Readers Write In #533: The Boy Who Cried Film

Posted on December 26, 2022

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By Karthik Amarnath

The Greatest Show on Earth, Cecile B. Demille’s lavish 1952 film about a grand traveling circus opens with these lines:

We bring you the circus. The pied piper, whose magic tunes lead children of all ages, from 6 to 60, into a tinsel and spun-candy world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter, whirling thrills, the rhythm, excitement and grace of daring and blaring and dance, of high-stepping horses and high-flying stars.

If we change “circus” to “cinema” and “tunes” to “frames”, then those could be the opening lines for a film about the grand medium of cinema. In fact, they almost are. The power of cinema is at the heart of Steven Spielberg’s most wonderful new film, The Fabelmans, which opens with a six year old Sammy Fabelman about to watch his first ever movie, and it just happens to be The Greatest Show on Earth. The pun is intended, if not by me, then certainly by the film.

Such is Spielberg’s devotion to the medium that his awe for its power colors every frame. Each shot looks like a painterly composition, every movement like it was punctiliously choreographed. Characters are not so much captured as they are caressed by the camera which switches between subjects and compositions with a poetic grace. Guillermo Del Toro in his twitter thread on West Side Story put this succinctly when he wrote “Steven Spielberg makes the camera dance.”

But such is Spielberg’s mastery over the medium. In a pre-release interview for The Fablemans, Seth Rogen said that Spielberg has an inhuman ability to build a scene. If Spielberg were indeed a superhuman, then the semi-autobiographical The Fabelmans, is his origins story. Seth Rogen plays his uncle Ben (Uncle Bennie to be exact), and even gets a scene where he tells young Sammy that he must use his (filmmaking) powers for a good purpose. There’s also a beautiful scene where Sammy is gifted his powers. Sammy’s mother, Mitzy Fabelman is standing in front of a row of broken TVs, holding a camera in her hand. Sammy is not in the frame. He’s crouching down, but when he turns around, we see all the broken TV screens come to life with his reflection.

Mitzy gives Sammy the camera so he could recreate the famous train crash scene from The Greatest Show on Earth. The scene had given him nightmares, and she says he can film it and watch it over and over again without destroying anything real. She says it would give him control over the train wreck (which we will see later is a metaphor for the larger “story” of the movie). But when he gets the camera from her, she’s crouched down and he’s standing tall. What we see in his big blue eyes is beyond anything she’s told him. What he’s holding is not just a medicine for fear but the magic of films.

In the beginning, though, Sammy’s films are filled with shock and horror. They feature zombies and mummies, with his sisters doubling up as actors. The first piece of visual magic happens in a stagecoach western that Sammy shoots as a teenager. Sammy is unhappy with a particular scene that just doesn’t feel authentic to him. But then he has an idea to let a small amount of light shine through the film, adding a touch of truth to his make-believe world, which makes all the difference in that moment.

The scene where Sammy has this realization is itself a piece of visual magic. We hear a piano piece being played, and although we don’t see the player at first, the camera slowly moves up the piano and we see long, manicured fingernails tapping the keys. When the camera reaches the top of the piano, we see Mitzy’s reflection on the board. It is a moment of visual poetry and a poignant echo of the earlier scene where Mitzy gives birth to Sammy’s artistic life. The piano shot is a reflection of Mitzy’s sacrifice of her own career as a concert pianist.

In that twitter thread on West Side Story, Guillermo Del Toro marveled at the “impossible brain-surgery level precision” in so many of Spielberg’s shots. We see in The Fabelmans that Sammy gets the artistry from his mother, but the technical precision and ingenuity is from his father, Burt Fabelman. Burt is a pioneering electrical engineer, instrumental in advancing computer technology at companies like GE and IBM. In the very first scene of The Fabelmans, Burt uses science to explain the moving pictures to Sammy. He talks about persistence of vision, about how we’re only shown twenty four pictures in a second, but our mind fills in the rest to make it feel real.

The science of persistence of vision may explain how movies work for us, but the art of filling gaps with our mind’s eye is why the movies work for us, and why they turn into, as Mitzy tells Sammy in that opening scene, “dreams that we will never forget.” As Sammy grows as a filmmaker, its this art that he learns to toy with. The movies he makes are all soundless, and most of the time, we see him with an editing machine and little strips of film stuck on the table, the collection of little visual moments, that he snaps, splices, and sticks together to create his motion pictures. Through images alone he learns to control, package and create emotion. But even beyond that, he learns to play with perception, to toy with “truth.”

If this film is about one thing, its about the power of moving images, the power of those images to move us. The most telling segment in the latter half of the movie, is when Sammy is forced, against his wishes, to convince a girl in his high school about something he’d seen. He talks to her and fails. She sees right through his lie. But later he uses real footage he shot on a trip to make a film that changes her perception. The telling moment though is when Sammy is asked later why he made the film that way, and he doesnt have an answer. Did he just want to complete a task he started? Did he want to feel connected with someone who hurt him? Was he exorcizing his own emotion? Or was he using his power to manipulate someone else’s? What does a film really do for the filmmaker?

There’s two striking straits that we see in Sammy. One, at the most challenging moments in his life, like breakups, divorce or death, we dont see him emote. In fact, his strongest emotions are triggered only when he sees something unfold on a screen. Second, he needs someone else to feel that emotion, he needs an audience. At a most devastating moment for his family, he needs his sister to sit by him to watch a film that he’s editing.

Steven Spielberg has been open about how his own childhood has informed and influenced so many of his movies. Whether they’re about man-eating sharks, invading aliens, or emancipation of slavery, its no surprise that his films retain a childlike curiosity and wonderment at the world. We often see the most extraordinary events in his films through the window of an ordinary family. Thats one of the reasons that his films are so widely accessible. But with The Fabelmans, he’s turned the camera around, and made a deeply personal film, where the focus is solely on the family, on a childhood, on his childhood. The Fablemans is an intense and intimate lens to look inside the filmmaker, and understand what makes him the magician that he is. But more importantly, it tries to get at what films really mean to him? And the answer isn’t something easily spelt in words, but it’s captured in the glorious closing image of the film. Thats the moment that we feel the filmmaker’s joy of just being, in those empty spaces between the frames, and facing the endless possibilities that lie in and between moments.

The most fascinating thing about The Fablemans is how little the film deviates from the actual events in Spielberg’s life. To quote from a Vanity Fair piece:

The story of The Fabelmans is the Spielberg family’s history with just the lightest touch of fiction, mainly through the reordering of events for dramatic effect. “Generally speaking, there’s not a scene in the film that didn’t happen at some point in my life,” Spielberg says.

And yet, according to Tony Kushner (who co-wrote the script with Spielberg), at no point did they ever consider making it an actual biopic, or calling it “The Spielbergs.” Spielberg said that Kushner urged him to “tell a story based on the real people and real events that influenced the rest of my life,” which became “a character-driven story that I can only hope will be relatable to anyone who ever grew up in a complicated family. And there’s no such thing as a family that isn’t complicated.”

But by turning fact to fable, not only have they turned a very specific story to something universal, but they’ve also made a film that presents the medium of cinema like it’s the greatest show on earth.