Well, my moviegasm faithful, as if you haven’t gotten used to indulging my movie obsessions already, today you’re going to have to indulge me in some hero worship as well. You see, as those of you who have kept up since day one might already know, I am not just an ardent fan of horror movies, but also of Mr. Steven Spielberg.
This no doubt leaves a taste of commercialism in the mouths of those already used to my usually pointed criticism of mainstream Hollywood. But Spielberg, to me, embodies the Hollywood ideal, which is the balance of commercial filmmaking with artistic resonance. There is certainly an argument to be made that Spielberg skews much more toward the former, but you won’t read such an argument here.
This is all spurred by the premiere of the Spielberg on Spielberg documentary on Turner Classic Movies last night. Maybe you caught it, but if you didn’t, don’t hope for repeats as I did with their excellent Marlon Brando documentary a few months ago. The Brando doc is available on Netflix, and I definitely recommend it (it’s hard for moviegoers of my generation to appreciate what Brando meant to our parents, but having seen that one put some of my discussions with my own father into some new perspective). I’m sure Spielberg will be, too, before too long.
But he’s an old man now, but with Indy IV on the horizon, and film elitists sure to be sharpening their swords to attack his commercialism, maybe this isn’t such a bad time for a little reflection on a remarkable career.
Still, just to satisfy the naysayers, I’ll start with a little criticism.And there’s no place better to start than with the commercialism. I cannot argue with the position that Tom Cruise’s son’s miraculous survival at the end of War of the Worlds is a blatant attempt to court the summer audience, and tarnishes an otherwise impressive summer action blockbuster. It certainly doesn’t rise to the level of Jurassic Park, though I credit the film for steering away from Spielberg’s otherwise saintly worship at the idea of alien intelligence, it’s reliance on a relatively unlikable protagonist, his killing, like, a billion people, and the particular brutality of the scene in which Cruise has Dakota Fanning cover her ears while he murders Tim Robbins in the next room. But the ending is hokey at best and a betrayal of the audience’s suspension of disbelief at the worst, and frankly I expected more from him (though not from over-praised screenwriter David Koepp, who produced a similarly soulless script for Jurassic Park and it’s painfully unnecessary sequel).
Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal are frivolous films, light, airy, and easily forgotten, if competently made. Catch Me could easily lose twenty minutes (as could the otherwise exceptional Minority Report), and while Terminal features a welcome return to slapstick comedy from Tom Hanks and is that rarest of romantic comedies in which the two leads do not end up together, it unquestionably has little else to recommend it. And there’s no way around it: 1941, Always, Hook, and The Lost World: Jurassic Park are simply bad movies. Spielberg addresses the lessons learned from 1941- his most notorious failure- in the doc, but never even addresses, much less attempts to defend, the other three.
But the frequent jabs at his films for being schmaltzy and saccharine are too easily undermined simply by pointing to films like Jaws, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan. And those same critics seem to forget the ease with which he made that same quality work in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and the Indiana Jones films.
There are a couple of things for which I am critical of the documentary, but don’t know how much blame to lie at Spielberg’s feet (he surely had a say in the final cut, after all). He mentions the contributions of Joan Crawford and Goldie Hawn to his early work, but fails to mention any other actors, especially the astonishing work of Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (possibly the most redeeming quality of a film generously described as above average) or Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun. I swear it was just yesterday that I forced my copy of the latter into the hands of a friend, declaring Bale’s performance the best I have ever seen by a child actor (challengers, feel free to make your counterpoints in the comments).
That said, though, he is quick to give a tremendous amount of credit to screenwriter Richard Matheson for the success of Duel, his first feature length film (although it was made for television, it was, I believe, released theatrically in Europe to some critical notice). I’m a big fan of Matheson’s, and greatly appreciate Spielberg’s endorsement, as I believe Matheson has been one of the greatest, and most unsung, influences on modern popular culture. Remember that when you go to see the third Hollywood incarnation of I Am Legend when it comes out this winter.
Spielberg is also incredibly generous regarding the contributions of John Williams to his movies, especially to E.T., which I think is a fair statement. I read somewhere (at some point, film criticism and commentary blends together, so I apologize to the originator of the thought for not correctly attributing it), that if Mozart or Beethoven were alive today, they’d be writing music for films and not for concert halls. Make no mistake: Williams is a composer of that caliber, and his ability to create music that elevates the images in film rather than simply underlining them may be beyond comparison (although the great Bernard Hermann springs to mind). Is there any score that has entered our collective cultural subconscious the way those two simple chords from Jaws have? People who have never even seen the film still recognize it immediately. But Spielberg deserves some credit for recognizing this and returning to him time and time again.
