“I’ve avoided therapy because movies are my therapy”: so says Steven Spielberg in Susan Lacy’s 2017 documentary on his life and career. In his epic new film, The Fabelmans (general release, 27 January) – which snapped up seven Oscar nominations on Tuesday – the 76-year-old patient stretches out on the couch and tells his true therapist, the audience, how it all started.
And the truth is that it all started with a deep psychological wound: the divorce in April 1966 of his parents, Arnold and Leah. His father was a brilliant electrical engineer and computer pioneer to whom, the director recalled on Desert Island Discs last month, Bill Gates declared himself personally indebted.
His mother was a former concert pianist and a free spirit (“a sibling, not a parent”, as Spielberg remembers), who oscillated between the playfulness of a Peter Pan and the profound misery of a frustrated artist who had subordinated her dreams to family life, as they moved wherever Arnold’s flourishing career took them all: from Ohio to New Jersey to Arizona to California.
Awkwardly, she was also deeply in love with her husband’s best friend, Bernie Adler, whom she married in 1967. Believing that he would be “less hurt than she”, Arnold – who still loved Leah – took the rap for the divorce, enraging his only son. “We never had any words,” says the younger Spielberg, “but there was an estrangement.” It lasted 15 years.
Now this most personal of stories has been transposed to the silver screen (Leah died in 2017 aged 97, while Arnold was 103 when he passed away in 2020, both having urged their son to turn the family story into a film). After a lifetime of operatic movies, The Fabelmans resembles a composer finally revealing a single ur-text.
In the dramatised version of Spielberg’s life that he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Tony Kushner, Arnold’s counterpart is Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano, a magnificent study in deep but poorly articulated love), while Leah is depicted as Mitzi (Michelle Williams, sublime as a fey suburban Isadora Duncan). The movie opens in 1952, as the couple take their eight-year-old son Sammy (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth – an experience which both entrances and traumatises him.
Sammy soon picks up his father’s 8mm camera and repeatedly re-enacts the famous train wreck scene from the movie using a model railway set (Spielberg fans will spot the reference to the scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which Roy Neary tries to teach his son Brad fractions using a toy train). As Mitzi explains, this compulsive behaviour is more than escapism: “He is trying to get some sort of control over it.”
In some respects, this is the most important line in the movie. Sammy is indeed enchanted by the showmanship of filmmaking and, in his teens, played by Gabriel LaBelle, devotes more and more time to its awe-inspiring possibilities. He makes a series of increasingly ambitious films which, often to touching and witty effect, prefigure the movies that the real-life Spielberg went on to make as an adult – Poltergeist (1982, which he produced), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Saving Private Ryan (1998), amongst others.
Mitzi’s point, however, is that movies are more than escapism to Sammy. They enable him to bring a measure of order to a world that he suspects is constantly threatened by chaos. They also, inadvertently, enable him to detect unwelcome truths.
It is said that the children of unhappy marriages make good spies and good artists, precisely because they are forced, prematurely in life, to be watchful. Making a film about a family camping trip, Sammy spots moments of intimacy between his mother and “Uncle” Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen), his father’s colleague and best friend. Sammy confronts Mitzi with the evidence on film. Mother, uncle, infidelity? This is Spielberg as Hamlet rather than Barnum.
When Sammy is tormented by anti-semitic jocks at Grand View High, he takes revenge by making a film on “ditch day” – a fixture in the school calendar when the seniors all head to the beach and strut their stuff. In real life, the young Spielberg edited the footage of his movie on “Senior Sneak Day” so that his classmates at Saratoga High appeared to be cowering in terror as they were dive-bombed by seagulls. The fictional Sammy, meanwhile, intercuts images of ice cream scoops falling on his fellow teens so that they are made to look like bird droppings.
Much more subtly, he presents Logan (Sam Rechner), the principal bully, as an untouchable hero – a cinematic stunt that psychologically capsizes Logan, who knows that he cannot possibly live up to this image and that Sammy has cunningly trapped him on celluloid. Warned by Logan never to reveal his panicked response to the film, Sammy unleashes the terrible wrath of the young artist finally grasping the power at his fingertips: “Unless I make a movie about it!”.
