Sunday, December 19, 2010

Steven, You Can't Be Serious: My Problem with Spielberg's "Maturation" as a Filmmaker



For the Steven Spielberg Blogathon, brought to you by Adam Zanzie & Ryan Kelly, Dec. 18-28.

There was a time -- and I can pinpoint it to a three-year period: 1981-1984 -- when news of a Steven Spielberg film left me a-tingle with excitement. Those days, unless you subscribed to Variety, the earliest you would hear about a new movie would be in the Sunday paper before its Friday release. In the case of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was word-of-mouth -- a rave review from a neighbor -- that spurred my folks and me to check it out. I had been too young for Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) -- catching up to them on videocassette later -- so Raiders was my first Spielberg theatrical experience, and my eleven-year-old self thrilled to it. I wasn't yet cognizant of why the movie excited me (acting, cinematography, editing, and other elements all rolled into the most fluid visual style by a filmmaker since Hitchcock); I just knew that I had seen something special, and I wanted to see it over and over again.

The following summer came a film with an even greater seismic impact, at once more universal and more intimate, by the name of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The critical reception was laudatory, yet to see it with an enthralled, rapturous audience (two, three, four times) was as close as I've ever had to a religious experience. Two years after that came Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which would be critically regarded as Spielberg's Black Mass. I was shocked by the backlash against the movie (as well as the Spielberg-produced Gremlins, which I had also enjoyed). "The wizards have grown very powerful indeed," one critic intoned ominously at the end of an overheated essay on how Spielberg and Lucas had ruined movies (a theme echoed endlessly since then). The movie's reputation has not improved over time. But I can assure you that seeing Temple of Doom in a theater (two, three, four times) was as communal an experience as anything Spielberg had directed beforehand. Audiences responded to it in a way you rarely see anymore. In his entertaining and informing Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, Tom Shone makes a persuasive counterpoint to the widely accepted notion that the 1980s were the dregs of American cinema. To have seen Raiders, E.T., and (for some of us) Temple of Doom, with a loud, appreciative audience on a long, wide screen, Shone argues, was a privilege to fill young movie buffs of today with envy.

It's fun to see the excitement that Steven Spielberg's older movies have generated in the Zanzies, Kellys, and Coles of the blogosphere; I wish I could share their enthusiasm for his newer ones. Nowadays, my Pavlovian response to an upcoming Spielberg movie is usually indifference, occasionally dread. His 2011 release, War Horse, produces nothing more than mild curiosity; his already ballyhooed Lincoln considerably less. Speeches are what Abraham Lincoln is primarily known for, and as the scenes with Gen. Marshall in Saving Private Ryan and John Quincy Adams in Amistad testify, speeches are not Spielberg's strong suit. Give the guy an intricately complicated action scene and he's in his element; give him a talking head and the narrative does more than stop dead -- it practically backs up.

Certainly, Lincoln will afford Spielberg the opportunity to stage some impressive Civil War carnage, prompting his admirers to uncover Meaningful Themes when all I may see is a filmmaker invested in his technique. I often enjoy the spirited subtextual readings that much of Spielberg's work generates (and which this blogathon has already amply provided). Yet when watching much of his output over the last several years, I can't help but get the feeling that sometimes his fans are working harder than he is.

There are many things I still like about Spielberg. To begin with the obvious, his visual acuity is peerless, inspiring the oft-repeated quote by Hitchcock that the director of Jaws was the first filmmaker "who doesn't see the Proscenium Arch." What Hitch meant was Spielberg represented a wave of American directors influenced by movies themselves rather than the stage. (One reason Jaws was so groundbreakingly effective was because the shark never appeared when or where you expected it; its director had broken "the rules.") In addition to an ecstatic eye, he has (or had) a marvelous sense of humor, a flair for tossed-off sight gags that hit you, bounce off the theater's walls and ping you again (a space alien on a drinking binge, a T-Rex looming in a rearview mirror, a sadistic Nazi transforming an apparent torture device into a coat hanger).

He also is enormously underrated with actors, and not just the child variety. Correct me if I'm wrong, but to the best of my knowledge no actor in a Steven Spielberg film has ever won an Academy Award. There have been fine, widely acclaimed performances over the years (Liam Neeson in Schindler's List, Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan). Yet few directors have gotten better work out of Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Jeremy Davies, Martin Sheen, even Oprah Winfrey. Unlike Lucas, Spielberg hasn't lost sight of what actors bring to the screen. In an unassuming manner, he has a knack for sussing out dimensions in performers that you've never seen before and may never see after.

Moreover, as much as I've been underwhelmed by Spielberg's quest to be taken seriously by tackling Serious Issues (working against his gifts, as Pauline Kael noted on more than one occasion), there is one theme that he gravitates toward naturally, without any strain: fear of abandonment. This is the throughline in his body of work, sometimes from the point-of-view of a parent (Melinda Dillon in Close Encounters, Tom Cruise in Minority Report, the villagers in Temple of Doom), often from the perspective of the child (Empire of the Sun, A.I.). Both the alien and Elliott in E.T. are lost children left to their own devices -- the former by happenstance, the latter on account of his father's departure and mother's resulting distraction and depression. I never even realized that E.T. was about divorce until I got older, so subtle is Spielberg's working through a topic obviously close to his heart. The melodramatic third act of the film (really just the passage where E.T. "dies") is the only time when his sure-handedness slips a bit, but at no time is the story less than deeply felt.

So it breaks my heart that I can no longer watch E.T., not after Spielberg's "tinkering" for the re-release that turned the palpable and lovably staggering title creature into a sinewy CGI hologram. Watching the alien leapfrog away from Keys in the famous opening chase sequence held all the appeal of seeing a favorite grind-it-out ballplayer suddenly swinging for the fences with a new steroids-laden physique: You lose a vital connection to what you're watching, because you're made aware that it isn't real. Ditto Spielberg's last picture, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in which the filmmakers promised a return to the thrilling stuntwork of the earlier films and instead saturated us with special effects everywhere we looked. I hated the movie when it came out; its contempt for both audience and narrative. Seeing Crystal Skull again last week (on USA Network, which decided to torture its viewership with no commercial interruptions), it seemed less contemptible, merely pathetic. I'd like to think that the promise of yet another Indiana Jones movie is Spielberg's intent to redeem the previous outing. More likely, it's the latest instance of a filmmaker who doesn't know when to quit.


