Damn near every Steven Spielberg movie, in one sense or another, is about the power and the madness of making movies. So that immediately takes some wind out of the sails of The Fabelmans, Spielberg’s big-swing autobiographical retelling of a youth spent enthralled to pictures projected on a screen and celluloid fed through a Mansfield 8mm film editor. One more cause for concern: the way that Spielberg has used his movies to represent his philosophy on filmmaking, in the past, has sometimes been off-putting. Take, as an obvious example, Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and how his craven need to replicate the pictures in his head makes him drive away his wife and children, all for the sake of some higher calling.
Spielberg doesn’t really render any kind of overt judgment of Roy’s choice to abandon his family for a life of dreams in space, which could fairly be termed “problematic” in the critical parlance of today. But it’s worth noting two things here, the first being that “problematic” is not synonymous with bad art — that cinema, as well as literature, is filled with characters whose moral choices or personal ethics don’t align with ours, but to whom our exposure allows us a vital means to understanding a broader range of human psychology and behavior, and in turn a better understanding of ourselves. The other point is that, with The Fabelmans, Spielberg isn’t filtering his very specific, personally held view on the subject of filmmaking through the metaphoric lens of a hunter and shark or of a Big Friendly Giant delivering dreams.
With The Fabelmans, Spielberg drills down on his thoughts and feelings about art, the people who make it, and the people who are made to suffer because of it. The line that everyone will take away from it, because it’s more or less a perfect nugget of Tony Kushner writing, is the one the visiting Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) says to a petrified (and riveted) young Stevey — I mean, Sammy — Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle): “Family, art — it’ll tear you in two!” (You have to see Hirsch deliver the line, with his brutish body language, to get the full effect.) Spielberg is smart and savvy enough to take that sentiment and extend the definition of “art” to whatever the soul wants, and how willing an individual is to sacrifice others in pursuing it. Not for nothing, multiple people call each other “selfish” or “self-involved” in The Fabelmans, and they mean it. More than almost anything, to my mind, this is a film about the failures of individuals, including its creator.
The emotional arc of Spielberg surrogate Sammy is obviously important to this story, but the best stuff here tends to revolve around Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams), a character based, of course, on Spielberg’s mom. Williams is just about as terrific as she’s ever been, even if you’re understandably skeptical of her playing Jewish — she digs so deeply, and heartbreakingly, into the emotional turmoil of a woman whose fervent desire to be a good mother to her children is gradually and inescapably put in conflict with the unfulfilled yearnings that tug at her heart.
For his part, Spielberg finds enormously affecting ways to reexamine his relationship with his mother, unsurprisingly through film: Sammy’s realization that Mitzi has feelings for a man other than his father, Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen), comes to him watching footage from a family camping trip, running it back through his Mansfield, playing it over and over. This form of filmic masochism is an extension of the one a younger Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) had engaged in with his mother — recreating the train crash sequence that scared him so much from Cecil B. Demille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Mitzi remarks to Sammy’s father, Burt (Paul Dano), that filming the crash is about giving him a sense of “control.” But Sammy’s encounter with the footage of his mom and his uncle comes to mean the exact opposite — and his loss of control causes him, for a time, to put away his camera and reject his passion.
The idea of the boy trying to control the collision of his toy trains on a track is so intensely Spielbergian; it informs those times in his films when the impulse for a clean resolution has derailed him from following through on more ambitious narrative visions (as in the last 30 minutes of A.I. Artificial Intelligence). In The Fabelmans, though, there’s a catharsis in seeing Spielberg’s attempt at bringing order to his memories and relationships with family and then ultimately allowing some acceptance of the things that he can’t resolve on screen.
That said, there are several brilliant moments in The Fabelmans that do serve as meaningful critical reevaluations of film and its capacity to capture the lived experience of individuals. One scene involves Burt and Mitzi announcing to Sammy and his two sisters that they’re getting a divorce. At first, the swells of John Williams’s score and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński’s florid camerawork seem like an over-aestheticization of the moment. But then, suddenly, in the mirror behind his parents, Sammy appears holding his 16mm camera, gazing at the imaginary image of himself filming his parents, in the midst of this personal and wrenching moment, with a mix of confusion and disgust. The other moment likewise has to do with how cinema plays with our own perception of reality, and involves an emotionally insecure bully (Sam Rechner) breaking down in tears at the mere sight of his idealized self in one of Sammy’s movies.
