Serious Spectacle
Little Stevie goes Hollywood
By Daniel Kraus

From Gadfly March 1999


In the mid-1980s, America grew to love a certain filmmaker. He made films that embodied children's imaginations and encapsulated our memories of what it was like to be a child in magical two-hour blocks. His name quickly became synonymous with children, and the filmmaker himself became America's child: Little Stevie Spielberg. Stevie was the kind of kid that helped old ladies across the street and donated time to the local preschool. He was the kind that we wouldn't hesitate, one day, to send our daughter out with, because we know he'd have her back by nine, and with no hickeys. We weren't afraid of his growing up, either, because we knew we'd always be able to trust him to be that simple, earnest kid everyone loved so much. The only problem: Stevie did not exist. Then, by simple logical extension, neither does Mr. Spielberg.

True, it's a peculiar way to begin to discuss the most popular filmmaker in the world—by asserting that he does not exist—for he so obviously does. Viewers beware, however, for he is no longer as Mother Teresian as he used to be; in fact, he never was. This betrayal is not born of some horrible conspiracy or Hollywood ruse but from the accumulation of myths that we all, as surrogate parents to this perpetual Hollywood child, wanted to believe. Just as no child is as perfect as we think our boy Stevie is, no filmmaker is as saintly as Mr. Spielberg.

All across America, good people everywhere are saying, "Oh, it's a Spielberg movie, we should all go and see it, it looks fantastic and has a great message. You know, I cried during the trailer! And, hey, this one's got Forrest Gump in it!" And, without a doubt, Spielberg is responsible for many good genre films and three near-masterpieces (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Empire of the Sun). He's got ten films under his belt that have grossed over $100 million (two over $300 million) and a record five films on the much-talked-about American Film Institute list of the 100 best movies of all time. Time magazine gushed over 1997's Amistad, raving that it "has an emotional and moral weight all its own...explores every aspect of its saga in rich detail." President Clinton praised the Oscar-hoarding Schindler's List, saying, "You will see portrait after portrait of the painful difference between people who have no hope...and people who have hope and still have rage." Entertainment Weekly (and pretty much everyone else) has called 1998's Oscar-nominated Saving Private Ryan "a movie of staggering virtuosity and raw lyric power, a masterpiece."

But wait. There's something fishy about this, isn't there? When someone is loved and revered by everybody...isn't that alone grounds for suspicion?

I mean, the president also endorsed Independence Day.

Spielberg's movies used to be fantastic manipulations. The man knew how to play with us, knew when to bring the music up and knew when to cut the monster (and, more important, when not to). He used and abused us. And we loved it. Today, he continues to use and abuse us, and we still love it. But his subject matter has changed (to say the least), casting a shadow of uncertainty on his motivations and honesty.

Spielberg is best known for filling his audiences with whimsy, hope and wonder. However, the powerful start of his career had less to do with whimsy than with terror. This is not hard to understand when you consider that Spielberg was part of the first generation of filmmakers (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, all Spielberg's chronological contemporaries) to be raised watching films instead of reading books or attending plays. Spielberg's love and worship of the medium is obvious in his instinctive use of editing and camera movement. So his career began, after a short stint directing television episodes such as Night Gallery, in horror, the purest cinematic genre, the genre that most takes advantage of the inherent nature of film (the cut, the frame, the lighting, the music). It was a natural beginning.

It is in Spielberg's earliest films, Duel (1971) and Jaws (1975), that he uses the most standard of all horror-film techniques, the voyeuristic monster-point-of-view camera angle. Jaws begins with such a shot, straight up from beneath a naked woman. Exploitation? Manipulation? Of course. But extraordinarily well done. His first feature, Duel (about a traveling businessman chased down by a homicidal semi), was also a razor-sharp, straightforward piece of cinematic intensity. Spielberg knew enough not to show us too much the creatures in Duel, Jaws and Close (1977) and found great success when he combined them with endearing family scenes; already, his grasp of the loud, cluttered suburban living room was acute.

In Duel and Jaws, evil has no rationality; it destroys to destroy. As Robert Kolker notes in his book A Cinema of Loneliness, these films came on the psychological heels of Vietnam and Watergate, at a time when "culture felt itself at the mercy of all manner of sharks." Like any great filmmaker, Spielberg plugged his early films into the psyche of the times and fueled his fire with them.

