The thrill merchant who wields a sledgehammer of subtlety, the childhood sentimentalist who always puts children in danger—the filmmaker's contradictions run deepby Adam Mars-Jones / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
To explore your medium, to revisit childhood, to have paying customers queuing round the block, to confront history at its most atrocious—there aren’t many filmmakers who can reasonably claim to have been driven by all of these impulses. Steven Spielberg has been a global brand for over 40 years now, though you’d have to say it’s a curious brand when the products run from ET to Saving Private Ryan, from Tintin to Jaws. In 1993 he was responsible for two highly successful films that couldn’t have been more different: Schindler’s List, which set out to represent the Holocaust in Poland without compromise, and Jurassic Park, which set out to sell a lot of popcorn. The 30-odd films Spielberg has directed may have brought in an estimated total of four billion dollars at the box office, and he may currently be the subject of a retrospective at the British Film Institute, but this is a very uneven and self-divided body of work, the contradictions running deep. It’s as if there were quite a few separate sub-Spielbergs, not all of them necessarily working well together.
The first Spielberg to emerge was the implacable thrill-merchant of Duel (1971). He got the most out of limited resources in a lean road-movie thriller with tension but no psychology. One vehicle pursued another and we simply watched, siding with Dennis Warren more because he had a face (the driver of the truck that persecuted him being kept out of sight) than for any deeper human reason.
Jaws (1975) capitalised on the strengths of Duel, seeming to announce Spielberg as the heir to Alfred Hitchcock, someone who could manipulate audiences with masterful technical control and subtlety. The most effective scenes were ones that kept the shark out of sight, like the brilliant sequence of two drunks lobbing a joint of meat from the freezer off the end of a jetty in the hope of attracting the killer Great White. They get their wish—but what we see isn’t too explicit. The rope attached to the meat goes slack in the water, meaning that the shark is no longer pulling away from the shore but is coming towards them. Those first audiences weren’t to know that the shoot had been behind schedule and over budget, and that the mechanical shark hadn’t worked, forcing Spielberg to rely on inventive techniques, like the Vertigo shot (or “dolly zoom”) he uses at one point to distort visual space, masterfully conveying the sensation of this-can’t-be-happening when the hero witnesses a shark attack. In Spielberg’s work since Jaws there has been an increasing investment in special effects that do actually work. Indirect strategies haven’t completely disappeared (think of the ripples in the surface of a drink that announce the approach of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park), but there has also been frequent wielding of the…