Why ‘The Fabelmans’ is so much more than a memoir

Why ‘The Fabelmans’ is so much more than a memoir | Soho House

Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

Sunday 29 January 2023 By Matt d’Ancona

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.

‘I’ve avoided therapy because movies are my therapy’: so says Steven Spielberg in Susan Lacy’s 2017 documentary on his life and career. In his epic new film, The Fabelmans – which snapped up seven Oscar® nominations on Tuesday – the 76-year-old patient stretches out on the couch and tells his true therapist, the audience, how it all started.

And the truth is that it all started with a deep psychological wound: the divorce in April 1966 of his parents, Arnold and Leah. In the dramatised version of Spielberg’s life, co-written with Tony Kushner, Arnold’s counterpart is Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano, a magnificent study in deep but poorly articulated love), while Leah is depicted as Mitzi (Michelle Williams, sublime as a fey suburban Isadora Duncan). 

The movie opens in 1952, as the couple take their eight-year-old son Sammy (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth – an experience that both entrances and traumatises him. He soon picks up his father’s 8mm camera and repeatedly re-enacts the famous train wreck scene from the movie using a model railway set.

As Mitzi explains, this compulsive behaviour is more than escapism: ‘He is trying to get some sort of control over it.’ In some respects, this is the most important line in the movie. Sammy is indeed enchanted by the showmanship of filmmaking and, in his teens, played by Gabriel LaBelle, devotes more and more time to its awe-inspiring possibilities. 

But movies are more than escapism to Sammy. They enable him to bring a measure of order to a world that he suspects is constantly threatened by chaos. In Spielberg’s films, danger lurks everywhere: the shark in the waters of Amity Island, the tanker truck chasing Dennie Weaver in Duel (1971) – ‘the truck was the bully and the car was me’ – and, above all, the constant peril of desertion. 

Making a film about a family camping trip, Sammy spots moments of intimacy between his mother and ‘Uncle’ Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen), his father’s colleague and best friend. Sammy confronts Mitzi with the evidence on film. Mother, uncle, infidelity? This is Spielberg as Hamlet rather than Barnum.

So, it is a serious error to confuse the splendour of his movies with superficiality or sentimentality; to parse his body of work as the product of naive optimism, or just a cinematic opiate for hundreds of millions all over the world. As The Fabelmans shows to triumphant effect, the deepest source of Spielberg’s movie-making has been a lifelong reckoning with trauma.

Here are this week’s recommendations.

Why ‘The Fabelmans’ is so much more than a memoir | Soho House


Dreaming Walls: Inside The Chelsea Hotel
(selected cinemas; video on demand)
‘I’ve always liked to be where the big guys were’: so says the young Patti Smith, in archive footage deployed by Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier in this elegiac, absorbing documentary.

By the time Smith and the late Robert Mapplethorpe lived in the Chelsea Hotel on W. 23rd Street in 1969 to 1970 – as memorably described in her 2010 book Just Kids – it was already a pilgrimage site for aesthetes and bohemians, magnetically drawn to its shabby glamour by its association with artists ranging from Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and Dylan Thomas to Andy Warhol, Stanley Kubrick and Bob Dylan. 

Filmed in 2018 to 2019 when the building was being extensively renovated, Dreaming Walls is really a ghost story. Not all of these spectral figures are dead, either. As the old building prepares for its new role as a Manhattan boutique hotel – it finally reopened last year – a group of ageing long-term residents wander its corridors, mournful as they reflect that, in truth, they are no longer wanted. 

Why ‘The Fabelmans’ is so much more than a memoir | Soho House
Why ‘The Fabelmans’ is so much more than a memoir | Soho House


Bloodbath Nation by Paul Auster 
In the first days of 2023, there have been at least 39 mass shootings and 1,214 gun deaths – including the 11 killed in Monterey Park, California on Saturday, and the seven fatalities at Half Moon Bay (in the same state) two days later.

Which, for the bleakest possible reason, makes the novelist Paul Auster’s new book on the role of firearms in America’s history, society and culture all too topical. As a writer rather than a politician, he does not seek to pretend that there is some glib regulatory solution to the problem. 

‘Peace will break out,’ he writes, ‘only when both sides want it, and in order for that to happen, we would first have to conduct an honest, gut-wrenching examination of who we are and who we want to be as a people going forward into the future, which necessarily would have to begin with an honest gut-wrenching examination of who we have been in the past.’ He’s absolutely right in his analysis – and in his melancholic realism about the prospects of such a collective epiphany.


RUSH! by Måneskin
Since their Eurovision triumph representing Italy two years ago, Måneskin have barely paused for breath, and in this, their third studio album (the first in which the lyrics are mainly English), they plant their standard fiercely in the musical earth as a mainstream rock band demanding your attention.

In the record’s 17 tracks, frontman Damiano David, bassist Victoria De Angelis, guitarist Thomas Raggi and drummer Ethan Torchio pack a punch that is infectiously enjoyable, and owes as much to the swagger of glam as it does to the punk spirit of Iggy Pop (with whom they collaborated on a version of ‘I Wanna Be Your Slave’ in 2021).

Måneskin’s lack of depth is precisely what makes them terrific. In every sarky lyric and power guitar lick, they remind us that not every album has to have a deep political purpose or disclose the lockdown memories of the musicians. Rock can also be fun. You remember fun, don’t you? (As part of their European tour, they’ll be playing the O2 in London on 8 May.)

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media

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