Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Eric Kohn
December 21, 2011 1:09 PM
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Critic's Notebook: Putting Steven Spielberg On Trial

Steven Spielberg: Major film artist or the epitome of commercial excess?
The dream is always the same. The movie gods of the modern blockbuster, presided over by the likes of Optimus Prime, E.T. and a very hungry great white shark, stare down at the genial man before them. The scene is a grand multiplex transformed into a courthouse for the cinematic trial of the century. The defendant is no obvious criminal, but rather an affable, good-natured filmmaker with a much larger legacy than his appearance suggests. His name is Steven Spielberg. The allegation is simple: Did this man destroy the movies?

This isn’t exclusively my dream, of course, but rather an (admittedly absurd) vision of the collective experience endured by countless moviegoers as they've evolved from blind devotees of Spielberg’s escapist marvels to self-serious movie buffs, eager to reject anything commercial -- especially the epitome of commercial expression that Spielberg’s career has come to define during Hollywood’s last four decades.

Spielberg mania hits U.S. shores this holiday weekend with the release of two new Spielberg films, days apart: Today, his vibrant old-school action rush “The Adventures of Tintin,” the best motion-capture movie yet, arrives after a successful run in the U.K.; “War Horse,” his epic WWI adaptation of the 2007 stage play (itself taken from an earlier novel) opens Sunday. The filmmaker just turned 65, but shows no sign of retirement. This rather extreme reminder of Spielberg’s continuing marketplace dominance arrives at a moment of crucial transformation for young adults reared on the likes of Indiana Jones and “Jurassic Park.”

Many people grew up with Spielberg movies and then claimed to move on to other, allegedly more complex moviegoing experiences. But Spielberg never went away and his stranglehold on the kind of product Hollywood has churned out since the mid-1970s remains stronger than ever. It’s fair to say that Spielberg has helped sustain large-scale studio filmmaking by showing how to do it well. But can we blame him for its crasser aspects, the diminishing returns of franchises and braindead CGI stunts? That’s a harder question to answer.
"The Adventures of Tintin." Paramount

Depending on who you ask, Spielberg is either the best or worst thing to happen to American movies in the last quarter of the 20th century. His arrival as a wunderkind occurred at the peak of New Hollywood’s explosive creativity, when studios had few clues about what movie formulas might stick and opened the doors for psychedelic endeavors like “Easy Rider” and countless other iconoclastic generational statements, which unquestionably injected a strange new energy into American cinema.

The popular history proclaims that Spielberg’s “Jaws” helped put an end to that streak in 1975, with the assistance of “Star Wars” two years later. Rejuvenating Saturday matinee appeal with a combination of shock, suspense and wild imagination, these movies showed that classic Hollywood formula could still translate into box office dynamite. The steady string of hits that followed (with very few, largely forgotten duds) deepened Spielberg’s status at the quintessential commercial director leading the charge of the Movie Brats domination.

But Spielberg is hardly a William Castle-like showman. The other side of his brand, his ability to moonlight as a chronicler of vast historical events, broadens the catch-all essence of his career. Virtually every Spielberg movie deemed valuable to the national conversation has arrived alongside another extraordinary flight of fancy: “Schindler’s List” followed “Jurassic Park;” “Amistad” arrived the same year as “The Lost World;” “Munich” immediately preceded “War of the Worlds.” Spielberg’s oscillation between tentpole blockbusters and conventionally defined “important” works speaks to the broad potential of all popular culture, which is why his films tend to inspire young people struggling to understand the world.  