Just three years after Jaws, Spielberg complained that the film was "violent, nasty, crude. It was a calculated movie. I don't want to be involved in another picture like that." Unfortunately, he got his wish. He went on to make less engaging films, like the highly effective but mushy E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial ("The best Disney film Disney never made," quipped Variety, and note how much cuddlier the aliens have become since Close Encounters) and the Indiana Jones movies. He also produced all sorts of children-based science fiction films, like Explorers, Back to the Future and *batteries not included.

At the 1987 Academy Awards, while accepting the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for a distinguished body of work, Spielberg made a speech that obliquely referred to the still ongoing trial regarding a horrible helicopter accident on the set of the anthology film Twilight Zone: The Movie (of which he produced and directed another segment) that killed veteran actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese children. He said, "I think in our romance with technology, and our excitement in exploring all the possibilities of film and video, I think we've partially lost something that we now have to reclaim. I think it's time to renew our romance with the written word. I'm as guilty as anyone in having exalted the image at the expense of the word." The bad Twilight Zone press and the long, drawn-out criminal trial against director and pal John Landis finally scared him (or so it seemed anyway) out of the spectacle business.

In addition, he had recently released his first "serious" work, a film version of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple. Unfortunately, the result was disastrous, melodramatic phooey. Meanwhile, he continued the horrendous comedy misfires that began with the catastrophically inappropriate 1941 (1979) by turning the potentially intriguing Peter Pan film Hook (1991) into a papier-mâché nightmare, a bastardization of a Rose Bowl float. (Comedy usually depends on stars, and although Spielberg has helped create a few, Richard Dreyfuss being one of his first and Amistad's impressive Djimon Hounsou possibly his next, he mishandles and possibly mistrusts big names.) Spielberg managed to make the subtle, un-Spielberg Empire of the Sun (1987) to little fanfare. Then he appeared to reaffirm his religion and patriotism with Schindler's List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (while throwing in a couple of dinosaur flicks for good measure).

His post-Twilight Zone years also gave us a Spielberg who stopped hanging out with fellow man-child Michael Jackson at the fantastical Neverland Ranch and who essentially traded up on his public image. He made the smooth transformation from Little Stevie Spielberg into "Yes Sir, Mr. Spielberg," fully equipped with an arsenal of brand-new, yet strangely vague world-saving attitudes. Addressing an audience of French filmmakers, he vowed, "To a country that is fighting for its cultural identity...I will fight along with you," even as his film Jurassic Park dominated their movie screens.

The problem with his "serious films" (The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Amistad and Saving Private Ryan) is the basic dishonesty of "meaning" hidden by gloss and technical skill. What new insights has Spielberg given us? Has he forged any new visions of the world, like Kubrick, who manages to do so in Spielberg's favorite genre, sci-fi? Has he taken old scenarios and given them a new vitality, as has Scorsese with his gritty bluntness? Has he ever dared to be misunderstood, as Coppola in his hallucinogenic epics? No one said making fluff like E.T. was bad, but, like any man and any artist, Spielberg strives for something more meaningful and lasting than a domestic box-office record. We, as an audience, have the right to expect him, as a professional artist, to stay challenging and to challenge himself honestly.

But he can't. Sadly, he seems to be emotionally stunted. He has all the tools, all the techniques, all the know-how, but no personal vision, insight or soul. Instead, even in his serious films, he is unable to make anything but (in big DeMille lettering) ***EXTRAVAGANZAS!!!***

For example, much has been made of the D-Day sequence in Ryan. And it is an incredible scene, impeccably staged and kinetically edited. It's great to see an exciting new visual style for Spielberg. Although the high shutter speed that he uses for battle becomes a siren announcing, "HERE COME THE GORY BATTLE SEQUENCES," it still has an effective look and breathtaking feel.

But what does the D-Day sequence have to do with the rest of the film? Little. Very little. In fact, the D-Day sequence is reminiscent of the concentration camp scenes in Schindler and the slave boat flashbacks in Amistad. They're spectacle. Sure, they're powerful. But they don't belong narratively. There's never a useless frame in Duel or Jaws, yet, in his serious films, Spielberg has no problem piling on "powerful" but narratively unnecessary scenes. Notice the almost complete lack of speech in the lengthy introductions to Ryan and Amistad. Dialogue just gets in the way and handicaps Spielberg's extravagant visuals. "Look here! Wow, listen to that!" he commands us. We get no choices, as we do from a filmmaker like Scorsese or, to an extreme extent, Robert Altman.

