Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Rodney Dangerfield of Film Directors: Why Can’t Steven Spielberg Get Any Respect?

Why doesn’t filmmaker Steven Spielberg get the acclaim he deserves? Arguably, he’s the best known director in Hollywood, one whom the average, casual film-goer can identify by name and face. And while he’s doesn't yet have a word in the English language that encapsulates his work (like Hitchcockian, denoting a certain type of horror/suspense movie; or Felliniesque, describing a specific hyper-realistic style of film), Spielberg has, perhaps, influenced more directors than anyone else in the history of the movies, including as a producer of  Spielberg-like movies such as Cowboys & Aliens and Real Steel. From Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) to Joe Dante (Gremlins), James Cameron (Avatar) to JJ Abrams (Super 8), there is no shortage of filmmakers whose style, content and tone have been borrowed, to one degree or another, from Spielberg’s oeuvre and not always in a good way. James Cameron’s movies, by comparison, lack the appealing warmth of Spielberg’s best work, while Super 8, which Spielberg produced, played out more like an ersatz Spielberg flick, a pale copy of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind without any original personality of its own. (Not coincidentally, I think, he also produced most of Zemeckis's and Dante's films including such standouts as Used Cars and Gremlins 2.)

Yet even when Spielberg departs from his familiar fantasy films to tackle decidedly realistic endeavours (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich ), there are those who carp about the supposed softness of the material, or decry its sentimentality. While admittedly some sentimentality does indeed run through his work, he's rarely given any credit for the sheer talent on display, or for the sheer brilliance with which he animates his movies. This is something I will be examining in my forthcoming course, The Paradox of Steven Spielberg, at the LIFE Institute – Ryerson University. The simple truth is that, like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, he can’t get any respect.

Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun
It’s unfortunate that things have turned out this way, because certain critics are overlooking one of the most exuberant movie-making talents Hollywood has ever produced. Even when a Spielberg film is flawed there are often breathtaking scenes within them. Consider the superb scene early on in Empire of the Sun (1987), with a young boy (played by Christian Bale) lost in Shanghai, as the Japanese invade it the day after Pearl Harbor. As the panicked lad tries to navigate his way through the city, desperate to find his parents, from whom he's been separated, the full scope and broad layout of the bustling, frenetic city,  is revealed, all without ever losing sight of the main character trapped in the middle of its tumult. That ability to evoke an epic feel in a film without sacrificing the personal, small scale aspects of the movie is a rare talent among movie-makers. (David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai), who is likely Spielberg's biggest influence, was another who had it.) So is Spielberg’s knack for blending comedy and drama, or comedy and horror in a movie, such as in Jaws (1975). The scene with Roy Scheider's punch-line about the shark that ends with his immortal assessment about them needing “a bigger boat” is priceless. Paradoxically, it was that movie, along with George Lucas’ Star Wars that came out two years later, which birthed the Hollywood blockbuster mentality, wherein the thinking was that what you raked in at the box office on its first weekend was the most important aspect of the released film. Yet, I don’t blame Spielberg and Jaws for that lamentable state of affairs – its success notwithstanding, Jaws was a terrific horror film that still holds up more than 35 years later – or even Lucas’ derivative pulp epic. Whatever my negative feelings about the latter movie, both films were honest efforts made by directors who sincerely wanted to bring to life ideas, or recreate types of movies that gripped them as kids. It wasn’t really their fault that “bigger became better” in the eyes of the studio execs, to the point that the typical big budget Hollywood blockbuster lacks any sort of personality or soul.

Jaws – Needing a Bigger Boat
Despite all this, Spielberg is constantly being blamed for what the movies have become, sometimes by seemingly unexpected sources such as French avant garde filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless, Weekend). His recently revealed anti-Semitism in the Western press likely had something to do with his attack on the man, but so did his exasperation with Spielberg’s enormous worldwide success at the box office, as if there was something intrinsically wrong with millions of people responding to your work. Ironically, both men have more in common than they realize since they’re each unique individuals whose films are not like any others. But no matter the source, the criticism of Spielberg strikes me as grossly unfair since Spielberg, unlike some of his present day compatriots (Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich), often demonstrates abilities beyond the ken of most mortal filmmakers. His impressive and unprecedented track record includes the TV-movie sensation Duel (1971), his 1974 remarkable theatrical debut The Sugarland Express, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982), Poltergeist (1982) (credited to Tobe Hopper, but reportedly directed by Spielberg), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Schindler's List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2000), Catch Me if You Can (2002) and Munich (2005). Then there are also the flawed but arresting movies such as the comedic war movie 1941 (1979), with its stupendous jitterbugging/chase scene and Minority Report (2002), which utilized the same tropes of Inception, to much better effect. That’s not too shabby a list. In fact, only a few of his movies can be considered outright duds (The Color Purple (1985), The Terminal (2004)). As with Empire of the Sun, some of his other failures, such as Hook (1991) and Amistad (1997),  have their virtues, be it Dustin Hoffman’s entertainingly flamboyant role as Peter Pan’s foil in the former or a powerful shipwreck scene in the latter.

