The Cinematic Language of Law and Grace in The Fabelmans

The Power (and Cost) of Art

Jason Thompson / 3.13.23

The most explicit reference to Christianity in Steven Spielberg’s quasi-autobiographical film The Fabelmans revolves around young Sam Fabelman’s love interest in a Christian girl with whom he attends Grand View High School. Sam (a stand in for a young Spielberg) has just been physically attacked for his Jewish heritage by his peers, Logan and Chad. Sam then confronts Logan’s girlfriend, Claudia, over Logan’s cheating. Claudia is accompanied by her BFF, Monica, who invites Sam to her home to accept Jesus in his heart (wink, wink). We, the viewers, can infer she intends more than evangelism.

When Sam arrives in her bedroom, we see a shrine dedicated to ‘Jesus,’ i.e. the Eurocentric pretty depiction thereof. Alongside images of Christ, we see pictures of the typical pop icons any suburban teen girl would have idolized in the 1960s. Monica remarks about how hot Jesus is and commences to give Sam a provocative glance and an invitation to kneel together in prayer, which of course is code for … well, you know. The two eventually end up on the bed (over which looms a gigantic crucifix surrounded by lights arranged in the shape of a heart). A parent’s beckon short circuits their teenage antics, but not before Monica suggests they meet up behind the school for more, um, “prayer.”

Monica represents something of a caricature of modern American Christianity most recognizably parodied by the likes of Ned Flanders on The Simpsons. She embodies virtually every cliché about moralistic Christian culture familiar in the popular mind — a depiction made even more exaggerated and comedic by her pervasive preoccupation with sex. I remember wanting to immediately dismiss this character as mere comic relief in an otherwise serious drama about coming of age, yet Spielberg takes a different direction. He and Sam take her seriously. Their relationship grows beyond the aforementioned one-time fling we see in her bedroom. She’s invited to a Fabelman family dinner, where she gets to witness the family in all their wackiness. There’s the rambunctious monkey Sam’s mother bought to bring her laughs, the stereotypically critical mother in law with witty snapbacks and cutting remarks, the ongoing tension between Sam’s parents.

But in the midst of chaos, something else happens. Sam’s parents bring up his interest in film, his mother noting how he still sleeps with his camera under the bed at night. Though Sam has previously tried to suppress his cinematic calling, Monica insists that he enter the upcoming Senior Ditch Day contest as a photographer. Sam resists at first, but Monica brings the encouraging word to push a fearful Sam over the edge.

When the film opens, we see Burt and Mitzi Fabelman taking their apprehensive son to his first film, Cecil DeMille’s Greatest Show on Earth. The whole scene contrasts law and grace. Sam’s father initially attempts to allay his son’s anxieties by explaining the technical mechanism by which the celluloid moves through the projector to create moving pictures. Zooming in on Sam, the adults fade from view (a distinct characteristic in E.T. btw), before the camera pans to first reveal Mitzi’s enthralled reaction. His mother is fascinated by the artistic quality of cinema, assuring Sam that “movies are like dreams we never forget.”

For Sam, however, Greatest Show on Earth is more akin to a nightmare and its train crash significantly impacts, Sammy who seeks to replicate the traumatic moment using his model trains as props. Sam’s dad, who had purchased the trains as a Hanukkah gift, remains aghast that Sam would show such a lack of consideration, but his mother understands: “I know why he needs to watch them crash. He’s trying to get some kind of … control over it.” The voice of grace, Mitzi secretly lends Sam his father’s 8mm camera and invites him to capture the crash on film so he can retain the impetus of what that moment meant to him when he first witnessed it onscreen. The ensuing home movie becomes their little secret, budding into a persistent hobby that eventually involves implementing his sisters as actors and at times, several rolls of toilet tissue as costumes.

Sam’s growing penchant for making home movies manifests into makeshift Westerns and travelogs leading to his pursuit of photography. It is at this critical point in his life that he also discovers the films of John Ford, most notably The Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceWhile Sammy had been traumatized by the train collision he saw at his first movie, the several traumas that would unfold in his life would also inform his filmmaking. There persisted a sort of a symbiotic relationship between intense plot points in his personal life and the development of his filmic voice and expression.

