[Editor’s Note: Press Play is proud to present 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 1: Introduction, go here. To watch Chapter 2: Blood & Pulp, go here. To watch Chapter 3: Communication, go 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. ]
If there is one recurring image that defines the cinema of Steven Spielberg, it is The Spielberg Face. Eyes open, staring in wordless wonder in a moment where time stands still. But above all, a child-like surrender in the act of watching, both theirs and ours. It’s as if their total submission to what they are seeing mirrors our own.
The face tells us that a monumental event is happening; in doing so, it also tells us how we should feel. If Spielberg deserves to be called a master of audience manipulation, then this is his signature stroke. You can’t think of the most iconic moments in Spielberg’s cinema without The Spielberg Face.
Expressive close-ups of faces reacting to events offscreen. This is a common device in Hollywood filmmaking, perhaps due in part to Spielberg’s influence. Sometimes these shots even make explicit homage to his movies. This is not to say that Spielberg invented the technique. The expressive close-up existed as early as the days of D.W. Griffith, and has long been a staple of both international and classical Hollywood filmmaking.
But it’s safe to say that none have come close applying this technique as prolifically throughout their filmmaking career as Spielberg has. He has used it in a variety of genres in any number of situations: sudden shock or creeping dread, the trauma of remembering the past or of confronting the future, discovering humanity in another person, or discovering humanity in oneself.
You can read the rest of the transcript here at Fandor.
Kevin Lee is Editor in Chief of Fandor, a new video on demand website featuring the best of independent and international films. He is also a film critic and award-winning filmmaker. In addition to editing Keyframe, Kevin contributes to film publications and produces online video essays.