Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans begins the way you’d expect him to begin an autobiographical story about the birth of a filmmaker: by extolling the magic of movies. As young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryna Francis-Deford) moves down the line towards his very first movie screening, his parents, Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) tell him about the wonders he’s about to witness. Burt, an electrical engineer, explains the persistence of vision, how moving pictures use the limitations of our body’s own systems to trick us into seeing movement where none exist, while Mitzi, who might have been a concert pianist were she not a 1950s housewife, extols their virtues in less tangible terms. “Movies are dreams,” she beams, “dreams that you never forget.” There’s just one problem, Sammy responds: “Dreams are scary.”
The movie the family sees, The Greatest Show on Earth, ends up being a memorable experience, if not a magical one: The scene of a fatal train derailment frightens little Sammy so badly he can’t get it out of his head. But that trauma gives birth to an obsession. He gets his parents to give him an eight-piece train set, one car for each night of Hanukkah, and sets about recreating the images in his head in their basement, using a camera to document the practice so he can watch it over and over. His dad is initially furious that he’s banging up the trains, damaging their finely tooled precision. But his mother understands what Sammy is after: He’s filming the images so that he can control them.
Controlling images, of course, is what Spielberg has always done. When I saw his West Side Story at its New York premiere last fall, my mouth practically fell open with its opening shot, a magisterial overview of an urban slum that performs a precisely executed midair pirouette on a massive wrecking ball. (I had to suppress the urge to throw up my arms and shout “Movies!”) And control is one of the impulses that gives rise to memoir, the desire to stick both arms into the messy blob of past experience and wrestle from it something recognizable, a story where characters behave in ways that make sense and their actions add up to more than a vague feeling of having once been somewhere and now being somewhere else. But when you’re as adept a controller as Spielberg is, when that form of mastery is second nature, the process can flatten what it seeks to revive. On the rare occasions when Spielberg’s movies have played film festivals, they’ve usually come as the equivalent of an art-house cheat day, a little bit of The B.F.G. before you go back to the main Cannes slate. But The Fabelmans arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival last Saturday night like a movie that might need to woo its audience rather than awe them into submission, coming into awards season with head humbly bowed. (It’s some sort of irony that the movie that sparks young Sammy’s obsession with movies is one of the worst Best Picture winners in history.) West Side Story went to the Oscars as if it was owed recognition, and the result was 7 dutiful nominations but only a single win. With The Fabelmans, the idea seems to be to position it as a smaller, more bespoke movie, even though its two and a half hours feel anything but modest.
At Toronto, where Spielberg stayed after midnight for a Q&A and returned for a press conference the following morning, the filmmaker reiterated how personal the movie is to him. “This film is, for me, a way of bringing my mom and dad back,” he said at the premiere. “And it also brought my sisters, Annie, Susie, and Nancy, closer to me than I ever thought possible.” But it’s also sharing the season with a spate of movies that are equally as personal, and feel more so. James Gray’s Armageddon Time, which opens next month, is also the story of a young Jewish artist’s coming of age, but it’s a story riven with recrimination and self-doubt, one that feels as much like an exorcism as a memorial. Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, which, like Gray’s movie, debuted at Cannes and played at TIFF, stars Francesca Corio and Paul Mescal as a young woman and her father on holiday in Turkey, based on memories that, to judge from the film, are both poignant and painful. The perpetual haze of the summer sun makes it seem as if we’re traveling through the filmmaker’s mind, sometimes seeing things she’s not sure she wants to show, and its brilliant final shot suggests the way that our memories of loved ones can both preserve and imprison them. Getting those thoughts down on film can be a way of preserving them, but also of finally letting them go.
No movie, though, feels as powerfully ambivalent about the practice of digging up one’s past as Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter. (Aftersun and The Eternal Daughter will both be released by A24; dates have not yet been set.) It’s Hogg’s third autobiographical movie in a row, after The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II, but it’s more of a postscript than a sequel, with Tilda Swinton reprising her role as Hogg’s mother and the part of Hogg, played in the Souvenirs by Swinton’s daughter Honor Swinton Byrne, taken over by Tilda herself. Hogg introduced the TIFF screening by asking if anyone in the audience had a brush with a “ghostly experience,” which might be the best way to describe the movie itself, which finds both Swintons, mother and daughter, spending a few days in a enormous mansion in the British countryside that now serves as a barely occupied hotel. The mother spent time sheltering in the house during World War II, and the daughter has taken her there for what seems to be a mist-shrouded stroll down memory lane. But she’s also secretly recording her mother’s reminiscences for the film script that she’s working on, and it turns out that while many of her mother’s childhood memories are fond, not all of them are.
The Eternal Daughter wrestles openly not just with whether Hogg has gotten her mother right on screen, but whether she has the right to put her there at all. The furtiveness with which the daughter slides her iPhone under a napkin as her mother approaches the dinner table suggests a guilt the movie explores without glibly expiating. But the fact that both characters are played by the same actress is, in addition to a nifty bit of metafiction, a clue that it’s not about either one of them individually, but the two of them together. Hogg isn’t using her mother to tell her own story, or presuming to explain a person other than herself, but probing the ways people, no matter how close, are always struggling towards each other or else falling away, how understanding someone you love is always a little like chasing a ghost.
It’s likely that Spielberg’s movie will overshadow all these others when it comes out in November. He’s said it’s not his swan song, and he has no plans to retire, but with The Fabelmans and West Side Story there’s certainly the feel of a valedictory note creeping in, as well as a desire to go out at the top of his game. If his career ends by revisiting the way it started, he’ll have left us with plenty of ghosts to commune with.