Persistence Of Vision: ‘Empire Of Light’ & ‘The Fabelmans’

Movies that recreate a filmmaker’s own formative years are practically a genre unto themselves. Most awards seasons of late have had at least one in the conversation. (Lady Bird, Roma, and Belfast are some of the most lauded recent examples.)

This year, there’s a whole slate of them. James Gray’s Armageddon Time looked at the filmmaker’s growing awareness of white privilege, and how it intersected with his family’s Jewishness. Its protagonist was a budding illustrator, but displayed no interest in growing up to be a filmmaker. Armageddon Time didn’t call out a reverence for the movies that is so common in these types of films. Two more semi-autobiographical tales, coming from Sam Mendes and Steven Spielberg, lean quite heavily on “the magic of movies” to weave tales from their directors’ pasts. The stories they tell reveal plenty about how some of most lauded and successful filmmakers of our time were formed, but some of the most telling details can be found just outside the text. Empire Of Light and The Fabelmans become perfect encapsulations of what many people love — and some people really don’t love — about their creators. They reveal the origins of visions that will persist throughout their careers.

Empire Of Light departs from the formula set by Roma, Belfast, The Hand Of God, and The Fabelmans — not to mention much earlier semi-autobiographical stories like Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Fellini’s Amarcord — in foregoing a stand-in for the director himself. It focuses on Hilary (Olivia Colman), manager of the Empire movie palace in coastal England. The Empire has four screens, but only two of them are open for business. The other two are locked away upstairs, left to decay, now the scene of a pigeon takeover. So the Empire is only running at half-capacity — and so is Hilary. She’s involved in an unsatisfying sexual relationship with her married boss, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth). She turns down invites to socialize after hours. She doesn’t appear to have any friends outside of work, and no family to speak of. She won’t even take in a free movie at her own theater.The year is 1980. The season is winter. Empire Of Light picks up at almost the exact same time the autumn-set Armageddon Time ends, as 1980 moves into 1981. Hilary spends the holidays alone, until she’s joined by an unexpected companion on New Year’s Eve — Stephen (Micheal Ward), the Empire’s newest hire, who is idling while he considers whether or not he wants to go to college. Some describe Empire Of Light as a romance between these unlikely lovers — a middle-aged white woman struggling with mental illness and a charming young Black man in his prime. Technically, yes, that’s accurate. But Empire Of Light is more the story of a friendship between these two. Their relationship is sexual, and results in petty jealousies and something resembling a breakup, but there’s never a sense that Hilary and Stephen think they’ve found “the one” in each other. They’re aware that the connection is fleeting, as far as the sex goes, and lifelong, in terms of caring for one another (even from afar) and mutual respect. The brief bursts of passion between them are nice, but the way they show up for each other is more meaningful. It’s a more selfless kind of love.

Mendes has said that Hilary’s mental health problems were modeled on his own mother. If there’s an avatar for Mendes himself here, it’s probably Stephen — who becomes fascinated with the exhibition process, and is only a few years older than Mendes himself would have been in the early 80s. Projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) is by far the most reverential toward cinema — for most of these people, working at a movie palace is a way to pay the bills, not a passion. He takes Stephen under his wing, showing him how it all works (in a very Oscar clip-friendly monologue that nevertheless works beautifully) — but Stephen doesn’t actually aspire to work in film. He wants to be an architect. Stephen’s side of the story is dominated by the rise in anti-Black hate crimes bolstered by the renewal of conservatism in Britain. Margaret Thatcher haunts Empire Of Light almost as much as Ronald Reagan plagues Armageddon Time. (The parallels to our current political climate are no accident, of course.)

Mendes is white, and obviously didn’t experience violent racism firsthand the way Stephen does in the film. Like Gray in Armageddon Time, he’s grappling with the racism he witnessed in his youth through the dynamic between one white and one Black character. But racial violence is just one thread in this film that moves in and out of storylines fluidly, perhaps recklessly. Empire Of Light‘s chief shortcoming is its lack of focus — is it a story about racism? Mental illness? The healing power of cinema? The answer is “yes” to all three, but they take turns in Empire‘s spotlight rather than cohering into a singular narrative arc.

