Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The Fabelmans

Persistence of Vision
"Who Spends $40 Million on Therapy?"
“A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs - it sucks - it strokes its eyes over the whole uncomfortable range. Suddenly one strikes. Why? Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles.”
“Look...to go through life and call it yours - your life - you first have to get your own pain. Pain that's unique to you."
Peter Shaffer "Equus"
There is a sequence in Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans that I found absolutely hilarious, but mine was the only laughter in the theater.
The set-up is that young Sammy Fabelman (at this point played by Mateo Zoryan) is being taken by his parents, Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) to his first movie, The Greatest Show on Earth. Sammy is worried. It will be DARK and he's scared of the dark. Father explains the technical aspects of film running as still images that take advantage of the limitations of the eye's retention—the persistence of vision—to  simulate a moving image, while Mom takes the romantic view: "Movies are dreams that you never forget." Already the family lines are drawn out between the adults: one is technical, one is artistic.
What happens to the child in between is something else entirely. He sits, rapt, edging closer and closer to the screen to the edge of his seat when something happens that is quite outside his ken: two "bad guys" are robbing a train when one of them notices the circus train is barreling down the tracks at them. Wanting to stop the train, one of the "bad guys" knocks out the other one and drives the car onto the tracks towards the train rushing towards them to warn them about the other one farther down the tracks and prevent the upcoming collision. But, the train has too much momentum; while the guy driving waves his arms in desperation, the train plows into the car flipping it like a toy (which it is) and crashes into the next train causing a massive wreck...achieved by models, inter-cut with live-action scenes of chaos and process shots of fleeing animals.
But, a child wouldn't know that. Driving home, Mitzi asks Sammy "What was your favorite part?" he can't answer...he doesn't answer, still gob-smacked by that approaching train and the disaster that he witnessed before his eyes. At Hannukah, Sammy gets trains as a present—Dad explains the scale and the connections and what makes it go. But, Sammy wants to watch them table-top height to re-create that scene from the movie and sets up elaborate things for it to crash into, inevitably breaking the engine and incurring Dad's disapproval. Break things? You're supposed to FIX things!
But, Mom gets it. Sammy's trying to recreate the scene to make it less scary—he wants to understand it, control it, master it. She gets some film for Dad's movie camera so Sammy can film the train again and again, so he won't be constantly breaking trains. And he shows Mom the movie he made of the train from various angles, various ways to make a model train scary. 
But, before the part where Sammy shows his little movie to his thrilled audience, there's a sequence where adult director Steven Spielberg makes an honest-to-god recreation of that "Greatest Show on Earth" crash using miniature trains, toy cars and unsuspecting Hannukah decorations using the same angles DeMille did. And it's amazing. Also funny as Hell. To think Spielberg—at 75 years old—was determined to get that sequence he was trying to make at 6 years old look as good as possible. It's hilarious. It's fun. It's poignant. It's a little brilliant in its meta-sense.
The Fabelmans
is Spielberg's telling (with a canny co-script by Tony Kushner*) of the story of his childhood, the birth of his love of making movies and the death of his parents' marriage. It's a story that spans two moves—from New Jersey to Arizona and Arizona to Los Angeles—and ten years and god knows how many hours with an eye to a viewfinder, hours squinting at film through a magnifying glass and cutting and splicing it together with glue as well as graduating from 8mm home movies to 16mm presentations. Oh. He also attended school, got bullied for being Jewish, and getting his first crush...on a shiksa.
Self-indulgent? Sure. But, then you're ignoring Hemingway's maxim "write what you know." Every film-maker (or author) taps into the well of their past** If you dismiss Spielberg doing it, you dismiss Richard Linklater or Francois Truffaut. You can't sneer at The Fabelmans and extoll Cinema Paradiso. Hell, Fellini made a career out of it. Howard Hawks used metaphorical occupations to tell stories about making movies. So, self-indulgent? Sure, join the club!
But, it's a fascinating exercise and an entertaining one, too, because it is Spielberg looking at himself through the rear-view-finder, looking through the aperture and seeing himself, fixing the story where it needs to be finessed or goosed (as he always does) and looking for the tell-tale detail that resonates. Only this time, it's personal, and it's fascinating to look at Spielberg's life as he observed it (or sees it now) and into his mind, as well.
For instance, there is a clear case of imposter syndrome where Sammy Fabelman is the family chronicler, filming everything as observer, story-teller, but ultimately outsider. The revelation comes out in a sequence that could be a horror movie. At a "family conference" it is announced by Mitzi and Burt that they are splitting up—he's going to remain in L.A. for his job and Mitzi is going back to Arizona for her sanity. It is a scene of tears and tearing apart.
Spielberg cuts to a shot of Sammy watching from the stairwell while the whole traumatic scene unfolds. Cut to a closer shot of Sammy with a look of horror in his eyes—is it suddenly dawning on him that his family is splintering apart? Is he reacting to his sisters' emotional trauma? No. He is reacting to the next shot Spielberg presents: Sammy sees himself (in a fantasy sequence, inserting himself into the scene) figuring out how to frame the scene with his camera.
That is a frightening scene. It shows that even in the most intimate, personal, affecting scene, he is outside, objectively looking for the angles, almost dispassionately when passions are running high. What has this "hobby," this obsession done to him that he can even see himself doing that, even if it is instinctually? It's a gift and a curse. As Sammy's Uncle Boris (a florid
Judd Hirsch) informs him "Art. Family. It will tear you apart!"
The movie is full of small truths, revelations large and small, that inform the color of a life. I could go on and on about details, themes, structures, performance details that inform this movie (and have influenced Spielberg's entire body of work) but that would just be robbing you of a personal experience of discovery, the individual way of connecting dots and frames. In a way, all movie-makers are communicating personally, whether they are telling their own story or somebody else's.
There is another sequence in the L.A. apartment Sammy is sharing with his father. It's very simple; disarmingly simple. Sammy comes home. Burt, soon after. Sammy is tired, frustrated, isn't getting anywhere in L.A. looking for work. The mail's on the table and there's a letter from Mitzi in Arizona, with pictures, snapshots. Does Burt want to see them? Sure.
There's then the standard Hitchcock sequence of three shots. Burt looks at the pictures. Sammy looks at Burt looking. Back to Burt, as Sammy seems him. But, the two shots of the father are not the same, obviously so, even though from the same vantage point, more or less. The first shot includes Burt looking at the pictures. Cut to Sammy looking. The next shot of Burt does not include the pictures—the camera has moved up and the ceiling of the apartment is weighing down on him. That is the shot of Sammy seeing his father's reaction to the snapshot of his absent wife—the sadness, the contemplation, the emptiness. It is SO simple, but it is importantly different, delivering a visual gut-punch you can feel and that is communicated, even if you don't recognize the shift. That is communication in its rawest, visual way, the way that make movies unique in how they tell stories. And Spielberg finds the best way, subtle and overt, to convey that to the audience (whether they recognize it as such or not).

