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Spielberg vs. Scorsese: Directing Youth
Reviewing one filmmaker's latest and one's earliest reveals their inner psyche. [12/16/2022]
The movies in today’s reviews happen to connect thematically; the first is this year’s The Fabelmans, in which Steven Spielberg looks back on his origin story from his throne atop a career of masterwork. The movie gives the distinct impression of a man looking back having already won the race.
The second is a 1967 film from Martin Scorsese, drawing on his young adulthood to create his scrappy first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door?. Unlike Fabelmans, Knocking is from a fresh filmmaker to the scene, and thus he isn’t looking back as much as he is looking around. This will begin my short review series, bringing into context every single Scorsese movie in conversation with Roger Ebert’s book Scorsese by Ebert. By the end of the series, I hope to have gained a greater appreciation for both the filmmaker and the critic.
In the meantime, I present to you one of the best films of 2023:
The Fabelmans Review: Art is a Drug and Film is a Dream
Once upon a time, Sammy Fabelman shuffled up to the theater, afraid to watch his first movie. In a long-ago era where the concept is so novel, his parents have to explain it to him to soothe his fear of the experience. “Movies are dreams you never forget,” his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) presents to him. His father Burt (Paul Dano) tries a different approach. “It’s called persistence of vision…” he explains, going into the technical aspects of how a movie works. These are the Fabelman parents, and caught between them in the theater and watching the train crash sequence of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, is wide-eyed Sammy, terrified of the movies.
Right then is where Spielberg shrugs off any critic’s portrait of him as an unintelligent sentimentalist. While this film’s detractors say this is simply some ode to the movies Oscar-bait mush, they clearly lack the power in what Spielberg and co-screenwriter Tony Kushner are saying, and taking the impression of what the movie is rather than the whole. The relationship between Sammy and the screen goes so much deeper than pure joy; he will continue to take the camera as a way of taking control of the fear in front of him. Obviously, this complexity comes from personal experience, for the story of The Fabelmans is mined directly from the early years and relationships of Steven Spielberg himself.
We will see Sammy grow up and discover, like Elliot does the otherworldly E.T., that the camera gives him a superpower. The journey he takes as he grows into young adulthood teaches him the rules of his gift, and how it can become a terrible curse. “I don’t know!” Sammy responds when asked about his motivations for how he cut together some scenes. The truth is he doesn’t understand where his powers come from or yet how to make sure he’s doing everything intentionally. Through the tale, the specter of Steven Spielberg behind the camera feels a little unknowable, just as Sammy finds himself the same way. As the title suggests, this is a fable, foremost warning of the dangers of loving something so infinite and insatiable as art.
Telling his story decades of success later, the now old master is at the height of those superpowers. His close-ups aren’t just about where the action is, but about subtly showing where the characters’ thoughts are. A hole in a sheet of music. A toy train on a nightstand. A roll of film tucked into an apron pocket. It may seem so simple, but we’re spoiled by Spielberg’s 33 film run into thinking this is easy. The movie itself illustrates through young Sammy’s problem-solving and magnetic compositions how untrue that is.
Spielberg isn’t the only one working incredibly well here. Five actors in particular do some of the best work of the year, mostly underpraised due to their commitment to hitting the currently uncool storybook tone too perfectly. The teenage Sammy is played by Gabriel Labelle with as much talent for magically poignant gestures in front of the lens as his character has behind it. Paul Dano as Sammy’s father brings the perfect balance of care and love that you won’t expect from the character; his pleas for his son to put down the camera in favor of other things look silly on the page and worse in the trailer, but Dano understands why he’s saying it. Seth Rogen applies the intelligence you rarely see him employ, hugging closer to his work in Steve Jobs than any of his comedic roles with good cause; if he was too funny or too rude, the movie could crack. One scene that would feel too spelling out in a lesser actor’s hands is handled masterfully by Judd Hirsch as a wacky older relative. And as you’ve probably heard by now, Michelle Williams steals the show as Sammy’s mother. She plays perhaps the most “real” person in the movie even if her antics seem over the top. We place too much value on realism in movies today, and it shouldn’t be inherently praised; rather, it is worth attention that Williams balances atop a tightrope. If she was as blatantly nymphish as Dano’s glasses-wearing father is blatantly practical, we wouldn’t forgive her or Speilberg.
There are a few moments in the film that weirdly show the movie’s seams, and I only mention them so my arguments for its artistic perfection are taken seriously rather than personally. The entire tornado sequence feels like a self-indulgent “It has to be there because it actually is a weird thing I remember” moment, adding nothing to the plot and simply repeating characterization that we’ve heard before. Another is a very short moment; a close-up insert shot of a taximeter as Sammy’s uncle rides away interrupts a oner with such odd ferocity, and for no obvious reason, that you are jolted out of the precious Spielberg trance for a moment. Then there’s a silly joke triggered by Sammy looking upward mid-kiss at an object above his head. I will not spoil what it is, but I won’t have to; the joke is so obvious I found myself reciting the contents of the shot aloud before seeing it. Most audiences would have the same reaction; the point of the scene is hammered one too many times, and that’s the strike that bangs the nail farther than flush. These moments of breaking the magic are sparse, and I suspect on repeat viewings will disappear entirely.