Which, of course, is precisely what Spielberg has now done, six decades later. One is reminded of Hitchcock’s famous dictum that “in feature films the director is God” – and that the cinematic deity can, on occasion, be vengeful. (For more on Spielberg’s life, and especially his formative years, try Joseph McBride’s Steven Spielberg: A Biography.)
In the many accounts of the cohort of “New Hollywood” directors labelled the “Movie Brats” by Michael Pye – which also included Martin Scorsese, Frances Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, John Milius and Paul Schrader – Spielberg is always stereotyped as the fun-loving dork of the bunch, who, like Lucas, was simply itching to make a new kind of blockbuster that would reinvent the film industry.
As Peter Biskind recalls in his definitive study of that generation, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), he loved the camaraderie and obsessive movie conversations of this preternaturally talented gang, but passed on the rock’n’roll lifestyle and drugs: “I never took LSD, mescaline, coke, or anything like that,” he said, “I would sit in a room and watch TV while people climbed the walls.”
And, yes, while Scorsese made Mean Streets (1973) and Coppola directed The Conversation (1974), Lucas unleashed Star Wars (1977) upon the world and Spielberg changed the terms of trade forever with Jaws (1975). Quentin Tarantino gets it exactly right in his recent book Cinema Speculation: “When Jaws came out in 1975 it might not have been the best film ever made. But it was easily the best movie ever made.”
From the start, Spielberg was a master of camera-work, of new technology, of grand spectacle. Witness the sheer visual impact of Close Encounters, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), his four Indiana Jones movies, Jurassic Park (1993), Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds (2005) and West Side Story (2021).
Yet it is a serious error to confuse this cinematic splendour with superficiality or sentimentality; to parse Spielberg’s body of work as the product of naive optimism, or just a cinematic opiate for the hundreds of millions all over the world who have paid more than $10 billion at the box office to watch his films. As The Fabelmans makes explicit, the deepest source of Spielberg’s movie-making has been a lifelong reckoning with trauma. Danger lurks everywhere: the shark in the waters of Amity Island, the tanker truck chasing Dennis Weaver in Duel (1971) – “the truck was the bully and the car was me” – and, above all, the constant peril of desertion.
Throughout his career, Spielberg has dramatised the break-up of the family – permanent or temporary – and especially its impact upon the young: in Close Encounters he is represented by Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) who looks for a new family among the aliens who whisk him away in the mother-ship (while leaving his own behind); in E.T., his ambassador is 10-year-old Elliott (Henry Thomas), struggling to cope with his parents’ divorce and looking for a friend (“How do you fill the heart of a lonely child?”); in Empire of the Sun (1987), based on J.G. Ballard’s wartime novel, the director identifies with Jim (Christian Bale), separated from his parents and interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp; and the theme of domestic disruption is also visible in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Catch Me if You Can (2002), War of the Worlds, even Jurassic Park which ends with the creation of an ersatz family unit in the departing helicopter.
In any case: no mere sentimentalist could have directed a movie such as Schindler’s List (1993) – which, amazingly, appeared in the same year as Jurassic Park. Thirty years on, it is easy to forget how ethically risky this undertaking was: to make a mainstream Hollywood movie about the Holocaust.
Spielberg’s mentor, Sidney Sheinberg at Universal, had introduced his protégé to Thomas Keneally’s Booker Prize-winning novel in 1982, but it took a further decade for him to grasp the nettle. The consequence was an undisputed masterpiece – “the most moving film I have ever seen”, in the words of David Thomson – and one that showed, beyond doubt, that Spielberg was more than capable of confronting the darkness of which humanity is capable.