This is why I love Spielberg movies. This is why I love movies.

The movie may not be the story of Spielberg's past, so much as it's the story of his DNA.

* Kushner's dedication to "get it right" even exceeded Spielberg's as recounted in this Collider article:  https://collider.com/the-fabelmans-ending-tony-kushner-interview/
** Some film-makers go back to recapture their youth. Supposedly, Orson Welles made The Magnificent Ambersons because it reminded him so much of his early childhood. Fellini made Amarcord. Francois Truffaut made The 400 Blows. George Lucas made American Graffiti. Francis Coppola drew on his family life on quite a few of his films. One always gets the impression from Wes Anderson's films that he's tapping into his early years. Robert Benton made Places in the Heart. Mel Brooks produced My Favorite Year. Noah Baumbach made The Squid and the Whale. The trend seems to be gathering momentum. Alfonso Cuaron made Roma. Lee Isaac Chung made Minari. Last year, Kenneth Branagh made Belfast. Paul Thomas Anderson made Licorice Pizza

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Don't Make a Scene: Hannah and Her Sisters

The Story: I came for the "Jesus would throw up" line and stayed for the break-up.

I've always loved that line from Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters and I knew that I'd be putting it in one of these Sunday Scene features. But, as I've been spending a lot of time on Billy Wilder's films lately—with their many romantic films with great age disparities—I thought it would be more than appropriate to present the Counterpoint to all those May-December romances.
They don't often work out.
Oh, of course, there are exceptions. People are people and your results may vary. 

Bogart and Bacall, for instance. That worked. But, if in order to "make your case", you have to explain who Bogart is...that should be a warning sign. It's just that age disparity can bring up differences with culture, with experience...with conversation ("Hey, honey, put on some Beatles.." "What are Beatles?" "You know (chortle), Paul McCartney's other band" "Who's Paul McCartney?")

