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Toronto Dispatch: Where's the Horizon?

From TIFF, Steven Spielberg's deeply personal "The Fabelmans" and new works by Sharon Lockhart, Tacita Dean, and Fox Maxy.
Daniel Kasman
The Fabelmans
The Fabelmans (Spielberg, 2022).
“Where’s the horizon?“ barks John Ford to Sam (Gabrielle LaBelle), stand-in for a young Steven Spielberg in The Fabelmans, the director’s unsurprising but fascinatingly revealing semi-autobiographical story of his childhood discovering Super 8 movie-making as his parents’ marriage slowly falls apart. “When the horizon is at the top, it’s interesting,” continues Ford, talking about image composition, “when it’s on the bottom, it’s interesting. When it’s in the middle, it’s fucking boring!” 
This lesson is imparted to Sam at the finale of The Fabelmans, suggesting that the movie is intended to be understood as much as a guide for young filmmakers as it is the origin of one. The scenes of Sam variously agape over, furtively working on, and gradually understanding the power and meaning of the movies is as touching, if not more so, than the telling of his parents’ (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams) failing marriage. But these moments in the film are not just plot events, but explicitly define certain approaches to filmmaking. Such lessons are sign-posted throughout Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s screenplay, whose very first scene has movies defined in alternating explanations by his parents as a meeting between the technical (his computer scientist father) and the heartfelt (his unfulfilled artist mother). Later, we learn that Sam likes moviemaking for the control it brings to the world around him (as well as to the “chaos in [his] brain”). This need for control is epitomized when Sam discovers the feelings his mother has for a family friend (Seth Rogen) by looking closely at his own home movies, a discovery which accelerates the discord of his resolutely unremarkable suburban middle class family but also entrenches his fixation on fictional, if not fantastic, filmmaking far away from the real world. In fact, a key scene has Sam’s uncle suggest he needs to leave his home life behind, that as an artist he’ll have to sacrifice family for his work, perversely offering Spielberg an excuse from the past for any future personal misery in exchange for a relentless pursuit of his passion. Sam also learns a moral about public art when he receives tremendous audience feedback after a screening, but someone interprets the footage differently than Fabelman meant, opening a gulf between the world-builder and what the audience makes of that world.
This all makes The Fabelmans an unusual kind of auteur self-analysis, a clear, sentimental narrative serving to calibrate the official interpretation of its 75-year-old maker’s career. Such self-explanation is intended almost to retcon Spielberg’s filmography, albeit along familiar lines, providing an illustration of the yearning for family unity and escape into picture-making that most fans of the director know, but not what their source is, nor how their maker imagines them. To this end, the film that The Fabelmans perhaps most resembles not in its narrative but in its character portrait of a vulnerable, somewhat damaged creator, is Robert Zemeckis’s unusual and underappreciated Welcome to Marwen, which sees a traumatized artist simultaneously process that trauma and escape it by creating elaborate fantasy worlds.
Ford in The Fabelmans, shown near the end of his life as abrasive, one-eyed, and physically withered (though his final masterpiece, 7 Women, was still ahead of him), is both humorously and touchingly played by David Lynch. Because Spielberg and Lynch are only one year apart in age, this final note the film plays is not only paying homage to a great predecessor (though, to put it mildly, a filmmaker more skeptical of mythmaking), but also suggests that Lynch is standing in for Spielberg, imparting lessons on the next generation of filmmakers in the audience. That new generation, armed with iPhones and less enamored with cinema, may be little interested in taking on the mantle of crowned Hollywood entertainer. But this broad wisdom is hardly limited to its own Hollywood feature filmmaking, and Spielberg’s mythologizing of his self-actualization, married to such vivid self-assessment, surely will look familiar to today’s young moving image artists, whatever their medium.
Eventide
Eventide (Lockhart, 2022).
