I'm not a Fableman; I'm a fable, man
Subjects discussed: origin stories, The Fabelmans, Nope, nepo babies, Robert Caro, Miley Cyrus
The particulars of my maternal family line are fuzzy, but whenever the subject arises at holidays a consensus is more or less agreed upon. My grandfather emigrated to the United States from China either just before or just as World War II formally broke out. My grandmother followed him a few years later, after the war had concluded, where they settled in Chicago and gave birth to five daughters, one of whom became my mother. Their immigrant life, while varied and unique in the way all lives are varied and unique, was not outside the boundaries of cliche. After watching Everything Everywhere All at Once, my mother reported she disliked it for numerous reasons, namely that it was a little obvious that Michelle Yeoh’s character ran a laundromat. “Well,” I said, carefully, “Your parents also ran a laundromat. That’s just how it is sometimes: Chinese people are running laundromats.” To which she laughed, and acknowledged that maybe it just hit too close to home.
All parents (or, at least, all actively involved parents without some kind of psychosexual investment in diminishing their lineal charges — you know what I mean) desire a better life for their children, a statement so obvious it’s not worth saying, yet the narrative feels especially prominent in immigrant lives. Growing up I understood was no grand family name to uphold, no grand family fortune to maintain, no grand profession to follow into and stake my claim as its latest scion — just the age old American promise of the new and improved, passed down across generations. I have rich friends whose parents were rich, and their parents before them, and their parents before them; I almost went to Bard (a long but dull story, the worst kind) where I would’ve brushed social elbows with Jessica Lange’s son, or so I’ve been told by my friends who went to Bard. When I think about the sacrifices made by my grandparents and mother, in order to ensure that I could pursue a life of my own — well, I quickly stop grousing about some minor indignation in my day-to-day, like the lack of a good email in my inbox. (But if you’re reading this and would like to send me a good email, please.)
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My favorite film of 2022 was The Fabelmans, which concerns so much more than how Steven Spielberg was actually built different from a young age, sorry to the haters. It’s about the slow, unnerving realization that your parents are fully formed adults with their own hopes and dreams; about how art gives you the ability to anticipate other people’s emotions for them, both a blessing and a curse; about how the pursuit of art can also force a separation between the conscious mind and the rest of the world, making it so that you can never participate in life without wondering how you’ll eventually reinterpret and regurgitate your version of events into your subjective, selective truth; about how Spielberg might have been a little gay for his teen bully, as sometimes happens; about the courage to reject the straight and narrow, and blaze boldly into the unknown. Uncle Boris sticking his head into the lion’s mouth, Mitzi Fabelman leaving her husband, Sammy Fabelman dropping out of college — all of it might end horribly, but retreating to the enervated comforts of your responsibilities doesn’t just close off a potential life path. It changes you into another person, as Mitzki explains to her son, someone you wouldn’t even recognize in the mirror.
So I did not really take The Fabelmans as an homage to “the magic of the movies,” or however it’s been lazily summarized by those prone to lazy summary. The cinema is revered, but Sammy knows the price of becoming a filmmaker. Even less sentimental about the picture business was Jordan Peele’s Nope, in which the art of performance capture is regarded as exploitation, and not “I felt a little uncomfortable on set”-style exploitation tearfully relayed many years later in a Variety exclusive but “I watched a chimp murder my surrogate parents and am now incapable of healthy interiority.” Upon rewatching Nope in the comfort of our home I became convinced it was Peele’s masterpiece, at least for now — there is no other under-50 filmmaker doing such cohesive, provocative, exciting mainstream work that improves with each release — for many reasons, not all of which I can unpack here. One of those is his instinct to sap all of Daniel Kaluuya’s expressive charisma, transforming him into Otis Jr., a rooted-to-the-earth man of action whose face always betrays a grim understanding of what he must now do. (And, by the way, let’s admire Peele’s restraint in extracting exactly one verbal joke out of that name: OJ.) He’s a 21st century cowboy, but more Gary Cooper in High Noon than John Wayne in anything; his bravado is not a manifestation of his innate machismo but an acceptance of the stakes and the setting, that if it isn’t going to fall on anyone else it’ll fall on him.