It's been equally dismaying to watch Spielberg's lean, mean sense of timing degenerate into the bloat of a director who no longer knows when to end his movies. Think of Jaws ("I used to hate the water," "I can't imagine why"), Raiders (a deux-ex-machina climax that actually works), E.T. (a rainbow that actually works), or the original ending of Close Encounters (Dreyfuss enters the spaceship without our seeing what's inside), and you see a director taking advantage of his uncanny instincts. The clear-eyed, sure-footed mastery of Spielberg's direction of Schindler's List is marred by the tin-eared "I could have done more" scene (as one critic told me via email, a mark of his insecurity). The spry airiness of Catch Me If You Can (unusual for a late-Spielberg work) is eventually weighed down by an endless denuouement geared unnecessarily to reassure us that Abignale is redeemable. And don't get me started on the check-my-watch climactic slogs of A.I. and Minority Report, designed by Spielberg to suggest dark interpretations without having the stones to actually embrace the darkness.

Years ago, John Powers (I think) dispelled the common criticism that Steven Spielberg was too much of a sentimental softy, pointing out that in practically all his films (from Duel and The Sugarland Express on), his characters get worked over by all kinds of physical and psychological ordeals. (Odie Henderson at The House Next Door once put it more succinctly: "Spielberg likes to kill people.") What Spielberg lacks, Powers suggested, was intellectual toughness, an ability to perceive complexity and convey it through his art. This is a quality that many Old Hollywood filmmakers who could "see the Proscenium Arch" did have (including Hitchcock himself, for all his high style); it's also a quality of directors, then and now, who are well read.

I don't mean to suggest that Spielberg is a dummy. He's obviously read a number of books -- not least of which Alice Walker's The Color Purple and J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun. I'm unsure though, based on his wobbly screen adaptations, how much he understood them; or if he did grasp their nuances but was reluctant to parse them. "All those people gamboling in the broiling southern sun," David Denby observed about The Color Purple, "was (Spielberg) crazy?" I could say the same about the internment camp sequence in Empire of the Sun, with enough jaunty Great Escape-like shenanigans to unravel the stark authenticity (and poetic lyricism) of the film's remarkable opening passages. As Hitchcock indicated, Spielberg's primary influences are other movies. Spielberg is a unique enough stylist to avoid obvious homages; you don't think of anybody else's movies while watching his. Yet he lacks the life experience to fully convey the reality that his higher-minded movies intend to replicate.

Never was this more apparent (for me, at least) than in Saving Private Ryan. Combining his love of war movies with the kind of populist scholarship all too comfortably down his wheelhouse (D-Day wannabe Stephen Ambrose), Spielberg set out to make the ultimate war movie and damn well made sure we all knew it. (Kael again: "I felt as if Spielberg were bucking for awards, to the point where his people seemed outraged when they didn't win them. As if they deserved honors for their serious intentions.") Even if one acknowledges the virtuosity of the Omaha Beach sequence (and Tom Carson, as I recall, made a persuasive argument that it lacks a sense of the time spent by soldiers pinned down on that beachhead, conveyed by actual war veteran Samuel Fuller in The Big Red One), it's difficult to avoid that the sequence surrounded by three terrible scenes: the opening with the old man shuffling to the WWII graveyard (prompting me to mutter, "Uh-oh"); the Lincoln speech recited by Gen. Marshall to provide moral support for his questionable plan; and the Rockwellesque depiction of the Ryan family farm. This last image, in particular, raises the question of how sacrificing one's self for Private Ryan has meaning if what they're defending is an idealized depiction of Americana. For a film so vocal (and graphic) about its own gritty authenticity, Saving Private Ryan has no qualms about reinforcing hoary cliches and devices.

In his "message movies," Spielberg often seems deeply confused about what he's trying to tell us versus what he's actually showing us, sometimes in the same scene. Back in the un-message-y Jaws, he subversively undermined American machismo by killing off the blowhard Quint; it's the reluctant seaman Brody, and the intellectual Hooper, who survive. Fast forward to Saving Private Ryan and its transformation of the bookish, sensitive Cpl. Upham into a cold-blooded killer. Putting aside for a moment the tortured machinations that bring Upham face-to-face with "Steamboat Willie," the Nazi soldier he persuades Capt. Miller to release earlier in the movie (and who kills Miller later), it's hard to tell what Spielberg means for us to take from Upham's apotheosis. He seems to be aiming for something along the lines of Michael Corleone's turning point in The Godfather -- that the real tragedy isn't the person who gets killed but the person who does the killing. If that's the case, however, then why should it matter who shoots Miller? I've never experienced combat, but it's my impression that many more soldiers die from the tragic happenstance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time than the cheap cause-and-effect on display in Saving Private Ryan (i.e., "This time, it's personal.") That it does matter in the movie is nothing less than a dubious rebuke of Upham's earlier decency, that he's not really a man until he pulls the trigger.

I'll venture even further away from the accusation that Spielberg's too sentimental; at his worst, he's downright cynical. War of the Worlds is a bludgeoning allegory for 9/11, the former showing the human response to calamity at its worst when the real thing revealed in numerous instances people at their very best. Crystal Skull and The Lost World are the works of a master bored with his own mastery. It's inevitable that Spielberg will continue making popular entertainments to provide collateral for his more artistic endeavors. But as far back as his creative crisis in the late-80s and early-90s (the boring Always, the embarrassing Hook, the clever yet exhausted Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), it's been obvious that Spielberg is long past the escapist entertainment of his youth.

