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From Spielberg to Iñárritu: Evaluating the season’s many styles of personal filmmaking

Varied approaches to personal filmmaking
“Empire of Light,” “The Eternal Daughter,” “The Inspection,” “The Fabelmans,” “Bardo,” “Aftersun” and “Armageddon Time” demonstrate varied approaches to personal filmmaking.
(Focus Features; A24; Limbo Films, S. De R.L. de C.V.; Netflix; Searchlight Pictures; Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment; Aftersun credit is TIFF

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There’s a terrifically self-reflexive gag in Steven Spielberg’s new picture, “The Fabelmans,” that is hard to imagine anyone but Steven Spielberg pulling off. This might not be saying much, since the entire movie, a rollicking and ruminative look at the director’s childhood and teenage years, could hardly have been made by anyone else. His protagonist, a movie-mad teenager named Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle), has just made use of his considerable filmmaking talent to whittle a high-school nemesis down to size. That’s satisfying enough on its own, but then comes the punchline, when Sammy promises never to speak of the incident again — “unless,” he adds, with just enough swagger to earn some audience applause, “I make a movie about it.”

That movie, of course, is “The Fabelmans” itself, which finds the 75-year-old Spielberg looking back fondly at his 1950s and ’60s upbringing, with its mix of family upheaval, teenage turmoil and obsessive movie love. Scholars of the director’s early life will see much of it mirrored in Sammy’s leisurely unfolding story: his time as a Boy Scout, his early short films, the heartrending divorce of his parents (played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano) and the antisemitic bullying he suffers. You could call this movie, which Universal will open in theaters Nov. 11, an unusually self-indulgent project for Spielberg, a director who’s often oscillated between escapist thrill rides and weighty historical dramas. Then again, considering how long it’s taken this most beloved of American directors to enshrine his early life on film, you may actually come away from “The Fabelmans” admiring his restraint.

Spielberg is certainly not alone among artists who have recently mined their own lives for creative inspiration. Several other such films screened alongside “The Fabelmans” at the Toronto International Film Festival, like “The Inspection,” Elegance Bratton’s potent debut feature about his experience as a gay man in the U.S. military. Others have shown up in the past few weeks and months at major festivals including Cannes, Venice and/or Telluride, including “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s vast, searching odyssey inspired by his life, family and career, and “Armageddon Time,” James Gray’s melancholy drama inspired by a fateful childhood friendship.

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Whatever you call these movies — semi-autobiographical dramas, cinematic memoirs, false chronicles of a handful of truths — they are part of a tradition that stretches at least as far back as the early 1930s, when Jean Vigo distilled his harrowing boarding-school years into “Zero for Conduct” (1933). That film in turn proved a key inspiration for perhaps the most famous of childhood self-portraits, François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959), though others can surely name their own favorites, from Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord” (1973) and Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” (1982) to John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” (1987) and Terence Davies’ “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1988).

The Oscar winning director’s three-hour Netflix film, ‘Bardo,’ has divided audiences and met with sharp criticism at the Venice and Telluride film festivals.

Not a new phenomenon, in other words. Still, in recent years the self-exploratory impulse seems to have taken on a life of its own, to judge by the emergence of Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (2017), Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” (2018), Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory” (2019), Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” (2020), Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” (2021) and, last but not least, the English director Joanna Hogg’s double-header of “The Souvenir” (2019) and “The Souvenir Part II” (2021). Hogg herself has a new film, “The Eternal Daughter,” which screened here in Toronto and will next play the New York Film Festival. Not quite a sequel to her “Souvenir” films, it nonetheless joins them in a kind of loosely connected personal trilogy.

What, if anything, brought forth this collective self-reckoning? As much of a folly as it may be to try and find common cause among individual artists working on their own distinct and highly idiosyncratic projects, more than one have attributed their introspective mood to the pandemic. Speaking onstage after the Toronto premiere of “The Fabelmans,” Spielberg noted, “When COVID hit, we all had a lot of time and we all had a lot of fear.” He added that his longtime creative partnership with the writer Tony Kushner (with whom he co-wrote “The Fabelmans” script) this time became comparable to the relationship between a patient and his therapist.

Honor Swinton Byrne in Joanna Hogg's "The Souvenir Part II."
(A24)

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For her part, Hogg had worked on “The Eternal Daughter” long before the pandemic (and even well before “The Souvenir” movies), though it was the pandemic that granted her the opportunity to make it. Shot quietly in Wales under isolated COVID-19 conditions, the movie is a shivery, sparely populated genre picture of sorts, in which Tilda Swinton plays two women — a filmmaker named Julie and her aging mother, Rosalind — who have come to stay at a remote hotel shortly before Christmas. Julie, it develops, has an ulterior motive for treating Rosalind to a holiday: She’s working on a film project that will draw on her mother’s memories of this old house, where she spent some of her wartime childhood. Her dilemma — how to turn the stuff of life into a truthful, meaningful and non-exploitative work of art — is very much Hogg’s struggle as well.

Like “The Fabelmans,” a movie it otherwise in no way resembles, “The Eternal Daughter” shows us its maker — or a version of its maker — engaged in the act of art-making. (The first page of screenplay we see Julie writing is the first page Hogg wrote herself.) Iñárritu’s “Bardo,” which will open in theaters Nov. 4 before arriving Dec. 16 on Netflix, doesn’t show us anything quite of the sort, in part because his alter ego here is a different kind of artist: not a two-time Oscar-winning fiction filmmaker but rather an acclaimed journalist and documentarian. His name is Silverio (he’s played by Daniel Giménez Cacho), and his success — and subsequent relocation with his family to Los Angeles — holds up a warped mirror to Iñárritu’s own conflicted experience as a rare Mexican-born artist to meet with mainstream American acclaim.

