Columns > Published on January 31st, 2023

On "The Fabelmans" and "Armageddon Time" or Should You Prefer, the Birth of the Artist

When I was a kid my father told me a story about the father of one of my friends who he was friends with. This other kid’s father had wanted to be an artist when he was a child and one day as he and his father were out for a walk in the Bronx or Brooklyn or wherever in New York City they lived, this friend’s father told his father that he wanted to be an artist. The father’s father, a poor immigrant Jew from Russia replied: “You want to be an artist?” He then did a pirouette and said, “and maybe I’ll become a dancer.”

End scene.

The friend’s father did not become an artist. He did become a major art historian however, who published his dissertation to great acclaim and never looked back, publishing dozens of books in his lifetime.

Would he have been an artist if his father had supported or encouraged him to become one?

That answer is lost to history, but the question of how we create art, and maybe more importantly, how we become artists at all is at the heart of this anecdote.

My father was also the child of poor New York City Jews. He too wanted to be an artist, and knowing this his aunt took him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Did my father become an artist because his aunt took him to the Met? Probably not. My father knew what he wanted to be, he was talented from an early age and even after dropping out of high school to work he pursued his passions. My father also felt it was important to recognize that great artists were born with genius, that artists weren’t like everyone else, that you could teach people a craft, and bring them joy, it just didn’t make them artists, not the kind of artist he wanted to be and knew he was.

Still, lots of people have talent and don’t pursue their dreams or figure out how to do so.

What are the differences?

After talent there has to be opportunity, privilege and belief in one self. It helps to have connections, or know how to make them, something my father wasn’t great at. There is a lot of luck, though I’ll note here that my father didn’t want to believe in luck, and somehow the older I get the more wrong he seems.

...calling someone’s artistic and entrepreneurial pursuits a hobby [is] the strongest insult one can make...[D]oing so is to imply that the person isn’t serious or professional about what they’re trying to create.

There is also drive, the willingness to pursue your art at the cost of most anything else, but does it also make a difference to have someone who cares and believes you can take that desire and skill and become something? 

It’s this question more than any that underlies two movies I recently watched, The Fabelmans and Armageddon Time  by Steven Spielberg and James Gray, respectively. Yes, there’s certainly more going on in both, but at the center of these stories are young artists and the people who believe in them.

In the case of The Fabelmans, for Spielberg’s young protagonist Sammy the path is clear from the start. He makes movies and he will make movies and this despite his father Burt’s desire for him to play it safe, at least at the start of the movie, and to build a skill in something, maybe anything else. 

Making films is fine, but that’s a hobby.

A hobby.

I have a colleague who considers calling someone’s artistic and entrepreneurial pursuits a hobby to be the strongest insult one can make. To him doing so is to imply that the person isn’t serious or professional about what they’re trying to create. That what they’re doing doesn’t make money and isn’t practical as a livelihood. That it is somehow livelihood adjacent. This idea is one that speaks to life in a world dominated by capitalism, but it also speaks to how art is perceived when those you interact with don’t see it as important or reflective of what they value. How many of us have told someone about our writing, what we’ve published or hope to publish, and when they ask you if you make any money from your efforts, you can hear them wanting to say, well, that sounds like a nice hobby?

Sammy does not see his desire to make movies as a hobby, he sees it as who he is and will be, even if Burt can’t and won’t accept this as the story unfolds. Interwoven in this story of how and when Sammy will become Steven Spielberg, and there’s no other way one can experience that character, is the story of Sammy’s parents’ marriage, his father, the practical computer genius, and his mother, Mitzi, an artist herself, and a free spirit, who feels trapped by her marriage and life. It is Mitzi who believes in Sammy, who nurtures and supports his aspirations, and the person who disappoints him the most.

Still, even if it is Mitzi who encourages Sammy to believe in art as a lifestyle, it is a visit from his Uncle Boris, a man who ran away from his family to become what he was destined to be, a creative, an artist, a person at home in the circus and movies, who embodies all Sammy will ever need to know about what he will do and be.

As Boris says to him, “We’re junkies. Art is our drug.” 

The story couldn’t be more personal to Spielberg, and it is noteworthy that this is the first screenplay since A.I. Artificial Intelligence in 2001 that Spielberg has played a role in writing. 

Jame Gray on the other hand has a role in writing all of his movies, all of which feel personal (and full-disclosure, I know James Gray through his wife, who is a friend of mine), though maybe none more so than Armageddon Time. In contrast to The Fabelmans, while Armageddon Time is also about the birth of an artist, or more accurately the gestation, it is less focused on the road to making art than it is an exploration of the road the protagonist, Paul, must navigate if he’s to become an artist at all. Here the father, Irving, is worried that his son isn’t smart enough to make it in the world, much less as an artist, which in his estimation isn’t even on the table. Paul’s mother Esther is slightly more caring, until she isn’t, and it is his grandfather Aaron, who is the champion of all Paul may yet be.

Aaron isn’t as supportive of Paul as Boris is about Sammy becoming an artist, as much as he wants Paul to become the version of himself he wants to be. This sentiment is seen again and again throughout the movie, though especially during the following exchange:

Paul: “I think I want to be a famous artist when I grow up.”

Aaron: “Oh. You want to be famous, you can do what you like.”

For Aaron, the issue is not what Paul wants to be, it’s that Paul takes care of himself, that he survives in a world that can’t guarantee that for anyone, especially Jews, and that Paul be a decent man and human. Aaron knows indecency, anti-Semitism, and violence, and if Paul can overcome those things he can be whatever he wants.

It’s also not so easy.

The primary tension, among many, in Armageddon Time, is Paul’s friendship with Johnny, an African American friend from school. Paul doesn’t have it easy, not with Irving’s anger and limitations, but Johnny who lives with his grandmother is in constant survival mode. When the movie takes a tragic turn for Johnny and not Paul because of a connection of Irving’s, Paul is distraught, and the usually simmering Irving is calm, practical, and more like Burt than the dad we’ve met previously.

“You gotta be thankful when you’re given a leg up,” he says.

Irving knows how hard it all is, life as a Jew, coming from a family with little money, not living pragmatically. Still, when I heard Irving say this, I thought this is part of what makes the artist the artist as well, seeking and creating opportunities, grabbing a leg up when it presents itself and not letting go. 

My father never had a leg up, not any more than Spielberg or Gray, and he did not find one while he was alive. But he had someone who knew being an artist was important to him, just as Sammy and Paul do. My father created though, his whole life, as have Spielberg or Gray, who will have the chances my father did not to keep doing so. Both have created intimate, family centric movies that speak to and celebrate the best of their work and their artistic endeavors. Art can allow us to  live our best lives, even as the pursuit of making the art we want to make can destroy us. Further, this pursuit may not make us better people, but it’s not about being better, even if Aaron would prefer that. It’s about becoming who we know we are supposed to be. As Boris also shares:

“Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on Earth, but also, it will tear your heart out and leave you lonely. You'll be a shanda for your loved ones. An exile in the desert. A gypsy. Art is no game! Art is dangerous as a lion's mouth. It'll bite your head off.”

No doubt, my father would have agreed.

About the author

Ben Tanzer is an Emmy-award winning coach, creative strategist, podcaster, writer, teacher and social worker who has been helping nonprofits, publishers, authors, small business and career changers tell their stories for 20 plus years. He is the author of the soon to be re-released short story collection Upstate and several award-winning books, including the science fiction novel Orphans and the essay collections Lost in Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again and Be Cool - a memoir (sort of). He is also a lover of all things book, taco, Gin and street art.

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