Where, then, should he go from here? Prior to its interminable coda, Catch Me If You Can is a wonderful one-off for Spielberg, a departure from most of his familiar trappings without coming off impersonal. (As always, a child's estrangement from his parents was his point-of-entry into the story.) I also was surprised by Munich, a movie I had avoided in its theatrical run out of certainty that it would be Spielbergian Oscar-Bait at its worst. What I ended up seeing was a filmmaker returning to conveying information visually rather than through speechifying (e.g., the brilliant cross-cutting of images of the murdered Israeli wrestling team members with photographs of the terrorists flipped into a pile); one who, rather than fulfilling his preconceived notions of the Arab-Israeli conflict, followed the narrative with open eyes and seemed surprised by what he found. Munich isn't flawless, but it's a movie whose messiness is appropriate to the subject. Like Schindler's List, it's a great movie not because it's a Serious Movie, but because Spielberg delves deeply into his Jewish heritage, into something that matters to him. Too often after E.T., he's lost his once vital connection with an audience, no longer "phoning home" but phoning it in. And Spielberg's capable of so much more: Would he only take the advice left at the end of Munich and go home more often.

35 comments:

ID said...

Oh... Spielberg most certainly has not lost his vital connection to his audience, that one is pretty obvious.
He may very well have lost you - Temple of Doom onwards - but an impressive number of people tend to think of him as altogether interesting - while perhaps unevenly so - and visually unmatched.

Other than that we stand in opposing grounds but you did a good job in your critique.

Some of us "discover" subtextual essence in Spielberg's work, not because we work harder than him but, I guess, because we 're sort of inspired by movies we find fascinating.

Again good work here, necessary for a stimulating discussion of a filmmaker.

Adam Zanzie said...

Hey Craig, just want to congratulate you for being the first person to brave a CRITICISM of Spielberg for the blogathon. I disagree with a lot of the points in this piece, obviously, but it's a marvelous piece. You may be surprised when I say that I actually agree with some of what you've written here: the absurd 2002 edition of E.T; the sense one gets that he had a boring time making The Lost World Jurassic Park; the opening scene with the older Private Ryan and his buxom, big-breasted granddaughters at Miller's cemetery, an odd scene in an otherwise excellent film; and the overzealous crass commercialism of Hook. As for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I like that movie a lot, but your smackdown of it made me chuckle.

Some points of opposition.

-I'll address this further in a piece on Schindler's List I'll be publishing later in the blogathon (as well as in a joint piece Ryan and I are currently writing on the film), but I, personally, love Schindler's "I could have done more" monologue. I don't think it's an example of conventional manipulative tactics--quite the opposite, in fact. The great thing about the scene is that it acknowledges that so many other people died; in other words, that Schindler's List is not simply "a movie about the ones who lived", as Stanley Kubrick once allegedly quipped (and as Terry Gilliam loves to repeat in his endless tirades against Spielberg these days). But there's as much pain to the scene as there is emotional release. I actually think the scene is essential to the film's perfected structure.

-I understand what you're getting at regarding "speeches" in Spielberg's films, but usually I'm impressed with them. I mean, I agree with you about JQ Adams' speeches in Amistad, which is a good movie but ultimately suffers from being too Noble, with a capital N (it's the only Spielberg movie that I can honestly concede is "awards friendly"--especially since it takes the safe route by focusing more on the white characters than on Cinque, Joadson and the slaves). The only "speech" in Saving Private Ryan that suffers, to me, is Ryan's "Tell me I was a good man" bit at the end.

Adam Zanzie said...

But there's so many other great pieces of writing in Spielberg's cinema. Look at the scene Menno Meyjes wrote for The Color Purple in which Celie pulls the knife on Mister. Look at Stoppard's entire treatment for Empire of the Sun; or Zaillian's treatment for Schindler's List; or Robert Rodat's splendid writing in Saving Private Ryan of the personal scene between Miller and Ryan ("Tell me about your wife and kids on the farm?" "No... that's a memory I keep to myself."). And Spielberg's own screenplays for Close Encounters ("What the hell's going on around here? WHO THE HELL ARE YOU PEOPLE?") and A.I. ("David, they're jealous because when the end comes, all that will be left... is US."). And perhaps, best of all, Tony Kushner's entire treatment for Munich. That Kushner is writing the script for Lincoln, as we speak, gives me good hope that that film will turn out well.

-There are a lot of ways to interpret the conclusions of Spielberg's films. I get what you mean about how they seem to flirt with unhappy endings more than they actually engage with them, but further reading into those endings (by fans who may or may not be "working too hard", as you wittily put it) may expose a true pain that is really there. I think the finale of A.I. only comes off as happy to some because the Supermechas set it up that way for David before he commits suicide: even though Ben Kingsley's narration describes him as "going to the place where dreams come true", remember that Kingsley is also the voice of the Supermechas! Perhaps this is just another part of the artificial fantasy they set up for David in attempting to receive from him any memories he has of civilization and God.

Now, the ending of Minority Report is considerably less tragic, since Anderton does clear his name and break free of the halo. However, I don't think Spielberg wanted a wholly tragic ending for that film--if he doesn't trap Anderton in a halo at the end, it may be because Spielberg doesn't want to be too cynical of Precrime. He indicates on the film's DVD that if such a justice system could be perfected, he would welcome it. Minority Report is simply a portrait of a failed attempt at it--not a condemnation of it. There's no need for a totally unhappy ending.

And while I have problems with Ryan's "Tell me I was a good man" at the end of Saving Private Ryan, here's what I do love: the final moment of Ryan saluting Miller's grave. That hits the point home greater than any speech ever could.

Ryan Kelly said...

Truly fascinating piece, and though this may sound strange considering I'm a pretty ardent defender of the man and his work, I'm very grateful that you wrote this. I actually share some of your problems with "serious" Spielberg, though I think you apply that standard a bit unfairly to The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, which I think represent Spielberg at the height of his artistry (though they're not my personal favorite films of his).

