[Editor’s Note: Press Play is proud to present Chapter 3 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 Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 1: Introduction, go here. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 2: Blood & Pulp, go here. To watch Magic and Light: The Films for Steven Spielberg Chapter 4: Evil and Authority, click here. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg, Chapter 5: Father Figures, click here. ]
Steven Spielberg’s movies are often described as hopeful, optimistic, sweet — or, pejoratively, as sentimental, naive, and “feel-good.”
In some sense, all those adjectives are right. Many of his movies are transcendently cheerful. Even the bleakest offer a shred of hope for humanity, or else lament when it falls short of its potential. And all share an underlying belief: that misunderstandings could be fixed, problems solved, and disasters averted if we could all just learn to get along.
And before we can get along, we must communicate.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the first major Spielberg film to put this theme in the foreground. But nearly all his movies touch on it: 1941 and the Indiana Jones films treat it lightheartedly, Close Encounters, E.T. and The Terminal with poignant warmth. In many of the historical dramas, we see both successful and failed attempts at communication depicted in an array of moods and modes. Ironic, hopeful, despairing — even coolly journalistic.
In scene after scene of film after film, Spielberg shows us characters struggling to speak unfamiliar languages in unfamiliar environments — often spiraling into depression until they meet some caring person, some fellow being, who will listen to them, and honestly try to communicate with them, and take the trouble to learn what they need and want, and help them get it. The films present verbal and nonverbal communication — and sometimes miscommunication — in a staggering variety of ways.
Language — and translation — are everything. In Close Encounters, for instance, Roy Neary tries to translate a dream vision into something he can feel and touch … and ultimately visit. Meanwhile, scientists use mathematics and puzzle logic to understand the nature of mysterious signals transmitted from space. In The Terminal, an international terminal becomes a microcosm of the world as a stranded traveler from an invented Balkan country learns to communicate with a sort of mini-United Nations of airport staff and airline employees, many of whom speak languages other than English. Spielberg’s other films feature smaller but no less significant moments of communication between individuals reaching out across gulfs of geography, language and culture. In a pivotal scene in Saving Private Ryan, a German prisoner’s clumsy attempt to appeal to his Army Ranger captors’ humanity saves his life. It’s ultimately not the words that persuade, but the man’s all-too-human desperation.
In Munich, Spielberg’s film about the corrosive moral effect of vengeance, Israeli commandos accidentally end up sharing a safe house with commandos from the PLO — their sworn enemies — yet manage to negotiate a fragile, temporary truce. Here we see representatives of warring tribes viewing each other as individuals, sensing each other’s humanity and transcending the walls that normally separate them from each other. Words, gestures and facial expressions break the ice. But what seals the deal — what makes true communication possible — is the greatest common language of all, music.
Ironically, the truth of their human connection can only surface because of a verbal un-truth. The Israelis have convinced the PLO fighters that they’re non-Jewish members of international left-wing militant groups. One PLO fighter speaks blunt political truth to the film’s German-raised Mossad agent hero because he believes he’s a German gentile. The Mossad agent, shielded by his false facade, speaks from the heart as well. Throughout, Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” echoes in the background, gently satirizing the endless Israeli-PLO struggle — but also suggesting a deeper connection that both men consciously deny.
The more closely you study Spielberg’s films, the more obvious it becomes that communication, translation and language are at the core of his personality as a director. What fans would call his optimism — and what detractors would call his naivete — are expressed most strongly in scenes where members of different races, cultures, even species transcend superficial differences, and do the hard work necessary to really listen to each other, and talk to each other.
This crystallizes in the climax of Close Encounters, which sees humankind speaking to extraterrestrials through a spontaneously composed musical-mathematical language. Not merely a triumph of direction and visual effects, the scene also lets Spielberg’s regular composer, John Williams, step into the spotlight and take a solo. On an aesthetic level, this is just delightful. It means that Williams is, in effect, conducting — or directing — the film’s most important sequence, on Spielberg’s behalf. For a few minutes, Williams becomes Steven Spielberg’s translator, and spokesman — a behind-the-scenes mirror of the UFO expert Lacombe’s relationship with his own translator and spokesman, David Laughlin. Over time, the aliens, who initially seemed terrifying, seem merely inscrutable, then approachable. In the end, they’re revealed as delicate, luminous beings, inviting us to join them among the stars.
A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for Salon.com and a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in criticism. He has worked as a movie critic for The New York Times, New York Press and New Times Newspapers and as a TV critic for The Star-Ledger of Newark. His video essays about Terrence Malick, Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow, Budd Boetticher, Wes Anderson, Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann and other directors can be viewed at the The Museum of the Moving Image web site. Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door, a website devoted to critical writing about popular culture. His book-length conversation with Wes Anderson about his films, titled The Wes Anderson Collection, will be published in fall, 2012 by Abrams Books.