The bottom line: Spielberg is pretending to be a serious filmmaker but is still making spectacle films. Filmmakers like Kubrick have proven you can make epics without the requisite cast-of-thousands shots that crowd Spielberg's films. Grand atrocity after grand atrocity is rolled out before us in Schindler. Why? Is he trying to condition us? By the time we arrive at the final battle scene in Ryan, what is the point? We've already seen it all, not only in the preceding two hours and 40 minutes but in countless other war films. Ryan is an amalgamation of war films: their stereotypical grab-bag of platoon members, their horrific deaths and their courageous sacrifices. It is a war film by someone brought up on war films (although, because of the extensive technical and historical mastery, not as disastrously cliché as the Hughes Brothers' Vietnam sequences in Dead Presidents). Although expertly directed from a poor script and containing several effective, classic Spielberg moments (like Mrs. Ryan crumbling in her doorway) and decent performances from a roster of indie-film standbys, Ryan has little viewpoint at all and haphazardly borrows from the singular visions presented in films like Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and Oliver Stone's Platoon. Ryan is undoubtedly a great battle film. But a great film? No. The scene in Spielberg's 1941 where one soldier cries, "Who do we shoot at?" and the other responds, "Whatever they're shooting at," pretty much sums up Ryan's message, if less viscerally. A great film strives for insight about the human condition, not the notion that dying in the freezing ocean is a horrible way to go. (Now, to be fair, Jaws' prevalent message was "dying in a shark's mouth is a terrible way to go," but, then again, Jaws never pretended to be anything but a thriller about a shark.)

"The mission is the man," says the poster for Saving Private Ryan. "I am the whole reason my ancestors existed," says Cinque in Amistad. "You save one life, you save the world," reads the video box of Schindler's List. Spielberg's overt message seems to be similar in all three films: Life is so precious that individual worth can hardly be calculated, especially as these survivors pass on life to their families. That is well and good, but is it certain that Ryan isn't also critiquing other war films for not showing enough guts, for not being "real" enough? Is that why he drives the battle scenes into our heads for three hours? His serious films grab meaning from wherever seems convenient and smooth it over with music and morphing. His early films, however, contain an irrational and naive (keep in mind that the power of his early films derived mainly from this innocence) sense of honest hope, often joyfully equating space with heaven. The sky opens up for the aliens of Close Encounters the same way it does for God in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Paul Schrader's first draft of Close Encounters was merely the story of Saint Paul, substituting aliens for God. Amazingly, Close Encounters leaves us feeling good about the fact that Roy Neary is abandoning his wife, kids and responsibilities to go aboard a spaceship (which, thank God, speaks only via John Williams' score). It all seems fine, because Roy is entering a new family (made up of, it looks like, children). Plus, what a happy, hopeful thought, that the world's missing are not dead in a ditch somewhere; but are all up above (in space/heaven) and will be reunited with us soon. Fantastical viewpoints, yes, but with a charming, magical logic all their own.

At the end of the Collector's Edition video of Close Encounters, Spielberg says that, more than any other movie, Close Encounters is "the one film that dates me, who I was 20 years ago compared to who I am now...I am less optimistic now, less idealistic." Gone with that idealism is the accompanying honesty. Now, Spielberg is merely so talented that he can cover up the fact that he has almost nothing to say.

True, his serious films can be regarded, in differing aspects, as atonement. Schindler could be atonement, not for his personal disregard of his own Judaism (though I suppose that could be some part of it, as he has led us to believe), but for the childishness of his pre-Twilight Zone films. His Indiana Jones films in particular have been accused of being racist, and Spielberg has confessed regret over the cartoonish Nazi portrayals (notice The Last Crusade's sexy Nazi vamp Elsa and 1941's goofy cartoon Hitler on the dance floor and dim suburban family that singlehandedly defeats the bumbling Nazi submarine commandos). And Ryan could be seen as atonement for Spielberg's professed enjoyment of the saccharine war movies of old and for his directing the offensive 1941. Interestingly, he could be atoning for his old World War II films by replacing them with all-new World War II films.

However, are the Nazis in Schindler really much more than cartoons themselves? They are, almost uniformly, insane monsters, as illogical as his shark or monster semi. It could be argued that this is an expression of what the concentration camp victims experienced, but Spielberg's sweeping, nonpersonalized direction doesn't support that. Surely, though, who's safer to make into a cartoon than a Nazi? Who's going to complain about that?