It's like the joke you have to explain. If you HAVE to explain it, it probably wasn't worth telling.

Here, Max von Sydow plays the older man (and yeah, Max von Sydow skews the odds in his favor because he's so...damn...good) to Barbara Hershey's younger woman. Frederick and Lee. Teacher and Student. Authority Figure and Supplicant Looking for Daddy. His place. His rules. All red flags. Add to it that's he a frustrated artist and generally cynical about the world (so much, in fact, that you wonder what she saw in him...besides being Max von Sydow, of course) compared to her persona of youth and optimism. Experience versus Inexperience.

But, Inexperience learns and rather quickly. And Allen expands the minor irritations into needling consistencies that get under the skin. Then, the dis-believing, the counter-arguments, the accusations, the bargaining, the sympathetic ego-stroking and the outburst from whom no one returns. It's all there. The grief. And no intellectual superiority can solve it...or salve it.
The Set-Up: Lee (Barbara Hershey), the youngest of three sisters, is involved with her former teacher, Frederick (Max von Sydow) has just started an affair with the husband (Michael Caine) of her older sister Hannah (Mia Farrow) but before they can "make plans" to be more than in-laws, she has to break the news to her current room-mate.
Lee walks along the sidewalk in the rain; she's bareheaded. The streets are dark.
A car drives by; a pedestrian passes holding an umbrella. Lee passes a restaurant well lit inside by hanging lamps. 
The baroque music continues as she enters the loft, her head soaked. She closes the door, touching her soaking hair. 
FREDERICK (offscreen) You're late. 
Lee walks through the loft's living room area, unbelting her coat, towards the bathroom. She passes Frederick, who sits at a table in the kitchen area, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the paper. A plate with a half-eaten sandwich sits in front of him. The music stops. 
LEE (opening the bathroom door) Lucy and I kept talking, and I didn't realize how late it had gotten. 
FREDERICK (barely glancing up from his paper) You missed a very dull TV show about Auschwitz. 
More gruesome film clips...and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. 
As he talks, Lee is seen turning on the bathroom light. She takes off her coat, hanging it on a hook, then begins to dry her hair with a towel.
FREDERICK (turning his head slightly in Lee's direction and gesturing) The reason why they could never answer the question "How could it possibly happen?" is that it's the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is (swallowing) "Why doesn't it happen more often?" Of course it does, in subtler forms. 
Frederick takes a bite of his sandwich and another sip of coffee as Lee walks out of the bathroom, tossing the towel down on the counter. 
LEE (moving her fingers through her wet hair) I have a little headache from this weather. 
She takes a kettle and fills it with water. 
FREDERICK (grunting, sipping his coffee) It's been ages since I sat in front of the TV... just changing channels to find something. 
As Frederick continues his monologue, Lee is busy in the background: striking a wooden match and lighting a burner on the stove for the kettle, taking a glass out of the cupboard, walking into the bathroom for some pills, filling the glass with water in the kitchen sink, and taking her pills. 
FREDERICK  You see the whole culture...Nazis, deodorant salesman, wrestlers...beauty contests, the talk show... 
Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling? (gesturing) 
Hmm? But the worst are the fundamentalist preachers...third-rate con men, telling the poor suckers that watch them that they speak for Jesus...and to please send in money. (picking up his sandwich) Money, money, money! (MORE)
FREDERICK (CONT'D) If Jesus came back, and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up. 
He takes a bite of his sandwich and a sip of coffee. Lee sets her glass on the kitchen counter and walks towards the bedroom area. 
LEE (impatiently, her hands in her hair) Oh, God, Frederick, could you please lighten up?! 
I'm really not in the mood to hear a review of contemporary society again. 
She starts to take off her wet clothes by the bed. Frederick takes off his glasses. He turns and looks at Lee in surprise. 
FREDERICK (standing up from the table) You know, you've been very nervous lately. 
LEE (sighing) I can't take this anymore. 