One of the most effective scenes is the scene where without dialog, he speaks to his mother by handing her a film reel and locking her in a closet, where she must confront her conscience after Sam inadvertently discovered her adulterous relationship with Burt’s best friend, ‘Uncle Bennie’ (one of several incidents Spielberg has confirmed actually occurred during his childhood). In the scene, Mitzi  enters a figurative confessional booth … sans a priest to hear her confession and give her absolution (at least initially).

That moment illustrates the power of film to act as “law,” i.e. a mirror, showing us ourselves. Mitzi painfully ingests the “director’s cut” of the camping trip film Burt had guilted Sam into producing. While the entire family had gathered in the Fabelman living room to view the PG rated edit, within her confessional booth of a closet Mitzi would view her affectionate attachment to Bennie, vivedly captured on camera.

During the “family friendly” viewing, she had commended Sammy’s directorial prowess noting, “wow, you really see me …,” yet she was unprepared for just how starkly the camera (and the law) truly sees us. When Mitzi comes stumbling out of the closet, literally unable to stand, bowed over and broken by her own guilt, the moment is so poignant that even Sam can’t help but finally offer her forgiveness, as he assures her, “I won’t tell anyone” … i.e., “I’ll cover your sin.”

Seeing this potential in cinema scared him into burying his talent and disavowing filmmaking, that is, until he begins his relationship with the “prayerful” Christian, Monica.

Sam’s passion for filmmaking resurrects as he commences documenting the famed Senior Ditch Day. The completed film is slated to be shown at the Senior Prom, but something else significant happens that night. In a desperate attempt to regain control of his unraveling world after his parents announce their intent to divorce, Sam rashly proposes to Monica and asks her to join him in his Hollywood aspirations. Monica refuses and then responds by expressing the most Christian sentiment in the movie, “Sometimes we can’t just fix things … all we can do is suffer.” 

Monica’s words are ironic coming from someone who symbolizes the all too typical churchy realm in which trite and pat answers often abound in response to the complex and challenging circumstances we face in our experience this side of things. There are in fact things we have to just suffer through, some things have no easy Christian answer or applicable Biblical principle with which we can resolve our issues.

In contrast to his mother’s unfiltered and accusing home movie, the Senior Ditch Day film employs editing to extend grace. As the film plays for the assembled Prom guests, Sam observes the audience as they view with bewilderment his deft approach of employing the right cut at the right moment, using the right camera angle to invoke sentimentality. Or simply put, the director’s role of mediating the invisible realm for us spectators and creating the illusions that both traumatize and inspire us.

Of note is Logan’s portrayal in the Senior Ditch Day film. Logan, the antisemitic bully, appears in an endearing light after Sam edits the film to cause the neanderthal to shine as though he was some kind of metahuman among mere mortals. Confused by such a gracious portrayal in light of the way he knows he  maligned Sam, Logan begins to express intimations of guilt, compunction, and vulnerability.

There are no easy answers to the relational tension and difficulties we often encounter in life. Yet through the things we suffer, the lens by which we view life allows them come into a clearer, crisper focus. With a dash of editing or zooming out, we can inadvertently help others see the truth, beauty, and grace that transcend our world despite its brokenness.

More than a celebration of the power of film, at its core The Fabelmans poignantly captures the plight of the artist himself, whose gift is only created by suffering. In an earlier scene, an eccentric uncle  unexpectedly becomes a short term guest at the Fabelman home in Arizona. Uncle Boris truly understands Sam and his gifting. As Sam excitedly expounds his vision for what would later become his first magnum opus, Escape to Nowhere (perhaps the precursor to Saving Private Ryan?), Boris forcefully grabs Sam by the cheeks and charges him to remember the stinging sensation that will one day drive the development of his filmmaking craft. Prophetically, Boris exclaims, You will make your movies, and you will do your art … Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on earth. BUT!! It’ll tear your heart out.

The power of art is proportional to its cost. And no gift worth receiving — whether human or divine — is ever given without sacrifice.

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