Has the Holocaust been "Spielbergized"? Spielberg certainly is on the opposite end of the theory that the only acceptable response to the Holocaust is silence. Spielberg's viewpoint, and it is a valid one, is that we should shout out its horrors from the rooftops. And shout he does, and attention he unquestionably brings. In September 1998, he was awarded the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit in Berlin, Germany's highest honor, for "a very noticeable contribution to the issue of the Holocaust." Yes, he's STEVEN SPIELBERG, and thus he has muscled the Holocaust to the forefront of popular culture. But, aside from the impressive, honest and even-handed Survivors of the Shoah CD-ROM project and documentary video (despite one cheesy scene of Spielberg excitedly explaining to Ben Kingsley how to use a computer), has he contributed anything unique to Holocaust art and literature?

One of the few public criticisms of Schindler was that it made Jews supporting characters in their own tragedy (and the same could be said for blacks in Amistad). While this can be debated, Jews certainly get the crummiest speeches, and they are forced to deliver only occasional, poorly written dialogue on how much worse their situation is than at the beginning of the film, but how it is nonetheless preferable to death. Spielberg is still struggling with his portrayal of Jews; he has effortlessly placed the very Jewish Richard Dreyfuss in great (albeit nonreligious) roles but seemed to backtrack with the rather stereotypical Jewish soldier in Ryan.

The hard fact remains (and no one wants to say it) that nothing arouses sympathy more easily than the Holocaust, unless we're monsters ourselves. Yet, although the cards are stacked heavily in his favor, Spielberg manages to push the limits in his aiming at easy targets, with cruel Nazis circling and cutting off a Jew's payess (sidecurls) and a one-armed Jewish worker being dragged away and slaughtered. Grislier and grislier set pieces are revealed to increase our horror. In the Indiana Jones films, Spielberg slaughtered Nazis. In Schindler's List, he slaughters Jews.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Jewish writer and filmmaker David Mamet calls Schindler "emotional pornography" and an "exploitation film." In his essay, "The Jew for Export," he writes that the film consists of "actors acting out a drama to enable us to exercise a portion of our ego and call that exercise 'compassion.'" The very assertion that Schindler is instructive, says Mamet, is harmful. As we watch, we see a person (Oskar Schindler) trying to help a lesser people (the Jews) and failing nobly, thus ennobling himself and his entire race (that's us). The only lesson: We are better than the bad guys. Meanwhile, contends Mamet, we are party to another instance of Jewish abuse. In essence, this time, they're not being slaughtered, just trotted around to entertain. Notice the naked Jews being forced to run circles in front of the Nazis (and us). Notice the naked blacks in Amistad being sprayed with a hose and thrown around in front of the slave traders (and us). What kind of ego bench-presses are going on here?

Spielberg could be making serious films that don't pretend to heal the entire country, but he isn't. The irony of Spielberg's reclaiming his Jewish heritage is that he has emerged with a Jesus complex, not unlike Oskar Schindler. He tries hard to make it clear that he blames none of us for the Holocaust and that we Christian audience members are in the clear; notice the absolving scene in which stones are placed on Schindler's grave or Spielberg's emphatic comments made to a group of German students last September: "Shame is not for you to feel. Guilt is not for you to feel. This is not your sin and these aren't your deeds." It would be satisfying to see more anger in Spielberg. In the words of religion scholar Steven Katz, "While you do not get to Auschwitz from the New Testament, you cannot get there without it, either."

Spielberg shares something else with Schindler: he is a profiteer. Quite simply, no matter how many good deeds he does on the side, Spielberg made money off the Holocaust. Even if he gave all the proceeds away, this is the same man who makes it a point to illustrate how he vacations in the Hamptons when a film opens and asks not to know grosses (uh-huh), and the man who remarked to a reporter that he delights in donating to charity without anyone knowing about it (until, I guess, he made this remark). If he had made a unique, personal film, we could perhaps take that vision at face value, but, instead, he attempted with Schindler (and again with Ryan's D-Day sequence) to create not only a fictional "story" but a nonfictional "document" (this is emphasized by including real Holocaust survivors alongside their actor counterparts in a strange real-life endnote before the final credits). Thus, we have the dilemma of the documentary filmmaker: to use the misfortune of others to raise awareness and, meanwhile, make some money off them. So: With Spielberg, is the human condition enriched enough to warrant the exploitation? That's a tough question when the people exploited are six million Jews.