Audiences committed to rolling their eyes at Spielberg as too obvious a filmmaker worthy of serious discussion should consider the ways his films link to many other forms of cinema in the details of their conception. This critic, for instance, first encountered the work of Francois Truffaut (and, by extension, much of the French New Wave) not through “The 400 Blows” but rather Truffaut’s performance in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Perhaps not incidentally, that’s the only Spielberg film included on a list of some 200 must-see titles allegedly drafted by the man himself. He knows his best work as well as anybody -- and, as the list attests, he knows his Hollywood history, too.
You won’t learn about the transcendent beauty of a Stan Brakhage film from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Spielberg’s prominence has obscured his cinephilia, but not by design. A recent series of video essays produced by Press Play launch into great detail about the complex themes and technical strategies that give Spielberg’s films such consistent allure. Warren Buckland’s fascinating book “Directed By Steven Spielberg” goes great lengths to show how “Spielberg does not invent a new film language, but manipulates the existing language in a distinct and completely effective manner.” To watch a Spielberg movie at an early age is to learn what movies can do.

Or, at least, it shows what moves can do in their most systematic, rigid form. You won’t learn about the transcendent beauty of a Stan Brakhage film from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But that movie might set you on a journey that leads to other cinematic possibilities. Meanwhile, Spielberg keeps providing an entry point. “Tintin” is technically an homage to the Belgian cartoonist Hergé, but it’s also an homage to Spielberg’s own breezy action choreography in “Raiders,” just as “War Horse” successfully channels both “Lawrence of Arabia” and Spielberg’s own war epics. “War Horse” is gorgeous but slight, while “Tintin” easily delivers the best action rush of the year, even more than David Fincher’s admittedly sleeker “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” After a misguided return to the Indiana Jones franchise in 2008, Spielberg has rediscovered his inner Spielberg.

And yet it can prove challenging to throw one’s hat in the arena of Spielbergian delights without feeling a twinge of cinephilic guilt. His movies not only frequently center around children but inhabit their perspective, tapping into a juvenile sense of imagination that explains the profound impact his work tends to have on younger viewers. Over time, Spielbergian awe becomes entrenched in the nostalgia many moviegoers may experience as they grow older. During the last 12 months, both J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” (which I dubbed “Spielberg porn” earlier this year, only half-jokingly) and “Trollhunter” blatantly referenced Spielbergian thrills.

It’s easy to rally against Spielberg because he has developed into the epitome of mainstream, his movies aiming to please mass audiences rather than erring on the side of hip, radical statements or subversive artistry. However, for that very reason he provides a portal to more audacious work. Spielberg’s exoneration arrives in the form of the gateway his movies continue to deliver time and again--and in the skillful maneuvering of existing film language that continually testifies to the medium’s lasting power. That’s no bizarre dream of mine or of anyone else born into the Spielberg Age; the results are at multiplex this weekend. See them if you must, and then consider your other options.

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7 Comments

  • Muma | December 18, 2013 2:27 AMReply

    Cool

  • Terry Kelly | December 23, 2011 11:08 AMReply

    I'm not a film student; I have not devoted my life to the study of motion pictures, to disecting their meaning nor trying to delve into interpretive introspection as to the effects they have on my (or the publics) psyche.

    I watch movies. I watch movies to be entertained. It never fails to amaze me that film making is the only business in which people decry the financial success of the product. What, we should stand and applaud the indie/art house offerings which nobody wants to see, because they are the "truest" example of the art form?

    Speilberg makes movies people like to watch, much more often than not. They make your stomach churn with excitement, tighten with fear, soar with exhilaration; they make your heart ache with sadness and warm with love. Isn't ellicitng an emotional response what art is supposed to do?

    Robert Heinlien wrote in "Stranger in a Strange Land" (and I'm paraphrasing) "Government supported art is hogwash...an artist whose work doesn't sell isn't producing art. He should find another line of work"

  • Kent | December 21, 2011 11:30 PMReply

    In your sixth paragraph you say that Spielberg made the Star Wars films. For heaven's sakes, it's one of the best-known facts in 20th century filmmaking George Lucas made those movies.