The Fabelmans never asks you to accept the sacrifices that Sammy Fabelman makes — or that we imagine he will make, to pursue a career as a filmmaker — as the path of righteousness. Instead, this is a film that means to present to us Spielberg’s truth, an idiosyncratic and personal one, and with it an effort to make amends, to forgive, and to heal the old wounds of his past as best as his art will allow. Grief is a constant of so many of Spielberg’s films, and while so too is a characteristically buoyant craft which can’t help but leaven some of this film’s weightier feelings, in its best moments, The Fabelmans feels emotionally raw like little else this director has made.
Writer: Sam C. Mac
Memories are fragile; they weather with time, fray around the edges, and sometimes, when left to their devices, fade altogether. Photographs and film can store them, but this act of preservation has a flattening effect, its artificial finality eating memories alive until only the recorded image remains. Childhood, the deepest past, is most vulnerable to this and can easily be reduced to a series of photos or video snippets — the memories that once were, rebuilt on plastic bedrock. This tension, between holding on to those messy fragments and the hard-edged recorded image, is a focal point in writer/director Charlotte Wells’ outstanding Aftersun, a story of a father and his daughter on vacation, lensed through the act of remembrance. For the most part, it’s a quiet film touched with melancholy and calm even for its category of nostalgic reverie, a quality which makes the occasional intrusions of the present, tinged with frustration and loss, cut all the deeper. Particularly arresting are the lingering ambiguities left open by the Scottish-born director who offers the audience an unusual degree of respect and distance through her narrative.
Wells’ emphatically understated approach was already evident in her NYU graduate short Tuesday, where a grieving teenager escapes to her father’s empty home, the particularities or even certainty of his death only implied in the girls’ sacrosanct handling of his things — restringing his guitar feels holy and ritualistic, while his half-drank cup of orange juice suggests a sudden demise. Instead of pushing the viewer away, this subtleness draws them closer as the emotional tones lay down a compass. Wells would illustrate this again in her harrowing short Laps, wherein a subway sexual assault is depicted in chilling daylight. Obscured in plain sight on the crowded train, we are once again left to read emotional tea leaves in order to grasp the gravity of what we’ve witnessed. Now with her feature debut, Aftersun, her method arrives to us refined and more robust than ever.
Set in the 1990s, a father and daughter — Calum (Paul Mescal) and Sophie (Frankie Corio) — are enjoying a pleasant, if somewhat underwhelming, trip to the Turkish seaside. Their holiday is for the most part warm and friendly, filled with everyday ups and downs, and yet as fragments of this trip compound, subtle throughlines develop: Calum’s increasing lapses into detachment and introspection and Sophie’s uncertain pull towards adolescence. The two are drifting even as they cling together; meanwhile, bursts of the present day with a grown-up Sophie (Celia Rowlson Hall) parallel the two as adults while suggesting a more profound finality to their holiday. The casting here is a minor miracle: Mescal effortlessly entwines Calum’s loving fatherly instinct masking a penchant for depressive fugues and simmering anger, while Corio’s Sophie is all youthful exuberance tensed with a heartbreaking wise-beyond-her-years thoughtfulness. Together, the two evoke such natural intimacy that it’s hard to disentangle them from their characters, and their depiction of a father and daughter is so tender and true to life that you wouldn’t want to.
Wells films moments between them with exacting patience, letting shots breathe and linger, capturing minute details: a reflection in the TV screen, wet socks drying on the balcony, a polaroid slowly developing — all of it evoking the rending nostalgia of Terence Davies. In a beautiful long take early on, the camera pans across the length of the hotel bed as Calum removes an exhausted Sophie’s sneakers and tucks her in, shutting off the lights. The camera stays in the darkness racking focus to a sliver of light on the balcony behind Sophie, where Calum reemerges for a late-night cigarette. The shot zooms in on him as he struggles to light a match, fumbling with his arm in a cast, and holds longer still, to catch him in an uninhibited moment of liberated dance which with a cigarette in hand recalls Denis Lavant’s climactic release in Beau Travail, an intriguing touchpoint that resurfaces in the ferocious nightclub closer. In addition to these graceful sequences, camcorder footage is interspersed throughout, oft shaky, grainy, and out of focus but revelatory all the same and ultimately the primary artifact Sophie clings to years down the line.