He’s a brave man, OJ. Foremost is his courage in goading the alien spacecraft to chase him, so that his cinematography team can capture evidence of extraterrestrial life on film — those sequences of Kaluuya on horseback, hood pulled up, framed by nothing but the surrounding desert, are some of the movie’s most thrilling. His insistence on maintaining the family business — even as business is slow and he’s forced to sell off many of its horses to Jupe, the smiling showman played by Steven Yeun, unaware that he’ll never be able to buy them back — is also brave. Many people in that position would face the music, accept the diminishing returns of a specialized field increasingly overrun by CGI and pitched-up conscientiousness over animal rights, and literally sell the ranch in order to pursue new frontiers in Florida. Only OJ never will, for a number of reasons: he’s too stubborn; his sister wouldn’t let him; and, most sentimentally, his trade is the family legacy, passed down to him by his father, a predecessor both in name (for he’s Otis Sr.) and in profession, literal and thematic (his slumped-over body, carried away on horseback at the film’s beginning, sadly evokes the final shot of Shane — but maybe my visual references are just incomplete). You just know he’ll ride it out to the bitter end.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Leo Tolstoy wrote in 1878. “Look, everyone has a family,” Don Lemon declared, more broadly, last week. When I was in high school, Jonathan Safran Foer spoke to a semi-packed assembly room about his writing — my classmates weren’t that invested in Everything Is Illuminated, but it was an excuse to get out of class — and the only thing I remember him saying was that he chose to write about family because it’s the one topic that people have in common. Even if you don’t have a family, he stressed, that absence constitutes a relationship worth writing about. The older I get, the more attached I feel to my roots, and this as I choose to live in New York and try not to dwell too much on the past. Sometimes I feel, as perhaps you may, that many of my habits and traits are directly attributed to one or both of my parents, and as I watch my friends raise their children and begin to approach that point myself, it strikes me that becoming a parent is, among many other things, a way of staking your belief in the unknown. Your children cannot be controlled, their lives can’t be mapped out for them, their feelings and minds will develop like everyone else’s: at complete mercy of the world around them. Yet from the many terrifyingly obscured set of possibilities can come something new and good, whether it’s Jaws or visual proof that aliens exist.
Last month, New York published a viral package on “nepo babies,” the children of access and privilege whose presence in the entertainment industry has always been ongoing but perhaps now feels more noticeable what with increased class disparity and the collapse of the American Dream and the baffling insistence that Brooklyn Beckham is interesting. Work as hard as you’d like, kid, you’re still starting out miles behind Maya Hawke and King Princess and Jaden Smith and dozens of other prominent scions who were born on third and carried across home plate by a grand slam hit by the world’s greatest clean-up hitter: their dad. (A torturous metaphor, but let me have it.) I didn’t finish the package, namely because I don’t really mind the nepo babies of entertainment, which has never been a meritocratic industry and will never be shamed into becoming one. Beyond that, being famous is a deeply unnatural and (some might say) poisonous thing to want; if your interest in social justice ends up lingering on the indecency that Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet’s genetically perfect daughter is a successful actress, and how maybe that should be you instead — well, sorry. I wish I’d invested in GameStop last year.
But I empathize with the suspicion that we have not received as much as other people have — that we might have made better use of the cultural and financial opportunities available to our peers and betters. Last week, my buddy Dan and I saw Turn Every Page, a documentary about the professional relationship between the writer Robert Caro (known for The Power Broker and the yet-to-be-concluded Lyndon B. Johnson biographical quintology) and his editor Bob Gottlieb (formerly of Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker). The movie is… not good — haphazardly edited, visually repetitive, and not very revealing of whatever it is that makes editors and writers tick. (It has almost nothing to say about how Caro and Gottlieb actually collaborate, the biggest disappointment.) This kind of project is inherently niche and low stakes, so I didn’t really mind — Caro and Gottlieb are still charming to watch, and seeing any movie with a friend is never a waste of time. Yet I exited the theater with a kind of petulant envy regarding the director, Lizzie Gottlieb, Bob Gottlieb’s daughter — something along the lines of “man, if I’d grown up in New York, and my dad was literally the editor of The New Yorker and friends with dozens of the 20th century’s greatest authors, I’d have made a better fuckin’ documentary.” Or maybe I wouldn’t have. Who can confidently declare how our lives would have unfolded with some different admixture of influences and pressures exerting some control over our development?
And sometimes there just isn’t anyone who’s better suited for the job that falls to you, as a child of your parents. We stayed in on New Year’s Eve — by choice, thank you — and ended up catching the Miley Cyrus New Year’s Eve special, which was a kaleidoscopic cultural affair, the type of thing where Saweetie introduced Sia’s “new” song, which turned out to be 2016’s “Unstoppable,” and which was assisted on stage by a randomly present David Byrne. Miley herself co-hosted with her godmother, Dolly Parton; just before midnight, they duetted a medley of “Wrecking Ball” and “I Will Always Love You,” which led immediately into the countdown. It felt surreal, but pleasantly so — a genuinely cross-generational celebration delivered by a living legend and a daughter of the industry whose entire life has taken place under the microscope, and is nonetheless inspired to entertain people rather than disappear forever. It made me think we’ll probably be watching Miley for the rest of our lives, because she understands and embraces her position — the responsibilities of her lineage, but also the potential to do something new with it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My first story of the year is a reported piece for The New York Times about the New York Public Library’s ongoing audiovisual archival projects, centered around a new machine that can digitize the archaic wax cylinder format, which has been out of date for over a century. This was a fun one — a bit off my usual beat, but I love thinking about history and how to preserve it, and everything I just said above about familial responsibility and legacy plays some role here, as you will discover if you read. Plus, there is really no greater pleasure than being invited into some private room — in this case, the basement at the library where a lot of the digital archiving takes place — and learning all about someone’s secrets.
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