch, how either the sentimentality or the dazzling skill repeatedly moves one right to tears. The man knows how to make movies. Even the perhaps distracting involvement of Tony Kushner can't get in the way of one big entertaining scene after another.

He must be thinking of iconic early movies in doing this. This is an early professional self-discovery and also a slightly undercooked mystery story, since the boy unearths an in-plain-view family secret through editing one of his 8-mm films. (Silent film is so haunting, one realizes.) Family counts, and secular Judaism, celebrating Hanukkah, sitting shiva, as does the other side of being Jewish, the ugliness of directly encountering anti-Semitic brutality, when it comes. But nothing gets in the way of the vocation of a boy who's inoculated as a filmmaker from the first movie he sees.

Spielberg likes to be in-your-face: there are a lot of big closeups (they may at first express a child's-eye view). Mom and dad, Mitzi and Burt (Michelle Williams, Paul Dano) must loom large to wide-eyed little Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord). There will be a lot about Dad's misunderstandings, as he persists in calling his movie-making a "hobby" in the face of the boy's obvious drive, ambition, and exceptional gifts from early on, and the parents' troubles with each other. Mitzi has traded frying eggs for a possible concert piano career, and there is the ever-present complication of dad's best friend "Uncle Benny" (Seth Rogen, aged and serious and touching now). But the opening sequence is where they take little Sammy to his first movie, Cecil B. DeMille's Greatest Show on Earth.

What a way to start. Because Sammy's afraid of being scared, but when the train wreck makes everything fly in the air, the original footage filling our screen (and this is a movie to see on the big screen, folks), we see Sammy rapt. He demands a Lionel train set as Hanukkah presents and before long is shooting the train crash himself, in miniature. And we're off to the races.

Much later, after "Sam," now, has won his Eagle Scout badges for a series of filmmaking efforts that deserve a special teen Oscar, and exploring the secrets of his family camping adventures, the Antoine Doinel-like version of the protagonist (the irresistible Gabriel LaBelle) is plunked down into a full-on version of new school hell: giant blond anti-Semite high school boys who look like stars of a beach movie and do not like him.

The twists and turns are what current writers like to call whiplash-inducing, but it's just Spielberg's charm. This is a screenplay that ultimately may be too cliched and obvious to have much lasting juice, but wow, how it entertains us, and how clearly it makes its points. Burt from the start tiresomely explains the mechanics and science of everything to everyone, especially Sammy, failing to see that the boy is interested in the art of things and representing them. (That's not left in doubt: Mom tells Sammy, "In this family, it's the scientist versus the artist.") Likewise Burt's breadwinner pose hides an egocentric obsession with his precocious late Fifties computer science ambitions, which override the needs of family stability.

Isn't there something classically middle-class white American about the role of a family's forced moves in growing up? The move for work from New Jersey to Phoenix, Arizona somehow works, despite the uprooting from a Jewish environment that's involved, and Benny can come for the work too. Mitzi seems to like Arizona. The camping Sam shoots suits them all. The move from Arizona to California for the big time, IBM, however, means leaving Benny behind: not IBM material. But the separation from Benny crushes Mitzi, and being plunked down among the blond anti-Semitic "giant sequoia" alpha males in the California high school makes school a nightmare for Sam.

The high school scenes revel in many familiar tropes. The fight when Sam gets smashed in the nose and the super-Christian girl Monica (Chloe East) takes up the little Jewish boy because she loves the way he kisses, and she tries to save him for Jesus and they become prom dates - priceless stuff. It is inspired, and more true to life than you might think, the way the alien artist becomes a celebrated figure in the school by making a film to order (already not the first time) - with the new Christian girlfriend's dad's fancy 16mm Arriflex camera - of end-of year beach volleyball stuff that troubles Sam's godlike worst enemy Logan (Sam Rechner) by making him look so good. This is notable among various ways the dilemmas of the artist-filmmaker are dramatized. Why? Why did you do that, the boy asks. Sam can't really answer. Is it revenge, forgiveness, co-opting? It's complicated.

Armond White, who idolizes the director, is disappointed in the way this "warm, fuzzy quasi-memoir" "sentimentalizes" things and softens them. Really, what did he expect? But the filmmaker's breathtakingly fluent and entertaining effort at making a classic coming-of-age movie offers intense delights. One early on is a stand-alone tour-de-force: the brief visit after Mitzi's mother's death of her little known and dreaded Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), some kind of mysterious circus player, it turns out, who proves sympathetic and becomes an iconic "artist." He smells out Sammy as a fellow artist, and warns him not to let family get in the way of his calling. This turn is a vivid, cranked-up-to-the-max one, worthy of the Kubrick of A Clockwork Orange.

The same thing comes at the end, another brief but memorably intense portrait, when the eager, timid, more grownup Sam finally makes it to Hollywood via an invitation from CBS and gets to spend just one minute in the office of the greatest of American filmmakers, John Ford. After waiting, we get the all-time most dramatic light-up of a cigar - what a lighthearted way to pass on the flame - and a blunt little speech on horizon lines in a shot. At the top is interesting, at the bottom is interesting. In the middle "Is not worth shit." "Now get the fuck out of here!" Guess who plays John Ford? David Lynch! What a treat. These two and a half hours go by fast.

The Fabelmans 151 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 10, 2022, showing at ten other festivals including Lyon, Rome, AFI (L.A.), Miami, MoMA, Cairo and Lisbon. US limited release Nov. 11. Screened at the Grand Lake Theater, Oakland, Nov. 25. Metaceritic rating: 84%.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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