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…
Sledgehammer of subtlety
The Sugarland Express (1974), post-Duel, pre-Jaws, was highly unusual for Spielberg in being a relationship drama, and having a female character in the lead, a desperate mother (played by Goldie Hawn) who springs her husband from jail so as to prevent their small son being fostered away from them. This is as close to the spirit of freewheeling 1970s independent cinema as Spielberg gets, and it’s not close. He keeps being distracted from the central relationship by the need to stage elaborate scenes with vehicles (a news van full of reporters, for instance, ploughing into a pond) and though there are moments of tenderness and insight there’s also an image of a teddy bear going under the wheels of a police car. That’s the Spielberg contradiction: the presence, side by side, of a great bold imagination and utterly safe, conventional sentiment. By this stage he was giving notice that he was…
Not a man’s man but not a woman’s man either
Spielberg’s persona is of a nice Jewish boy, and it seems highly likely that he opens doors for female companions and is well-brought-up in every way, but there are virtually no interesting parts for women in his films. Martin Scorsese is a much more conflicted figure—both a spoiled priest and a spoiled hoodlum—but he can point to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore as an unapologetic “women’s picture,” while Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas and Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear both have extraordinary moments. Set beside Spielberg, Brian De Palma seems pretty much a card-carrying misogynist, but Carrie is still electrifying, with outraged female sexuality having the power to raze buildings and flip cars over.
In Spielberg’s early career there was no special status given to children, but that began to change with the wholesome Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and, above all, ET (1982). I recoil from forced wonderment and don’t particularly respond to images of flying bicycles silhouetted against the moon, let alone the extra terrestrial coming back from the dead, but even I can see that ET is beautifully managed. The use of François Truffaut as an actor in Close Encounters perhaps signals a shift in allegiance, from Hitchcock himself to a Hitchcock fan and advocate. Yes, there was a sentimental side to Truffaut, but there are wild children and delinquent ones in his work (The Wild Child, The 400 Blows) as well as the lovable scoundrels of Small Change, and the director of The Man Who Loved Women (never mind that it’s a horrible film) really did find women interesting.
In later Spielberg there’s a great emphasis on children, and considerable indulgence of the theme of the inability to grow up: Hook (1991), Catch Me if You Can (2002). AI (2001), a project originated by Stanley Kubrick, starts with some sense of the creepiness of humanoid robots (a synthetic child programmed to “sleep” at night, though still watchful), until Spielberg decides it’s a version of Pinocchio and everything starts turning into marshmallow. Kubrick may have been a misanthropic control freak, but at least he kept his films Pinocchio-free.
Master of genre who keeps forgetting what he’s doing
Sometimes it seems that Steven Spielberg has difficulty in distinguishing between childhood as a subject and children as a market. Jurassic Park (1993), for instance, should by rights be a horror film as implacable as Jaws, but Spielberg was hell-bent on targeting the widest possible audience, so we have kids in traumatising action sequences (trapped in a car while a T Rex chews it up) making do-you-think-he-saurus jokes minutes afterwards. It’s a thrill ride that keeps wanting to soothe us, until the velociraptors get into the kitchen and Spielberg remembers what he does best. He can also make the same mistake in the other direction, spoiling a romp with grim material—see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), with its overdose of death, child slavery and monkey brains.
Hyperrealist with no sense of the real
For the splendid Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Spielberg devised an apotheosis of the boys’ action movie, highly detailed and dynamic though fundamentally cartoonish, every element punched up for maximum impact. Then, like somebody who has pulled a face when the wind changes, he was stuck with it. He went on applying what was essentially the same style of filmmaking to serious projects, or to projects he thought were serious. On paper, The Color Purple (1985) was an enterprise brave to the point of insanity, a film about black women and their sufferings without household names in it (though Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg haven’t exactly gone away since then). On the screen, it was hardly recognisable as a film about human beings, with the world being divided into brutal oppressors and cringing doormats, and the misery laid on so thick that it became almost funny.
