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Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Fabelmans as a Double Bill

There’s a nasty rumor going around that filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Damien Chazelle (Babylon), and Sam Mendes (Empire of Light) are making the films that they are – the so-called “love letters to cinema” – because of a shared fear that film as an art form might be on its way out. There is a sense that modern audiences are less likely to see something original while they have the safety net of something tried and tested. When you consider the films that have achieved what could be considered box office success in recent history – it’s hard to spot something that isn’t either part of a huge franchise already or at least a far-removed sequel. Since the pandemic, the “brand” of the director seems to be faltering a little, with several big names struggling to make much of a splash with new releases.

Ridley Scott (House of Gucci, The Last Duel), Wes Anderson (The French Dispatch), and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (BARDO, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths) have all met challenges in terms of longevity in their initial theatrical runs, so maybe there is some truth to what we’d all prefer to deny. Now, is The Fabelmans, along with its “love letter to cinema” cousins, enough to address the apparent decline in the commercial viability of the art of original cinema? A lot of critics and commentators have argued that it isn’t. But where it perhaps comes short in its quest to remind us of what film is supposed to be, it does an excellent job of recontextualizing its past. Or, more specifically, Steven Spielberg’s past. The real success of The Fabelmans is that it adds so much to Steven Spielberg’s earlier sci-fi classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

At a very base level, The Fabelmans is a semi-autobiographical story about Steven Spielberg’s childhood. From the very start, we see the major influences on his stand-in, Sam’s, life. His parents take him to a movie theatre so he can experience his first taste of cinema. Naturally, as a young child who’s seemingly led a sheltered life, he is apprehensive about a brand-new experience. This is where the opposing personalities of his parents are laid bare. His father (Paul Dano) explains that nothing in there can hurt him because it’s just a bunch of photographs that are being pushed through a machine that lights them up and makes them big, 24 of ’em per second. We just perceive them as motion because our eyes can only hang on to an image for one-fifteenth of a second.

A scientific concept, apparently, is called persistence of vision. On the other hand, his mother (Michelle Williams) explains what he’s about to see as just like a dream. These two very different takes on the same thing with the same outcome. His father is telling him that nothing can hurt him because there’s science and logic behind it, and that’s how it’s not really there. In contrast, his mother tells him that it’s all something magical, a much higher concept that means he can experience something special in a safe environment.

As the film progresses, we see Sam and his siblings caught in the storm of a relationship crisis between the computer scientist father and an artist, specifically a musician mother.Sam in The Fabelmans is easily read as a younger version of Roy in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. One’s a kid, and one has his own kids. They’re at very different stages of their lives in a physical sense, but there’s more that they have in common than what separates them.

When Sam discovers the joy of filmmaking, it’s something that his father is happy to entertain as a cool thing that his son does for fun. Heartbreakingly for Sam, that’s all it ever is to him. He repeatedly refers to it as a hobby, a phrasing that Sam tries to correct during a driving lesson, at the dinner table, and wherever else he has to. There’s even a moment where Sam pleads with his father to stop calling it a hobby, prompting a conversation about how Sam would do well to spend his time on something important instead. Like algebra.

His passion is simply not in his father’s frame of reference for something that can hold any importance or legitimacy as more than just dumb fun. His mother kind of gets it, being an artist herself. But it’s his great-uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) on her side is the one who puts it into words.

In a scene between just the two of them, Sam describes a war picture that he’s working on, which he’s unable to show Boris because his dad has him working on a family camping trip movie instead. “But you, Mr. Director, you don’t want to do what your daddy tells you because you want to make your war picture, huh?” forces a brief moment of introspection in Sam. But a minute or so later, Boris drives the point home. “We’re junkies, and art is our drug. Family, we love. But art, we’re meshuga for art.”

These struggles between family life and an obsession for the teenage Sam never seem to get any better for the adult Roy. They play different roles in their family setups, but the problem of fitting into a traditional family dynamic remains the same. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Roy experiences an encounter with an entirely new form of life that’s so far outside of his own points of reference that he falls into an obsession with it. Already not unlike how Sam Fabelman does, all that’s missing is a camera as an intermediary for it all. Roy’s obsession grows deeper and deeper as he begins seeing subliminal images of something that he can’t quite describe, and even if he could, it wouldn’t make much sense, so he doesn’t.

Instead, he replicates the shape he’s seeing without even realizing that he’s doing it. The most famous version of this is at the dinner table with a pile of mashed potatoes. It’s a scene that’s been extensively parodied to the point that many people would’ve probably been familiar with a parody enactment before seeing the scene. But it’s also loaded with the quintessential message of what the film is actually about. Roy is a guy who is being eaten away by a vision that his family cannot share the significance of, and it’s no fault of their own that they can’t. Still, their inability to share the significance of this vision means that his family unit is becoming an unsustainable environment for him.

In The Fabelmans, Uncle Boris introduces a running theme of how “family, art, it’ll rip you in two,” and that’s what’s happening in that scene. Roy’s obsession is at a point where his wife and children are crying at the dinner table, a family tradition in itself, because he physically can’t allow himself to be present anymore, even for a few minutes while they eat. It’s hard not to hear another quote from Uncle Boris to sum it all up, “Oh, you love these people, huh? Your sisters, your mama, your papa. Except this. This, I think you love a little more.”

Both films ponder on this idea of whether the artist/obsessive at the center of it all is fit for family life, and both offer their conclusions. In The Fabelmans, it’s a bit more subtle. Outside of Uncle Boris, there are no big set pieces or forks in the road where Sam has to choose between his love for his family and his love for his art indefinitely. However, some moments highlight an internal tug of war. In a scene where Sam’s family life has just been shattered following the news that his parents are about to get a divorce, Sam’s sister, Reggie (Julia Butters), is distraught.

She’s urging Sam to give the smallest slither of his attention to the catastrophe that changing their family forever, but he can’t. He can’t because he’s preoccupied with the final editing stages on a school film that he’s about to premiere to a gym full of his peers. As Reggie is about to leave the room with her eyes full of tears, Sam calls her back. But it isn’t to console her. It’s to ask whether she’s willing to watch his film before the big event.

It’s easy to read the scene just as Sam choosing his art over his family, and there is an element of that to it, but there’s more. Once we get to the big finale of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Roy makes a choice, which happens to be a big set piece and a fork in the road. His obsession wins, and his family is no longer part of his life as a result of it. Knowing what we know from The Fabelmans, however, what we’re presented with in the final moments of Close Encounters of the Third Kind becomes so much more than that.

In The Fabelmans, we see Sam in the middle of a computer scientist dad and a musician mom, whose communication has broken down to the point that they have to divorce. In this scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we see Roy in the middle of an alien spaceship and a bunch of guys in lab coats. They then use computer science to communicate with one another through music.

What we’re seeing in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the result of Sam, or Steven Speilberg, being all grown up. The kid obsessed over the visions that none of his family could understand is now a father himself, still facing the same battles over the dinner table and pondering whether family life is sustainable with such an all-consuming passion. But what can be interpreted as supremely selfish acts in both films, where he puts his obsession for art before his family, are actually very tender, vulnerable moments.

It becomes clear that the art of cinema was more than just an obsession all along when Steven Spielberg uses the ending of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to recouple his parents. It’s escapism, wish fulfillment, an introduction to new horizons, and so much more. So maybe The Fabelmans, with the help of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, does something to remind us about what film is supposed to be after all.

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