“Art will break your heart.” This is the central message underscoring “The Fabelmans,” Steven Spielberg’s beautiful semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film. Sammy Fabelman gets that basic message growing up repeatedly, from his mother, father, his mother’s uncle Boris, his first girlfriend, the school bully, and most of all from his own conscience. In the final scene, he even hears it directly from the mouth of John Ford, in an unexpected one-minute meeting in the director’s office. “They tell me you want to be a picture-maker,” Ford says. “Why? This business will rip you apart.”
By “business,” we imagine Ford doesn’t just mean the movie business, but the business of being an artist, the “mishigas” as it’s referred to in an earlier scene. And it’s clear that the artistic inclination has a stronghold on Sammy’s heart and mind from the moment he sees his first film, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” as a young child in the opening scene. (Younger Sammy is played by Mateo Zoryan, but primarily throughout the film the Spielberg alter-ego is Gabriel LaBelle.) Not long after, Sammy’s mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) secretly lets him borrow his dad’s camera, because she understands and recognizes that Sammy’s afflicted, as she is: He’s an artist.
She is a concert pianist who is also trying her best to be a homemaker, wife, and mother, while Sammy’s father Burt, (Paul Dano) is an engineer and revered as the “genius” in the family. Mitzi struggles with her artistic tendencies, the eccentricities of which express themselves in every part of her life and ultimately break apart the family, despite her sincere best intentions to suppress them and stay the course as a devoted purveyor of the nuclear family in a kosher home. We meet Mitzi’s uncle Boris along the way (Judd Hirsch) and realize art runs deep in the family and is part of their DNA. Boris, a troubled, slightly broken man, used to work in the circus, and he gives Sammy a stern warning about the difficulties that await any artist in life.
Sammy internalizes all this, but he also identifies with their passion, the beauty they see, experience, and make around them. And he knows filmmaking is his calling. Seeing things captured on film is how he’s able to absorb life’s truths, how he understands the people around him. It gives him a way to feel in control, and provides him with a language. Sammy tries to turn his back on his camera briefly as a teenager, but picks it up again one night in his bedroom, as the moonlight is projecting through his window onto his wall, like a movie screen. He reaches his hand into the light, casting his shadow – his medium is just light and shadow at its core after all. He falls asleep pressing his cheek to his movie camera, listening to the soothing hum of the shutter speed.
In that final scene, John Ford (David Lynch brilliantly cast as the historic auteur) directs Sammy to walk over to two paintings on the wall of his office, both representations of cowboys in the Monument Valley landscape Ford was so closely associated with. There’s an interesting connection here: The first painting he’s asked to look at has a prominent butte rock formation in the background, classic of Ford’s films but also very reminiscent of Devil’s Tower, the centerpiece of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” We have an aha moment, but Sammy is having a different one. He’s realizing that one of his heroes feels reminiscent of adults he knows and has been close to all his life – Ford has that same affliction of being an artist. The only way he knows how to talk to Sammy is through the paintings, through the language of representation that Sammy by now feels so at home with. “See that painting over there? Walk over to it … Describe it,” Ford demands. Sammy makes some attempt to describe cowboys on horses, but Ford cuts him off. “No, no, where’s the horizon!? Where is it?”
He takes Sammy through this exercise twice, then imparts his wisdom: “When the horizon’s at the bottom, it’s interesting. When the horizon’s at the top, it’s interesting. When the horizon’s in the middle, it’s boring as shit. Now, good luck to you. And get the fuck out of my office.”
“The Fabelmans” circles around themes that are sprinkled throughout many of Spielberg’s movies, but most especially brings me back to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” one of the best movies about artistic obsession of all time. On the surface, “Close Encounters” is an epic story about UFOs, the disruption of normalcy, a journey, and a government chase. But at its core, its message, like “The Fabelmans,” is that art may break your heart, but it’s because it means something. It’s important.
I first saw “Close Encounters” when it was released in November of 1977, at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York. I was Sammy Fabelman’s age, 15 years old. I was not yet an artist. I was just a teenager from Brooklyn, and I left the theater changed.
Roy Neary (beautifully portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss) is a worker for the electric company, who is sent out into the field in the midst of a widespread blackout. He will soon discover first hand that the interruptions in the grid are being caused by UFOs, which show themselves as powerful lights from above, and impart him with a vision — something so vivid and real to him that he upends his entire life trying to understand it. He can’t unsee the abstract mound or mountain, nor escape the drive to create it over and over in an attempt to gain some control and make sense of it – willing its form into existence in shaving cream, with clay from a model train set in his basement, and dramatically, in mashed potatoes, disrupting a family dinner. He is becoming alienated from his wife and kids, and then ultimately the whole neighborhood, because they can’t understand what’s taken hold of him, or why he needs to abandon the familiar constructs of their ordinary life.
Roy’s wife ultimately leaves with the children, as he completely deconstructs the domestic space, disobeys the normal boundaries of interior and exterior, personal and shared property, and codes of conduct, repeating over and over to himself that it’s important and it means something. The climax of that particular storyline occurs when, after creating the mountainous structure in the middle of the family living room, Roy finally sees the thing itself, Devil’s Tower, in a newscast playing on the TV screen. And in that moment, it becomes real to him, and the need to express it through art is resolved. The movie becomes something else; something larger about society’s search for meaning, a metaphor related to the great beyond, and transcendence.
Back in the opening scene of “The Fabelmans,” Sammy has never seen a movie before and is anxious. His science-minded father explains how the frame rate tricks the brain so that the eye sees motion. Sammy’s mother explains that movies are like dreams you’ll never forget. Spielberg’s characters, Roy Neary included, are part of this dream, and dream world, which for an artist, is the thing itself, the realer world, the raison d’être. It’s life. It’s art. And it will break your heart.
Gregory Crewdson is an artist, professor, and Director of Graduate Studies in Photography at the Yale School of Art. Juliane Hiam, who contributed to this piece, is a writer, filmmaker, and Crewdson’s creative producer.
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