He is partly represented, of course, by Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), the consummate showman: “I’d make sure it’s known the company’s in business. I’d see that it had a certain panache. That’s what I’m good at. Not the work, not the work… the presentation.” But Schindler’s accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) incarnates his awoken Jewish conscience, too: “The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf”. In this moment, the movie presents its most radical proposition: that, even amid unprecedented evil and industrial-scale atrocity, it is possible for decency to have its say and do its work, however limited.
“It made me so proud to be a Jew,” Spielberg has said of the most important movie he has ever made – one that inspired him to found and fund the USC Shoah Foundation in 1994. And, in a very different way, The Fabelmans is also a celebration of Spielberg’s rediscovered pride in his Judaism and its profound significance to his life and artistic sensibility.
In March 1974, reviewing The Sugarland Express, Pauline Kael wrote that he “could be that rarity among directors – a born entertainer – perhaps a new generation’s Howard Hawks. In terms of the pleasure that technical assurance gives an audience, this film is one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies… If there is such a thing as a movie sense… Spielberg really has it. But he may be so full of it that he doesn’t have much else.”
It turned out that he did indeed have more to say – and, as The Fabelmans shows to triumphant effect, still does.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Babylon (general release)
The first half hour of Damien Chazelle’s epic account of Hollywood’s transition from the silent age to the talkies – starting with what can only be called a jumbo-sized explosion, followed by the sensory bombardment of an all-night bacchanal at a movie mogul’s mansion – is among the most dazzling cinematic sequences I have ever seen. For this alone, it deserves to be experienced on the big screen – even if you don’t stay for the full 189 minutes.
As he showed in Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016), Chazelle – who became the youngest ever recipient of the Best Director Oscar for the latter film – is an instinctive master of the set piece. Babylon’s extraordinary opening is soon followed by another jaw-dropping visual chapter, in which past-his-prime leading man Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), reminiscent of John Gilbert, awaits his moment in a costume flick while hundred of extras do battle outside and German film director Otto Von Strassberger (Spike Jonze) screams instructions (“Schneller, motherfuckers!”).
At the heart of the movie are Nellie LaRoy, a version of Clara Bow or Evelyn Nesbit, played with absolute commitment by Margot Robbie, and Manny Torres (Diego Calva, excellent), an ambitious Mexican worker who is given a break by Jack as an assistant and ends up climbing the studio tree. Nellie, for her part, may initially be living in a flophouse but behaves in a manner entirely true to her philosophy: “You don’t become a star, honey. You either are one or you aren’t”. And indeed she is – for a while, anyway.
As so often in Chazelle’s movies, Babylon’s overarching theme is the cost of art and the subordination of personal happiness to public ambition.
Apparently based, at least in part, on Curtis Mosby, the African American jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) decides that the price is too high and gets out in time. Others are not so lucky.
Babylon has an unnecessary and silly third act featuring Tobey Maguire as a drug-addled gangster, and an ending that replaces sensory overload with glutinous sentimentality. But it’s only fair to admit that, for all its flaws, I’ve booked tickets to see the whole damn thing again. Do see it at least once. (And check out Justin Hurwitz’s fabulous score, duly nominated for an Oscar on Tuesday.)
Fight the Power: How Hip-Hop Changed the World (all episodes, iPlayer)
Narrated by Chuck D – who is also executive producer – this four-part series is an outstanding history of hip-hop and rap that not only investigates the deep origins of the genre but uses it as a prism through which to understand American history and culture in the past five decades.
Its origins were rich and multiple: the essential backdrop was the civil rights movement and the rise of Black Power in the 1970s, reflected especially in the work of the Last Poets (one of whom, Abiodun Oyewole, now aged 74 is interviewed). The breakthrough artist was DJ Kool Herc who understood the musical impact of “going to the yolk” of a track and spinning the turntables to create a sound to which the new B-boys and B-girls could dance – a street version of late 1970s disco.