Mendes has been accused of making films that are gorgeous to behold, but hollow on the inside. I don’t agree — I find the distance between his ravishing visuals and the ugly emotions or harrowing experiences his characters face to be a considered statement. The heightened aesthetic splendor of Mendes’ 1917, Revolutionary Road, and American Beauty makes his stories feel operatic. Empire Of Light is Mendes’ second screenwriting credit (he co-wrote 1917), his first written solo. Fully in charge of the storytelling, Mendes goes in the opposite direction — spending most of his screen time on small, intimate, personal moments instead of tragedy and fury. The film is episodic, never even attempting to tie its loose ends. That should come as a surprise to critics who find his films airless and too precise (but lukewarm reviews indicate that they still aren’t happy).True to form, Empire Of Light is one of the year’s most aesthetically beautiful films, thanks to cinematography by Roger Deakins and a score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It can also be incredibly moving for those who surrender to it. Filmmaking isn’t the focus of Mendes’ backward-glancing drama, but it does give us one perfect moment in which Hilary sits down to take in a showing of Hal Ashby’s Being There, not in a crowded theater full of laughing, crying, popcorn-munching patrons, but alone. She knows a Hollywood ending isn’t in the cards for a middle-aged woman with persistent mental health problems. Meeting Stephen ignites a “what if?” in her, but she’s as aware as anyone is that this is not likely to be a happily-ever-after fairy tale romance. But sitting alone in the dark with those flickering images, a love affair that can last is born. (As someone who frequently treats himself to a solo sojourn to the cinema, and has been an audience of one on several occasions, watching Hilary be thrilled and delighted in a theater all by herself really hit home for me.)

Empire Of Light‘s tour-de-force moment occurs during the premiere of Chariots Of Fire. Vangelis’ legendary theme pops in for a very sly cameo. The Fabelmans begins with young Sammy Fabelman joining his mother and father for a screening of another middling Academy Award winner, The Greatest Show On Earth. The film is now infamous as one of the all-time worst Best Picture winners, beating 1952’s politically potent Western High Noon and John Ford’s The Quiet Man, as well as not-nominated classics like Singin’ In The Rain and The Bad And The Beautiful. (Funny how the biggest nods to movies past in both Fabelmans and Empire Of Light are Best Picture winners that few would rank anywhere near the top.)Unlike the half-rundown Empire movie palace, in which Hilary takes in a movie alone, the house is packed in Spielberg’s nostalgia piece — exactly as expected. (Spielberg, for one, may not have much experience with empty theaters. The man knows how to get asses in seats.) Sammy is blown away by Cecil B. DeMille’s train crash sequence, as Spielberg himself was at the same age. His mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) nurtures his inchoate talent, while his father Burt (Paul Dano) insists upon dubbing it “a hobby.”

Already, we sense some of cinema’s most iconic characters stirring to life. The playful and loving but frequently overwhelmed single mother who adopts a lost alien in E.T., one of the all-time great screen moms portrayed by Dee Wallace Stone. The broken, often emasculated dads of Duel, Jaws, Catch Me If You Can, Munich, and others; the going-going-gone vanishing act so many of Spielberg’s screen fathers perform, from Roy McNeary’s abandonment of his wife and kids in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to Elliott and Gertie’s never-seen father in E.T., who has absconded to Mexico with his secretary. If you were nurtured by Spielberg movies growing up, watching The Fabelmans is a little like discovering the Bible. Mitzi is as mythic as Mary, for we’ve been told about her over and over — and we know this unassuming young child will grow up to be Hollywood’s Jesus.Many of Spielberg’s films are about a need to find the way back home. The Fabelmans is that home, the Shangri-La so many big screen legends, from E.T. to Alan Grant to Private Ryan, sought after. That home is far from perfect, as teenage Sam (a perfectly cast Gabriel LaBelle) discovers hidden in one of his home movies. Family friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) is clearly smitten with Mitzi, a longing that threatens to tear the Fabelman family apart. Sam finds an escape in making movies, becoming more of an observer than a participant in what’s going on around him. Perhaps he believes that the camera tells an objective truth — he shoots, it captures whatever happens to be there. But Steven Spielberg — I mean, Sam Fabelman — obviously composes his mise en scène with a very singular vision, and as The Fabelmans goes on, he learns more and more about the power he has as a visual storyteller, a power that can be used for good or for evil. (He tries both.)

