Modern society has no shortage of candidates for substitute religions.
Instead of attending religious services, we can assemble at football games; in lieu of studying the lives of the saints, we can come to know Harry and Meghan. And, for much of the 20th century, no single secular activity served as a better proxy religion than moviegoing.
The parallels are clear enough: Like congregants processing to a house of worship, moviegoers file into enormous theaters. There, seated in red velvet seats so like—but so much more comfortable than—wooden pews, the faithful wait to be startled, mesmerized, or otherwise enraptured, except that it would be the rare pastor in a pulpit who could compete with Greta Garbo’s mystery, John Wayne’s stoic command, or Jimmy Stewart’s shambling innocence.
But for at least the first half of the last century, during Hollywood’s Golden Age, the movies deserved their prime place in the popular consciousness. At its best, the art form was both capable of reproducing reality—unlike paintings, sculptures, or photographs, movies capture life as we experience it: in motion—and serving as a vessel for enchantment: say, to journey to the desert with Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence or to Oz with Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale.
Among those enchanted by this medium was Steven Spielberg, who, as a young man coming of age in New Jersey, Arizona, and finally California, received a full initiation into America’s predominant secular faith. In his extraordinarily eloquent and entertaining new film, The Fabelmans—which, following an ironically abbreviated theatrical run that began just last month, will be released via video-on-demand on Dec. 13—Spielberg sketches his own cinematic and moral education. Working from a screenplay he fashioned with playwright Tony Kushner, Spielberg reimagines himself as Sammy Fabelman (played, as a boy, by Mateo Zoryan), the eldest and only male of four children born to Burt and Mitzi Fabelman (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams), clear models for Spielberg’s own parents, Arnold and Leah. (The director also has three sisters.)
A middle-class Jewish family, the Fabelmans are religiously observant and outwardly contented. Yet social change and technological progress are afoot, and Sammy and his kindly but nerdy father are taken with the wonders of the age. An engineer for RCA, Burt is an early proponent of the computer revolution while his son becomes besotted by the movies—a still-miraculous medium when the film opens in 1952, a mere 25 years since the arrival of talkies. In preparing his son for his first sojourn to the movies, Cecil B. DeMille’s enduring charmer The Greatest Show on Earth, Burt expounds on the “persistence of vision,” although Mitzi—who, like most Spielberg mothers, has a softer touch—puts it in terms likelier to be appreciated by a six-year-old: “Movies are dreams, doll, that you never forget.”
And he doesn’t: The Greatest Show on Earth is seared into Sammy’s consciousness. After receiving a much-desired train set as a Hanukkah gift, Sammy sets about restaging a train crash memorably depicted in DeMille’s film—a potent illustration of the creative possibilities found in acts of destruction and a fine example of the way movies embed themselves in our minds. (It also suggests the loveliest scene in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, when Elliott recruits a pretty classmate to subconsciously reenact the embrace between John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in John Ford’s The Quiet Man.)
Mitzi, a pianist of some talent but only modest recognition, has the inspired notion to film Sammy’s toy-train crashes. With this, the key turns: Sammy, blessed with his mother’s dreaminess and his father’s curiosity, is mad not just about the movies but also about making them. The numerous scenes of Sammy corralling his siblings and pals into amateur productions—rolls of toilet paper are used to simulate a mummy’s bandages and ketchup (presumably) stands in for blood—are immensely appealing, but Spielberg is getting at something deeper and richer than mere movie nostalgia.
By the time Burt’s advancing career fortunes lead the family out West, first to Arizona, the movies themselves seem to be losing their ironclad grip on a public that is moving on to television and other amusements. When young Sammy saw The Greatest Show on Earth, he was among a sea of enthralled moviegoers, but when in Arizona teenage Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) takes in a matinee performance of Ford’s masterpiece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he is one of just a scattered handful. But while the movies may be less important to the general public, they are more and more important to Sammy himself. “This, I think, you love a little more,” says Sammy’s uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), contrasting Sammy’s obvious affection for his family with his even more obvious devotion to his editing machine.
Yet this line is more complex than it sounds: Sammy has started to use his tools as a means to empathize with his family, which is undergoing the strain of a cross-country move and his mother’s extramarital affair. Crucially, Sammy discovers his mother’s infidelity while watching and rewatching footage from a camping trip, and when he later tries to explain his standoffishness to his mother, instead of accusing her of an affair, he sits her down in a closet and turns on the projector. This act at first seems cruel, but Spielberg sees it as an act of communion between mother and son: When you watch a movie, even a home movie, you don’t need words to express how you feel. You watch, and you understand; Sammy is saying, “I saw this, and I understand.” (There’s a deathbed scene here—not involving a key character—during which the similarity between a human pulse and the flicker of film may become obvious to some viewers.)
Eventually, the Fabelmans move yet again, this time to Northern California, distinct, in Spielberg’s imagination and recollection, from Southern California. There Sammy experiences anti-Semitism from his classmates but also finds that moviemaking gives him a chance to remake the world and reorient his position within it. Tapped to photograph a class outing, Sammy makes heroes (and villains) out of his peers, settling scores and winning applause from a crowd that had largely been hostile to him. (One exception is a humorously pious Christian classmate named Monica Sherwood, whose prayer sessions turn into make-out sessions—it is at once the most sweet-natured and charmingly confused romance in the Spielberg canon.)
What is the point of all this autobiography? Certainly Spielberg’s meticulous re-creation of his fateful interaction with John Ford in his office on a studio backlot—the dramatization of an anecdote Spielberg related in Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary Directed by John Ford—opens himself up to charges of self-aggrandizement (though the scene is a stunner—it’s a warm hug from Spielberg to the irascible old master, played by Ford-lookalike David Lynch).
Yet The Fabelmans does not end with Sammy racing onto the backlot after his fleeting encounter with Ford—that’s where this film itself stops, of course, but Sammy/Spielberg continues on. In real life, the director first made movies that were something like big-budget versions of his toy-train-crash extravaganzas—Duel and Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark—but, in time, he used his gift to depict the trials of two African American siblings in the South (The Color Purple), the horrors of the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), and the dignity of the Greatest Generation (Saving Private Ryan). And now he has brought to life his warm, complicated, funny family.
Like most of us, Spielberg got lost at the movies but in the process found a way to think about the world and even his own family. If movies are indeed an ersatz religion, Spielberg has added yet another chapter to its scriptures.