And The Color Purple is so elementally bad that it is beyond criticizing. Every note rings false. The characters don't live on a farm but on a story-book sound stage with beautifully twisted trees and haunting sunsets. In case the audience forgets how to react to horrors such as the most Disneyfied incest ever filmed, Quincy Jones is there with his strangling score to remind them. Despite occasionally powerful staging (Minter's removal of Nettie from the farm is a memorable scene that Quincy Jones still manages to foul up), the movie degenerates into a buffoonish musical, complete with charging crowds, ludicrous crowd-singing scenes and broad slapstick comedy. Things got even worse for Color when Margaret Avery (who played the vivacious Shug) placed an advertisement in the entertainment trades hyping herself for a "Best Supporting Actress" nod in the manner of some of Color's vernacular: "I knows dat I been blessed by Alice Walker, Steven Spielberg, and Quincy Jones. Now I is up for one of the nominations fo' Best Supporting Actress alongst with some fine, talented ladies that I is proud to be in the company of." Color got 11 nominations. It won zero.

Is Spielberg a racist? Not in the common definition, but it may be that he is uncomfortable at some level in dealing with blacks, and therefore he ends up coddling or pandering to them unnecessarily. It could be argued (against a roaring crowd, I'm sure) that E.T. was an exaggerated black caricature used for gentle comic effect, as in the patronizing affectionate scenes in Color and Cinque's sudden, E.T.-like gift-of-speech ("Give us free!") scene in Amistad. After all, E.T. and Cinque are narrative equals—aliens in a strange world longing to go home. Spielberg doesn't connect to people by accepting and dealing with them honestly; instead, he produces scenes of torture and degradation so horrible (and, alternately, scenes of wide-eyed innocence so sweet) that they would even make you feel connected to a paper bag.

One wishes to see some bite, some vision that risks losing a little box-office revenue. A film like Spike Lee's Malcolm X is much more satisfying than a serious Spielberg flick because of the personal risk Lee takes (although, in both X and Schindler, the directors make the mistake of using real newsreel footage at the end, diminishing the power of the narrative). There is speculation that the last man standing at Schindler's grave, in a long shot at the end of the film, is Spielberg himself. This supports the notion that Spielberg was closely tied emotionally with the film. Unfortunately for us, it's not the personal film he intended it to be.

Spielberg long ago dropped the engaging male-struggle themes of Duel and Jaws and moved on to wishy-washy absent-dad material in E.T. and Jurassic Park and the Spielberg-produced Gremlins and Back to the Future. He started taking 10% of all toy and merchandise sales around 1978, and by 1991's Hook, his boldest message seemed to be that even fat black kids can grow up to lead an army. (Though early on in Hook there is a glimpse of a very dark truth that Captain Hook tells Peter's children: "Before you were born, your parents were happier. They read to you to shut you up.")

Spielberg has two projects on the fire. His next film, Minority Report, takes a wild casting risk with a guy called Tom Cruise, and returns Spielberg to the sci-fi realm of his greatest successes (Close, E.T.) and scantiest wastes (*Batteries, Lost World). He has temporarily put off Memoirs of a Geisha, which is described by Variety as an "epic Cinderella story set against the exotic and sumptuous background of a vanished world." The key words being "epic" and "exotic," clues that Spielberg will be making a sweeping, John Williams-scored melodrama that all too easily lends itself to sentimentality instead of understanding.

Today, it is hard to discern an overarching M.O. for Spielberg, besides cultivating his growing reputation for respectability. This has led to some people mistakenly thinking his films are akin to religious experience, prompting ludicrous no-popcorn rules in Schindler and Ryan theater houses and the removal of comedy film posters from theater lobbies so they won't be seen by exiting moviegoers (to avoid offending them, I suppose). In his quest to be taken seriously, Spielberg has at least not resorted to cheesy symbolism; only twice in his career has he done so, and when he really needed to: in Duel, the businessman's name was Dave Mann, symbolizing the domestic male's loss of power; and in Schindler, his colorizing of just one element, a little girl in a red dress, was a heavy-handed device, glaring through a veil of subtlety. However, his post-Twilight Zone conversion from empty spectacle to "romance with the written word" rings false. He continues to market spectacles as "serious film."

In Amistad, Cinque mistakes the singing churchgoers who pray for his soul for performers, misreading "righteousness" as "entertainment." It sounds like a Spielbergian problem. And at the end of Ryan, when the dying Captain tells the young private, "Earn this," and the music swells, and we're forced to remember all the horrors we've just witnessed, and we feel genuinely moved, we must challenge those feelings and ask ourselves, "Did Spielberg earn this? Did he, really?"