Along the way, individual tracks, albums and artists touched a cultural nerve and entrenched the influence of a genre that was initially expected to fizzle out: The Message (1982) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the original hip hop account of Black urban deprivation; Run-DMC’s harnessing of post-punk energy to broaden rap’s audience; the sheer revelatory power of Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988); Ice-T’s pioneering of gangsta rap; Dr Dre’s emergence from NWA to deliver an album with as many influences as The Chronic (1992); the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘Where is the Love?’ as a response to America’s role in the war on terror; Lil Wayne’s fury over the treatment of the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005; Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ as an anthem for Black Lives Matter; and the 2020 remix of ‘Fight the Power’ after the murder of George Floyd.
The series does not gloss over the problems faced by hip hop – the undoubted misogyny of some of its lyrics and videos, the fight against censorship, and, in the age of Jay-Z and Diddy, the challenge, as Chuck D puts it, of having “one foot in the ‘hood and one foot in the boardroom.” But the series leaves you in no doubt of the colossal cultural footprint already left on the planet by a genre that he defines as “creativity and activity that comes out of the Black neighbourhood when everything has been stripped away.”
Dreaming Walls: Inside The Chelsea Hotel (selected cinemas; video on demand)
“I’ve always liked to be where the big guys were”: so says the young Patti Smith, in archive footage deployed by Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier in this elegiac, absorbing documentary.
By the time Smith and the late Robert Mapplethorpe lived in the Chelsea Hotel on W. 23rd Street in 1969-70 – as memorably described in her 2010 book Just Kids – it was already a pilgrimage site for aesthetes and bohemians, magnetically drawn to its shabby glamour by its association with artists ranging from Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and Dylan Thomas to Andy Warhol, Stanley Kubrick and Bob Dylan. Arthur Miller stayed there after his divorce from Marilyn Monroe. Infamously, in October 1978, Sid Vicious was arrested and charged with the murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, found stabbed to death in Room 100 on the first floor.
Filmed in 2018-19 when the building was being extensively renovated, Dreaming Walls is really a ghost story. We hear Allen Ginsberg performing ‘Howl’ and Nico singing ‘Chelsea Girls’ and see flickering images of Edie Sedgwick, Janis Joplin and Madonna. As one of the workmen says: “Some ghosts here, they’re really lost”.
Not all of these spectral figures are dead, either. As the old building prepares for its new role as a Manhattan boutique hotel – it finally reopened last year – a group of ageing long-term residents wander its corridors and lurk in their (often shrunken) apartments, fizzing with memories but mournful as they reflect that, in truth, they are no longer wanted. In the end, all bohemian colonies are destroyed by gentrification. If anything, it is remarkable that this 12-storey late-Victorian palace of the beautiful and the damned resisted the forces of philistinism for so long.
Bloodbath Nation – Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)
In the first days 0f 2023, there have been at least 39 mass shootings and 1,214 gun deaths in the US – including the 11 killed in Monterey Park, California on Saturday, and the seven fatalities at Half Moon Bay (in the same state) two days later.
Which, for the bleakest possible reason, makes the novelist Paul Auster’s new book on the role of firearms in America’s history, society and culture all too topical. Though his own upbringing did not feature guns in any significant way, he later learned that his grandmother had shot his estranged grandfather in front of his uncle (she was acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity): the point being that firearms are an inescapable part of American life, even for as impeccably liberal a citizen of the republic of letters as the 75-year-old Auster.
Hauntingly illustrated by the photographs of Spencer Ostrander, Bloodbath Nation takes as its premise Auster’s observation that “America’s relationship to the gun is anything but rational … and therefore we have done little or nothing to fix the problem”. The key text is indeed the Second Amendment – “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed” – but the author is surely correct that the pathology has far deeper roots than a single constitutional provision.
From the slaughter of native Americans to the suppression of the enslaved, guns have always played an important part in the nation’s power structure and the passage of time, urbanisation and political polarisation have made that role more rather than less central. During the pandemic, the percentage of the population that owned guns grew from 32 to nearly 39 percent. There are now 393 million firearms in America; more guns per 100 people (120.5) than in any other country.