There is no doubt that Schindler’s List is Spielberg’s crowing achievement. It may have been best put in, of all places, my copy of TV Guide Film & Video Companion (which contains exceptional caption reviews, by the way): “Director Steven Spielberg has achieved something close to impossible- a morally serious, aesthetically stunning historical epic that is nonetheless readily accessible to a mass audience.” For me, this gets at the heart of what makes Spielberg such an exceptional artistic force in the art of filmmaking. It would no good, or at least very little, to let, say, David Lynch make Schindler’s List. The film takes a subject of immense historical importance and boils it down just to the point at which an audience can take it in, be moved and even entertained, in a way, by it, without being overwhelmed by the horrors it suggests. I also highly recommend Roger Ebert’s essay on the film in his Great Movies book, as I don’t have the space to delve too deep here.
I will, however, point to one moment in the film. It is about mid-way through, when Amon Goethe is using Jewish slave labor to construct a building at his camp. A woman that had been an architect approaches him, telling him that there is a problem with the foundation and they will have to tear everything down and start over. Goethe orders her shot, then tells his men to tear it down and start over. But the moment when she is shot- one woman among hundreds killed in the film- moves me to tears every time I see it. I think Sydney Pollack refers to it in the first of the AFI Top 100 Films broadcasts, saying that he’s never seen the life go out of a person the way it does when she is shot. They show that very moment in Spielberg on Spielberg, and even with just those few seconds and no context, I couldn’t help but choke up. I can’t articulate anything Spielberg did in that moment, except to say that every time the images pass before the screen, I am reminded of the difference between a living human being and a lifeless body like no other image has been able to convey.
Schindler is an easy out for Spielberg fans because almost no one can deny its accomplishments. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that Spielberg, whose voice is the only one heard in the doc besides those in film clips, affirmed arguments I have made in defense of some of his films. For instance, just about everyone agrees that the bookends in Saving Private Ryan don’t work. They’re one of the first things detractors of his schmaltzy tastes point to. But upon reflection and repeated viewings, I decided that what Spielberg wanted to do was to bring the story into the present, to make the audience realize that the bulk of the film was not something that we are totally detached from, but something our parents and grandparents endured. And in the doc, he says that he knows he’s taken criticism for those portions of the film from critics, but he’s also been told that they mean the most to veterans he’s spoken to. So maybe it doesn’t work the way he intended it. But maybe it wasn’t for us.
A.I. is another movie I’ve taken heat for defending, especially the strange fourth act that jumps ahead 2,000 years. But he points out that it was not some invention of his to give Kubrick’s original story a happy ending, but in fact exactly what Kubrick intended and outlined in a 95 page treatment and over two thousand story boards. And lord knows that no one ever accused Kubrick of being saccharine. He also shed some interesting light on the scene. I, and most everyone I’ve spoken to, always assumed that the creatures that defrost and reanimate David are aliens, because of their appearance. But in fact they are Mechas, evolved over thousands of years and having replaced, as the curators of the Flesh Fair always feared, us humans. I may have to watch the film again to see how this revelation affects the impact of the film.
And finally, Spielberg revealed one thing in this doc that really impressed me. I’ve always admired Minority Report more than I’ve really liked it, and never felt much need to revisit it. But truly, whenever it comes up in conversation (which is more than you’d think), I have always mentioned one moment in particular that I absolutely love. It comes near the end of the film, after Tom Cruise has rescued the psychic ‘precog’ played by Samatha Morton and is carrying her through a crowded mall. Her ability to see a few moments or more into the future proves endlessly helpful in their escape from the policemen chasing them, but also to those she passes as they make their way. At one point, she grabs a lovely Asian woman passing by. She looks her intensely in the eyes and says only: “He knows. Don’t go home.” Again, it’s hard to articulate what is so awesome about that moment, accept that he doesn’t linger on the moment a second too long, and doesn’t tell you any more than will simply wet your appetite. I have thought that there is a whole movie to be made around that woman, and what happens to her before and after that moment.
Oh yeah. And Spielberg improvised the line on the spot while they were filming.
Bottom line- even in his lesser films he’s trying for more than most directors do in their commercial films. I think Spielberg feels a responsibility to his audience to try and communicate something, even if it’s just child-like awe and wonder, and it’s a desire that hasn’t been corrupted by his enormous financial success. I can’t think of any other director about whom that can be said.
But I guess that’s what the comments section is for.