Actually I'd apply your criticism to Schindler's List, which I still think is an extraordinarily powerful film. But he tries to step out of himself in a way that I think is a tad disingenuous. You seem to think there is something inherently wrong with dramatizing horror through a fantasy aesthetic, and I think that argument implies that fantasy inherently invalidates the depth of the horror, which I don't think is accurate or fair. A.I. for example is the most blatant fairy tale he's ever made, it's also the darkest film he's ever made.

But Empire of the Sun and The Color Purple are about characters who deal with horror through fantasy. I prefer these films to Schindler's List because Spielberg isn't trying to be something he's not - oddly enough, Schindler's List with its documentary aesthetic and pretense to "realism" (and this goes for parts of Saving Private Ryan as well)is part of the film's major problem. I think the film's strongest points are the "Spielbergian" moments - the climactic speech, the sequence with the actors and Schindler's Jews placing stones on his grave. Again, I don't think there is anything inherently wrong or un-artistic about his more fantasy based style.

And I guess we agree on Saving Private Ryan, which I pretty much hate.

Again, terrific, probing piece my friend.

Ryan Kelly said...

And Adam, the "Tell me I'm a good man" bit is Saving Private Ryan's greatest dramatic moment, a different play on the themes of survival in Schindler's List. I can't stand that movie and even I understand that. ;-)

Word ver: lailicat

Craig said...

ID --

Thanks for commenting. I think what I meant by my awkwardly phrased "vital connection" remark was that Spielberg has lost something with audiences in terms of the kind of moviegoing experiences cited at the beginning of my piece. Feeling the energy go out of the theater during Crystal Skull was a depressing experience, especially coming from a filmmaker who used to bring the energy to the table. Who defined what going to the movies is all about.

Certainly he's still an interesting filmmaker. I find him interesting too, just not always in a good way.

Craig said...

Adam --

Thanks for the kind words, and for your paraphrase of William Goldman's hilarious critique of Private Ryan.

I, personally, love Schindler's "I could have done more" monologue. I don't think it's an example of conventional manipulative tactics--quite the opposite, in fact. The great thing about the scene is that it acknowledges that so many other people died;

See, for me, that was already more than sufficiently conveyed visually. No need to spell out further what we've already experienced. But I think the scene could have worked anyway had it been more understated, instead of a group hug. That's what's maddening about Spielberg: I can frequently see the idea behind a scene even while it's missing by a mile.

But there's so many other great pieces of writing in Spielberg's cinema.

No argument there. The dialogue, at its best, is as rat-a-tat zingy as his visuals. It's the monologues that have become intolerable and interminable, nowhere near the level of Robert Shaw's famous speech in Jaws. Spielberg's best stuff is pithy and to-the-point, like Jude Law's final line in A.I.: "I am. I was."

Now, the ending of Minority Report is considerably less tragic, since Anderton does clear his name and break free of the halo.

I've read interpretations that insist Anderson remained haloed and that everything we see at the end is all a fantasy. That's an interesting theory, but underscores my smartalecky comment about doing Spielberg's work for him. Gilliam had the guts to end Brazil by revealing the delusion; Spielberg merely teases it at the most, if at all. If that is in fact what he's aiming for, I wish that a filmmaker with such power and stature would show a little more nerve.

Craig said...

Ryan --

Thanks for your thoughts as well. Looks like we have a Schindler's List vs. Color Purple/Empire of the Sun dichotomy, and I'm fascinated by where that line is drawn.

You seem to think there is something inherently wrong with dramatizing horror through a fantasy aesthetic, and I think that argument implies that fantasy inherently invalidates the depth of the horror, which I don't think is accurate or fair.

I think fantasy is one of the most powerful means to express horror. (Too many examples throughout movie history to mention, but Pan's Labyrinth is a smashingly effective recent one.) My problem with Empire and Purple is I'm not convinced Spielberg knows the difference. (At least not the Spielberg then; he might have approached those subjects differently now.) To put it another way, I don't think Spielberg is using fantasy to express horror; I think he's using horror to express fantasy, and ends up negating both.

I prefer these films to Schindler's List because Spielberg isn't trying to be something he's not - oddly enough, Schindler's List with its documentary aesthetic and pretense to "realism" (and this goes for parts of Saving Private Ryan as well)is part of the film's major problem.

I can see why Spielberg's approach to Schindler would seem that way, and at times it is. But the same critic who wrote me the comment about Spielberg's "mark of insecurity" (Charles Taylor, then at Salon) also conveyed an interesting interpretation that the style of the film is actually designed to remind us that what we're seeing isn't real, that it's a dramatic representation of unspeakable horrors (hence the recurring image of the little girl with the red coat). I thought Schindler was Spielberg stepping into his own skin for the first time, and Munich went even further, asking whether revenge against others still made that skin worth saving.

It's pretty clear that I don't care for Saving Private Ryan, but that doesn't mean I'm not conflicted by it. Spielberg has made movies I love that occasionally exasperate me, and movies I loathe still capable of thrilling me with one or two (or more) scenes.

Adam Zanzie said...

Craig, yeah lol... the "big-boobed women" bit is my favorite part of William Goldman's SPR critique.

Going back to Schindler's farewell speech, I'm surprised you were content enough with the death scenes in the film that we see already. I've heard the opposite complaint from other critics who attack the film: Jonathan Rosenbaum chastises Spielberg for not showing Nazis throwing babies out windows; J. Hoberman says it's a movie "where all the Jews live and the Nazi turns out to be a good guy"; and David Thomson claims that, during the Auschwitz sequence at the end, there is no indication of Jews going into the gas chambers (although Thomson is dead wrong--there's a clear shot of Jews going into the gas chambers after Schindler's women emerge from the showers). I mean, I guess what I'm trying to say is that although Schindler never gave the "I could of done more" speech in real life, for dramatic purposes, the speech needs to be there at the end so that the audience doesn't leave the theater happy and satisfied with themselves like a bunch of apathetic Gentiles.

