The Power and Powerlessness of Memory Curation: “The Fabelmans” vs. “Aftersun”

Movie poster for "The Fabelmans", one of several in an outdoor grid.

Another one from the Department of the Power of Movies. If you’ve seen it, you’ll note the horizon is on the bottom.

Much bandwidth has been devoted to the movies-about-moviemaking subgenre that feels as if it’s relatively exploded here in the later pandemic years. Filmmakers are looking back on their lives with emphases on their relationship to movies and on their upbringing, often in that order. Given the perpetually precarious state of the world, everyone with at least a rudimentary level of self-awareness is in a reflective mood nowadays. Some of their stories are like a live feed staged in their mind palace, replete with witty host repartee and snacks. Others are more like candid self-therapy sessions, surveying the damage of years past and the few clues they still have on hand to decipher What It All Meant. The results among these motion-memoirs rely on whatever footage they’ve collected that hasn’t decayed like so much neglected celluloid, and on their level of control over the final cut.

One of the more well-known examples from recent months is Steven Spielberg’s roman à clef, the personal period piece The Fabelmans. Same as happened with West Side Story, I was the only one in our household interested in giving him another chance. Much as his earlier works have influenced and defined millions of childhoods, his 21st-century portfolio has been far more uneven and not quite regaining everyone’s once-unconditional fandom. To my relief, his latest isn’t the glowing autohagiography everyone might’ve feared.

Our eponymous stand-ins for the Spielbergs are movie lovers in their own fashions. Dad (The Batman‘s Paul Dano) is a professional programming whiz in the early days of the computing industry who loves the gadgetry and physics of cameras, whose tech-geek father/son pep talk extols the wonders of frame rate and persistence of vision like a wanner Mr. Wizard. Mom (frequent Oscar nominee Michelle Williams) is a dancer and pianist who deferred those talents for the sake of housewifery and child-rearing, but who’s still art-minded enough to overrule Dad’s science-class lifelessness with an easy aphorism: “Movies are dreams you can’t forget.” Mom fails to presage the current era when it is in fact possible to watch too many movies and let newer ones overwrite the head-space wasted by the more disposable ones, but it’s an enchanting rhapsody. Our Hero is trapped in a household complicated by the push-and-pull of ye olde-school left-brain/right-brain dichotomy.

Sometimes they do get out of the house for shared fun times. Our Hero, li’l Sammy Fabelman, is finally treated to his first trip to a movie theater. My mom took me to the drive-in so many times as a kid that I couldn’t possibly tell you which big-screen experience was my first, but my son’s was Disney’s 1997 re-release of The Little Mermaid. He was only 3, but my best friend Anne and I laid down the basic rules going in — no talking, no running around, be respectful of the other strangers trying to enjoy this, be patient with us adult weirdos while we watch the end credits, and if you can at all help it without exploding, try your best to hold it in till we can get to the bathrooms afterward. And it worked! The only time he violated the rules in front of me came two years later during Godzilla 2000, which we all mocked together, thankfully with no other viewers seated near us. When a five-year-old is zinging your flick, you have erred.

Meanwhile back in 1952, I made a face upon learning li’l Sammy F’s intro to the silver screen was The Greatest Show on Earth. I watched it in the late ’90s as part of my Every Best Picture Winner Ever viewing project and was not bowled over by Fathom Events Presents a Circus. (Maybe if you’ve never seen a circus, it’s spectacular? I dunno.) The only part I remember to this day is the train crash at the end, because that was something. In a rare feat of a movie totally reading my mind, this film skips straight to that best part. Wee tyke Sammy is wide-eyed and spellbound for the rest of the film, on the whole car ride home, and well past bedtime. For all its flaws and two hours of opening tedium, the film that would go on to defeat High Noon at the Oscars has changed his life.

Come morning, he yearns to recreate that formative experience, first by adding “model train set” to his Hanukkah-gift wish-list. Soon he realizes watching a toy train do 500 perfect laps isn’t the cool part. That’s just setting up a premise: what it really needs is some conflict, and a lens through which he can capture the drama and watch it again and again and again. Mom digs out an old 8mm camera they never use anymore and passes it on to him. An intense hobby ensues, which in turn might just lead to a career. She also beats the critics to the chance to blatantly state the most obvious insight: as his family life begins to deteriorate over the next several years, filmmaking becomes something that Sammy can control, something to overcome any feelings of powerlessness ahead in his future. It’s a living.

Li’l Sammy grows into teenage Sam (Gabriel LaBelle, who had a tiny part in Shane Black’s The Predator), who’s still producing his own works with the help of friends and neighbors, and bristling whenever anyone demeans him by labeling it a “hobby”. His talents and vision soon outgrow his modest equipment, which would be the endpoint for an aspiring director in a poor family. Fortunately Dad’s career comes with affluence, so upgrades aren’t out of reach — camera, editing equipment, effects, and so forth — even as he keeps dragging the family cross-country every time a new opportunity comes up. When Dad complains about prices, it isn’t because he can’t afford it. He just wants the expense justified.

