Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster (Continuum, 2006), 242 pp., $19.95.
Steven Spielberg is American culture—or so we told the world. At the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, amid a glowing evening of fireworks, figure skaters, heavy-handed pageantry and an immensely popular President six months removed from 9/11, opening the competition from an unprecedented position (standing within the crowd of athletes), there was Spielberg. That February evening, the Cincinnati native had the distinct honor of carrying in the Olympic flag. Around him were seven other remarkable dignitaries, each representing a continent or pillar of the Olympic movement. Former U.S. Senator, astronaut and fellow Ohioan John Glenn stood at the flag’s bottom left corner, personifying the Americas. Across from him was Poland’s former president Lech Walesa, representing Europe. Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu represented Africa, while environmentalist and famous son, Jean-Michel Cousteau, stood for the first pillar, the environment. Athletes Cathy Freeman (Oceania), Kazuyoshi Funaki (Asia), and Jean-Claude Killy (sport) held up portions of the flag’s midsection. In the middle of it all, holding up the flag’s bottom right corner, was Spielberg, symbolizing culture.
Of course, we have all by now gotten used to Spielberg showing up in the middle of things. Apart from his undeniably lucrative career as a filmmaker, in recent years he has also founded and sold his own major studio, DreamWorks. In 2001, he quietly stepped down from his longstanding post on the advisory board of the Boy Scouts of America, saying he was saddened by ongoing policies of intolerance and discrimination. (Spielberg is himself an Eagle Scout.) He soon after began a wide-ranging career as a spokesperson, recently gracing billboards and city buses wearing a red leather jacket for Gap’s side of the (Red) campaign, an initiative to fund and support AIDS treatment in Africa. In August, the Democrat publicly endorsed Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bid for re-election. Next year, perhaps drawing on his experience with the Salt Lake City games, Spielberg will help director Ang Lee design the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing—though Spielberg also recently announced plans to release in 2008 his long-awaited project Indiana Jones 4, the title and plot of which are among Hollywood’s most closely guarded secrets. Announcements of this kind landed Spielberg and Indiana Jones co-conspirator George Lucas on Comedy Central’s irreverent South Park in 2002, in an episode lambasting the directors for re-releasing new, toned-down versions of their most popular films. Once you’ve been parodied on South Park, you know you have made it all the way.
Yet, despite all his success and notoriety, Spielberg has not gained a high-level of acceptance among the purveyors of his own industry. Critics seem antsy when asked to rank him as a director, unable to distinguish the magnanimity from the man. His friends, Roger Ebert included, are exasperated that people do not look past his popularity to realize the massive talent and technical skill he displays. Other commentators, including Peter Biskind, see him as something of an industrial mold, a man who has melted down all of Hollywood filmmaking and forced it into a repetitive, overzealous and artistically void shape.
Somewhere in-between is a workable point of view. Two recent books on the filmmaker’s career and importance, Citizen Spielberg, by Lester D. Friedman, and Directed by Steven Spielberg, by Warren Buckland, state the general critical position on Spielberg this way. One: He is a purveyor of cheap thrills and marvels. Two: His talent at encouraging razzle-dazzle technical innovation has no equal either now or in the whole course of film’s history, back to and including such figures as Eisenstein, Griffith, Edison and Melies. And three: In him, we audience members can find little of artistic value. Compared to such contemporaries as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese—or, defining Spielberg’s class of filmmakers much more broadly, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman and Quentin Tarantino—Spielberg is a footnote in an era of other, stronger, more definable men.
Why, then, was Spielberg the first person the 2002 Olympic committee thought of to represent our culture, and why among those eight distinguished representatives holding up the Olympic flag did the director get the loudest applause? An American, sports-loving crowd sitting in freezing weather, not so jazzed to clap for a former Polish president, can only account for part of the answer.
Friedman and Buckland’s books both try to sort the Spielberg mystery out, telling us not to be so hasty in labeling him a one-trick performer. Though different in methodology and style, their messages are largely the same: Spielberg is as good an artistic and intellectual filmmaker as he is a fan-friendly one, and it is about time we all recognize him as his generation’s most important filmmaker.
Friedman’s is the more convincing argument. Organized by genre, Citizen Spielberg charts a clear enough course through Spielberg’s lengthy career. He begins with the director’s science fiction and fantasy films, moves on to his adventure movies, monster movies, World War II films, “social problem” films (The Color Purple, Amistad and The Terminal), and ends with Spielberg’s critical triumph, Schindler’s List. Friedman, a film professor and author of three other books on the subject, capably raises the common strains running through Spielberg’s work. The “compulsive theme” of abandoned children and shattered families. Scenarios that put children in direct danger. The constant appearance of ordinary men who, awkward and out-of-place, defeat threats more ably than those trained to the task. If only for its collection of the dominant notes throughout Spielberg’s career, Friedman’s treatment is an exhaustive and necessary catalog.