The theory about Anderton remaining in a halo limbo at the end of Minority Report is one I've heard before, but like you, I don't quite buy it. I think such a theory takes all the enjoyment out of the film, honestly. After all: why would Anderton fantasize about Burgess framing him? That makes little sense to me. I consider the ending of the film, as it is, alternatively pleasant and unpleasant. Anderton and Lara are really the only ones who have a good future. As for the Precogs, they'll be stuck with their visions for their remainder of their days. And as for Washington, its whole friggin' justice system just got shattered.

There's victory at the end of that movie, but it's bittersweet. The reason why it's not as cynical of an ending as Brazil's was may be because Terry Gilliam was chastising that sort of limited democracy. I don't believe Spielberg feels the same way. He has said in interviews that he's open to giving up his individual freedoms if it means he and his countrymen will be kept safe--he just wants the system to be perfect, and Minority Report, is I think, his idea of a nice attempt that ultimately falls into corruption. It's not a portrait of totalitarianism, like Gilliam's movie is, but of a justice system too overly obsessed with Patriot Act ideals.

And Ryan: Spielberg "disingeuously steps out of himself" with Schindler's List, but not with The Color Purple? The movie where he wasn't willing to portray lesbian sex between two black women onscreen? How is that any less "disingenuous" than Schindler's List? Explain, please.

ID said...

I can't but be "Spielberg sentimental" in my defense of the "energy lost": 20 years is too damn a lot to leave a kid's soul unharmed.
People perhaps expected from Indiana to grow the way they did; which is unthinkable, you know, Indiana is a fantasy of boyishness it doesn't evolve in the traditional sense. These people didn't "belong" in the theater, Indiana isn't necessary in their lives anymore. Not more necessary, that is, than their own childhood nostalgia.

I believe Crystal Skull deserves a second viewing, one relieved of "expectation" and comparing attitude. Back then we were boys fantasizing and inventing our world. Unless we rediscover that innocence - even if that is for a couple of hours - Crystal Skull will remain hermetically sealed.

Ryan Kelly said...

My problem with Empire and Purple is I'm not convinced Spielberg knows the difference.

I could accept that criticism of The Color Purple, which my darling girlfriend refers to (negatively) as "Stockholm Syndrome: The Movie". But not so much with Empire of the Sun, which details the destruction of Jim's childhood and the way he tries to live in a child's fantasy world - most heartbreaking of all is when he mistakes the blast of an A-Bomb for the departed spirit of someone from the camp. Eventually, the horrific conditions still drive him insane, and IMO this is maybe Spielberg's most pointed observation into the nature of fantasy and its relation to the way see the world; to quote Munich, narrative's centrality to existence.

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, I really don't understand where this notion that Spielberg needed to graphically show the lesbian sex in The Color Purple came from. Yes, he eliminated the graphic sex featured in the book, but in service of the way he was dramatizing it. Is Celie's obsession with Shug Avery - and their intimate connection - not perfectly clear in Spielberg's film? The Color Purple is, other than Always, Spielberg's most blatant old-Hollywood style film, and graphic sex would have been that much more out of place in a film that is a fantasy.

You should apply this critical standard - Spielberg the prude - to Schindler's List. Spielberg admitted that there were certain horrors he couldn't show, he admitted when he had the people running around naked that he couldn't look. You're making a film about the Holocaust, but you're unwilling to show the true extent of the atrocity? You force emaciated people to run around nude in front of your camera, but have to look away? What kind of nonsense is that? This is why I called SL "a tad disingenuous", because Spielberg is trying to be something he just isn't throughout most of the film.

Jason Bellamy said...

As if they deserved honors for their serious intentions.

Just a general observation: Is it me, or does that perfectly sum up 95 percent of the Academy Awards, whether it's celebrating trash as depth (say, Precious) or deciding that any film made with great effort must be a great film (i.e. the Carlos illusion; a film I admire, by the way, just not as much as many critics)?

Anyway ...

Reading this piece made me think of an SI article I caught up with on a flight the other day, about a high school football player who died during a hard, hot practice. His mother described the kid as a "pleaser," and I'm not sure there's a better one-word summation of Spielberg, who for all his cinematic genius can never overcome his instinct to give the audience what it wants. In a sense, I think it's unfair for people to criticize Spielberg for his optimistic outlook, just like I think it's false to equate Herzog's pessimism with genius. If that's who Spielberg is, that's who he is, and he shouldn't change his worldview just to seem "serious" or some such thing.

But even without realizing how many of Spielberg's film are about divorce, it's impossible to mistake that Spielberg wants his movies to make us happy. It's as if the worst criticism we could lob at him would be to call him a bad guy. And at some level that slavish devotion to being liked has got to be a weakness.

Craig said...

Adam--

I've heard the opposite complaint from other critics who attack the film: Jonathan Rosenbaum chastises Spielberg for not showing Nazis throwing babies out windows; J. Hoberman says it's a movie "where all the Jews live and the Nazi turns out to be a good guy"; and David Thomson claims that, during the Auschwitz sequence at the end, there is no indication of Jews going into the gas chambers (although Thomson is dead wrong--there's a clear shot of Jews going into the gas chambers after Schindler's women emerge from the showers).

Those comments are either wrong or misguided, but it should be noted that two of the three gave Schindler positive reviews. (Thomson called it the most moving film he'd ever seen; Rosenbaum was more qualified.) What I'm saying is it's the kind of subject where you're not going to please everyone -- and will be lucky to please anyone -- so an artist who approaches it needs to be true to his own vision first and foremost. I thought Spielberg accomplished this with exquisite control other than that scene.

I'm with Owen Gleiberman, who said his lingering memory of Schindler's List was of people getting shot in the head.

Craig said...