As a writer rather than a politician, Auster does not seek to pretend that there is some glib regulatory solution to the problem. “Peace will break out,” he writes, “only when both sides want it, and in order for that to happen, we would first have to conduct an honest, gut-wrenching examination of who we are and who we want to be as a people going forward into the future, which necessarily would have to begin with an honest gut-wrenching examination of who we have been in the past.” He’s absolutely right in his analysis – and in his melancholic realism about the prospects of such a collective epiphany.
The Greatest Raid – St Nazaire 1942: The Heroic Story of Operation Chariot – Giles Whittell (Penguin)
Happy publication day to Tortoise Deputy Editor and the force behind your daily Sensemaker newsletter, Giles Whittell, whose most recent book is now available in paperback. Here’s what we said last March when The Greatest Raid first appeared in hardback: “[The author] tells the tale of the attack, ordered by Churchill and Mountbatten, on the French port of St Nazaire on 28 March 1942. Military pretexts aside, the real purpose of Operation Chariot was to persuade the world that Britain was not finished and remained a formidable force in the war. The human detail of the story is gripping, and is superbly intertwined with accounts of decision-making at the highest level (including an unforgettable account of Churchill meeting Stalin in Moscow). Needless to say, it is also beautifully written and – unlike some historical accounts of war – a true page-turner, the work of a master storyteller.” Do check out Giles’s previous books too; especially Snow: The Biography and Bridge of Spies.
Toy Fights: A Boyhood – Don Paterson (Faber & Faber)
All poetry lovers have their favourite Don Paterson collection – perhaps Nil Nil (1993) or Landing Light (2003) – though I would sidestep the choice by naming instead his brilliant book on Shakespeare’ sonnets (2010).
Not surprisingly, this first volume of memoirs, which covers the years from his birth in 1963 to his arrival in London in 1984, is a joy from start to finish. With wit, nuance and an unsparing candour, he charts his battles with “God, drugs and insanity” growing up in Dundee. Memorably describing his schoolboy self as “still a foetus in a blazer”, he recalls that nobody “properly explained to me what school actually was. I thought it was something we were trying out, like a new kind of cereal”.
Paterson’s account of his teenage breakdown – “like the arrival of the bailiffs, the ego’s dismantling by a brutally efficient team of hired contractors” – is deeply moving, just as his memories of hardship are powerfully rendered (“Debt was a constant low drone. If you could hear it, it turned the harmony of daily life above it from major to minor”).
Who can resist a poet of greatness who also has the time to write with such humour about playing Barry Manilow covers onstage, his passion for rock music and characters such as his uncle “Jimmy the Nazi”? And if there’s a better definition of reality than his – “that to which there appears to be no alternative” – I’d like to hear it.
RUSH! – Måneskin
Since their Eurovision triumph representing Italy two years ago, Måneskin have barely paused for breath, and in this, their third studio album (the first in which the lyrics are mainly English), they plant their standard fiercely in the musical earth as a mainstream rock band demanding your attention.
In the record’s 17 tracks, frontman Damiano David, bassist Victoria De Angelis, guitarist Thomas Raggi and drummer Ethan Torchio pack a punch that is infectiously enjoyable, and owes as much to the swagger of glam as it does to the punk spirit of Iggy Pop (with whom they collaborated on a version of ‘I Wanna Be Your Slave’ in 2021).
Produced by Max Martin, RUSH! is unabashed radio rock, itching to be performed in stadiums on speaker stacks dialled up to eleven. In David, they have an old-school star as lead singer who can get away with claiming to be “a lion tamer/ of indecent behavior/ making love with danger.”
The songs are good, too. ‘GOSSIP’ combines entertaining pot shots at showbusiness hypocrisy – “sip the gossip, drink till you choke, sip the gossip, burn down your throat, you’re not iconic, you are just like them, oh, don’t act like you don’t know” – with the guitar riffs of Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello.
‘BLA BLA BLA’, meanwhile, shares plenty of DNA with the early work of the Stooges (“you broke my heart so I crashed your car”). ‘KOOL KIDS’ scorns those who “do not like rock/They only listen to trap and pop”.