  • Eric | December 22, 2011 9:52 AM

    No, I don't say that at all. Read the sentence again. The point is that both "Jaws" and "Star Wars" contributed to the creation of a new blockbuster paradigm at a very specific moment in history. Of course I know who directed "Star Wars." For heaven's sake indeed.

  • David | December 21, 2011 7:33 PMReply

    Hands-down the greatest living filmmaker and arguably the greatest filmmaker ever. Blaming him for directing great blockbusters is like blaming Walt Whitman for being a poet. It's what he does, and he does it on a level above all others. Name a single person who knows how to glue eyes to a screen like him. He knows exactly what an audience member needs to see, when, and how to stage it. His blockbusters are as much an exercise in technical excellence (in filmmaking and storytelling) as anything we've seen from Kubrick, Lynch, or Welles.

    If you want to knock his content, then take into account his ability to handle the opposite end of the spectrum and consistent proved his ability to handle dramas with ambitious subject matter. The man can do it all. The only valid criticism of him is his choices as a producer, in which he puts his name on some crappy projects.

  • Arnon Z. Shorr | December 21, 2011 3:14 PMReply

    I spent most of my college years trying to define (and in many cases, defend) Spielberg against the onslaught of angsty academia. In an "intro to film" course that tracked film history chronologically, we nearly concluded the lecture on film of the 1970s when a student asked "what about Spielberg and Lucas?" The professor's response: "they're infantile filmmakers".

    Yes, Spielberg's films are immensely popular, and therefore tremendously successful, but being a fan of his work in an academic setting is like being a Republican at Woodstock. It forced me to evaluate my fandom, and to redefine it in academic terms.

    Several years and quite a few term papers later, I concluded that Spielberg's work is just as deserving of academic scrutiny (and celebration) as that of his Hollywood predecessors. John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, whose work came to define what film criticism was supposedly about, were out to entertain, and they were good at it. So, too, Spielberg.

    Here's what I think happened: The American filmmakers who emerged in the '60s and '70s were all students of film. They studied (academically, in some cases) the same films that film theorists and academics were studying. The filmmakers then took two (seemingly divergent) routes: the "art" filmmakers made films that "broke the rules", that tried to tell stories in new, groundbreaking ways. The "pop" filmmakers seemed to "follow the rules", pushing technological and promotional boundaries while playing it creatively safe. Of course, the boundary-pushing "art" filmmakers gave academia much more to talk about, kept it in business so to speak, and became much-beloved. The "pop" filmmakers were much more successful, a reminder to academia that its opinions aren't relevant in the real world.

    Once those opinions became entrenched, they defined academic film studies for the next forty years. Even when the "art" filmmakers started making "pop" films (a-la Scorsese), the old lines of allegiance remained.

    I'd like to challenge the very foundations of this divide, though. Careful analysis of the great "pop" films of the '70s that precipitated this split shows quite a bit of innovation. Unlike the "art" filmmakers, the "pop" filmmakers simply continued in the Hollywood tradition of masking the apparatus, making the machinery harder to find. Spielberg, in particular, revises the old rules in unusual ways. He dispenses with the mechanics of Hitchcock's use of "point of view" shots, but adheres to the emotional resonance of the pattern: whereas Hitch's pattern (show the character, show the POV, show the reaction) centers on a literal point of view, Spielberg's conflation (character reaction, character in context) maintains the audience/character identity, but opens up the visual possibilities beyond the character's literal point of view to provide images with much broader and deeper emotional resonance.

    Recognizing the aesthetic and academic merit in "pop" filmmakers such as Spielberg is something that academia is slowly grasping. As far as I know, Nigel Morris' "The Cinema of Steven Spielberg" is the only major volume dedicated to the subject on purely academic grounds. Unfortunately, since the academic value of "pop" cinema is often deeply buried, I don't think it'll enter the mainstream academic conversation any time soon.

  • Mario Hernandez | December 21, 2011 1:47 PMReply

    Herge, the pen name of Georges Prospect Remi, was Belgian.