brendanowicz’s review published on Letterboxd:
In Un-American Psycho, Chris Dumas's study of Brian De Palma, the author identifies a "failure motif" linking the mythology of the New Hollywood directors, particularly as chronicled in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls:
The aesthetic practice inculcated at the Big Four film schools in the mid-to-late 1960s was predominantly influenced by a pair of (only apparently contradictory) strands of thought: first, the old-school idea that "personal" filmmakers from Europe like Bergman, Antonioni, Fellini, et al. were the model to emulate, and, perhaps opposing that, the nascent Cahiers-Sarris version of authorship, which stressed Hollywood industrial filmmaking as the site of struggle, potential, and achievement.
The careers of all these directors - except for Spielberg - are clearly marked by these concepts of film history and assumptions about industrial filmmaking practice. ... One sees in the work of all of these directors (again, except for Spielberg) a certain a priori attitude about what cinema is supposed to accompliish, and - after the Encounter with Failure - the unbearable pressure and subsequent allegorization of a certain a posteriori knowledge about How Hollywood Really Works.
Except for Spielberg. The strongest, brightest thread linking Spielberg and De Palma is the mythology of their parents' failed marriages. In the popular telling of De Palma's origin story, he used his nascent curiosity and skills of perception to catch out his father in an affair, a scene of voyeuristic discovery and outraged exposition that has been reframed and reworked throughout his oeuvre. Spielberg, on the other hand, has worked his parents' divorce into many of his films, particularly the conflict between his father, a scientist, and his mother, a musician, as a sort of primal scene of division between the head and the heart; presumably a division that the filmmaker figure can unify. The Fabelmans reworks the Spielberg family story into a De Palma-esque creation myth, in which he perceives through his preternatural genius for filmmaking the rupture in his parents' marriage, but cannot heal it. From this incident he sets aside filmmaking until it becomes useful again to deal with his high school bullies, who he disarms and enrages, respectively, with his depictions of them in a movie produced for the senior prom.
As much as The Fabelmans is a victory lap in a career that has been long since enshrined for posterity, it is also an effort to read back into the Spielberg history a motif of failure that can unify him with the New Hollywood brethren from whom he has always stood apart as a figure for whom, in Dumas's words, "his goals and the machinery of the system are fundamentally not in conflict." Nothing in the film says otherwise, but it does suggest that Sammy Fabelman's gifts mark him permanently as an outsider, who can impart emotional catharses and effects to others that he masters without fully comprehending. The image of Sammy walking off into the sunset in the final shot is in its way as ironized as its twin, the image of a young James Gray alone at the end of Armageddon Time.
Insofar as that difference is expressed through the uncanny lighting and gloss of Kaminski's images, the subtext-free, borderline unactable script and its grab bag of Freudian neuroses, the film accomplishes its goal. To be clear, I had a terrible time, but Vikram's quite right when he says that the gag reflex Spielberg's filmmaking inspires in some of us is an impulse to combat; whatever the films appear to be on the surface, his direction ensures they are never entirely without irony or double meaning.
I've been thinking a lot about the term "personal film" recently, and I've concluded I'd like never to hear it again. Whatever the original meaning was, something closer to how Dumas employs it, like "auteur" it's now fully a marketing tool, to assure the marketplace that absent the presence of recognizable IP there is some "based on a true story" value to be found here. I think The Fabelmans's brand of personal filmmaking isn't the model to emulate. That's the thing about De Palma: his films were always telling, but never only on himself.