Ryan --

You should apply this critical standard - Spielberg the prude - to Schindler's List. Spielberg admitted that there were certain horrors he couldn't show, he admitted when he had the people running around naked that he couldn't look. You're making a film about the Holocaust, but you're unwilling to show the true extent of the atrocity? You force emaciated people to run around nude in front of your camera, but have to look away?

I know you're arguing with Adam here, but I have to chime in and say that I don't understand the criticism. So Spielberg said he couldn't look: Does that have to do with prudishness or simply pain? None of us know precisely what meaning the Holocaust has for him, but it's a safe bet it's more than any gentile like myself can fathom. I'm willing to give the guy the benefit of the doubt, especially since he conveyed that pain so vividly onscreen.

As a sidebar, I recall Schindler's List as the first Spielberg film to feature graphic sexuality: initially with Schindler; later with Goeth. Not together, though there is an undercurrent of that too.

Craig said...

Just a general observation: Is it me, or does that perfectly sum up 95 percent of the Academy Awards, whether it's celebrating trash as depth (say, Precious) or deciding that any film made with great effort must be a great film (i.e. the Carlos illusion; a film I admire, by the way, just not as much as many critics)?

Well, yes, but Saving Private Ryan was even more of a special case: If you didn't like the movie, you were spitting on God, America, Mom, and apple pie. The nerd hordes who regularly come out for Batman or Avatar or the next flavor of the month can't hold a candle to that kind of manipulation.

His mother described the kid as a "pleaser," and I'm not sure there's a better one-word summation of Spielberg, who for all his cinematic genius can never overcome his instinct to give the audience what it wants.

See, I would definitely agree with that about "Young Spielberg." "Mature Spielberg," though, is at cross-purposes with himself: wanting to be a populist and wanting to be a Serious Artist; wanting to be loved by audiences and wanting to be respected by his peers. That's why I think over the last several years he's been largely cut off from himself: trying to be Homer, Gibbon, Stanley Kubrick, and Ken Burns. Trying to be all those things while also maintaining his audience -- which still goes to his movies, though lately more out of obligation than enthusiasm. Again, I think Munich and Schindler (and, in a different way, Catch Me If You Can) are "Mature Spielberg's" most successful efforts because they're his most personal. He seems to be genuinely searching in those movies, and employing his considerable cinematic gifts to guide us along the journey.

Adam Zanzie said...

Adam, I really don't understand where this notion that Spielberg needed to graphically show the lesbian sex in The Color Purple came from. Yes, he eliminated the graphic sex featured in the book, but in service of the way he was dramatizing it. Is Celie's obsession with Shug Avery - and their intimate connection - not perfectly clear in Spielberg's film? The Color Purple is, other than Always, Spielberg's most blatant old-Hollywood style film, and graphic sex would have been that much more out of place in a film that is a fantasy.

The importance of lesbian sex in the story is that it allows Celie to be free of all the asexual oppression she has suffered under the roof of her stepfather's house and under the roof of Albert. Alice Walker even talks about her annoyance with Spielberg's safeness with the material on the DVD. There's a part in the book (not in the movie) when Celie tells Shug why she doesn't believe in God: "The God I've known all my life is a Man." And the way Spielberg portrays intimate sexuality between two females in The Color Purple suggests the approach of a Man who doesn't quite understand the riskiness of the subject in its whole.

Here's my opinion of the love scenes in the movie: they are sweet, and they are romantic. But they also give weight to an argument by Siskel and Ebert at the time that Spielberg wasn't keen on sex scenes. Spielberg even confessed that he wasn't comfortable going the whole distance with Shug and Celie's relationship: "Marty Scorsese could do that sort of thing. Not me!" I do admire The Color Purple because it has the feel of an old Hollywood film, as you've called it. But I wouldn't be too angry if a filmmaker someday tries to remake the story in a way that's more faithful to the book.

I agree with Craig that it's not "disingeunous" for the filmmaker himself to look away from those scenes in Schindler's List. Why does a filmmaker need to look directly at that sort of thing? I, personally, can't think of any sane filmmaker who would want to. We should just be thankful that Spielberg gets it all on camera so that people who don't believe such a thing ever happened can finally look upon it with their own eyes. It's not important that Spielberg himself does or doesn't look away: what matters is whether or not his camera does.

It's just one of many searing, grueling sequence in Schindler's List that Spielberg puts in the film out of a sense of duty. He may not be comfortable with it, but at least this time he's not afraid to tackle it. If you were Spielberg, how would you do those sequences differently?

Hokahey said...

"Yet he lacks the life experience to fully convey the reality that his higher-minded movies intend to replicate." This post is well done, Craig. I connected with this. You make a lot of perceptive observations here that voice what bothers me about Spielberg. He does lack something. He puts forth tremendous effort - but his "great" films like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List lack something - the former way more than the latter.

I'm also with you on the excitement of those first "Spielberg Movies." I viewed all of Spielberg's films in the year of release, including Jaws and Close Encounters and I certainly felt a special, packed-theater excitement seeing those early ones.

I also agree with Jason's comment that Spielberg tries hard to be liked. If that's who he is, then fine. But if he's holding back on us, then he's missing his chance to make his masterpiece. (I have to say that I was very impressed with War of the Worlds. It has some wonderfully stark moments, and he skillfully sets the film in a post-9/11 America and yet he remains very faithful to Wells's stark novel)

In Spielberg, I see a man with talent, with access to many other people with talent, with all the money needed to pull all that talent together - and he comes up with Crystal Skull. (That said, that makes James Cameron much better at pulling in ideas, talent, and technology and making them work together successfully. Cameron is meticulous; Spielberg is not.) For me as a viewer, Spielberg is lacking something.

Craig said...

Adam -

Here's my opinion of the love scenes in the movie: they are sweet, and they are romantic. But they also give weight to an argument by Siskel and Ebert at the time that Spielberg wasn't keen on sex scenes. Spielberg even confessed that he wasn't comfortable going the whole distance with Shug and Celie's relationship: "Marty Scorsese could do that sort of thing. Not me!" I do admire The Color Purple because it has the feel of an old Hollywood film, as you've called it. But I wouldn't be too angry if a filmmaker someday tries to remake the story in a way that's more faithful to the book.