Steven Spielberg’s warm semi-autobiographical memory piece and Rian Johnson’s twisty sequel to “Knives Out” deliver old-school razzle-dazzle at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Iñárritu, a longtime recipient of critical scorn as well as admiration, has gotten some flak (some of it from this corner) for the perceived arrogance and indulgence of his recent work. But he’s also drawn significant support for the sheer ambition and audacity of “Bardo,” a kind of epic metaphysical farce that’s far looser, more unhinged and surreally conceived than some of the more straightforward, linear autobiographical tales that have emerged this season. The result is a movie that I can’t say I like very much but am nonetheless looking forward to revisiting. In its mix of virtuosity and stubbornness, its passages of tedium and its intermittently dazzling passages of inspiration, “Bardo” at least feels like an honest act of self-reckoning. The degree to which it strikes us as self-absorbed and inaccessible may also be a measure of just how personal, and truthful, it is.

The personal elements are more oblique in Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light,” which was conceived, like “The Fabelmans,” amid the anxieties of the pandemic and, specifically, the closure of movie theaters. Unveiled at Telluride and Toronto and due to open Dec. 9 through Searchlight Pictures, this romantic drama set in and around an English coastal movie theater in the early 1980s is not, strictly speaking, autobiographical or even semi-autobiographical, though Mendes has noted that the protagonist, Hilary (Olivia Colman), shares some experiences with his mother. What seems most germane to the director’s experience here is the temporarily restored glory of that fictional theater, with its multiple screens playing titles that he probably fell in love with during his own formative moviegoing years: “Stir Crazy,” “Being There,” “Raging Bull.” All this unfolds against a backdrop of steadily pulsing racist violence — including the 1981 Brixton uprising — that will impinge on Hilary’s relationship with a young Black employee (Micheal Ward), a confluence of events that, whatever its provenance, never really rings true.

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Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in Sam Mendes' "Empire of Light."
(Searchlight Pictures)

Race and racism are confronted far more deftly in “Armageddon Time,” another 1980s-set drama, though this one unfolds in the Queens, N.Y., neighborhood of Gray’s childhood. Shot not far from where the director grew up with his Ukrainian Jewish immigrant family, the movie tracks the friendship between its adolescent protagonist, Paul (Banks Repeta), and a Black classmate, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), and follows Paul’s gradual realization of the yawning privilege gap between them. (Gray has noted in interviews that his real-life friend died tragically young.)

That setup might sound like a recipe for liberal hand-wringing disaster, but it somehow isn’t, maybe because a child’s slow-dawning awareness of racism is easier to stomach than an adult’s, but also because Gray unpacks the situation with such a nuanced and palpable ache of regret. He isn’t milking Black suffering for white tears; he’s showing us, as best he can from a child’s limited vantage, how the fates of people from different racial and socioeconomic spheres are inextricably bound, even if it’s the nature of systemic injustice to try and convince us otherwise.

The New York-set coming-of-age drama ‘Armageddon Time’ with Anne Hathaway, Anthony Hopkins and Jeremy Strong is an early Cannes competition highlight.

Movies like “The Fabelmans,” “The Eternal Daughter” and “Armageddon Time” draw resonance from what knowledge we may bring of their filmmakers’ bodies of work. But two strong semi-autobiographical movies from this fall’s festival crop have the distinction of being first features. That in itself is hardly surprising, given how heavily and even reflexively some young filmmakers draw from personal experience, leaning on the common artistic imperative to “write what you know.”

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But a movie like “Aftersun,” a quietly piercing debut from the New York-based Scottish director Charlotte Wells, rises beautifully above indie origin-story clichés. Described by its maker as an “emotional autobiography,” the movie follows a divorced man (Paul Mescal) and his preteen daughter, Sophie (Frankie Corio), on a summer resort stay in Turkey — a seemingly blissful idyll that almost imperceptibly darkens as emotional cracks and fissures reveal themselves. What makes “Aftersun” so poignant is its awareness of the fleeting, unreliable nature of memory, something the filmmaker emphasizes with occasional cutaways to an older Sophie in the present day. At the same time, by committing her own story — or some version of it — to cinema, Wells both acknowledges and fights against this ephemerality. (A24 will release the movie in theaters Oct. 21.)

If the father-daughter relationship in “Aftersun” is a delicate, diaphanous thing, the mother-son bond in Bratton’s “The Inspection” could hardly be more bluntly drawn. All but disowned by his homophobic mom (a revelatory Gabrielle Union), Ellis (Jeremy Pope), a young, gay Black man who’s been living on the streets, decides to pull his life together and join the Marine Corps. And so he does, only to encounter still more rampant homophobia — it’s 2005, six years before the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — plus other forms of discrimination in this early post-9/11 era.

Apart from a passing reference to Ellis’ photographic talent, there’s little about this tense, moving drama that suggests he has the makings of a future filmmaker. This fine movie’s very existence, of course, is all the indication to the contrary that we need.

The 2021-22 Oscar season ended in disaster; the summer was a mixed bag. As the industry shakes off COVID’s effects, our critic urges caution — and optimism.

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