Film can create heroes and villains out of ordinary people. It can lie or tell the truth. The Fabelmans may be built from Spielberg’s own memory, but it doesn’t glorify Sam. Sam takes a stab at being the suave heartthrob in his own narrative, and finds that it doesn’t really work. A gesture he means to be sweepingly romantic is scoffed at by his demanding girlfriend Monica (Chloe East). The Fabelmans is Spielberg’s funniest film, and most of the humor comes at his own expense. Sam clocks popular jock Logan (Sam Rechner) as high school’s version of a leading man early on; he doesn’t question the pecking order, but figures out a way to control it from the sidelines, invisible behind the camera until it’s too late. Sam is teased and bullied for being Jewish, but Spielberg isn’t resentful of any of these ghosts from his past. He doesn’t judge them, he sees them — and some are rattled by the way they’ve been seen. Steven Spielberg — I mean, Sam Fabelman — is not someone you want looking down upon you, because he will eventually shape what the whole world is watching.

That’s especially true for Mitzi, the film’s most dynamic character, who defies categorization. A promising musician who seemingly gave up her own ambitions to become a wife and mother, she’s made other compromises also. Mitzi is a loving mother, but she’s no saint — sometimes she sacrifices for her family, and sometimes she prioritizes herself. (And sometimes she drives her kids into a tornado!) Spielberg loves his mother enough not to be reverential. He sees her, with all her many flaws, and brings her back to life on screen. Michelle Williams is luminous in the role, sure to receive her fifth Oscar nomination. The Fabelmans‘ next most likely acting nominee is Judd Hirsch, who pops in and out of the film with just about 10 minutes of screen time, but seizes every scene he’s in. As Sam’s great uncle, who offers a bizarre form of encouragement, he’s like the loving grandfather played Anthony Hopkins in Armageddon Time on meth.

The Fabelmans, like Empire Of Light, is episodic, sometimes an aching drama about a marriage in distress, sometimes a goofy coming-of-age comedy — and sometimes, in its final scene, Licorice Pizza. (David Lynch saw Sean Penn’s Holden and said, “My turn.“) The film’s lengthy final scene is a departure from the rest of the film in more ways than one; many Spielberg movies have shaggy endings, and this one is an all-timer. It’s indulgent, though it still manages to be endearing. It’s a potent reminder to anyone who might have forgotten that this is a Steven Spielberg film. Before this point, there’s astonishingly little navel-gazing from the world’s most beloved auteur; the finale will elicit eye-rolls from Spielberg’s harshest critics, but he’s earned his right to a wink.If any living filmmaker has earned the right to mythologize his origin story, it’s Steven Spielberg. Other semi-autobiographical tales need to tell us about the filmmaker’s past; The Fabelmans knows it doesn’t, because every moviegoer in the audience is already well aware. It is, of course, a very personal movie for Spielberg — resurrecting his mother and father, recreating some of the most painful moments from his past, including antisemitic bullying, a death in the family, and his parents’ separation. But it’s not just Steven Spielberg’s story, because in a way, his formative years are part of our own. We grew up watching his movies. We knew his name before we knew anything else about the people who make movies.

The Fabelmans covers the formative years of our formative years, a young life that set the template for what our generation would come to view as a normal, mostly happy childhood in suburban Americana. (Until it inevitably gets interrupted by ghosts, dinosaurs, or aliens, that is.) Kids riding bikes. Tots talking back at the dinner table. Exasperated moms. Cowed dads. Spielberg didn’t invent any of this, but he did illustrate it for more than one generation. His specific experience became our collective consciousness, a common language shared by kids growing up in the last quarter of the 20th century, between Jaws and Titanic — the blockbuster generation. If our family wasn’t exactly like the ones we saw in Spielberg movies, we assumed everybody else’s was. Somehow, the man who introduced us to aliens and brought dinosaurs back to life also defined what normal was to millions upon millions of kids. Ultimately, that might be his most impactful feat of them all.The Fabelmans also invites the audience to share in the excitement of watching postmodern cinema itself being birthed. With 1975’s Jaws, Spielberg originated the summer blockbuster. With successive hits like Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T., and Jurassic Park, he perfected the formula that Hollywood would follow to this day — or until 2020, at least. (It remains to be seen if the movie business will continue prioritizing big screen box office revenue, or if streaming will strangle cinema entirely.) Spielberg didn’t invent spectacle, but he did redefine it, ripping the zeitgeist out of the hands of the hippie renegades and moody auteurs, and placing it in the hands of men like him — creatives with a head for business, reliable moneymakers. The Fabelmans isn’t just the story of where Steven Spielberg came from. It’s also the story of where every blockbuster of the 80s and 90s came from, for nobody had near as much influence over what kinds of movies were made in the late 20th century than he did. Spielberg’s arrival in Hollywood wasn’t the birth of cinema, but it was the birth of the cinema we grew up with — the movies we knew first, perhaps still the movies we know best.

