[Editor’s Note: Press Play is proud to present Chapter 1 of our first video essay series in direct partnership with IndieWire: Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg. This series examines facets of Spielberg’s movie career, including his stylistic evolution as a director, his depiction of violence, his interest in communication and language, his portrayal of authority and evil, and the importance of father figures — both present and absent — throughout his work.
Magic and Light is produced by Press Play founder and Salon TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and coproduced and narrated by Ali Arikan, chief film critic of Dipknot TV, Press Play contributor, and one of Roger Ebert’s Far Flung Correspondents. The Spielberg series brings many of Press Play’s writers and editors together on a single long-form project. Individual episodes were written by Seitz, Arikan, Simon Abrams and Aaron Aradillas, and cut by Steven Santos, Serena Bramble, Matt Zoller Seitz, Richard Seitz and Kevin B. Lee. To watch Chapter 2, “Blood and Pulp,” about the presentation of violence in Spieberg’s movies, click here. To watch Chapter 3, “Communication,” click here. To watch Chapter 4, “Evil & Authority,” click here. To watch Chapter 5, “Father Figures,” click here. To watch Chapter 6, “Indiana Jones and the Story of Life,” click here.]
Steven Spielberg is one of the most popular storytellers of all time. Based solely on box-office receipts, that’s an inarguable fact.
It’s been true since 1975, when the box office take of his breakthrough Jaws redefined the the word “blockbuster.”
Look at the top grossing movies of all time, and you’ll see that a startling number were produced or directed by Spielberg. And yet this almost forty-year streak hasn’t been enough to insulate him against charges that he’s a frivolous director – or that, at the very least, his success is an example of style, or more accurately technique, over substance. That he does not persuade or even seduce viewers, but that he overwhelms them. With sound. With light. With music. And special effects.
But a closer look at the Spielberg canon betrays a remarkable depth of feeling and consistency of vision; a recurring set of interests, expressed with increasing subtlety and dexterity over time; a distinctive moral sense; a philosophy of life.
The sheer inescapability of Spielberg makes it tempting to ignore all this; to deny it and refute it; to write him off as an essentially juvenile showman, unworthy of serious consideration, even when he’s dealing in quote-unquote serious subject matter.
These complaints have persisted well into Spielberg’s fourth decade as a pop culture force, and it’s not hard to see why. He is not a confrontational or particularly edgy filmmaker, nor for the most part does he try to be. Even his most stylistically or thematically daring films are conceived in populist terms, to reach the widest audience – the widest MARKET – possible.
The raps against Spielberg are legion, and many are hard, even impossible, to refute.
That his sensibility is fuelled primarily by movies and television and other 20th century media, rather than novels or opera or painting or other, older art forms.
That his populism, his sentimentality, and his love of neat endings with clearly stated lessons mark him as a mainstream, perhaps even middlebrow, storyteller.
That he is the Peter Pan of cinema: The boy who refused to grow up.
And there is something so overwhelming about Spielberg, even at his subtlest, that some may be inclined to resist as a matter of course. His is a cinema of apocalyptic finales and miraculous visions. A cinema of eye-filling, eardrum-shattering immensity.
Think about Spielberg’s signature images for a moment. What do you picture? The sun. The moon. Shooting stars. Menacing skies filled with biblically awesome storm clouds.
You know how students love to talk about the idea of the storyteller, or the director, as God? Well, Steven Spielberg turns that subtext into text. He makes it official. Here is a director who inscribes his signature on the elements… on the cosmos. A director, who literally or figuratively raises entire historical periods, civilizations, even SPECIES from the dead.