It’s a marvel that the climactic sequence inside of a strobed nightclub, that forms Wells’ exclamation point here, comes off so naturally given that it’s soundtracked by a beloved classic (which I won’t spoil here), a testament to the way that she brilliantly employs a nostalgic hit-heavy songbook featuring the likes of the “Macarena” and “Tubthumping” as the diegetic playlist one would expect of a tacky hotel running through the hits. This approach facilitates Sophie’s heartbreaking karaoke of “Losing My Religion,” and disarms us for the emotional wallop of that final number. True to form, Wells leaves us with a confident ambiguity crescendoing in those last moments shared by the duo. We have the freedom to fill in the blanks but the emotional textures are undeniable; Sophie holds the camcorder in her hands, but there is no mechanical device that could store her depth of feeling as the memory crests across time and space.
Writer: Igor Fishman
Kôji Fukada has described Ozu this way: “He’s one of the true greats, while I am not.” To take a line from Hasumi’s criticism: if, “In Ozu films, the sky can only be sunny” — the mark of “a master with an extremely objective point of view” — then in Fukada’s films an emotional unraveling will be accompanied, as in Love Life, with a downpour of rain so immediate and forceful it causes a wedding to clear. This is done, brazenly, to allow for a theatrical dialogue and exit — why, we might ask, is such an intervention necessary?
Fukada’s films, since his UCR-winning Harmonium, have not lacked for prominent premieres and measured acclaim, but one would be hard-pressed to find anyone marking out the director as especially distinct. When one notices Fukada’s penchant for striking compositions, always keeping a measured distance from his characters, his past studies under the teaching of Kiyoshi Kurosawa are invoked. His melodramatic plots earn him comparison, as in his to-date strongest work, The Real Thing, to Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. And his early adoption of de-emphasized theatrical values from the company Seinendan was, along with his cinephilic interest in the films of Éric Rohmer, predictably repeated in early-career notices.
This may be because Fukada is an intentionally limited director: he concerns himself with arranging a combustible set of emotions, and then reporting on their transformation over time. Nothing can get in the way: no showpieces, no manipulative scores, no exuberant climaxes, but conversely his interests as a screenwriter demand an investment in steadily-paced narrative outgrowth, which can at times look like nothing more than belabored backstory. This gives Fukada little room to range.
In Love Life, he quickly sketches out the still-germinating roots of a newly married couple. Taeko (Kimura Fumino), previously divorced, is the mother to a son who has just turned six. The son, Keita (Shimada Tetsuta), is a rising star in competitive Othello (“Othello,” he emphasizes, “not ‘a game,’” in reply to a mildly dismissive comment). Jiro (Nagayama Kento), like his wife, works in the social services, but notably has yet to formally adopt Keita and, against the wishes of his parents, entered into this marriage on the heels of a broken engagement to Yamazaki (Yamazaki Hirona). So introduced to this environs of newly bound trust, Love Life might have it where we take these relationships as they delineate themselves, rather than as an evolving game.
But new players and rules do get introduced. In the aftermath (or, as an earthquake scene literalizes, the aftershocks) of personal disturbance, Taeko and Jiro both are unable to imagine future moves, and so adopt their pre-marital behavioral patterns: in their introductory scenes, Taeko’s ex-husband Park (Atom Sunada) and Jiro’s old flame Yamazaki bolt, and the remainder of Love Life involves a subsequent chase for meaning. Fukada, to be sure, precisely modulates how much and when we learn of the past’s gravity on the present, which is to say there is less than we might expect, and Taeko and Jiro, still married, still living together, are kept within a plausible frame of action: no one is working with a pre-meditated strategy, and everyone gets a chance to explain their self-concept.
Love Life then can best be approached as a comedown from the dizzying dramatic heights of The Real Thing, whose TV origins did not allow for anything but the most densely organized emotional stakes and formal moves of Fukada’s work to date. Here, everything is cleanly kept within bounds.
Writer: Michael Scoular
Iranian cinema, as presented to the larger world over the past four decades, has mostly been based on a Bazinian commitment to observable reality. In fact, many of the acknowledged masters of Iranian film have built their work at least partially on documentary reality. In this context, the films of Mani Haghighi are quite unique. In his second film, Men at Work (2006), a group of friends on a road trip get sidetracked by a strange rock formation one of the men of the group becomes obsessed with destroying. In his recent film Pig (2018), a washed-up movie director discovers that a serial killer is targeting the luminaries of Iranian cinema, and the protagonist is frustrated that he didn’t make the kill list.