After years of self-determined production, Dad becomes the first producer to bring a project to him, one he can’t refuse: edit their recent camping trip (because of course all Sam did during their days-long outing was film and film and film) into a cool, cozy home video for the whole family to enjoy, including dear old Mom, who’s beginning to fray at the seams. Thus with a cast of six players — himself, Mom, Dad, his two younger sisters, and Dad’s BFF/coworker “Uncle” Bennie (Seth Rogen, in a role silly yet not comedic) — Sam has himself an assignment to assemble begrudgingly. When a review of his footage begins revealing some shocking surprises that he hadn’t noticed when his head was glued to his camera, his head sort of explodes and he instead creates two separate films: the happy-time film that his “client” wanted, and a second “supercut” of sorts that will bring devastation when viewed by its intended audience.

A lot of filmmaking films focus on the artistic process, the interactions between cast and crew, and what life and hardships are like behind the cameras. The tale of Teen Senor Spielbergo naturally keeps him central, but it also explores how viewers react to the end results — their reactions to it within their own context. Sam’s productions of all sizes strike different chords with his viewers, some of whom doubled as his actors but sometimes see aspects of their performances they weren’t expecting. He painfully learns all this and more in the final section — in between encounters with anti-Semitic bullies and his first girlfriend, who’s Christian and tries to pray Jesus into his heart, with mixed results — when he’s given the idea to make a film about his senior class. As with pro adult directors, Sam’s least favorite projects are when he’s making other people’s ideas come to life, but in this case the project has the added incentive of access to his best camera yet. Commercial art is all about tradeoffs.

Whether he can stand his subjects or not, the important thing is the final cut is all Sam’s. Shooting the scenes is a lot of work, but editing is a superpower in itself. He gets to decide which moments are archived for posterity to outlive their subjects; and which memories are snipped out and left to rot. In the end The Fabelmans is a standard coming-of-age story and the barely veiled secret origin of a world-famous storyteller, a once-powerless kid from a broken home who rose up and took control of his narrative — and the narratives of everyone around him — through a combination of innate talent and seemingly unlimited funding. “Analysis plus capital plus execution,” as an eccentric billionaire once put it in an episode of Succession.

I was moved by Sam’s emotional upheavals among his family, but the path he walks to his burgeoning career was more fun than feeling. I saw it in theaters a couple weeks before all the Oscar nominees were evicted to make way for the Quantumania freight train, and went home a little misty-eyed.

The next evening at home, I rented another Oscar nominee, a much smaller film that’s up for only one (1) Academy Award rather than seven of them like The Fabelmans. I assumed it would be completely different. It was and it wasn’t.

Paul Mescal as a depressed dad lying in the middle of a Turkish rug shop, where he's just spent way too much money and failed to cheer himself up, so he's just lying there on his new purchase.

Yep, just lying down in an expensive Turkish rug shop. As one does.

Scottish writer/director Charlotte Wells made a striking premiere at full length with Aftersun, similarly not an exacting memoir yet surely inspired by her own experiences, judging by the reverberations throughout. At face value the premise is simple: once upon a time twenty years ago, an 11-year-old named Sophie (introducing Frankie Corio) went on vacation with her dad (The Lost Daughter‘s Paul Mescal) to Turkey, where they spent a lot of time on free activities like swimming and sunbathing and just kind of hanging out ’round the resort where they’re staying, except for one prepaid tour-guide outing later in the week. Dad also bought Sophie a camera so she could have fun making her own home movies. Sometimes she films whatever’s around her. Sometimes she engages Dad in a bit of artifice, like a faux documentary Q&A or stunts in the pool. Mostly she puts down the camera and has fun, because (a) it’s not that great a camera, and (b) she’s 11 and has freedoms to enjoy before school starts next week.

That’s it for 90 straight minutes. And yet that isn’t it. Little curiosities tug at the viewer. Mom and Dad are not an item; Mom, the custodial parent, is a disembodied phone voice, but she and Dad get along at arm’s length. Dad’s happy to have this extended visitation with his daughter away from his everyday issues, but he isn’t necessarily happy-happy. He’s coping with being 30, shrugging off and yet not, benignly moody and restless. He chats with her happily till he loses interest or drifts away, leaving her to hang out for hours with other preteens and plentiful fellow traveling strangers, and making me deeply concerned for her safety. (Thankfully this isn’t that kind of drama.) We’re paying closer attention to Dad than Sophie is. She’s 11 and we’re not. So she doesn’t think too hard when her dad talks about being between jobs and a bit aimless.

