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.
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).
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
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
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
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
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?
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."
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
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
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."
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?"