Måneskin’s lack of depth is precisely what makes them terrific. In every sarky lyric and power guitar lick, they remind us that not every album has to have a deep political purpose or disclose the lockdown memories of the musicians. Rock can also be fun. You remember fun, don’t you? (As part of their European tour, they’ll be playing the O2 in London on 8 May.)
Déjà Vu – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Since the death of the great David Crosby at the age of 81 on 18 January, I’ve been wondering which of the many prodigious albums that he recorded is his greatest. For my money, his classic solo records If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971) and Oh Yes I Can (1989) certainly deserve to be on the podium.
But Déjà Vu (1971) is arguably the definitive soundtrack album of the west coast counterculture, enshrining the spirit of the “Woodstock Nation” and the distinctive folk-rock sound of the late 1960s and early 1970s. From ‘Carry On’ via ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ to ‘Woodstock’ and ‘Our House’, there isn’t a dud track. It is exactly what Jimi Hendrix described as “Western sky music.”
The album also marked the all-important addition of Neil Young to the supergroup of Crosby (who had made his name as a member of the Byrds), Stephen Stills (of Buffalo Springfield) and Graham Nash (of the Hollies). Though the four were to carry on recording in various permutations – complicated by epic rifts, drug addiction, and Crosby’s two spells in prison – this was their finest hour.
Crosby’s genius as a singer, guitarist and songwriter owed as much to the influence of jazz musicians such as Chet Baker and Dave Brubeck as it did to postwar folk (for the latter, listen again to the Byrds’ 1965 version of Pete Seeger’s ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’). He was a key figure in a generation of formidable lyricists and guitarists and also Joni Mitchell’s most important champion (as well as her lover).
In 2019, Crosby told The Orange County Register: “… at this stage, you don’t know if you’ve got two weeks or 10 years… Really what matters is what you do with whatever time you have.” Even on the very last day of his life, he was planning a new album and yet another tour, “practically giddy with all of it”. RIP.
And finally, thanks to Tortoise reporter, Phoebe Davis, for this recommendation of the first three tracks from boygenius’s the record
“When I saw that boygenius (Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker’s indie-rock supergroup) were releasing their much-awaited first album, the record, in March I experienced a rush of excitement and love similar to when a friend tells me some good news. It’s silly, I know. Other than a first name (Phoebe) and the fact that I also identify as a queer woman, I share nothing with the trio. Why do I care so much?
Maybe it’s the band’s name – which Dacus has described as a reference to “boys and men we know who’ve been told that they are geniuses since they could hear”. The idea being that they channel that same brash confidence into their own music: you can hear it. It’s also why they posed as Crosby, Stills, and Nash for their initial self-titled EP in 2018 and why they recreated the iconic 1994 Nirvana shoot for their Rolling Stone cover for the album announcement. The trio truly have their tongues in their feminist cheeks – which I love.
But it’s probably also because their music stems from a bare and emotionally vulnerable place – which is particularly evident in the three songs released ahead of the full album; each track being led by ‘one of the boys’. In $20, fronted by Baker, it’s the visceral screaming of Bridgers at the climax of the song, reminiscent of ‘I Know The End’ from her own 2020 album Punisher. In the quintessentially Bridgers track Emily I’m Sorry (which fans have speculated is about a previous romantic relationship with the actor and vocal artist Emily Bannon) it’s all summed up in the line: “I’m 27 and I don’t know who I am, but I know what I want”. And finally, there’s True Blue, which Dacus leads, with Baker and Bridgers behind her to create a truly immaculate indie love song (“But it feels good to be known so well, I can’t hide from you like I hide from myself”).
Although they are not necessarily breaking new ground in being an all-women indie band – see Haim, Wet Leg and Sleater-Kinney – there is something quietly, or maybe not so quietly, revolutionary about boygenius. I am very much along for the ride wherever it goes. And just in case any of them read this, would love to be friends. (The full version of the record is out on 31 March.)”
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs Universal Pictures, Amblin, Sky, Getty Images, Magnolia Pictures, BBC