Spielberg’s Magic Tricks - How Not to Watch The Fabelmans


Charlie Craven uncovers what makes Spielberg so magical, and how The Fabelmans flips this on its head

Article Image

Image by IMDb

By Charlie Craven

I watched The Fabelmans (2022) wrong. By that I don’t mean there was anything wrong with the environment I watched it in – a nice, fairly packed cinema with comfy seats. Even director Steven Spielberg congratulated me on coming out to watch his film during a prerecorded video before the main event. No, rather I went into the film with the wrong expectations and estimations of Spielberg’s career. He’s one of the most commercially successful directors of all time, with a varied filmography and a reputation for technical prowess, but something felt missing after watching his latest movie. As it turns out, I was mistakenly looking for Spielberg’s magic tricks.

For me, a Spielberg magic trick is a moment where the director subverts the expectations of the spectator. This often involves moving away from strict realism, drawing attention to the film’s formal elements in order to craft an audience response – be it of awe, playfulness or suspense. His 2021 masterpiece West Side Story features multiple examples of this, for instance the ‘Maria’ musical sequence. As the song reaches its powerful chorus, spotlights shine in the background and on the protagonist, Tony. This is a common technique of musical sequences – the cinematography breaking the narrative verisimilitude and shifting to a dream-like tone. Realism is thrown away to highlight the power of his emotion. However, these lights are contextualised in the following shot as we see a cleaner switching them on, providing a joke. Expectations are subverted; the rabbit is pulled from the hat. The sequence continues to be shot in a conventional manner before Tony runs into a puddle, lights spiralling around him in an almost expressionist, undeniably beautiful manner. It’s simple but successful, perfectly encapsulating the newfound joy and hope in Tony’s life. Whilst not a shot we expect, simple techniques are smartly used to create a gorgeous image.

Whilst this captures my definition of a Spielberg magic trick, there are a multitude of examples from throughout the director’s work. The famous dolly zoom and split diopter shots from Jaws, the match cut transition between decades from the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), even the ‘oner’ sequences developing from Saving Private Ryan (1998) to The Adventures of Tintin (2011). These are all moments where the film form dominates, rejecting pure realism to provide a playful or horrifying tone. Even in his more serious dramas, these moments still occur. For instance, Munich (2005) provides some of the most ingenious and complex blocking in Spielberg’s history despite its heavy subject matter – featuring reflections as a motif to underline the themes of morality. You can see these tricks developing from his first works to today, his Hitchcock-infused car chase thriller Duel (1971) featuring suspense sequences whose influence can be seen from Jaws (1975) to Jurassic Park (1993) to Munich. They’re perhaps the only constant in his wide-ranging career, continually surprising and entertaining audiences through the use of film form rather than adhering to the often dull conventions of the modern Hollywood style. Spielberg rarely approaches a sequence in the most simple or straightforward manner. Can you get a joke from a transition between the past and present? In most pop culture blockbusters, no – but Spielberg will.

So how did I watch The Fabelmans wrong? In the internet discourses on the director, I became particularly engrossed in these magic tricks – the focus remained solely on these impressive moments rather than considering the film surrounding it. However, the Academy Award-winning director knows how to craft drama without these moments. Sure, The Fabelmans has some impressive magic tricks. A powerful subjective moment sticks out during an argument, showing how much cinema has shaped Sammy’s perception of reality through a simple change of film stock, a close up and a reflection. Yet the film rarely dwells on them, instead using a largely realist style with simple compositions. The kinetic blocking seen in West Side Story isn’t abundant, but the approach fits the narrative being told. This might seem a rather obvious conclusion, but it really demonstrated how I’d looked at the director’s legacy incorrectly.

There’s a famous quote from Howard Hawks which states that a good movie has “three great scenes and no bad ones”. I had managed to distil my enjoyment of Spielberg’s films down to “one memorable magic trick and no boring bits”. The Fabelmans made me challenge that perception. I don’t think it's a perfect film – it could certainly be a little shorter to shake off the trappings of a ‘based on a true story’ drama – but I think I appreciate it far more now compared to when I had just left the cinema.

I watched The Fabelmans wrong. I sat ready to be in awe of Spielberg’s magic tricks, his expressive approach and kinetic techniques sure to leave me in jovial wonder. Instead, Spielberg made the most personal film of his career, one which has fundamentally shifted my approach and understanding of his filmography. His moments of expressionism and realism can coexist, but sometimes formalist flourishes aren’t required. There’s a reason that coverage and continuity dominates Hollywood – sometimes we don’t need Spielberg’s magic tricks.