Films About Films

This films about films essay contains spoilers for The Fabelmans, Babylon and Empire of Light. Check out VV reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.

In a 1980 interview for Panorama, Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini suggested that “To say that my films are autobiographical is an overly facile liquidation, a hasty classification […] I have invented almost everything: childhood, character, nostalgias, dreams, memories, for the pleasure of being able to recount them.’ Although Fellini adapted key moments from his childhood in 812 (1963) and Amarcord (1973), he insisted that these films use self-reflexivity and autobiography as platforms for invention.

In late 2022/early 2023, multiple household-name directors released love letters to cinema, which dramatize their comings-of-age with film and expand on Fellini’s claim of necessarily bending facts to make fiction. Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, Damien Chazelle’s Babylon and Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light were released to global audiences, had big productions with large budgets and — in Spielberg’s case — dominated end of year lists and were nominated for several awards. 

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Films About Films Essay - Babylon

Viewed together, these works discuss problems with the past rather than romanticizing memory, influence or the industry. They blur the lines between autobiography and invention, using retrospective clarity to maximize the collective potential of personal history, so selfhood is always in the service of more universal progress. Specifically, Spielberg, Chazelle and Mendes address their tricky relationships with their own white male privilege, and see progress as more diverse perspectives, less inequality between genders and races, and a more committed use of the legacy of films about films to address these things.

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The Fabelmans’ titular lead, Sammy Fabelman (played by Gabriel LaBelle), grows up in postwar New Jersey and falls in love with filmmaking just as his parents fall out of love. Chazelle’s Babylon has three protagonists — actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), actor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and producer Manny Torres (Diego Calva) — and chronicles the characters’ lives/careers as they rise and fall in the studio system during Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies in the late 1920s. Mendes’ Empire of Light is about the mixed-race romance between Hilary (Olivia Colman) and Stephen (Micheal Ward), who meet on the job at a cinema in Margate in the 1980s: a pivotal moment in British political history that saw the emergence of Thatcherism.

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Films About Films Essay - Empire of Light Movie

There are various possible terms for the sub-genre that these filmmakers are operating within: memoir cinema, metafiction and cinematic autofiction. Alongside Fellini’s work, other examples of these films include Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988), Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes (1992), David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) and Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (2021). 

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Unlike Mulholland Drive, the subject of cinema and film set/auditorium settings are given a realist rather than abstract or surreal narrative, but Spielberg, Chazelle and Mendes also do not apply rose-tinted glasses to these things, like Cinema Paradiso. Instead, The Fabelmans, Babylon and Empire of Light challenge the disparity between nostalgia and trauma. They build fictional worlds around the white male perspectives of their directors, because it is no coincidence that these latest releases from such established names have received more attention than, for instance, Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter or Jafar Panahi’s No Bears (both 2022 films).

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The Eternal Daughter and No Bears are equally interested in cinematic self-reflexivity, and it is difficult not to consider Hogg’s gender and Panahi’s nationality and race as factors in why they have not been discussed as much as The Fabelmans, Babylon and Empire of Light. Sensitive to these obstacles and aware of the limitations of white masculinity, these three films reach beyond selfhood, interrogating the past inequalities of identity which are partially responsible for their directors’ privileged abilities to tell their own stories in the first place. 

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For Sammy Fabelman, filmmaking carries restorative potential, offering his life structure and focus as it threatens to unravel — due to divorcing parents (largely because of his mother’s need for independence), antisemitic school bullies and a painful longing for the friends and version of his life back in New Jersey. After the family moves to Arizona, Sammy must rekindle his passion for making amateur films, because as family friend Benny (Seth Rogen) reminds him before he leaves, “If you stop making movies, it’ll break your mother’s heart.”

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Films About Films Essay - The Fablemans

Babylon finds hope at the cinema after two of its three protagonists push their Hollywood lifestyles beyond breaking points and wind up dead. The one who does not — Mexican immigrant Manny, who overcomes more odds to make it to the top — returns to California years later with his family. He visits a nearby cinema alone to watch Singin’ in the Rain and is moved to tears. The scene outrageously and fascinatingly fast-forwards through a century of film history, then Babylon ends with Manny smiling, finally accepting the past and no longer struggling with it.

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Empire of Light uses the space of the auditorium and the projection booth to facilitate epiphanies. As Britain experiences a troublingly pivotal moment for both racial inequality and the stigmatization of (particularly female) mental health, characters find solace and see the light when looking at the cinema screen, or when witnessing the process responsible for this in scenes with projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) that recall Cinema Paradiso. 

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Films About Films Essay - Empire of Light Movie

In spite of reaching a common destination — of cinema as the answer to the many questions asked throughout these films — Spielberg, Chazelle and Mendes approach self-reflexivity differently. These angles vary from Spielberg’s name-changing yet characterization of his family/himself (and his decision to make The Fabelmans after a long career that has firmly established his familiar identity) to Babylon’s use of comedy, absurdity and sheer scope to examine an era of film history while being a clearly personal work, and to Empire of Light’s prioritization of national over personal history, despite using an autobiographical approach.

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These films show how the cinema saved their directors, but also address the new problems encountered as the industry insufficiently tried (and continues to insufficiently try) to keep up with contemporary culture as it evolves and accelerates. It is vital that the arts address uncomfortable pasts of gender and racial inequality, whether personal or national, relating to a specific industry or to wider politics. 

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Films About Films Essay - Babylon

This responsibility falls on cinema, particularly for three of its biggest directors. In their love letters to their craft and origins, this imperative can be seen in Spielberg’s proudly Jewish roots and the influence of his empowered mother, in Chazelle’s confession that he works in a toxic industry with historically little space for women and people of color, and in Mendes’ shame when it comes to Britain’s past of right-wing politics and racism. 

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The awareness of complicity in an institutional problem brings The Fabelmans, Babylon and Empire of Light together. In Spielberg’s final scene, Sammy is starstruck when he gets five minutes with his idol John Ford, who is played by David Lynch and adds another dimension to the legacy of films about films Spielberg consciously writes into. Ford tells Sammy that “When the horizon’s at the bottom, it’s interesting. When the horizon’s at the top, it’s interesting. When the horizon’s in the middle, it’s boring as shit.” As Ford shows Sammy, alternatives to and subversions of natural, privileged subjectivities are interesting. Selfhood is nothing without external perspectives, which sometimes require fictionalization because recorded history often leaves them behind. This keeps autobiographical cinema moving forwards, after first fixating on the past.

George Kowalik (@kowalik_george) has just finished a PhD on contemporary fiction at King’s College London, where he also taught American literature for three years. He is both a short fiction and culture writer. George’s recent publications include Avatar Review, BRUISER, Clackamas Literary Review and Watershed Review, and he was shortlisted for Ouen Press’ 2019 Short Story Competition. His work can be found at: https://georgeoliverkowalik.wordpress.com/.

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