Reflections: “The Fabelmans”

When Steven Spielberg received the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, his parents, Leah and Norman, were at the ceremony. He thanked them warmly for, as he said, “not panicking and trying to spoon-feed me all the answers . . . I have been to so many AFI dinners where recipients have only been able to thank their parents by looking up to Heaven. And I feel so lucky that all I have to do is look out at Table 211 and say how much I love you both.” Those words were very much in my thoughts last night as my husband and I watched Spielberg’s latest film, The Fabelmans, an autobiographical look at the filmmaker’s childhood, beginnings as an artist, and complicated relationships with his mercurial, imaginative mother and his stolid, brilliant but prosaic father. If the film indeed is anything to judge by, he did indeed love them both, as his and Tony Kushner’s screenplay shows them at both their best and their worst, people too complicated to feel just one way about.

The Fabelmans, in my opinion, is an excellent movie. It definitely earns a place on the Favorite 2022 Movie Releases I posted on New Year’s Eve, but I haven’t quite decided where I’d put it. Everything Everywhere All at Once and Glass Onion are more fun, and Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is more unique, and Matilda the Musical, with its strong songs and extraordinary girl-protagonist, is much more a movie after my own heart. But The Fabelmans is beautifully crafted and full of note-perfect performances, the standouts being Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman (Spielberg’s counterpart) and Michelle Williams and Paul Dano as his parents. If I can point to one flaw in the filmmaking, it would be the loose, at times rambling narrative structure, a need for a slightly stronger sense of rising action to climax to falling action. But it still leaves an impact, and without question it will be a big part of the Oscar conversation in the coming months. (I mentioned to my husband, on the way home, that we might see a “Battle of the Michelles,” Yeoh in Everything Everywhere and Williams in The Fabelmans; he agreed.) Yet my seeing the movie has given rise to some reflections that have little if anything to do with the movie’s quality.

First, from a visceral personal standpoint, I hated the character of Monica, young Sammy’s first girlfriend. She’s the first girl ever to pay him any attention, so it’s not too surprising that he would lose his head over her even though the best things that can be said of her are 1) she’s cute-ish, and 2) her father has a state-of-the-art-for-the-time movie camera that he’s willing to loan Sammy so the young genius can hone his moviemaking skills by videoing his high school senior class’s “Ditch Day” at the beach. Yet realistic though it might be, the sight of creative genius-level boys falling hard for painfully stupid girls makes me cringe. These girls don’t need to have any special interests or talents or even any intriguing personalities in order to impress the superior boys. They just have to be cute-ish and (seemingly) available. Thank Heaven I’ll never be a teenager again.

More crucial, Spielberg’s film, through no real fault of its own, couldn’t help reminding me of what I don’t see in the movies these days, that I long with all my being to see: a movie about a woman of creative/artistic genius, made with the same level of production values, craftsmanship, and passion as The Fabelmans.

Though it may have started slow, 2022 hasn’t been a bad year for women in well-reviewed movies. I’ve already mentioned Everything Everywhere All at Once, a bright spot in the first half of the year, but since then we’ve seen the release of Nope, The Woman King, Till, She Said, Women Talking, and of course Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Yet of the female characters driving these narratives, none, as far as I’ve been able to discover, are artists of some kind. These days Hollywood seems more comfortable showing women as scientists than as authors, filmmakers, painters, sculptors, etc. When women do have passion for some form of art, it’s more likely to lead to misery and/or toxicity than to success, as we see in Tar and even, to a lesser degree, The Fabelmans. If this year has an equivalent of previous years’ Portrait of a Lady on Fire or Colette, stories in which we root for the heroines to achieve artistic success, I haven’t heard of it yet.

This lack would trouble me in any case, but it weighs especially heavily on my mind thanks to a recent Twitter discussion, prompted by a user’s post of a famous quote from Camille Paglia: “There is no female Mozart for the same reason there is no female Jack the Ripper.” This of course prompted some back-and-forth about whether the comparative lack of female creative genius was the result of nature or culture; to my regret, I saw more posts citing exceptions to the serial-killer rule (Aileen Wourmos, Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the women in the Manson Family) than the creative-genius rule, though Mozart’s older sister Nannerl, whose story is told in Marie Lu’s beautiful novel The Kingdom of Back, did get a few mentions. The original post was eventually taken down, but it’s stayed with me, as the idea that women are less gifted, less extraordinary by nature — a nature that all the effort and ambition in the world are powerless to overcome — has needled me for years, leading me toward frustrating and even painful moments of self-doubt. Why bother trying, whispers the demon with Paglia’s voice, if you can’t hope to rise above mediocrity? This kind of insecurity forms a current that women with creative aspirations have had to swim against for decades. (Joanna Russ understood.)

This is why I’m so hungry for high-quality films about female painters, sculptors, musicians, poets, and authors, women whose drive to create is painted as sympathetic and admirable rather than toxic bordering on monstrous. We need to be known, in colors too vivid and words too strong to ignore. Back in 2018, a documentary called Be Natural called attention to pioneer filmmaker Alice Guy-Blache, one of a number of women in early cinema who walked so Steven Spielberg could run. Shouldn’t her story be told in a biopic? What about Lois Weber, Lotte Reiniger, Dorothy Arzner, Maya Deren, Agnes Varda, or Chantal Ackerman? Do these women not merit a tribute?

The Fabelmans includes a moment in which Sammy’s sister calls him out for making too many movies about boys. Is this a self-rebuke on Spielberg’s part? Might he be considering making more woman-centered films? Psst — make a movie about Alice Guy-Blache, Mr. Spielberg. Please.

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