Alan Moore, the brain behind all those divinely delicious comic books, in an interview speaks quite forcefully against nostalgia saying, “that urge towards simpler times, simpler realities… can very often be a precursor to fascism.” And it is Moore and the pitfalls of nostalgia I am thinking of while watching Steven Spielberg’s beautifully-mounted, semi-autobiographical film, The Fabelmans.
In the film, we see Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano) Fabelman take their young son, Sammy (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord), to watch his first film in 1952 and it is love at first sight. After filming the crashing of the toy train set he got for Hanukkah, Sammy is well on his way to becoming a filmmaker, filming his sisters, Reggie (Julia Butters), Natalie (Keeley Karsten) and Lisa (Sophia Kopera), family friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen), and his school mates.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsch
Runtime: 151 minutes
Storyline: A coming-of-age story of an American teenager who dreams of making films as his family falls apart
Mitzi, a pianist, encourages Sammy while Burt, a rising star in the fledgling computer industry, is slightly more circumspect of what he perceives as his son’s hobby. The film follows the Fabelmans through their move to Arizona and finally California, on account of Burt’s lucrative job offers from RCA and IBM.
Spielberg apparently had been planning to make a movie on his childhood since 1999 but held off for the longest time worried about hurting his parents, Leah Adler and Arnold Spielberg. The director of some of the biggest blockbusters of all time says the movie ponders the question, “when does a young person in a family start to see his parents as human beings?” That is a universal theme and irrespective of where, when and who you are, it is something everyone has had to process. And so does the young boy, with a head and heart full of a passion for movies, in transforming from Sammy to Sam (Gabriel LaBelle).
While slightly long at two-and-a-half hours, The Fabelmans is fascinating for the consistent level of excellence in every department from acting (Williams, Dano and LaBelle stand out in an all-round great cast) and music (John Williams) to editing (Michael Kahn, Sarah Broshar) and cinematography (Janusz Kamiński). John Williams, Kahn and Kamiński are all long-time Spielberg collaborators, as is Tony Kushner, who worked with Spielberg on the script.
While talking of the acting, mention must be made of Judd Hirsch in his small but significant role as Uncle Boris who tells Sammy the price one has to pay for one’s passion. “Family, art,” he says, “It will tear you in two.” The Fablemans has received seven Oscar nominations including for best picture, director, score, actress and supporting actor. While critics have singled out the shot of Sammy watching his first film play out on his palms as iconic, there are others like the abandoned supermarket trolleys clanging free as the tornado rages that are brain searing.
It is fascinating to see the origins of so many of Spielberg’s iconic moments from the boy scouts of Indiana Jones to E.T.’s bicycles and baskets. Also, could Sammy’s avowed dislike for the beach have created that mean menacing tailfin circling Amity Island?
Though there is nothing connecting a white American filmmaker’s growing up in the ‘60s to watching an intrepid archaeologist dodge a bouncing boulder in a cinema several generations and a world away in Bengaluru, there is that celluloid bridge that unites us.
And while nostalgia could be desire for a past that might not have been, the awe and joy that so many of Spielberg’s movies have offered is reason enough to watch this gorgeous amble down a suspiciously-sanitised memory lane.
The Fabelmans is currently running in theatres