The horizon line reappears crucially in two other films from Wavelengths, Sharon Lockhart’s Eventide and Tacita Dean’s Fata Morgana, each ignoring Ford’s advice and putting the demarcation of earth and sky front and center. Lockhart’s thirty-five-minute, single shot film is spare in its simplicity, but thereby allows us to focus in a tremendously rewarding way. The shot is of a beach inlet in Gotland, Sweden, with the horizon carefully separating the beach below, which curves away to the left of the frame, from the dark blue sky above.  As we observe the day gradually turning to night, one by one six women with flashlights enter the beach and search the sands and scrub brush for something, we know not what. Meanwhile, as the top of the frame darkens, the stars come out and the constellations increase in luminous clarity. If your eyes are looking up there at the right moment in the film, you might catch a satellite hurling rapidly through space, or one of a number of streaking stars from the annual Perseid meteor shower, ephemeral flourishes of extraordinary apparitions. Split almost evenly in half, these two fields, humans and beach, sky and cosmos, relaxedly divide our attention. Sometimes, alignments seem to sync between the arrangements of the figures below and the stars above; most times, each seems unfathomable—what the people are looking for, and why they fail to find it, and what above them is truly happening amid that blackness and sparkle. The easy irony is that the searchers have their eyes on the ground when above them the universe unfurls in profound scale and beauty. But such a dichotomy isn’t necessarily the answer. Due to the people looking down and we looking over their heads at a flat sky, the film provides an uncanny perspectival effect of a diorama: Perhaps the flat sky we see is in fact a top-down revelation, a projection if you will, of the pebbles and sand peered at by the beachcombers. Through this interplay of humanity and space, the film echoes with loneliness and despair as much as it does with perseverance, curiosity, and wonder. The dividing line of the horizon superficially appears as a separation, but after long contemplation it may merely be a symbolic divide between the searchers and the sought, which are both farther and closer to one another than one may think. 
F1ghting Looks Different 2 Me Now (Maxy, 2022).
Our eyes may dart up and down watching Eventide, but they never rest on the horizon itself. Tacita Dean makes that very place the very subject of her short film Fata Morgana. Named, like Werner Herzog’s 1971 documentary, after the legendary desert mirage, Dean’s film systematically captures the shapeshifting effect in the middle of her images between the arid desert landscape and the hot sky. Little happens above and below in these negative spaces—beyond some splendid colors, sherbet yellows and oranges on top, and puce, taro-like bruises below—and like desert explorers looking hopefully into the distance for an oasis, the film peers implacably at that horizon to find what it seeks.  Mostly, it is found: Variously waves, distorted, smeared, and mirroring, the optical effect produced by light passing through air of different temperatures makes this narrow band an unearthly place of the unknown and uncanny, the uncertain and undefined. Things on top appear on bottom; cars driving on the horizon seem to levitate, the world appears inside out, and, in one particularly exquisite image, an entire city seems to appear in a golden pond sunk in the desert sands. The camera never wavers in its gaze, and in fact the film’s general structure or principle of ordering shots lacks a clear conceptualization, but what is clear is that if we try to look ahead, even if we look with steadiness and certainty, and even if we think we know what we’re looking at and for, the path before us—the future—remains hazy, something existing uneasily between reality and illusion.
One person who likely isn’t heeding anything neither Ford nor Spielberg teaches is Fox Maxy. This Ipai Kumeyaay and Payómkawichum artist’s aggressive video collages, including their Tiger Award-winning Maat (2020) and their new short in TIFF, F1ghting Looks Different 2 Me Now, have no need for a horizon line. Their aim, by hyperactively mixing swatches of raw-toned documentary footage through intensely uneven edits alongside blasts of raps, blips of graphic art, and an overall riotous, untethered, lashing-out approach, is to obliterate demarcations of separation in order to fundamentally challenge the stability and authority of the American landscape they are filming. Brief glimpses locating the film in California’s Mesa Grande, references to Maxy’s Ipai Kumeyaay tribe, of which some members are located on a reservation there, and a conversation between the filmmaker and law enforcement over who has the right to live on land, help crystallize Maxy’s innervated provocation over ownership and belonging. In spite of the film’s by turns enthralling and off-putting frenzy of energy and images, a fractious experience that aligns momentarily into meaning and then smashes apart, the artist’s purest achievement is that of understanding an often forgotten fundamental of cinema: Pointing the camera is at once an act of questioning what it films and an act of claiming—or reclaiming—it.

Tags

Festival CoverageTIFFTIFF 2022Steven SpielbergSharon LockhartTacita DeanFox Maxy
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