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Review: The Fabelmans

[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]

What is a film? Is it a dream? A memory? Or is it a purely scientific phenomenon—a quirk of how the eye perceives motion when otherwise static photographs are projected in rapid succession? Is it art—visual poetry, a ballet of light and shadow?

Is it a truth that transcends objective facts?

In the case of The Fabelmans, the answer is easy: it is, as the title implies, a fable—the myth of modern cinema’s greatest icon, as presented by the legend himself. That’s right: after revolutionizing the industry (for better or worse) with such blockbusters as Jaws, Jurassic Park, and the Indiana Jones series, Steven Spielberg has decided to tell the story of his own life… with a couple of minor embellishments, of course. After all, no director worth his salt has ever let a pesky thing like “reality” get in the way of good old-fashioned entertainment. Spielberg understands that the events of the past are inherently less interesting than their emotional impact—how they felt. Thus, he paints the screen with sensations—some mundane (the rhythmic clacking of long, manicured fingernails on piano keys), others surreal (unattended shopping carts stampeding downhill in the aftermath of a violent tornado), and a few just plain absurd (apparently, John Ford owned a match holder in the shape of a miniature cowboy boot, and his cigars flared up like goddamn Roman candles when he lit them).

If that description sounds overly sentimental or self-indulgent… well, then you probably won’t enjoy The Fabelmans very much, if I’m being completely honest. It’s the logical evolution of the short movies that Spielberg produced in his childhood: a form of therapy, an act of catharsis, an attempt to reign in and control chaos. Here, however, the traumas and anxieties that he confronts are significantly more personal, mature, and substantial than an irrational fear of colliding model trains (though the source of his young protagonist's teenage angst will hardly come as a surprise to anyone even passingly familiar with the subtext of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial).

Still, regardless of your opinion on Spielberg’s style, tone, and themes, you simply cannot deny that he is an accomplished craftsman. In the opening scene of The Fabelmans alone, for example, he seamlessly transitions from the master shot into coverage of three separate characters in a single unbroken take. He does this not to flaunt his technical prowess (indeed, the choreography between the camera and the performers is nearly invisible at a casual glance), but because he is economical—he simply doesn’t need to disruptively chop up the action in order to convey the relevant narrative information.

And in an era defined by bland, unambitious aesthetic uniformity, this cool, confident, effortless command of the frame is a breath of fresh air.

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