The Artist's Life in One Shot
Art is our drug. You will make your movies and do your art, but remember how it hurts. It will be lonely. - Uncle Boris from "The Fabelmans"
It’s one shot. There’s one show that says it all. How dangerous an artistic life can be. How the dissonant beat of an art-filled heart can be just as creative in breaking a life as it can be in enriching it. Their parents are getting a divorce, Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) and his sisters are told the news. The divorce that would influence some of the most famous blockbusters of the 20th-century. This is Steven Spielberg’s autobiography, Sam Fabelman is his stand-in. Sammy sits quietly on the stairwell of their California home, their third one after years in New Jersey and Arizona. His sisters scream and argue with their parents, blaming Mitzi, their mother, who also suffers the infliction of an inclination to art. Suddenly the camera zooms into the mirror behind them and Sammy appears within the reflection holding a camera, filming the drama. Then a cut back to a closeup of his teary-eyed face, stunned more by the divorce announcement or by his head creating this as a scene for one of his movies? Because it’s crazy, it’s almost psychotic. It’s the life of an artist.
The Fabelmans is not about the magic of the movies. It’s about the pain of wanting to make that magic. It’s about making art and processing your life and your trauma with this outlet that was imprecated upon you, whenever that was. How it happens is different for every artist, but what the artist carries afterwards for the rest of their life is the same. I didn’t think much about that shot when I first saw the picture. On my second viewing, however, I was floored. This is no simple “love letter to the movies.” This is what it means to make movies, to be an artist.
Spielberg knows more than anyone both the power and artificiality of cinema. How unreal it is yet we feel it, we feel it to be so real in the moment, in the theater (mostly in the theater). “Totally fake,” Sammy says about the toy guns his friends are “shooting” in the western film he shot with them. His solution in the editing process (which impresses his more engineer/science-minded dad): he pokes holes in the film with pins to make the guns flash like they are actually firing. Does this look anymore real? Not at all. But it’s awe-inducing and sensational. It works. Spielberg’s filmography is filled with these illogical, artificial images because it works for the scene, for the story. It is cinema. It is a dream.
Spielberg is the master of his chosen art form. The Fabelmans has proved his mastery of it. This self-critical dive into his own soul further unveils his genius, but with it comes regret. In art, there’s no separating the personal from the professional. Art to the artist is a must. It needs to be created because the artist’s temperament demands it. “The temperament of receptivity,” Oscar Wilde called it. “To go into yourself and to explore the depths whence your life wells forth; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create,” advised Rilke. The artist is forever entwined in the “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” the Negative Capability defined by John Keats. Seeing life as art means to believe art is life. Ambiguity and complexity. Art is an attempt to find or reconcile with such things. Art is made to make sense of this world, to make sense of one’s own life. Steven Speilberg, the great septuagenarian filmmaker, has always been doing this in his great, endlessly entertaining films. But The Fabelmans is that inevitable, elderly reckoning. The reminiscence of the sacrifices that were made. The severe suffering that was endured. The anger from being misunderstood. The fear of being understood. The accursed disposition of sensitivity and deep, deep feeling. All for the sake of art and the reason for art. The one thing that can be controlled by one’s own hand- at the desk, in the studio, on the stand, on the set, on the canvas.
The artist is lucky too. Whatever their chosen medium, it’s something to get out of themselves. It’s a display of their heart and soul. Which means it’s a display of love. It came from passion. The greatest artist’s know love deeply. Without love, there is no art. Sure, with art there is obsession, egoism, self-absorption, and can even be psychotic (as I above described Spielberg’s shot), that’s part of it. But the true genius of an artist comes out of themselves. They critique themselves, they know and see the mistakes of an artistic life. But first they had to love their art and give everything to it.
Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them. - Rainer Maria Rilke
The Oscars are tonight and no film deserves Best Picture more than Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans. Though it probably won’t win. The majority of Academy voters are industry people that see their Hollywood jobs as a place of work (many directors, sadly, are turning this way), and that’s okay, they just don’t have the receptivity, the art-fueled heart. That insane, spectacular, beautiful, brilliant, truthful shot in The Fabelmans is for the artist to gasp at. “Life is nothing like the movies, Fabelman,” Logan, the high school bully and jock, tells Sam. “But you got the girl!” Sam retorts. It’s true. Thanks to Sam and his imagination ("You made me fly”), his art, Logan got the girl. Because to Sam Fabelman, movies are life and he’s one of the few that knows how to wield art to manifest such great power and beauty. He has to in order to survive. And that is both wonderful and horrifying. It’s all there in that one shot.