Photo by MATTIA PASTORANI on Unsplash

When I sat down at the Arts Picturehouse to watch Steven Spielberg’s newest feature, The Fabelmans, I must admit, I was very excited. One of my earliest memories of feeling truly exhilarated by a film was watching the opening scene of the Last Crusade: River Phoenix as a young boy scout Indiana Jones, on the run from some grave robbers through a moving freight scene. Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, Back to the Future: these are the films of my childhood; of many childhoods, I expect. There is no denying that Spielberg was and remains an industry giant, and rightfully so; he was the man responsible for pioneering many of the techniques that define modern cinema.

“Every character and every relationship in Spielberg’s film merely felt like a tool that functioned only to forge Sammy’s development”

And so, The Fabelmans is marketed as Spielberg’s love letter to cinema, shot through an overtly personal lens, a rarity in his oeuvre, which is typically other-worldly and action packed. A semi-autobiographical story, we follow Sammy Fabelman, a young aspiring filmmaker who becomes enamoured with the medium and its capacity to reveal truth, to forge meanings, and to shape narratives. His artistic journey is set against the backdrop of a highly dysfunctional and increasingly unstable family life, as Sammy tries to decide who he wants to be: Fabelman or filmmaker?

Just before the film starts, after the exciting whirlwind of trailers, the dimming of the lights and the “please turn off your mobile phones”, I was met with a projection of Steven Spielberg himself, larger than life, staring intently down the camera lens. He gave a testimonial, thanking the audience for coming to see his film on the big screen, speaking about how much the film means to him, and how personal and important it is. To him. This was an odd moment, and it turned out (for me at least) to be the most apt introduction to a film that would, unfortunately, be marked by a shallow egocentrism.

There is, of course, a way of getting highly personal cinema right. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird seems to me the best example of this: though a very different film to Spielberg’s, there are actually several very similar strands: both are coming of age narratives, both explore themes of dysfunctional family lives, and strained mother-child relationships in particular. Both are also semi-autobiographical. But where they differ is exactly where I found the biggest issue with The Fabelmans: where each character in Lady Bird has real depth, vitality and a sense of development beyond their ‘place’ in Christine’s story, every character and every relationship in Spielberg’s film merely felt like a tool that functioned only to forge Sammy’s development; beyond that, they simply didn’t really exist. Non-playable characters in a video game.

“An extensive use of misogynistic tropes to construct the women in Sammy’s life”

The result was a backdrop of figures that felt gimmicky and two-dimensional. I would even argue that almost all of them in some capacity fit the manic pixie dream girl archetype: a stock of ‘quirky’ characters whose only purpose was to provide the protagonist with important life lessons. Sammy’s eccentric lion-taming uncle, for example, turns up early on to give him “advice” about compromising family for his art, only to never show up again. Not only is his character lazily contrived, but the ‘comedy’ of this brief episode was completely flat and awkwardly executed.

I also feel I cannot speak about the shallow constructions of character in this film without discussing what I can only describe as an extensive use of misogynistic tropes to construct the women in Sammy’s life. The women in this film all veer on hysterical, whose only redeeming qualities (for Spielberg and Sammy) seem to be their mysterious, ethereal beauty. His mother is presented as an explicitly immoral figure, but is shot through a very nostalgic and beautified lens. She does a lot of bad things (cheating on her husband and physically abusing Sammy) and her extreme depression is (rather insensitively) presented through wild and untameable mood swings. At the same time, she becomes a muse-like figure enthralling all the men around her. In one particularly bizarre scene, on a family camping trip, Mitzi Fabelman starts dancing in her nightgown in front of the car’s headlights (it is made clear her naked body is visible) — and Spielberg pans first to her husband, then Benny (the man she is cheating on her husband with), and then her son, who strangely decides to film the moment. Is this what we’re meant to perceive as budding cinematic genius?


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What I cannot criticise this film for, though, is craft, which Spielberg of course is a master of. The cinematography is creative, and the sequences of Sammy’s eager experimentation in film — figuring out effects, physically editing together footage — is where the film shines. I suppose my main qualm is the way the film attempts to incorporate itself into a cohesive and compelling narrative. That is, the writing is the main setback. Spielberg mistakenly conflates the subject matter of filmmaking with his own personal development. Despite the fact that Spielberg is a big (maybe the biggest) name in cinema, ultimately the two don’t necessarily mesh together all that well.