The passionate Sammy personifies an under-discussed Spielberg archetype; the obsessive. Young Sammy in a boy scout uniform unable to think of anything but movies evokes similar scenes in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where a young River Phoenix plays young Indie in the origin story for his love of archeological adventure. Scaring his sister with how coldly he shuts himself in his room to edit after a huge family fight, Sammy again calls back to another Spielberg character, this one in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who can’t help building a mountain in the living room. In some ways, Spielberg has always been making this movie about the grip of this vice, this drug that is passion.
Calling my girlfriend the moment I left the theater, my first words were “they made a movie about me.” Biased hogwash some will say. Truthfully though, in making a film so personal to his experience, Spielberg points a camera at the internity of anyone who loves an art knowing that its hunger for you is unquenchable. Once you fall in love with it, perhaps as a way to make sense of the world as Sammy does, you will find yourself consumed by it. But that’s just coming from a guy writing this at one in the morning to make sure his movie review for a dozen subscribers gets up on time for no other reason than he loves doing it; what would I know of these things?
Reviewing Scorsese: Who’s That Knocking at My Door?
How should I even begin to discuss such a filmmaker? Perhaps we can take inspiration from the man himself for our beginning to talk around him, and his brilliance will rub off on us; Martin Scorsese starts his cinematic career with a film that plays like a trailer for the many coming attractions of his career. Ebert notices it immediately in his reconsideration of Who’s That Knocking At My Door?.
It is all there in the first film, almost all in the first twenty minutes: the themes and obsessions, the images and character types that would inspire Martin Scorsese for the whole of his career (Ebert 21).
Everything that would become Scorsese’s trademarks appears in this film: his Italian Catholic obsession with Christ and sexual guilt, the repetitive, overlapping naturalistic dialogue spouted from insecure men, his nearly identical worship of cinema and women, the bravado of masculinity, and the experimental techniques he will place over specific scenes to underline them. Not everything connects here as well as it later will, but by shooting on the streets where Scorsese grew up, he exposes himself to us thoroughly.
The film follows ruffian J.R. (Harvey Keitel in his first starring role) as he and his friends mess around New York. The frantic editing and awkward cuts reflect the restless boys’ discontentedness as they drink, find girls to sleep with, and argue with one another over what to do next. Everyone thinks that it’s everyone else’s fault that they’re bored. The camera settles into long oners when J.R. meets The Girl (Zina Bethune), who gets her namelessness from the disposable way she will be viewed in the film. The two develop a relationship by discussing Scorsese’s three obsessions: the city, cinema, and especially sex.
Intercutting scenes of J.R.’s romance with his and his friends’ hoodlumism tells us simultaneously of the boy’s immature treatment of women and the environment that created his sexist outlook. In his eyes, all women are either nice girls or “broads,” and his categorization transforms his treatment of them dramatically. We look into his world in such a simple manner, yet we so quickly can see through him. It’s amazing how thoroughly thematic Scorsese’s filmmaking immediately is; many of his films will surpass this one, but many movies even in his later oeuvre will not. If you care at all about Scorsese, I implore you to watch this one; it’s an imperfect, plain distillation of who he is.
Much of the pride, or at least perceived pride, that seems to have driven Ebert to compile Scorsese By Ebert seems to come from his early discovery of the director. His initial review of Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (then titled I Call First) heralded the coming of a new legend in the director’s chair. Of course, he was right. In the timid, insecure manner of J.R., I probably hold back those grand proclamations out of fear. This fear is from the medium, that very same medium you likely read this on. As said in the film The Social Network, “The internet is not written in pencil. It’s written in ink.” I’m not knocking (ha, pun) Ebert’s boldness at the proclamation, but the number of people who would archive his review and bring it up later should the critic have been wrong couldn’t be thought about in the pre-dial-up era. If right, the proclamation could be rediscovered to boast; if wrong, it wouldn’t be likely to see the light anyway.
That’s just an excuse and I know it. I think a lot about my own legacy, and Lord-willing the people who will look back at what I hope are the early days of my writing. Like Scorsese, will they try to mix and match my influences, my obsessions, and my thoughts with what I later write? Finally, I must consider this; Ebert was twenty-five, dubbing the also twenty-five-year-old Scorsese as one to watch. I’m twenty-two. If I don’t have the guts to tell others what up-and-coming filmmakers should be watched, how could I ask to be watched myself?
Next week we will continue our deep dive into Scorsese’s filmography with a review of his sophomore film, Boxcar Bertha, and then dive into the seas of Pandora with Avatar: The Way of Water. Is James Cameron’s sequel worth seeing, or empty spectacle? Can it be both?
Two weeks from now will be a very special post; while free subscribers will get my short informal review of Mean Streets, the next step in Scorsese’s filmography, only premium members will get initial access to my longer review, which will be announced next week. If you’d like to join the fun, consider snagging a free trial below!
I finally have a new piece for Collider to promote, and one so relevant! If you already saw The Fabelmans and were confused by its final scene or wanted to know if it really happened, then check out this article which breaks down not only the scene but Spielberg’s relationship to the master of the western, John Ford.
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Sammy is introduced to the movies the way humanity was; watching a train. His fearful reaction mirrors early screenings of A Train Arriving at La Ciotat by film pioneers the Lumiere brothers, whose crowd, according to legend, jumped behind seats fearing the locomotive would come out of the screen and hit them.