The Fabelmans (man of stories), which is nominated for seven Academy Awards, is not the first film Steven Spielberg made about himself. All his films have elements of memoir: the lonely child, the punished mother, the lost father. Even Schindler’s List is about Steven Spielberg. (“The film works so well because he is Schindler, and 1993 has been his 1944,” said David Thomson.) The Fabelmans finesses Spielberg, who is 76, into a form he is happy with. It is his creation myth, and it is typical that Spielberg, who welds self-love and self-reproach into a monomaniacal self-obsession, felt the need to make it. For all his talk of wonder, Spielberg really deals in control.
Sammy Fabelman lives in suburbia between two poles, real and metaphorical: his artist mother, who makes music, and his scientist father, who makes machines. Both parents are, in their own ways, thwarted and incomplete: his mother cannot have her art — she is a pianist, but gave it up to raise her children — and his father cannot have his family, because he is a workaholic. Sammy learns, as artists do, to create a world he can control.
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He can change the world by filming it: change its emphasis; change his place in it. Sammy films, without realising it at first, his mother’s touch on his father’s best friend during a camping trip and learns that she is unfaithful. The insinuation — and this is the most self-aware thing in The Fabelmans — is that cinema is a poisonous medium: eat from the tree of knowledge and be cast out of paradise. But Sammy collapses to its incredible power to transform. The antisemitic bully of his schooldays in Arizona becomes a hero through Sammy’s lens, so much so that even the bully is humiliated by it. Sammy makes him small by making him big and sends him back to the world with his shame.
The shame, though, was Spielberg’s: in making The Fabelmans he is collapsing to the very power that he describes. Why can he not be honest about the scale of his ambivalence? According to his biographer, Joseph McBride, Spielberg was so ashamed of his Judaism he once pretended he did not know his own grandfather. “And suddenly,” Spielberg said, “my grandfather, with the yarmulke, comes out of our house, two houses down, and yells: ‘Shmuel! Shmuel! [Steven’s Hebrew name]. I’m not answering him. I’m pretending I don’t know him. I’m denying that name. My friend is saying, ‘He’s looking your way. Does he mean you?’ They point at me, and I’m saying ‘No, it’s not me’.”
Like all 20th-century American Jews, Spielberg grew up among stories of the Shoah — his parents talked about it constantly, inappropriately. I suspect this unimaginable loss was magnified by the loss of his family’s happiness, which shattered when his mother’s adultery was exposed: apparently by him. He was spoiled, though. “We never said no,” his mother Leah said in an interview. “Steve really did run us. He called the shots.” He describes her too: “We never grew up at home, because she never grew up.”
So, a shattered, gifted child: making himself big where he was once small. His sister Anne wrote the script for Big, in which a 12-year-old boy is given the body of an adult. He is fearful — what else could he be? Spielberg’s films are about anxiety. The truck (Duel) or the shark (Jaws) will kill you. Or the suburbs will: your own home. Suburban children are terrorised in Spielberg’s work. Their alien friend (though Spielberg is both Elliott and E.T.) is threatened; corpses rise from the ground (Poltergeist). He was very afraid as a child: “I used to be afraid of my hand shadow.”
Cinema is a solution to this, and this explains his monomania, and his skill. It is an act of survival. “I had no way to sublimate or channel those fears until I began telling stories to my younger sisters. This removed the fear from my soul and transferred it right into theirs.” Later he found a bigger audience. “One of the best ways to cope with it [fear] is to turn it around and put it out to others. I mean, if you are afraid of the dark, you put the audience in a dark theatre. I had a great fear of the ocean.” After Jaws, we all did. The great white shark was collateral damage.
An obvious theme develops across his work: this man is preserved in childhood. He “can always trace a movie idea back to my childhood”. The mother is tortured; the father is lost. There are few politics in Spielberg’s films, and there is no sex. The sex scene in Indiana Jones is a man having sex with his mother. “Where,” she asks him during foreplay, “doesn’t it hurt?” Sometimes the child finds the absent father. In the final Indiana Jones film, I thought the grail was his father. Indiana says to Henry: “We never talked…”
And like a child, Spielberg is covetous, often unkind. He bought one of the Rosebud sleds in Citizen Kane, but he wouldn’t help Orson Welles, its creator, get work. Julia Phillips, his producer on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, called him “a writer fucker”. He can be amazingly obtuse, because he has lived his life in Hollywood and because he is always transmitting. He was so confident he would be nominated for the best director Academy Award for Jaws, he invited a news crew to film him watching the nominations. Only four came, including editing: no best director. According to Phillips, he had the editor, who won the Academy Award, kicked off his next film.
He had a public adolescence in 1993, with Schindler’s List: his acknowledgement of his Judaism. “The experience of making Schindler’s List made me reconcile with all of the reasons… I hid from my Jewishness,” he said in a 2017 documentary. “And it made me so proud to be a Jew.” Even so, it is a film about Jews non-Jews can live with, because it is about non-Jews: Oskar Schindler and the commandant Amon Göth.
It was Schindler he identified with, of course, as David Thomson noted: the morally complex showman, the maker of enamel, then souls. “The closest Schindler’s List comes to art may be in aiding Steven Spielberg to back into the upheld coat of his own mysterious, brilliant, actorly nature.” Again, it came from his childhood. He told The Jerusalem Post that the antisemitic school bully “never became my real friend. I was able to stop some of the hatred by, in a way, doing what Schindler did. Which was to charm him and make him a conspirator… Schindler consorted with the enemy, and he got what he wanted.”
He had wanted to film in Auschwitz but was forbidden. I had thought — how could he even ask? — but then I read about him: he is Steven Spielberg. He felt he could. His fake concentration camp outside Krakow is still there. I have seen it. I think he did Jews a real disservice with Schindler’s List, though unconsciously: his Nazis are glamourised while his Jews are a mute and terrorised mass.
Remember the last scene: the imposition of a redemptive ending, which felt more horrifying than anything that went before? How could he make such a film and then miss the point of it? A film-maker friend saw a rough cut of Schindler’s List: he reported no music, no child in a red coat, and no redemptive ending. He thought it was a masterpiece. But that is Spielberg. He cannot stop editorialising because he does not trust the audience, only himself. “I am the audience,” he said.
The usual complaint about Spielberg is that, a gifted child making cinema for less gifted children, he has turned cinema from the sophisticated art form of the Seventies into an anaesthetic. Pauline Kael said the problem isn’t Spielberg but his acolytes: “It’s not so much what Spielberg has done, but what he has encouraged. Everyone else has imitated his fantasies, and the result is an infantilisation of the culture.”
His response to this is typically hurt: “I think some people would like me to make a movie that explores the dark side and provides no easy answer to make the audience feel better when they return to their cars. If those critics want more pain in my films, they can give me $2 million — that’s all it would take to make a film about pain — and I’ll make that movie.” I like to think that the only thing standing between him and greatness is his self-deception — his insistence on his own affability — but the awful thing is I know he could make it. And I wish he would.
I wonder how much he understands himself: The Fabelmans, despite its beauty, suggests not at all. His wife, the actress Kate Capshaw, who starred in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, once asked him what happened to her career. “He said, ‘You weren’t supposed to have a career. You were supposed to be with me.’” It’s what happened to his mother precisely: it was the source of her anguish. He says so in The Fablemans. But I am not surprised that he forgets this. His films don’t deal with the characters’ relationships with one another. They deal with Spielberg’s relationship with himself. His work looks ever backwards to the glittering, and limiting, landscape of the child.