The fact that Spielberg is perfectly attuned to the commercial aspects of cinema does not preclude the idea that he is a master artist, who’s worthy of appreciation and study. J.G. Ballard, whose memoir-novel Empire of the Sun was adapted by Spielberg back in 1987, once wrote:
“The qualities that the cineastes see as weaknesses, I see as Spielberg’s strengths, and as the reason why he is one of today’s most important film-makers – the producer-director who single-handedly saved the Hollywood film when it threatened to founder in the Seventies. Besides, sentimentality and spectacle have a valuable place in the arts, as in the operas of Puccini – though there are puritans who feel slightly queasy at the thought of Tosca and Madama Butterfly. In many ways Spielberg is the Puccini of cinema, one of the highest compliments I can pay. He may be a little too sweet for some tastes, but what melodies, what orchestrations, what cathedrals of emotion.””
In recent decades, the notion that Spielberg is somehow trying to prove himself, or re-brand himself, or be quote-unquote serious when he moves away from action-adventure or fantasy, has come to seem increasingly quaint, shorthand for a truism that’s not true anymore. It’s a critical relic from a long-gone era, akin to marvelling at the notion that, say, Woody Allen or Pedro Almodovar has directed a bleak drama. Indeed, hardly anyone under the age of 40 expresses even mild surprise that Spielberg would make a film such as Schindler’s List, Munich, or A.I.
The longer Spielberg directs movies, the more apparent it becomes that his is a chameleonic talent, more versatile in some ways than the talents of two of his most profound cinematic influences, Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney.
The phrase “A Steven Spielberg Film” no longer refers to a certain genre, or even a particular mood or mode. Over the decades it has become more elusive, mysterious and much harder to pin down. And that visible evolution – that muddying and deepening – has had a retroactive effect on his movies. Just as the so-called “serious” films reveal themselves as undeniably, obviously, overwhelmingly Spielbergian, in the late 1970s and early 1980s sense, so too do Spielberg’s earlier, supposedly “lighter” films reveal their own kind of seriousness. Spielberg’s idea of personal growth is a crucial aspect of all his films. He puts his characters through almost Biblical tests that would have made Job say, “Well, that’s a bit much, isn’t it?” They come out of the other side as better, more mature, more sensitive people, but at terrible cost.
Simply put, Steven Spielberg was always a serious filmmaker, just as Disney and Hitchcock, and John Ford and Howard Hawks, and Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese, were always serious. Spielberg is, and always was, an auteur by any measure. A reliable purveyor of richly imagined, thoughtfully constructed entertainment and art.
This series will examine just a few of Spielberg’s key obsessions and motifs, as expressed over a wide range of films, released over four decades. We’ll look at the influence of pulp fiction, serials and comic books on Spielberg’s skillful depiction of violence – and how he learned to modulate it over time, in ever more varied ways. We’ll look at the importance of communication and translation in Spielberg’s films: the director’s evident conviction that curiosity and goodwill can overcome superstition, bigotry and fear. We’ll examine Spielberg’s multifaceted portrait of evil and authority, and how the two intertwine, and express themselves in some of his most important characters. And we’ll look at the director’s sometimes warm, sometimes harrowing portrait of family life, with its negotiations and compromises, disappointments and tragedies — and the pivotal role played by father figures. Cold and loving. Present and absent.
As we shall see, Spielberg is in some ways a more complex and multifaceted filmmaker than even his fans give him credit for. Beneath the explosions and effects; the slapstick and thrills; the emotion and wonder; lies an acute sense of right and wrong. An appreciation of human weakness. An awareness that we are capable of great cowardice and cruelty. And that, even under the worst of circumstances, we can do great things. He is an exuberant showman. A stealthy artist. And a master of magic and light.
A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the publisher of Press Play, the staff TV columnist for Salon.com and a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in criticism. Ali Arikan is the chief film critic of Dipnot TV, a Turkish news portal and iPad magazine, and one of Roger Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents. Ali is also a regular contributor to The House Next Door, Slant Magazine’s official blog. Occasionally, he updates his personal blog Cerebral Mastication. In addition, his writing appears on various film and pop-culture sites on the blogosphere. You can follow his updates on twitter at twitter.com/aliarikan. Serena Bramble is a rookie film editor whose montage skills are an end result of accumulated years of movie-watching and loving. Serena is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Teledramatic Arts and Technology from Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.