Every sequence was exaggerated in one way or another. Sample: Celie, not far into her teens, newly married (this is rural Georgia, 1909) to a brute who wants a mother for his children, enters the kitchen for the first time, carrying a mop and a bucket of hot soapy water, and stares in horror at the filthy rat-infested dereliction that faces her. So where did she get the hot water from, if not the kitchen? Later the same day—she hasn’t changed the bloodstained bandage on her head, needed after one of her new stepchildren greeted her by chucking a rock—everything shines and you could eat off the floor with total confidence… and here comes Celie’s husband to hit her for the first time.
A milder case of the same exaggeration disease damaged Empire of the Sun (1987). The source book by JG Ballard has few illusions about childhood, and so it seemed odd that Spielberg should be attracted to it, but he found a way past the thorns and prickles. Near the end, young Jim (Christian Bale) plays dead so as to avoid the real thing. He flops down on the ground, just like any kid, completely unconvincing. Adorable! Except that Jim has seen plenty of real death, and identifies more with his Japanese captors and their extreme code than his fellow detainees.
Learner from his own mistakes
For Schindler’s List, Spielberg drastically stripped back his over-dynamic style. The violence was abrupt and disorienting, and finally he seemed to abandon his belief that the young are resilient and indestructible, with the sequence where children trying to hide in a concentration camp find the latrine already fully occupied. By the time he made Minority Report (2002) too, he seemed to have realised that there was no place for a child’s perspective in an exhilarating adult thriller, and the gains were obvious, particularly in the sequence of the black-market eye transplants, which introduced a new note of wild black comedy to his work.
Forgetter of the lessons he learned from his own mistakes
Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds (2005) went back to the bad old Jurassic Park idea of the horror film with kids at the heart of it, and the portrayal of children as somehow both vulnerable and indestructible. Admittedly Dakota Fanning’s character was infinitely more spoiled and annoying than any previous Spielberg child, but that wasn’t exactly good news. Many millions of human beings were vapourised, drowned or ground to powder, but at least feckless Dad and bratty daughter learned to understand each other better. After the abject failure of 1941 (1979), Spielberg had seemed to learn the lesson that slapstick humour wasn’t his strong suit, even though he had clearly been tempted by a style of comedy that seemed mechanical in the same way that a suspense sequence is mechanical, though in theory producing laughter rather than tension. But slapstick sequences keep on cropping up, with results that are just as grating—look at the sequence in The Color Purple when the abusive husband (Danny Glover) cooks breakfast in an attempt to impress the love of his life.
Music lover with tin ears
Forget for a moment that John Williams’s approaching-shark cue from Jaws is roughly the second most famous bit of music in the movies (after Bernard Herrmann’s stabbing violins from Psycho)—with the alien-greeting melody from Close Encounters, also by Williams, most likely in third place. Spielberg has a very limited idea about what a film score can do, and Williams’s work for him is mainly pretty poor. I don’t blame Williams. A film composer doesn’t call the shots. Spielberg’s mother may have been a concert pianist, but that hasn’t made him discriminating. Perhaps it just gave him the idea that there should always be music in the background, for no particular reason.
Compare Williams’s unfocused first score for Spielberg, on The Sugarland Express, with the richly resourceful one he wrote the previous year for Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, where one song in different transformations provides the material for the entire soundtrack. Presumably the approaching-shark cue was something Spielberg realised he absolutely needed in the absence of a functioning gnashy automaton—but after that it was back to business as usual. Williams isn’t the only composer he has hamstrung, either. Quincy Jones provided the music for The Color Purple, excelling when asked to provide an actual number (blues singer in a juke joint, gospel choir in church), obediently churning out cotton-wool blandness the rest of the time.
Non-explorer of actors
There are directors who like to discover actors or to stretch them, and those, like Spielberg, who by and large expect them to get on with it. Hitchcock made out that he didn’t value the contribution made by actors, but his films tell a different story. The actors he used repeatedly, such as Cary Grant and James Stewart, become partial self-portraits, Grant a figure of fantasy suavity, Stewart worn and decent but out of his depth, both personas being put under sly pressure. Spielberg too has his recurring actors—I don’t mean Harrison Ford, who plays a single character in four films, but Tom Cruise (Minority Report, War of the Worlds) and Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan, The Terminal and Bridge of Spies). Spielberg doesn’t put them under any pressure, he just turns to one Tom when he wants a strenuous blank and the other when he wants a regular guy. The only time in a Spielberg film that an actor has seemed under pressure was in the middle stretches of Close Encounters, when a miscast and underpowered Richard Dreyfuss struggled with a confused script.