While both of those films traded in dark comedy bordering on misanthropy, Subtraction amps up the high-concept premise for something deadly serious. A married couple in Tehran, Jalal (Navid Mohammadzadeh) and Farzaneh (Taraneh Alidoosti), are struggling, mostly because Farzaneh, a woman with a depressive mood disorder, has had to go off her meds due to a pregnancy. While conducting one of her drivers’ ed lessons, she sees Jalal board a city bus while he is supposedly out of town on business. She hops out and follows him to a strange apartment, and with the help of her father-in-law (Haghighi regular Ali Bagheri), investigates. He goes up to the apartment and comes back down to Farzaneh, having seen something so horrific that he’s rendered almost speechless.
Before long, we find out what the problem is. Jalal and Farzaneh have two exact doubles living across town. Mohsen (Mohammadzadeh) and Bita (Alidoosti) have very different lives. Where gentle Jalal works with his father in a framing shop, Mohsen is a middle manager who, when accused of graft, beats his elderly accuser so badly he’s in traction. Meanwhile, Bita’s charming disposition is in marked contrast with Farzaneh and her struggle with mental illness. Before long, Jalal and Bita meet and become friends, with both parties clearly thinking they want more.
Although Subtraction does have the overall trappings of an Iranian Buñuel film, Haghighi often overplays his hand, keeping certain characters in the dark about the situation much longer than it makes sense. Such conceits are hardly a dealbreaker – Asghar Farhadi often does the same thing – but by amplifying the supernatural elements of the plot, Haghighi demands that the viewer abandon the uncanny human drama we’re watching and shoot straight for the allegorical. Doppelgänger plots always seem to have something on their minds, but Subtraction is quite evidently about the changes people undergo during long-term relationships. Jalal and Bita are the better selves of Mohsen and Farzaneh, maybe even their younger selves before life took its toll on them.
Strangely, the film Subtraction most reminded me of is Time (2006) by the late Kim Ki-duk. In both films, couples grapple with the possibility that the person they fell in love with is gone for good. In Kim’s film, plastic surgery is the complicating factor, implying that the soul may be as pliable as the body. Subtraction is at once more elemental and even more pessimistic. Who we were, after all, still exists so long as someone remembers when we were so much better than we are right now. Subtraction strongly concurs with Hitchcock who once said, “if you meet your double, you should kill them.”
Writer: Michael Sicinski
As with a number of other quarantine-produced movies that have seen release since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Wang Xiaoshuai’s The Hotel operates by the logic of a “locked room”-type scenario, where people with existing relationships are stuck together for longer periods than they normally would be (or in some cases, strangers are forced to get acquainted) and then talk at each other a lot, about not just the crisis at hand but all other aspects of their lives exterior to it. The Hotel also seems a fitting extension of Wang’s last film, So Long, My Son, at least in the sense that it tackles an ensemble of characters (there, a family) and attempts to spin a broader statement on cross-generational relationships in Chinese society.
And as with So Long, the clear weak point here is how Wang renders characters of the younger generation specifically. In the mid-1990s, Wang was at the vanguard of a nascent Chinese independent film scene, and seemed to be better than almost anyone at capturing the malaise and disaffection felt by a generation of Chinese artist-intellectuals, with films like 1993’s The Days and 1994’s Frozen. But like so many of his Sixth Generation contemporaries, he’s gradually lost the pulse of the youth – which in turn has given way to occasionally quite provocative (if unevenly written) studies of generational trauma, like Red Amnesia and Shanghai Dreams, that place the disillusionment his era succumbed to within a historical context.
The past looms large again in Wang’s latest, about an assortment of mostly Chinese occupants at a hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand, who are caught in an early-pandemic lockdown and begin to pontificate to each other about what it means to be alienated from their country. One blind, gay Chinese man questions his hunky, Thai-born but ethnically Chinese attendant about his family history, learning that his grandfather was a Kuomintang army officer who resettled in Thailand after the Communist Revolution. A middle-aged, former college professor and his former student wife see the cracks in their relationship tested by repeated arguments about the origins of Covid and the veracity of Chinese news reporting, as well as by the man’s willingness to flirt back with an attractive 19-year-old girl. Said girl has her own special relationship to the past, since her mother (who’s also staying at the hotel) has never told her who her father was – but has promised to finally do so, on the occasion of her upcoming twentieth birthday.