Saving Private Ryan
So why is Spielberg held in suspicion by the intelligentsia, the film critics who almost always sneer at his output? They couldn’t ignore the fact that the opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998) was, along with All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), likely the most potent and visceral depiction of the brutality of war and randomness of death meted out to the soldiers conducting it. (I still remember my shock when I realized that the U.S. grunts in the film didn’t even have their weapons out when they stormed the beaches of Normandy. First they had to get safely to shore before they could begin shooting and, of course, many of them didn’t make it.) But the critics then turned around and condemned the rest of the movie as being a let down, which it wasn’t. (It was a bit of a cheat though as the present flashback to World War Two was seen through the eyes of someone who actually wasn’t at D-Day, a minor flaw, however, in light of the film's enormous virtues.) Even when he garners praise, Spielberg can’t win.

Schindler's List
I suspect he simply is seen as too popular for his own good, which doesn’t entirely explain why other successful filmmakers like James Cameron escape that censure. More likely, Spielberg is such a remarkable talent –  unlike Cameron who is not the born filmmaker that Spielberg clearly is because he becomes overly reliant on special effects to push his movies – that his critics can’t understand why he doesn’t make movies to the service of high art. He's being rejected because he's not the Hollywood equivalent of a Michael Haneke (Cache, The White Ribbon) or, god forbid, Achpitapong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives). What they choose to forget is that all the great filmmakers of the past, the ones that they properly canonize and extol, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, John Ford, John Huston, even Orson Welles, worked within populist Hollywood to make their masterpieces, so why treat Spielberg, fully their equal as a director, any differently?

Well, he does have that aforementioned unfortunate sentimental streak, which has marred some of his movies, and he likes making films about fatherless kids (E.T., Hook) or families under siege (Close Encounters, War of the Worlds, 2005). The family being a subject that should in their view only be approached as toxic repositories that always and only screw up children. And his films usually end on an upbeat note. That quest for optimism was the chief criticism of his memorable Holocaust drama Schindler's List (1993) as he chose to make a movie about a man, Oskar Schindler, who saved countless Jewish lives, instead of, as his attackers put it, a movie about the far more common reality of Jews going to their deaths in the face of indifference and hatred. But why should Spielberg not reach for an optimistic thread in a horror story that he grew up hearing about, as a Jewish kid born in 1946, just after the war, from his family, who lost relatives in the Holocaust. Having programmed several very moving movies about righteous gentiles who saved Jews from the Nazis at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, I can understand why such a true story would appeal to him. Besides, his film, a three hour plus black and white movie that was an unlikely hit, and the Shoah Foundation he set up to collect testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust, are the main reasons that the vital subject of the Holocaust won’t disappear from our movie screens anytime soon. As for his point of view on the subject, he isn’t the only director to tackle movies on the Holocaust and thus should not have his film seen as the be all and end all on movies about it. But that’s the peril of being such a high-profile figure, I guess.

Spielberg also extols the pleasing adventure of living in the suburbs, which he sees, rightfully, as places that can bestow enormous freedom on kids to roam far and wide, along with equally like-minded kids their own age. (Bullies exist, too, in Spielberg’s universe, but they’re usually vanquished or eventually neutralized.) That’s opposes the traditional cinematic view of the ‘burbs as mind numbing, soulless places that destroy free spirits, as showcased in American Beauty and The Ice Storm, two less than impressive films that nobody talks about anymore. Having grown up it the city of Côte Saint-Luc, a suburb of Montreal, I certainly didn’t feel scarred or oppressed there. There was a bully on the block but that sort takes root anywhere.

Woody Allen's Annie Hall
Mostly, it’s the genres that he chooses to work in (often science fiction and fantasy) that renders him negligible in some eyes. Woody Allen used to joke about comedies not being allowed at the adult table and, in fact, his Annie Hall (1977) is one of the few comedies to win the Best Picture Oscar. But SF, horror and fantasy fare just as badly. Spielberg’s two Best Director wins (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan) and Best Picture win (Schindler’s List) were for his ‘adult’ movies, and not the kid stuff he’s best known for, even though an argument can be made that his direction in E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, were in no way inferior to that in his Oscar winning movies. That trafficking in genre is also why Brian De Palma (Carrie, Blow Out), Spielberg’s contemporary and friend, is also undervalued as a filmmaker, the chief difference being that De Palma is more likely to subvert audience expectations than Spielberg, and also more likely to kill off beloved protagonists. Their chief similarity is their born eye for movie-making. I’d pick them as the two directors one should always study to learn how movies can be made to evoke emotions and suspense.

Spielberg, who turns 65 in December, isn’t slowing down. He has two films due out at Christmas (an adaption of the play, War Horse) and The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, the Indiana Jones-like story of an intrepid Belgian adventurer, based on the comic books created by Belgian artist Hergé . After that he’s shooting the bio-pic Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis as Honest Abe, which will come out late next year, and then, for 2013, fittingly enough, he's helming Robopocalypse, an adaption of Daniel H. Wilson's acclaimed and popular novel about a robot uprising. And he’s also the producer of this season’s most hyped TV show, the time travel series Terra Nova, which also features dinosaurs, prompting the inevitable comparisons to Spielberg’s inventive but superficial Jurassic Park films. (Terra Nova is a weaker effort though.) At a time when I’ve begun to despair that his other contemporary Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Kundun) will ever make another great film, and have wholly given up on Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather movies), Spielberg, like De Palma, remains interesting and provocative. He’ll likely continue to be a lightning rod for negativity, but fifty years from now, when his current critics will be no more, his movies will still be viewed and argued over. A paradox indeed for a movie-maker considered unimportant and minor by so many.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, and in September will be teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also in the fall, he'll be teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto .

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