Steven Spielberg is just the latest film-maker to look back on his childhood following in the footsteps of Terrence Malick and Federico Fellini
Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Keeley Karsten, Julia Butters and Sophia Kopera in The Fabelmans. Photograph: Merie Weismiller Wallace/AP
There’s a nasty case of Misleading Trailer Syndrome going around this season, with symptoms particularly pronounced among the spate of memoir films piling up as the year winds down.
The spots for James Gray’s Armageddon Time and Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans sell us a pair of rosy-cheeked coming-of-age pictures about young, Jewish auteur-avatars navigating the travails of 20th-century boyhood, their partial comprehension of their families’ class and ethnicity nurtured by a loving, wise older relative. They’ll both face a little more than their fair share of antisemitism, but that’s just the penumbra cast by the good ol’ days, a fondly remembered era recreated as a portal to a more innocent era. In the ad for Gray’s latest, the shimmying disco groove of Good Times by Chic soundtracks afternoons spent scampering around Central Park or sneaking a joint in the bathroom. For Spielberg’s, a soaring score confers that blockbuster feeling as our junior cineaste learns that “movies are dreams that you never forget”.
It’s the nature of promotion that these trailers would downplay the emotional thorniness at their respective centers; these visions of happy salad days tempered by the occasional toe-dip into maturity go down easier than the bleaker truth of deep-seated guilt and conflicted social advancement. Gray’s wrestling with the ambivalence of the American immigrant, dead-set on making it even at the expense of those sharing the struggle, while Spielberg reckons with what he fears was his hand in the scarring dissolution of his parents’ marriage. This gap between the complicated realities of these works and their perception as affectionate nostalgia objects can be explained through their precedents in the tradition of the memoir film, which may likewise be organized along two opposing approaches: the potent treacle of Cinema Paradiso, and the sobered anti-sentimentalism of everything else.
There’s no overstating the commercial influence wielded by Giuseppe Tornatore’s semi-autobiographical retelling of his early years in a provincial Sicilian town, the rare foreign import to cash in at the US box office. Ironically enough, this recollection of Italy’s mid-century fascination with Hollywood came to fuel a Stateside mania for romantic screen missives from Europe, a conquest of the mainstream-adjacent arthouse spearheaded by the aggressive distribution schemes of a Harvey Weinstein-led Miramax through the 90s and into the 00s. They succeeded by bringing an air of class to shooting for the middle – middle-brow, middle-class, middle-aged. Cinema Paradiso, which they acquired and trimmed down to a two-hour cut for American theaters, fit squarely in the independent studio’s purview of grownup yet agreeable, unchallenging fare. Though the mother of Tornatore’s pint-sized stand-in Toto takes him for a tearful walk through the dunes of rubble left over from the second world war in one scene, the hamlet of Giancaldo presents a cozy postcard version of Italian village life, from afternoons in the movie house to balmy nights in the warm air. Eccentric locals drink wine from fiasco bottles while children pull pranks, informing the vacations daydreamed by a generation of moviegoers.
A fire at Toto’s beloved movie house, a bit of heartbreak from a comely signora guarded by her controlling father, and a stint of compulsory military service would seem to put a bitter finish on Tornatore’s remembrance of things past. That changes with the poignant final scene, in which the adult Toto has a cathartic cry while watching the supercut of love scenes snipped right from the reels by order of church censors all those years ago. The message – that we can never go home to the past again, but we can visit through the time-traveling magic of cinema – is simple, direct and comforting. The temptation to sample this ready-made tug at the heartstrings has proven difficult to resist for the modern class, with Spielberg, Empire of Light’s Sam Mendes and Belfast’s Kenneth Branagh all borrowing the stirring shot of a character sitting rapt in the theater as the beam of the projector forms a halo overhead. But Tornatore’s instinct to self-soothe is also totally out of joint with the best of the memoir films, from then and now.
There’s no absolution waiting at the end of Armageddon Time, just the cold acceptance that some forms of shame should and must be carried around for your entire life. Same goes for The Fabelmans, which concludes with Spielberg’s double Sammy going onward and upward into Tinseltown, toting with him an immense remorse the real Spielberg would work out over five decades of movies about broken families. Even Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, with its defining tableau of privileged kids embraced by the housekeeper they like to think of as a surrogate mother, conceded that this bond would not be enough to change the dynamic between servant and served in the home. This decisive aversion to forgiveness and consolation – a violent allergy to corny – originates in a handful of unimpeachable personal statements from the big names of art film as they greyed during the 70s and 80s.
The title of Roma nods to Federico Fellini, whose 1972 film of the same name retraced his steps through a Rome under Fascist rule at 18 years old. As his mythologizing of his own life story goes, however, he’s better known for the following year’s Amarcord, a de facto prequel in its chronicling of the pre-adolescent stage in his formative years. As ever, he was bewitched by the sight of dusky sex workers hanging around (the same primal scene flashed back to in his roman à clef masterpiece 8 1/2), though he channeled that sensibility of ribald sexuality back into critiques of the Italian people’s overall stuntedness. Fellini leaves us with the image of his youthful surrogate Titta’s unrequited love skipping town with the Fascist official she’s married, the boy disappearing soon afterward to pursue the same distracting desire that left his country susceptible to authoritarian strongmen. In an essay-interview with journalist Valerio Riva, Fellini would describe this mixture of political turbulence and arrested national development as “permanent historical seasons of our lives”, a comical sort of anguish never to be outgrown.
Perspectives vary on the focal point of familial unrest in this loose subgenre, ranging from the bleak severity of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander to the grounded combativeness of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird to the blend of violence and grace in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. A commitment to incompleteness unites them, whether it’s the petulant Lady Bird promptly making the same old mistakes as she starts a new chapter in college or the ghost of Alexander’s abusive stepfather warning the kid that he will be haunted by his traumas for all eternity. Malick would appear to be the outlier in allowing his screen-self to find some notion of peace, though requiring nothing short of an odyssey to the far ends of existence to do so makes this the exception that proves the principle. If the only place to find salvation is in the great beyond, we’ve got to obliterate ourselves to get at it.
Malick’s cosmic ambitions can be scaled back down to the human level, his core instinct being to break himself down rather than build back up, the same objective shared by this collection of comparable films. If these be vicarious therapy sessions, then as in actual psychotherapy, the goal must be unsparing self-knowledge over mollifying reassurance. Film-makers don’t flaunt their most intimate confessions of guilt in pursuit of sympathy or exoneration, but to externalize something gnawing at them – the same reason anyone makes art. (In The Fabelmans, little Sammy’s first home movie recreates a train crash he glimpsed in a viewing of The Greatest Show on Earth, then on repeat in his nightmares.)
Baring one’s insecurities without explaining or solving them away is the sign of true confidence, a paradox that all adults nonetheless come to intuitively understand. Such naked honesty underscores the pain at the heart of this creative impulse; no matter how an artist may want to use their work to revise their life, history’s imperfections have been chiseled into the record of memory.