There are a couple of other characters, most notably a man who the professor’s wife tells him is a “famous painter” (although on the one occasion we glimpse what he’s sketching, it’s comically terrible), and the 19-year-old’s mother, who eventually proves to be key to the whole plot. Wang also jumbles the order of the chapters a bit, starting with two and three and then doubling back to one, but also kind of playing fast and loose with that logic since events that we see play out in the earlier chapters do so again from a different perspective in the later (supposedly chronologically earlier) one. In any case, The Hotel – with its black-and-white cinematography and very-scripted dialogue – isn’t aiming for realism, and indeed its most compelling moments tend to be the ones that flirt with the avant-garde sensibilities present in Wang’s earlier films.
When Wang sticks to the storylines here that involve the older characters, his writing is markedly better – as in a tender scene between the professor and his wife that unpacks how their relationship has deteriorated since he left his cushy job and sacrificed a sizeable retirement pay-out over his dissident political views. But Wang doesn’t accord the same complexity or emotional nuance to the development of his younger characters, whom he tends to view in the most simple and sentimental terms or as a kind of mouthpiece for his own cynical views. The latter is certainly more interesting to watch, and the last act of The Hotel introduces a twist that we mostly see coming but still surprises for the way it allows the film to fold back on itself, and serves as an extension of Wang’s interest in exploring cyclical narratives. But then The Hotel goes on for one more scene than necessary, hammering home the twist and cheapening its message, in the process reminding just how poor Wang’s instincts as a writer can be.
Writer: Sam C. Mac
A renowned photographer, writer, and video artist, Moyra Davey has been making art for over four decades, garnering a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2020 and numerous solo exhibitions along the way. In a short video piece posted on YouTube this past March, titled Portrait of Moyra Davey, the artist explains some of the ideas behind her body of work, which includes photography, conceptual pieces reminiscent of On Kawara, and the filming of footage for what would become her new feature-length video work, Horse Opera. She describes waking up at 4:00 AM to capture images of horses during the sunrise, while drawing inspiration from her own prior work as well as from others, a process she describes as “forms of love, homage, reenactment, and reposition.” Horse Opera manages to fuse these disparate forms into a rigorous, if opaque, study of nature and seclusion. Composed of footage shot between 2019 and 2022, the video chronicles horses and other animals around Davey’s home, as well as various odds and ends from inside the house (stacks of records, the kitchen, her workshop, etc). Davey herself delivers a constant voiceover narration for the duration of the video that concerns a woman named Elle, and which recounts various anecdotes about going to clubs, partying with friends, and imbibing copious amounts of drugs.
Michael Sicinski has called Horse Opera a “plague diary,” and it certainly is that. Stuck at home, Davey has found a way to transform her surroundings into organizational units, juxtaposing the Elle narrative — expansive, sprawling, full of people with vivid interior lives — with her own isolation. The view outside her windows becomes Davey’s whole world, albeit also full of life in its own way. The video consists entirely of these oppositions, closeups of horses and ponies oblivious to their owner’s predicament while the narration accumulates an entire biography’s worth of information. It’s not clear if Elle is a real person or not, or if Davey has created this story out of whole cloth. It doesn’t seem particularly important either, even as the connections between these two strands aren’t always immediately clear. There is obviously a desire on the artist’s part to create something (she says that she has made her home central to her visual art so that she can always be working), to give the long hours and days some sort of purpose. Footage of the animals is masked so that the frame becomes a circle, like old-timey portraiture (an act of homage by Davey’s own admission). Repeated scenes of bird feeders, horses urinating, and tails swishing away flies seem to speak to the way days and weeks melded into each other during quarantine. There’s beauty here, of course, but also a kind of distance.
Davey’s vocal delivery is a flat, halting monotone, almost soothing in its robotic rhythm, as she spins her detailed yarn about Elle’s vibrant nightlife that Davey herself can’t experience. She fills the video with music, adding some vibrancy in the process, and eventually expands the piece’s very loose narrative to include friends and family as well as several sequences of herself recording her narration into her phone. In this sense, the video is very much about the process of its own creation, a self-reflexive bit of commentary that suggests an endless number of possibilities for collating and organizing visual information. At a brief 71 minutes, Horse Opera can sometimes feel a little too loose; one can imagine a 30-minute version of the project that functions just as well, or a two- or even three-hour version that is more immersive and durational. But what shines through is her fascination with what writer Janique Vinier calls an “unwavering attention to the objects and accidents of everyday life.” A curious work, Horse Opera in its own odd way nonetheless becomes a key reflective work of our Covid era.
Writer: Daniel Gorman