Modern blockbusters aren’t exclusively indebted to Spielberg, of course, for he has always stood on the shoulders of giants who came before.  You can see earlier groundbreakers like Cecil B. DeMille and John Ford in today’s cinema, too. They’re there because Spielberg put them there (as did his contemporaries). The Fabelmans chronicles Spielberg’s discovery of cinema through the previous generation’s master directors via films like The Greatest Show On Earth and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Then it shows us how these influences informed his own early homemade movies, which of course were prototypes for the ones he’d make in Hollywood. Young Sam’s films are exactly like today’s movies — a little bit DeMille, a little bit Ford, and a whole lot of Steven Spielberg. Of course, Spielberg films aren’t solely about craft. They’re also about heart. And that, unsurprisingly, is where The Fabelmans soars. Any kid could learn how to make a movie, but Sam Fabelman turns out to be preternaturally gifted at it, better than just about anybody else. Sam gradually learns the art of making people feel something — and expressing himself in a way words don’t allow. Sometimes, that’s through a bombastic action epic, like the meticulously crafted WWII film he makes with friends; sometimes, it’s through on-the-fly home movies that accidentally uncover a secret no one can see in real life. Some truths are best told blown up and projected on a big screen. The Fabelmans is Spielberg’s truth, revealed to us not for the first time — for it was right there in Close Encounters and E.T. and Schindler’s List, too — but in its purest form, without any aliens or dinosaurs to hide behind. It doesn’t contain any revelations. It confirms that Steven Spielberg is exactly who he’s been saying he is all along.

Spielberg nods to his fans more than once in The Fabelmans — especially in his final shot — because he knows his origin story became legend long before he set out to make his own film about it. In the opening sequence, Sammy’s parents tell him movies are like dreams, and then The Greatest Show On Earth confirms it. (Burt tells Sammy about persistence of vision, which allows us to see flickering still frames as moving pictures, just as Norman teaches Stephen in Empire Of Light.) This moment is about the wonder of watching a movie — on the big screen, with a big crowd. It’s a familiar one — there are similar scenes in Cinema Paradiso and Belfast, amongst many others. From there, though, Spielberg invites the audience to enjoy the wonder of making movies. Everybody’s watched them, but not everyone has made them; Spielberg leads us through the process step-by-step, starting small, then getting bigger and bigger — not just in scale, but in impact. This, too, is very on brand for the auteur who released the movie-making computer game Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair in 1996 and had such a hand in developing theme park rides at Universal Studios. Spielberg has never sought to put any distance between his abilities and his audience — he has always invited his fans to learn about and be a part of the process.

Portions of The Fabelmans are personal and specific — every scene, I imagine, is a version of the auteur’s actual lived experience — but what’s most striking, at least on a first viewing, is how collective and inclusive The Fabelmans feels, considering it is comprised of one man’s memories. Technically speaking, spending millions of dollars to recreate your own childhood is a narcissistic act, but The Fabelmans doesn’t feel like a vanity piece; it’s often indulgent, but never more than it is incredibly generous. It’s clear that Spielberg loves everything and everyone else in his frame more than he loves Sam, his own stand-in. Filmmaking has never been about ego for Spielberg — his films are only as good as they are because he always puts the audience first — ahead of the stars, ahead of the studio, and ahead of himself. He is the most popular, successful, and revered filmmaker of all time, but his heart isn’t in the director’s chair. It’s in a seat front and center in a packed movie theater, looking up.

The Fabelmans is, first and foremost, a Steven Spielberg movie, very much like the ones that made us fans in the first place. It’s a story about a burgeoning filmmaker that ends just before the dawning of a new era in Hollywood — but it’s not really about the people who make movies. Not even Sam Fabelman — I mean, Steven Spielberg — himself. Like the man who made it, The Fabelmans never forgets who the movies are really for. Not for stars or studios or genius directors. For the audience. Moms. Dads. Kids. Us.

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