Essential DVDs: Jaws (1975); Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977); Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981); E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982); The Color Purple (1985); Empire of the Sun (1987); Schindler’s List (1993); Jurassic Park (1993); Saving Private Ryan (1997)
Oscars: Best Director, Best Picture (Schindler’s List, 1994); Best Director (Saving Private Ryan, 1994)
In His Own Words: “If you have a story that is very commercial and simple, you have to find the art. You have to take the other elements of the film, and make them as good as possible, and doing that will uplift the film.”
In analysing Steven Spielberg, the first thing you need to do is clamber past Steven Spielberg. The success, the deification, a near unquantifiable contribution to not just cinema but modern culture itself, and the reams of praise that smother him like a giant quilt. Given such a position, it almost feels moot to extol virtues that have been ringing in his ears for years. Thus it is to the films, in the end, you must return, to cut them loose from the hallowed tag and understand again why this small guy from Cincinnati, Ohio stands so tall over the medium.
So, we’ll have no talk of the child within (although, he is expert at conveying multifaceted innocence); no talk of some kind of modern-day P.T. Barnum, barnstorming cinemas with non-stop thrills (are you willing to think of Jurassic Park as a deliberate piece of self-parody?); and hold no truck with the narrow-minded view of a director as Hollywood edifice, unwitting murderer of the poetic seventies. Dash it all, he put Francois Truffaut in Close Encounters. He threaded a Christ allegory into an alien visitation movie. And he finally cut Hollywood free from its outmoded Vietnam preoccupations with the most salutary, shocking twenty-five minutes of war movie footage ever created. That’s the thing, Saving Private Ryan’s harrowing opening salvo is transcendent, you can feel the medium buckle under its skill, the narrative tappings of cinema being rewritten. There are a scant few who can lay claim to that level of effect. And, goddamnit, Jaws was(ital) a seventies movie.
There seems to be a fair amount of misrepresentation about Spielberg. That he is a formulaic man, a predictable purveyor of the easy-fit populist frame-of-mind. In reality, he is far more elusive, tapping into something subliminal, an understanding of how we work as human beings. His is not the convention of myth and bland heroics, his lead characters come cut from an ordinary cloth, suburban and middle-class more often than not. Even Indiana Jones, certainly born from a heroic archetype, while effortless with a whip and a quip, is forever a man in over his head. He is not just a dusty James Bond. Spielberg puts the audience, their very idea of themselves, into the extraordinary. These are not fantasies but glorious, romping realities of the heart. The greatness of Jaws is not the malfunctioning shark, but the disparate triumvirate of honest-to-god masculinity –the gruff machismo (Robert Shaw), the stubborn intellectual (Richard Dreyfuss) and the determined family protector (Roy Schieder) –required to undo the unknowable force of nature.
Another aspect so often overlooked, or maybe taken as read, is his visual genius. He is, in his own distinct way, as good a stylist as Ridley Scott or John Ford or David Lean (and very much inspired by the latter two). The stunning use of amber light, almost liquid as it pours through the door in Close Encounters, is worthy of Kubrick. The magnificent simplicity of shooting so much of E.T. from not only a child’s perspective but the physical dimension of a child. The shifting visual tone of Schindler from the elegant expressionism for the Nazis to the stark, quasi-documentary shudder of the Jewish ghetto. It’s the stuff critics clamour about with Scorsese, yet his good friend and compatriot is every bit as film literate and gifted.
The patterns of his career have been picked clean by the due attention his massive success has brought: the early films, still carrying the vestiges of the Movie Brat movement even as they invented the blockbuster; the towering eighties when he could do no wrong; the quest for the Oscar; the complexities of his post-Schindler era. The shapes are clear, but categorisation is almost impossible (it’s why he’s been lumbered with his own category: “The Spielberg Movie”). ‘Once a month the sky falls on my head, I come to, and I see another movie I want to make,’ he said of his approach. Surely, it can’t be that simple. Seemingly, it is.
Perhaps more fascinating to us now, are the failures, or should we say, relative failures. Empire Of The Sun, alongside The Color Purple his gearshift into literary aspiration following the popcorn exterior of the early films, is a troubled but noble attempt to capture not only the scope but also the surrealism of J.G. Ballard’s memoirs. Is there a more ambiguous Spielberg shot than that of a semi-demented Jim Graham bathed in the holy aura of acetylene sparks, caressing the metallic surface of a Japanese fighter plane? AI, so emotionally uneasy, feeds on an anti-fairytale mythology more Terry Gilliam than E.T. And why did so many critics circumvent the cynical, abusive undertones of The Terminal? Portraying America as a prison cell was hardly the presupposed idea of a Spielberg movie. Hook, we’ll grant, is a misfire. But 1941, with its criminal excess, is as magnificent a site of creativity run amuck as Coppola’s One From The Heart.
The trouble, as always, is that his name continues to arrive ahead of the film. He’s doing his darndest to avoid it –the variety of project in the autumn of his career cleaves closest to the genre hopping likes of Howard Hawks and is way more challenging than the drift into bloated mediocrity so evident with Scorsese. You can bet your bottom dollar, War Of The Worlds will still filter H.G. Wells’ socialist context. The Munich Olympics political thriller Vengeance could be his most daring film since Schindler. While a Lincoln biopic sends signals of his great work on his beloved America. And, boy, it needs it.
Spielberg, the world’s greatest living director and contestably up there even if you include his deceased forebears, is finally worthy of his status because he speaks to everyone –understanding our fears, translating our dreams and revealing both the world’s chaos and its beauty –not just a select realm of highbrow intellectuals or pontificating ironists. The miracle is, he has proven it is not simply entertainment but also art and truth we crave. At twenty-four frames a second.