Where Friedman outdoes himself, though, is with Spielberg’s commonly proscribed faults. He includes a range of examples from the filmmaker’s work, all of which lead Spielberg’s accusers to label him everything from a crypto-neoconservative to a fascist. Note, for example: Spielberg’s male-centric universe and his clear aversion to sex or sexuality; his insignificant to non-existent female roles; an overriding nostalgia for America’s most unified and patriotic moments—World War II in both Saving Private Ryan and the mini-series Band of Brothers, which Spielberg co-produced, the abolitionist side of the Civil War already seen in Amistad and soon to be seen in one of Spielberg’s announced projects, a biography of Lincoln starring Liam Neeson. Spielberg displays a borderline zealotry within the immensely popular Indiana Jones series, where only those who respect the divinity of sacred objects survive their holy terrors. And finally, Spielberg’s most damning critics note his repositioning of tragic stories like the Holocaust and slavery into the point of view of successful, incidental white men.
In Citizen Spielberg, Friedman claims that such short-sighted and uncharitable observationists ignore the bigger message within each of Spielberg’s films and across his career. To Friedman, the assailed director actually criticizes the numbing and infantilizing properties of the common American household that he is so often accused of praising, as in the flat, suburban landscape of E.T., packed full of the stuff of monotonous life. Friedman writes that Spielberg, who risked his popularity and reputation by filming The Color Purple, exposes “the dark underside of cultural attitudes toward the marginalized other.” And in populating the whole scope of his filmmaking with rugged, individualist men who constantly question their role in society and the family, Spielberg lingers on his most persistent intellectual question: What does it mean to be a man and a father?
In drawing Spielberg’s impressive body of work to a single overarching point, Citizen Spielberg matches Warren Buckland’s equally dogmatic Directed by Steven Spielberg. Directed by Steven Spielberg progresses through Spielberg’s career chronologically and concludes that his films are well thought out and well constructed, with small, habitual choices leading some of Spielberg’s films to compose what Buckland calls an “organic unity”, a sum greater than its parts. This decidedly different take on the filmmaker’s work comes from a different intention: Buckland, author of four previous books of film theory and editor of the New Review of Film and Television Studies, wants to create a term, “the poetics of the blockbuster form”, using its most successful director as a case study. Thus, unlike Friedman, Buckland is upfront about his admiration for the filmmaker, labeling him a “magician-director” and auteur boldly and repeatedly in the first fifty pages. Analyzing the minute details of Spielberg’s most commercially successful films, Buckland does not wade into the murky waters of what he calls Spielberg’s “serious-minded attempts”, including Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, though both could easily be labeled blockbusters. Nor does he approach Spielberg as a man. Simply put, Buckland sees in Spielberg a filmmaker who rarely misses a step, whose films are empirically well-made, and who should be considered the baseline for all study of the blockbuster as a form.
Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw in Jaws (1975) [credit: Getty Images]
For my part, I grew up in the generation of filmmakers after Spielberg’s, a generation tentatively referred to as the Independent movement or, even later, the Sundance Kids—though history is still sifting through the dense sands of that time and haggling over which rocks are gems. This means I came into a film education when Spielberg was going through his most profound change as a craftsman. He ended the Indiana Jones series and began Serious Spielberg with The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. He returned to mega-stardom with Jurassic Park before I turned 11, and Spielberg’s rise as a producer resulted in some of the favorite films from my youth: The Goonies, Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
From this vantage point, Spielberg means two things: love and hate. Love for those films in the middle of Spielberg’s career, which thrilled me and inspired me in my own childhood. Hate, since in both my growing up and Spielberg’s aging, the director’s films have less heart and take fewer risks. I have come to dislike most of Spielberg’s work, and I can distill that impulse down to one overarching reason: Spielberg gives his audience no credit.
Saving Private Ryan is a fine example, since it is a film I was enthralled by when I first saw it (opening day, July 24, 1998, to be precise). The film opens not with the much heralded D-day sequence but with an old man, walking through the Normandy cemetery, in search of a specific grave. A cut from close to this man’s eyes to an establishing shot of the Normandy coast a moment before the first Allied troops land brings us to a sequence still widely admired for its visceral emotion, its relentlessness and its authenticity. Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) leads a squad of men onto the beach, and from there the remainder of the WWII epic ticks away: a search for a single private whose three brothers have already been killed. Three quarters of the way through, they find him. Come the end of the movie, we discover that Private Ryan (Matt Damon) is the old man looking for the grave in Normandy. In short, the entire story has been told in flashback, but it is channeled through the mind of a man who was not present for most of the events on screen. That’s straightforward lie, a disruption of any claim to authenticity, and an affront to any intelligent audience.
