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.