May I suggest Spielberg himself? Were he to make The Color Purple today, I bet he would go all the way with it.

Craig said...

Hokahey -

In Spielberg, I see a man with talent, with access to many other people with talent, with all the money needed to pull all that talent together - and he comes up with Crystal Skull. (That said, that makes James Cameron much better at pulling in ideas, talent, and technology and making them work together successfully. Cameron is meticulous; Spielberg is not.)

That first statement summarizes my feelings exactly. Of course, with Crystal Skull, he may have had "access" to the wrong kind of people: I detected George Lucas's grubby mitts all over the thing. ("You know what this scene needs, Steven? Cute little CGI groundhogs. Quick, to the Lucascave!")

I'm not sure I agree completely on the comparison between Spielberg and Cameron. Cameron is certainly a "canny bonehead," as Stephanie Zacharek described him; he never coasts on his laurels, as Spielberg comes across sometimes. But compare his best work with Spielberg's best and I think the latter is untouchable.

Tom Shone said...

Great post. I love that you found time for Catch Me If You Can, a seriously underrated picture that really flew the way Spielberg pictures used to fly. I have always thought that it's amazing Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan are as good as they are, given that they are made by a filmmaker heeding the prerogatives of others — Spielberg playing 'away' so to speak.

JM said...

Funny you're mentioning Spielberg, I've been discussing Munich with some pro Palestinian activists here:
http://jewssansfrontieres.blogspot.com/2010/12/anti-jewish-abuse-from-ahava-staff.html#disqus_thread

I liked E.T. too and his films before that. I argued that Munich was about the cycle of senseless violence whereas they argue that it's still pro Israel. Granted, a foundation of his did donate to Israel during the 2006 war of Lebanon, but their recipient was a hospital rather than, say, the IDF.

Sorry to interrupt, carry on.

Bovine said...

Good article. Alex Cox called Spielberg Hollywood's biggest cynic. Damn right.

Bovine said...

Ugh, dont remind me of Color Purple. That movie is so racist. JM, of course Munich is pro Israel, the same way those lip service peace talks that go nowhere are pro israel. If Spielberg thinks otherwise it is because he isnt too smart.

Ryan Kelly said...

To respond to Adam and Craig, in fairness, the point about the naked people was made in support of my argument that Spielberg was in over his head. And I think he was; to borrow Gleiberman's argument, Schindler's List's idea of Nazi brutality is people getting shot in the head. Which would be fine, if that was all they did, but it just wasn't. And what Spielberg doesn't seem to realize is that the endless sequences of people getting shot in the head - which I think is there expressly to shock - become numbing. The reason Schindler's List has such a simplistic portrait of Nazi atrocities is because Spielberg, by his own admission, "couldn't show" the extent of the horror. And I think there's something wrong with that.

Conversely, why I think Spielberg's prudishness or whathaveyou isn't a flaw in The Color Purple is because he's not trying to be something he isn't. I don't think there's anything wrong with his choosing not to include the sex scenes if they made him uncomfortable, and if there is that's a hell of a lot better than trying to include something you're not comfortable with and being unprepared to go as deep as you need to, especially when you're subject is the Holocaust.

Anyway, all this is making me sound like I dislike Schindler's List, and I don't. I think it ultimately gets where it wants to, emotionally (which is saying something), but that's because of the Spielbergian touches - not least of which is the "I could have done more" speech - that Craig (and many of the film's admirers) criticize. But it has major flaws, and I think it displays the way Spielberg before about 10 years ago really limited himself. As Craig says, he wouldn't have any problems with the more sexual elements of The Color Purple now; the sex scene in Munich, which I think is maybe the greatest single moment in any of his films, is at once explicit and highly expressive. I wonder how he'd approach Schindler's List at this point in his career, but then Schindler's List does indeed represent the point in his career when he would try to branch out more (I think, mostly unsuccessfully, until A.I.).

Craig said...

Thanks, Tom, JM, and Bovine for joining the discussion.

Tom, your Blockbuster book is a wonderful source for this subject. And, like you, I was delighted by Catch Me If You Can: the opening credits; the John Williams score (his best in eons); DiCaprio's dissembling; Hanks's dorky doggedness; Christopher Walken's opportunity to dance; Martin Sheen's oversized choppers; and Amy Adams coming out of nowhere to damn near steal the show. It's also one of Spielberg's most evocative, least fussed-over re-creations of the American past.

JM, I'm with you on Munich. The fact that it displeased many on both sides of the argument is a nod in its favor.

Bovine, I never heard that great quote from Alex Cox. Was there a particular context to it?

Craig said...

Ryan -

To respond to Adam and Craig, in fairness, the point about the naked people was made in support of my argument that Spielberg was in over his head. And I think he was; to borrow Gleiberman's argument, Schindler's List's idea of Nazi brutality is people getting shot in the head. Which would be fine, if that was all they did, but it just wasn't. And what Spielberg doesn't seem to realize is that the endless sequences of people getting shot in the head - which I think is there expressly to shock - become numbing. The reason Schindler's List has such a simplistic portrait of Nazi atrocities is because Spielberg, by his own admission, "couldn't show" the extent of the horror. And I think there's something wrong with that.

That's an excellent point. The headshots do get numbing. I do think the film is pretty suggestive of other things going on, and of the culture of fear and intimidation in general. But perhaps suggestiveness isn't enough.

If Schindler's List had been more graphic -- if we had been shown gas coming out of those showerheads, for example -- the question becomes: At what point does the film cease being a dramatic narrative and start becoming a catalog of abuses? Because then it's no longer numbing; it's sadistic.