This is a particular and idiosyncratic reading that comes out of my own expectations as a moviegoer. Taken as a point of view, my assessment of Spielberg’s films is precisely the kind both Friedman and Buckland seek to combat. They hail Spielberg as misunderstood and unknown, and, like happy parents at the ball, act as though the honor is theirs to bring him out. This is precisely why their books, though coming to different points, falter on the same grounds.
First, Buckland’s Directed by Steven Spielberg depends on his problematic term “organic unity”, which underscores many of the book’s problems. A film’s construction, no matter how good it may be, does not equate to greatness. It does not ensure an ability to illuminate issues or motivations outside itself, nor does it suffice to explain the distance between films that are well-crafted and those that can honestly be called extraordinary. To lead to any lasting insight, film construction should be the beginning of a thesis rather than its focal point and end. In Buckland’s case, he is only willing to label Spielberg’s work as unified or close to it, rendering Directed by Steven Spielberg a distinctly unpoetic way of speaking about poetics.
Moreover, Buckland tries to sidestep any real level of analysis in his book by calling Spielberg an auteur early and often, and hoping the loaded term speaks for itself. Given that Spielberg changes his attitudes often—evidenced by the Spielberg films Buckland neatly refuses to consider—that label is debatable. Other questionable vocabulary comes into play—such as the astrologically inclined “sixth area of off-screen space”—making the book a jarring read. Its arbitrary and self-indulgent jargon rightfully turns away film enthusiasts, but such terms are sprinkled into a far-too-flat account of film technique to appeal to film scholars or practitioners.
Spielberg with the Clintons, receiving the National Humanities Medal in 1999 [credit: Reuters/CORBIS]
Similarly, Citizen Spielberg’s central focus—that Spielberg’s entire catalog is concerned with men struggling to define their roles in society—is difficult to stomach, even though he does an admirable job of coating it with excellent research and modulated language. Dealing with an artist so immense may have made this inevitable, but such is the job Friedman undertook. He refers to Spielberg’s sentimentality—the kind that ends generally sad stories like The Color Purple on profoundly ambivalent notes—as the factor that allows audiences to connect with his works with a readiness no other contemporary filmmaker has achieved. Given the large number of filmmakers more sentimental and romantic than Spielberg who do not have even a fraction of his influence, this is either exaggerated or flatly untrue. But Friedman soldiers on, referring to just that happy-ending tendency while comparing Spielberg’s lead characters (many of them being men of single-minded and nearly suicidal focus, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s Roy Neary) to such lofty foils as Captain Ahab and Norman Bates. Friedman notes that Spielberg’s heroes are distinguished because they actually succeed in their grandest pursuits.
What follows is the argument on which Citizen Spielberg hinges, and which requires from the reader a giant leap from the lion’s head. Friedman writes that Spielberg’s male icons, though triumphant in impossible tasks, are inadequate as pure heroes because of their social imperfections. “Indiana Jones is an ineffective and largely unsuccessful figure”, Friedman proclaims in a representative passage. “His dread of snakes, boyish yelps of pain, and inconclusive sexual interludes mark his lack of heroic stature within a genre pumped up with steroidal action heroes or populated with suave super spies.” This idea is certainly unique to Friedman’s analysis, because Friedman’s specific brand of genre criticism makes the character appear counter to the normal form. The Indiana Jones films are as much a Western or parody as they are a guns-blazing action trilogy, two modes that allow for a few chinks in a savior’s armor. Yet Friedman’s method inherently prevents him from incorporating the many influences Spielberg brings to his work, resulting in a close-minded critique.
Together, Friedman’s and Buckland’s books mark a significant moment in the way critics approach Spielberg as an artist, in that they approach him as an artist at all. That is as far as these efforts can be taken, as both take the same critical misstep. In fighting for Spielberg on such specific and unwavering points, the overriding motivation behind Friedman’s and Buckland’s books is not academic reclamation but private effort. Both authors seem to revere Spielberg’s whole era of filmmaking, that first class of filmmakers just out of film school. Friedman calls it “the last great era of filmmaking” and names Spielberg and Scorsese the only two remaining from that time retaining any sort of power or virtue. In holding a moment of film history so close and struggling to counter the negative consensus concerning its most remarkable practitioner, they substitute nostalgia for genuine critical assessment.
It is hard to blame them for going so far out of their way to make Spielberg’s films seem beyond reproach. As I have stated, I cannot help but love Spielberg a little, despite myself. Love, and some hate. To some extent, Citizen Spielberg and Directed by Steven Spielberg both betray a level of trepidation on the part of their authors, suggesting their generation’s most significant filmmaker might not be remembered as anything more than a sideshow fluke. It takes more than a fluke to do what Spielberg has done—for good or bad. He has become the first line of American culture, a symbol of what this country has achieved creatively in the last 30 years. There may be no better way to remember the man.