In ET the children tempt out the strange shy visitor with a trail of Reese’s Pieces, a then modest-selling peanut-butter cup that benefited from a large boost in sales as a result. In Minority Report 20 years later, one of the futuristic highlights was a shopping mall where hologrammatic hoardings, triggered by iris recognition, address the hero by name, having access to his purchase history. So is this savage satire on consumer culture or just more product placement? Post-modernism can hide a multitude of sins. By the time of The Terminal (2004), in which Tom Hanks plays an Eastern European visitor stranded at JFK airport, what we seem to be watching isn’t a Capraesque fable about the indomitability of the ordinary man, but the monetised swoop and glide of Spielberg’s camera across an environment largely composed of commercial premises. It’s tempting to imagine an actual tariff, with prices listed according to whether you want your business glimpsed, dwelt on, or mentioned in dialogue (Planters peanuts, Sbarro fast food, Hugo Boss), though perhaps Borders got a special rate for happening to chime so nicely with the anecdote. It certainly takes some of the shine off the underdog-triumph theme that it should be sponsored by so many corporations. In this way Spielberg’s films seem to trace the whole short history of product placement, from tentative beginnings by way of self-conscious sophistication to invisibility despite its omnipresence.
Spielberg’s status as a commentator on history soared after Schindler’s List, which had a stubborn integrity despite decisions of self-sabotaging kitsch, like a girl wearing a red dress in a black-and-white film, and its use of soupy music, as if viewers would sit there unmoved unless an orchestra wheedled for their tears. On first viewing, I thought the film oddly incurious about Schindler’s motives—about whether he was hedging his bets in some way, or acting according to conscience. I blamed this on the director’s lack of flair for character, but since then I’ve wondered if it was actually a weakness. Most films about the Holocaust interpret events through Christian values, which prize integrity and self-sacrifice over effectiveness, as if what was in your heart was all that mattered. Christianity loves a heroic failure, and Schindler disappoints on two counts, by saving lives without immolating himself.
The film marks Spielberg’s engagement with Jewish ethical values, and a mitzvah is a virtuous act but not one of charity. It is judged only by the change it makes, while it also makes a change in you. If you saved Jewish lives then you are a righteous gentile. It’s not a character reference but an ethical fact. The same logic doesn’t illuminate other historical moments and other films—Amistad (1997) and Bridge of Spies (2015) seemed pretty hollow to me, starting off pseudo-critical of America (in the time of slavery and McCarthyism respectively) before suggesting that there will always be a man to speak up for what is right, whether it’s a past president of the United States (Amistad) or a humble insurance lawyer (Bridge of Spies), making America a great country after all. Surprise!
Munich (2005) was slightly different, in that this time it was Israel being pseudo-critiqued, for the unofficial campaign of revenge against those who had planned and carried out the massacre of athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games.
Again there was much manipulation, with the hero Avner (Eric Bana), burdened with guilt for the killings, asking his mother if she wants to hear what he’s done. She says no—“Whatever it took, whatever it takes. A place on Earth. We have a place on Earth. At last.” Which is changing the subject, really, but the scene ends there, so presumably this is a winning argument. Just in case there was doubt we see Avner toiling sexually on top of his wife, haunted not by the murders he has committed but apparently by images of the Munich massacre, though he wasn’t there, his moment of orgasm indistinguishable from a cry of despair. (The role of Mrs Avner isn’t a glorious one, even by Spielberg’s standards.) Is this a superior piece of visual rhetoric to a teddy bear under the wheels of a police car? Hard to say.
I make that 13 Spielbergs, and a very mixed bunch. It shouldn’t be controversial to suggest that they aren’t all worth celebrating, the constituent parts of this trailblazer with a strong in-built tendency to play it safe, this towering figure who so often sets his sights low.