Again, I think the "documentary approach" Spielberg employs isn't meant to make the movie seem more real. It's designed to set up the bursts of color that remind us we're watching a movie. In other words, Spielberg invites us into his reluctance with the suggestion that there comes a point where the horror of the Holocaust is ultimately ineffable. Indescribable for those of us who didn't experience it. That may be a cop-out. Or it just may be honest.

Adam Zanzie said...

think he was; to borrow Gleiberman's argument, Schindler's List's idea of Nazi brutality is people getting shot in the head. Which would be fine, if that was all they did, but it just wasn't. And what Spielberg doesn't seem to realize is that the endless sequences of people getting shot in the head - which I think is there expressly to shock - become numbing. The reason Schindler's List has such a simplistic portrait of Nazi atrocities is because Spielberg, by his own admission, "couldn't show" the extent of the horror. And I think there's something wrong with that.

Ryan, you gotta remember that Schindler's List is situated on the survivors and what they saw. If Spielberg were to show other, off-topic things (like babies being thrown out windows), he would be straying too far away from the *narrative*. The film is not trying to cover every single method of genocide carried out during the entire tragedy.

I don't know how long it's been since either of you have seen the film, but there's a part when all of the women are sleeping in the barracks and one of them is telling a story about the gas chambers. Another woman doubts it and says something like--and I'm paraphrasing--"That can't be! If the people who told you that were telling the truth, they would have been gassed, too!" So, none of Schindler's Jews in fact ever saw such atrocities.

They did see a lot of people getting shot. Does that lessen the *horror* of those particular scenes in any way? Remember the scene where a father is shot after trying to stop a guard from shooting his son--and then the son is shot, too? Or the scene in which a pharmacist is trying to drag his dying wife away, and then a guard puts a bullet in her brain and blood sprays across the pharmacist's face? The argument that these scenes are not harrowing enough surprises me, personally. If you guys want to keep running on the argument that we need to see more kinds of genocide in the film, I'd be curious to hear how Spielberg/Steven Zaillian could have made any of it fit in the narrative. Otherwise, if you're looking for a film that's situated more on the people who died--and the variety of ways that they died--I turn you to Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone.

Anyway, I can think of at least two other different kinds of cruelty and/or genocide that occur in the film. One is Amon Goeth slapping Helen Hirsch until her mouth bleeds, throwing a bottle rack down on top of her and nearly killing her. Another such scene (and this is one of the KEY scenes in the film) occurs after Schindler's women emerge from the showers: we see a whole line of other Jews going down into the gas chambers. And up above, there's a chimney blowing out smoke. Please make sure you guys go back and watch that scene again.

Damian said...

An excellent piece, Craig, and a fascinating discussion.

I'm not even going to try and "play with the big dogs" here by debating all of the points that have already been raised. Clearly I am out of my league. There are some very smart and eloquent people here and I'll just look foolish by comparison. However, I love talking about Spielberg so much that I just had to say something.

I'll chime in that I love SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (bincluding its bookends), I practically worship SCHINDLER'S LIST (as should become apparent by my own contrbution to this blog-a-thon), I adore EMPIRE OF THE SUN (warts and all) and am mildly pleased with COLOR PURPLE. I came up with a theory once that the latter two are representations of Spielberg's "adolescent" period as a filmmaker (the time when, like all teenagers tend to do, he wanted to be a grown-up but didn't quite possess the resources to completely do so; consequently the films he made in that time--ALWAYS, HOOK, LAST CRUSADE, COLOR PURPLE, EMPIRE--are neither fish nor fowl) and that SCHINDLER"S LIST marked his transformation into his "adulthood" as a filmmaker (a phase that continued up through MUNICH). Incidentally, I think he is now in his "old man" phase as a filmmaker.

I also have to mention that I thought I was the ONLY person alive who liked the "I could have done more" speech at the end of SCHINDLER. I am pleased to know I'm am not alone. Personally, I think it is an essential scene (both as the completion of Schindler's arc as a character and as a catharsis for the audience) and I always cry whenever I watch it. If for no other reason, than simply because it depicts a truly righteous human being (a man who couldn't do enough good) in a moment of pure humility and vulnerability. I wish we saw more of that in movies nowadays.

Damian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Craig said...

Thanks, Damian. I agree that circa 1985-1991 was Spielberg's middle or adolescent period, with one foot in his earlier era and one foot in what would become something new. It's fun to imagine how the Spielberg of today would have made The Color Purple (as I did in a previous comment), or how the younger Spielberg would have made Hook. But all these stages were necessary to get him where he is today -- for better or for worse, that's what we're debating.

JM said...

One more thing if yer reading this- a criticism of Schindler's List from the son of the holocaust survivor though it does follow the old "Spielberg should've been more hardcore with showing brutality" argument:
http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC39folder/schindlersList.html

Matt S. said...

This was a great essay, and articulated a lot of insights I wish I'd had the... well, insight to articulate. I think chalking up his inability to convey the reality of some of his higher minded themes to life experience is a bit unfair; I also perceived Munich's messiness as a detriment -- it also seemed to suffer from the endless denouement syndrome you mentioned re: Catch Me If You Can. But there were a lot of great, snappy summations here. "I can't help but get the feeling that sometimes his fans are working harder than he is." "Watching the alien leapfrog away from Keys in the famous opening chase sequence held all the appeal of seeing a favorite grind-it-out ballplayer suddenly swinging for the fences with a new steroids-laden physique: You lose a vital connection to what you're watching, because you're made aware that it isn't real." Those were a couple favorites. Thank you for writing this. I'm definitely going to share it.

Craig said...

Thank you, Matt. You're right: the "life experience" line didn't come out quite the way I wanted it to. And "Munich" does get repetitive in the stretch, but in that instance I thought it was repetition with a point - the steady deterioration of Bana's character. Please stop by again.

Gustavo said...

"Yet he lacks the life experience to fully convey the reality that his higher-minded movies intend to replicate."

Did I really need to quote the above statement in order to show how presumptious it is?