How Jewish is Steven Spielberg? Is it a valid question?
What about his three sisters, who are given so little to do in this movie that it should be considered an insult to women everywhere (Kate, where were you in all this?)? Have sisters EVER been painted with less imagination? They should do an Amy Irving and take him to court!
He films one of his jock tormentors as a blond God-like figure – I swear, it reminded me of Leni Riefenstahl’s Hitler – worshiping “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia” – while he makes the other one with dark hair look like a looser and a lush.
“The Fabelmans” is Steven Spielberg’s cinematic coming out to the Goyim. He may have directed “Schindler’s List” and “Munich” but never directly addressed his Jewishness. Now, however, approaching his late-seventies, he felt he needed to tell his story and that of his mom, the late Leah Adler – who used to run a nice kosher restaurant called “The Milky Way” in Pico/Robertson – before time ran out. However, the events that he dramatizes, whether they happened or not, do not work on the screen.
Growing up Catholic in a little village in Ireland in a time (the seventies) when Vatican City ruled the country, I never encountered a Jewish person. We were so insulated that I never met a Protestant (a non-Catholic Christian) until I went to college. It amazes me now that the movies, which I immediately fell in love with the day our first TV arrived – I was around six years old – were, from the late 1910s, a Jewish business – of all the major studios only 20th Century Fox was not founded by a Jew and that was only after Daryl Zanuck got rid of William Fox! The same applied to popular music – it was never mentioned that Paul Simon, Carole King, Neil Diamond, or Janis Ian were Jewish. My only exposure to a Jewish sensibility was an Irish Jew (heavens!) named June Levine, who wrote for The Irish Times and occasionally guested as a talking-head on Ireland’s one late-night talk show, The Late Late Show with Gay Byrne. Ironically, June’s secularist ideas in a country smothered by its national religion drew me to her.
So, how Jewish is Steven Spielberg? Is it a valid question? Well, in the context of “The Fabelmans,” it is. In that vast ocean of Judaism between the secular and the Orthodox, how Jewish is Steven Spielberg? Well, circumcised or not (reference: the hilarious urinal scene in Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Here I Am”), he is Jewish enough to insist that his second wife converts to Judaism before marriage. So, Kate Capshaw followed in the footsteps of all those famous Shiksa women who knew that converting to Judaism was part of the deal when they married a powerful Jewish man. Women like Norma Shearer with Irving Thalberg and Elizabeth Taylor with Eddie Fisher (or was it Mike Todd?) Marilyn Monroe with Arthur Miller, Polly Bergen with Freddie Fields, and Helen Reddy with Jeff Wald (no mention of this, of course, in the recent Helen movie released shortly before her death). Debbie Reynolds with Fisher? Doris Day with Marty Melcher? Not sure about the latter two. That’s just the way it is in Hollywood. It’s all a little hush, but that’s how it is. It’s a Jewish town.
But back to the movie, which was co-written by Spielberg and frequent writing partner Tony Kushner (“Munich,”” Lincoln,” and “West Side Story”). Spielberg’s Sammy/Steven (nicely played by Gabriel LaBelle) grew up in Arizona, where he started making home movies as a kid. Ironically, this was after being inspired by one of the worst films ever – certainly one of the worst to win the Best Picture Award: Cecil B. De Mille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Apart from his dad’s best friend Bennie (Seth Rogan) and a visiting great uncle Boris, who has not lost the Yiddish accent of the old country (Judd Hirsch in a highly effective extended cameo), there isn’t another Jew in sight. His family is secular, so the word Jew is barely mentioned if it is mentioned at all. We could be watching “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” However, Boris is the first (and only) person to let slip that if Sammy keeps up his moviemaking, he will be entering one of the very few industries where being Jewish is an advantage, as opposed to the circus! Interestingly, this is a topic that Spielberg does not address again, even after Sammy/Steven starts making plans to skip college and head to LA.
As Sammy’s dad, Burt, Paul Dano turns in a stunning performance, by far the best in the film. A generous and loving father who nevertheless is seen by Sammy/Steven’s mom, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), as dull, an engineer who missed the artistic gene and cannot appreciate life’s finer things. A concert pianist who gave up a promising career (as did Leah Adler), Mitzi views Sammy/Steven as a kindred spirit. Yet, although she is the other central character in the movie, she is a woman in a Spielberg movie (more on this topic later). And, unfortunately, the Michelle we get playing Mitzi comes from “My Week with Marilyn,” not “Manchester by the Sea.” Whenever she must impersonate a specific person, Michelle puts too much effort into acting. Here, she vacillates between moments of brilliance and irritation (or irritation). Her best moments are silent, as when Sammy/Steven is editing his film of the family’s camping trip, and he realizes that Leah and Bennie are in love.
In the movie’s second half, we are off to the Bay Area, where Burt moves for a promotion, and Mitzi descends into a funk as she pines for Bennie. It is here that Sammy/Steven has his first encounter with anti-Semitism. And it’s vicious. Yet these sequences seem utterly fanciful. As cinema, they do not work at all. It’s 1964, and the guys accuse him of crucifying Christ! It may have happened, but a first-year film school student could have done better because of the haphazard way Spielberg filmed these scenes. It all feels disconcertingly unreal. Like the rape scenes in Atom Egoyan’s misguided “Ararat,” you start to hear the unintentional belly laughs!
Next comes the sheer effort of trying to make sense of it all. First, it’s challenging to think there was no anti-Semitic sentiment in Arizona. Second, couldn’t the young Sammy/Steven have raised the subject, just a little, with his family? Third, what about his three sisters, who are given so little to do in this movie that it should be considered an insult to women everywhere (Kate, where were you in all this?)? Have sisters EVER been painted with less imagination? They should do an Amy Irving and take him to court! We know that women are an insulting afterthought in a Spielberg movie. Except for Karen Allen in “Raiders” and Ariana DeBose in his excellent adaption of “West Side Story,” women are a nuisance he must put up with until he gets back to the boys. Did he ever contemplate that they might be on the receiving end of some anti-Jewish sentiment? What about all those mean girls? Honestly, I don’t think the thought even entered his mind.
And that’s just for starters. A gentile girlfriend obsessed with Jesus and attracted to him because he is a Christ figure (he’s Jewish, after all) arranges for him to film the school’s beach picnic, “Beach Blanket Babylon” – style, with her father’s state-of-the-art camera. However, not a word about how her gentile parents view this relationship or why her father has a state-of-the-art camera in the first place! It is to her major credit that actress Chloe East makes this character work.
Then, as things get even creepier, Spielberg ventures into his most misguided filmmaking since 1989’s “Always.” It’s the school prom – for a while, you think you will see an outtake from De Palma’s “Carrie” – and Sammy/Steven gets to unveil his magnum opus. What follows is NOT what you expect and indeed departs from the benign innocence of the John Ford-like Westerns he filmed with classmates back in Arizona. We are astonished to see that Sammy/Steven films one of his jock tormentors as a blond God-like figure – I swear, it reminded me of Leni Riefenstahl’s Hitler -worshiping “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia” – while he makes the other one with dark hair look like a looser and a lush. Is this Sammy/Steven getting revenge? Is this Sammy/Steven showing us the Eisenteinian power of editing? Is this Sammy/Steven having a gay moment? Your guess is as good as mine. Whatever it is, it isn’t kind. Worse, Spielberg follows through with an actual confrontation between Sammy/Steven and the blond God in what must be the most misguided conversation on anti-Semitism committed to film. It’s not just an insult to Jews everywhere. No matter their views on religion, anyone will feel uncomfortable seeing this badly misjudged scene in this very uneven film.