Two films, two views of filmmaking—and of film’s relationship to memory. Not two philosophies or programs, but two views, arising spontaneously from very different sensibilities. One of the filmmakers, Steven Spielberg, is among the most successful in the history of Hollywood; the other, Charlotte Wells, is still at the beginning of her career, but her focus is already clear, and it is very different from his.
Spielberg’s The Fabelmans opens with a young boy’s introduction to the power of cinema. His face bathed in the projector’s flickering glow, Sammy Fabelman watches the climax of The Greatest Show on Earth, his mouth wide with awe as a pair of criminals crash into a Barnum & Bailey train, sending their convertible flying. It’s a quintessential piece of Spielbergian Americana: the collision of technology and art sparking wonderment in the mind of a child.
This, anyway, is how the film’s disastrous marketing campaign presents the scene. Because, in fact, young Sammy isn’t impressed or inspired, much less awestruck: he’s terrified at the violence at the heart of the spectacle, the ease with which human life can be discarded, smashed, reduced to nothing for entertainment. When his father (Paul Dano) gives Sammy a train for Hanukkah, he almost breaks it as he reenacts the crash scene in the movie. It takes his mother, Mitzi (Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams) to recognize that he’s trying to take control of his fear by recreating it, as if he might contain the horror by holding it in his hands. So she offers him a compromise: if they film the crash with his father’s camera, Sammy can reenact it as often as he likes, no damage required. His home movie is full of cuts and perspective shifts, a tiny spectacle in its own right. He contains his terror by transforming it into art.
Which is also to say: into entertainment. Spielberg is our master entertainer, imbuing even his grimmest films with visual and narrative zip. (Not for nothing did Michael Haneke accuse Spielberg of treating the Holocaust like a horror movie.) The Fabelmans dives right into that contradiction, a film about a boy using the movies as a shield against pain, and a film that uses all of cinema’s tricks to delve into that pain.