That tidbit informs others as their vacation jump-cuts from day to day, from one memory to the next, along with each of Sophie’s intermittent videoing spurts. As we see them nonchalantly doing less and less with their free time, one might ponder long enough to ask: if Dad’s unemployed, how’d he afford to buy her a fancy video camera, which wasn’t cheap in pre-smartphone days (or now, frankly)? Or the fancy scuba mask that Sophie loses, to his barely suppressed chagrin? Or this entire distant resort vacation, like at all?

That’s likely the trick: he can’t afford any of it. But he did it anyway, as much for himself as for Sophie. There’s no question he loves her, but something’s off about him. Sophie might unconsciously realize it on some level — especially one night when they’re separated and gets locked out of their room — but obviously she’s not old enough to psychoanalyze him. “That’s just how Dad is,” say millions of kids about their dysfunctional parents, most of whom have no idea how much of an understatement that might be.

It’d be quaintly slice-of-life if that’s all there was; as it happens, everything’s in flashback from the present day. In a series of haunting framing sequences rendered mostly as strobe-lit celluloid scars torn through an imaginary haunted rave, adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) is now the same age Dad was when all that happened. As a wife and a new mom, she’s looking back at the last enduring set of childhood memories of her and Dad before…well, before something happened and they stopped creating new memories. Aftersun represents her anxious attempt to piece together her dad and whatever his deal was. We, like adult Sophie, have to piece together what we can from the limited info at hand.

Sadly for her, her family differed from the Fabelmans on multiple levels. Sure, each parent loves their kids even while they aren’t exactly in love with each other anymore. Sam Fabelman was lucky to have creative control and all the footage he wanted, endless hours of it thanks to a dad who could afford lots of film and his own rapaciousness obsession with nonstop capturing of life going on around him. He held most people at arm’s length, but he got practically every shot the way he wanted it and probably had it cataloged to the very last frame.

Sophie’s resources are nowhere near as bountiful. All she has left to define her dad and her childhood are what few incidents she bothered to film and keep (and without a prodigiously artistic eye to guide them), and her own memories, some spotty and incomplete. Really, how many crystal-clear memories do any of us have from age 11? But that’s all the raw material she has in her mournful attempt to reassemble her childhood, explain her family, and decide how that affects her own life’s direction today. Compared to the powerfully gifted mini-Spielberg, she’s nigh powerless. She’ll never have the Big Picture. Large portions are lost forever like so many silent films, contents known only to the dead who acted in them.

I can relate. To this day large portions of my own early chapters are like tears in rain, a tale never told to me uncut or unedited. All I have are faint memories, scant documentation, input from unreliable narrators, weird looks from witnesses self-sworn to secrecy, and deductions I’ve made based on flimsy evidence. The full story of How I Came to Be is a slim volume in Morpheus’ library of the never-written and never-released.

I mused silently through the Aftersun end credits, contemplative and maudlin. The more I thought about it and pieced things together sliver by sliver, the sadder I got. About fifteen minutes later, I fell apart in my wife’s arms.

It’s pretty cool if you grew up a Sammy Fabelman, stressed yet luxuriating in your opportunities and your full backstory. Too many of us were li’l Sophies, doing the best we could with what little shreds we had.

Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Aftersun is technically disqualified from these two sections because I didn’t see it in theaters (it might’ve played here for a week, months ago), but isn’t that kind of film anyway. So the rest of this is all about The Fabelmans.

Other members of Sam’s family include Julia Butters (the young MVP of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and TV’s Judd Hirsch, who’s in there for like six minutes as the weirdest elder ever, but they are absolutely his six minutes to rule. Mom and Dad’s own respective moms are Jeannie Berlin (Succession) and Robin Bartlett (a Shutter Island patient and Paul Reiser’s sister on Mad About You). In the film’s second half, the bullies include Oakes Fegley, a.k.a. Pete in the excellent Pete’s Dragon remake. Friends include Lane Factor, a.k.a. Cheese from the highly excellent Reservation Dogs, whom I cannot process seeing in an Eagle Scout uniform. James Urbaniak (Dwight Schrute’s pal Rolf) is the school principal.

The Fabelmans ends with a super fun coda, costarring Heroes‘ Greg Grunberg as a TV executive whose next big project is near and dear to my wife’s heart. After him, the center of attention is a Very Special Cameo by a famous director playing a famous director, who lights up the screen, imparts a simple yet valuable lesson, and chases us out of his office.

There’s also a monkey with an impressive resume.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Fabelmans end credits, but eagle-eyed cineastes can review the song list and movie attributions to confirm which homages and reuses they recognized along the way. That’s the awesome thing about playing “spot the reference”: if your memory fails you, there’s always reference material you can go check. If only every ordinary life were so lucky.

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