FREDERICK (walking over to the bed) I'm just trying to complete an education I started on you five years ago. 
LEE (unbuttoning her blouse) I'm not your pupil. (sighing, her hands at her side) I was, but I'm not. 
FREDERICK (sitting down on the edge of the bed) When you leave the nest, I just want you to be ready to face the real world. 
He pulls Lee down next to him on the bed.
LEE (putting her hand on Frederick's leg) Frederick, we're going to have to make some changes. 
She sighs. 
FREDERICK (quickly looking at Lee, alarmed) Like what? 
LEE Oh, you know what. I'm suffocating! 
FREDERICK (turning away, his hands clasped in front of him) Oh! Are we going to have this conversation again? 
LEE Yes, we're going to have this conversation again.
LEE I...I have to leave. I have to move out. 
FREDERICK (shaking his clasped hands intensely) Why? 
LEE (sighing) Because I have to!
FREDERICK (emotionally) What are you going to use for money?! 
LEE I don't know. I thought, maybe I'd move in with my parents for a while. 
FREDERICK Tch, oh. I always told you you would leave me. 
(looking at Lee) But...does it have to be now? 
LEE (hugging her arm with her other hand) Well, maybe it'll only be temporary, but I ha--I have to try. 
FREDERICK (taking Lee's head in his hands and looking at her) Oh...Lee, you are my whole world. 
Good God! Have you been kissed tonight?! 
LEE (reacting, pushing Frederick's hands from her face) No. 
FREDERICK (reacting) Oh, yes, you have! 
LEE (quickly standing up, defensively) No. 
FREDERICK (raising his voice) You've been with someone! 
LEE (overlapping, running away from the bed) Stop accusing me! 
Lee runs into the kitchen, her hands tight around her chest. 
FREDERICK (offscreen) I'm too smart, Lee! You can't fool me! You're turning all red! 
Lee, fraught with emotion, briefly puts her outstretched hands on the refrigerator door, then turns around and leans against it, hugging herself, her blouse still unbuttoned, her hair still wet and bedraggled. 
LEE Leave me alone!
Frederick enters the kitchen area and leans against the counter. 
FREDERICK (angrily) Oh, Christ! What's wrong with you?! 
LEE (leaning against the refrigerator, sighing) I'm sorry. 
FREDERICK Oh, couldn't you say something? You have to slither around behind my back! 
LEE (overlapping, her voice emotionally raised) I'm saying it now! 
FREDERICK So you met somebody else? 
LEE (sighing, nodding) Yeah. 
Frederick cringes, reacting. He puts his hand to his forehead; he sighs. 
LEE (walking into the bathroom) But you, God, you knew that was going to happen sooner or later. I can't live like this! 
FREDERICK (turning to face Lee in the bathroom, his arms crossed) Who is it? 
LEE (frantically putting things in her purse, glaring at Frederick) What's the difference?! It's just somebody I met! 
FREDERICK But who? Where did you meet him?
LEE It doesn't make a difference! I have to move out! 
FREDERICK You are, you are my only connection to the world! 
Lee turns and faces Frederick in the bathroom doorway. 
LEE (gesturing emotionally) Oh, God, that's too much responsibility for me. It's not fair! 
I want a less complicated life, Frederick. I want a husband, maybe even a child before it's too late. 
FREDERICK (reacting, his face in his hand) Jesus...Jesus! 
LEE (gesturing, moving closer to Frederick) Oh, God, I don't even know what I want. 
FREDERICK (sighing heavily, reacting) Oh... 
LEE (rubbing Frederick's shoulder tenderly) Tch, oh, what do you get out of me, anyway? I mean... 
(laying her head against his shoulder, sighing deeply) 
it's not sexual anymore. It's certainly not intellectual. 
I mean, you're so superior to me in every way that-- 
Frederick furiously shakes Lee away. He pounds his fist against a cupboard.
Lee, gasping, moves away. 
FREDERICK Please, don't patronize me!
He puts his hand on his forehead, then turns to the offscreen Lee. 
FREDERICK God! I should have married you years ago when you wanted to! 
I should have agreed. 
He walks over to Lee in another area of the kitchen. 
LEE (sighing) Oh, God, don't you know it never would have worked? 
Frederick turns away from Lee. He begins to pace near the counter. 
FREDERICK I told you, one day you would leave me... (leaning on the counter) for a younger man. I-- 
He loudly pounds his fist on the counter in despair and frustration,
then covers his eyes with his hands in sorrow.

Words by Woody Allen
Pictures by Carlo Di Palma and Woody Allen.
Hannah and Her Sisters is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from M-G-M Home Video.