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Steven Spielberg

The Whiz-kid of Convention


In an interview with Martin Amis in The Moronic Inferno, Steven Spielberg says “some people look at the ground as they walk. Others look straight ahead. I always look upward, at the sky. This means that when you walk into things you don’t cut your forehead you cut your chin. I’ve had plenty of cuts on my chin.” It’s a statement that aptly sums up Spielberg’s own work. This is the unassuming young man looking for fantasy over focusing on reality, though self-deprecatingly offering it in such a way that reality comes back in through the servant’s entrance. Reality serves fantasy in Spielberg’s work, and yet he is not a filmmaker completely devoid of a reality principle. Indeed, the joke that ends the remark with Spielberg insisting he has had plenty of cuts on his chin is the sort of self-irony that says he knows what the real world thinks about such dreamers, but, aware of their mocking tone, has a humorous one of his own to counter it. It’s a tone consistent with the oceanographer in Jaws who plays up his own scars as the world-weary Quint refuses to take this young college boy seriously. Hooper might live in his own world as well, but that doesn’t mean that the real world hasn’t left its marks on him.

Born in 1946 in Cincinnati, Spielberg wanted to make films even as a kid, and this childish enthusiasm has never quite left him. Alongside his above comment this helps explain much of the appeal of his work. It may have been Orson Welles who said that while making Citizen Kane he felt like he was playing with the biggest train set in the world, but it is Spielberg’s body of work that gives the impression of entertaining himself and others, no matter the odd heavy duty project like The Color Purple, Schindler’s List and Amistad. Indeed, it is often in these bigger projects that a casual comment Spielberg made about Jaws becomes especially problematic. When Tom Shone in Blockbuster quotes Spielberg proposing he was “directing the audience with a cattle prod”, we notice the cattle prod is used elsewhere also: that the techniques of manipulative cinema are usually close to hand no matter the apparent seriousness of the project. Michael Rogin in an article on Spielberg in New Left Review quotes someone saying that Spielberg films the main black slave in Amistad with the “same lightning-lit eye technique that made T-Rex so spooky in Jurasssic Park.” Tim Lott, in a piece on overrated films in The Guardian, notes a suspect conflation of ethics and aesthetics in the scene in Schindler’s List where “a group of incongruously good-looking refugees are tempted into the camp shower block only to receive – yes, showers!” Lott finds such devices, given the context, “disgusting”.

What critics finally have a problem with is Spielberg’s conventional mind, and we use the term in at least a couple of senses. Firstly, as Geoff King in New Hollywood Cinema has observed: “Spielberg’s style might be described in terms of a particularly fluent and dynamic use of classical conventions.” Secondly, Robert Phillip Kolker reckons in The Cinema of Loneliness that in Spielberg’s work an “enviable circuit of exchange is created in which the viewer is ready always to purchase more assurance, more satisfaction, while the product is manufactured both to satisfy and create a greater need.” Thus, when Spielberg uses the same approach for Jurassic Park and Amistad, the problem resides in the conventional mind that then adopts conventional aesthetic techniques to create surprise, as though there is a filmic stock of expressive devices for directing our emotions. But when the devices are used across subjects, in light entertainment and socio-politically oriented works, a curdling effect is often produced in the latter.

Much has been made of Spielberg’s conventional technical prowess, and both King and Kolker, as well as Amis and Shone, in praise or condemnation, play up this talent. Both King and Kolker for example talk of a scene in Jaws where police chief Brody is looking out for a possible shark attack and, in King’s words, “Spielberg uses a bravura effect to convey the shock of Brody’s reaction”. Here the camera dollies back as the zoom pushes in at the same rate, with the shot giving us the impression of a lurching sense of dread. It of course resembles Hitchcock’s use of the zoom and dolly in Vertigo, but where for Hitchcock it was a shot that caught well Scottie’s complex psychological state, Spielberg simplifies the technique, turning it into a useful way of capturing dread on screen and thus into a convention. As Kolker says, the camera “movement is expressive both of his response and the viewer’s own reaction to the long delayed event, an interesting visual representation of panic.” Is such an approach merely turning the innovations of others into basic vocabulary? When Kolker adds, “with such an effect, Spielberg charges the spaces of the shot itself with fear and desire” it is maybe not much more than an effective device. Where Hitchcock used it to indicate a vertiginousness, of time and space, of a layered history and a fear of heights, of Scottie’s vertigo and of falling into emotional precipices, Spielberg’s use feels very pragmatic, and not much more than cattle prodding.

For both Amis and Shone, though, each sees at work a sort of innocent energy, and perhaps it is this apparent ingenuousness that causes more ideologically driven critics like Kolker so much trouble? Yet as an artist Spielberg is “a mirror not a lamp,” Amis notes. “His line to the common heart is so direct that he unmans you with the frailty of your own defences, and the transparency of your most intimate fears and hopes.” Shone mentions a disagreement between Paul Schrader and Spielberg over the script for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with Schrader insisting that he didn’t want the first example of earth’s intelligence to be the sort of “man who wants to go and set up a McDonald’s franchise”. Spielberg replied “that’s exactly the guy I want to send.” Shone was obviously on Spielberg’s side, regarding the man-child as the great director of his time, and someone who in Close Encounters put “a deep push on the bass pedals of straightforward awe and wonderment.” But one wonders if there is much of a difference between the deep push and the cattle prod? Kolker says “Spielberg’s films constitute a factory of ideological production, the great imaginary of the eighties, full of images the culture wanted to see, images and narratives that expressed the culture.”

What we would like to propose is that Spielberg is a very efficient director of the conventional, but if the emotion demands complexity, Spielberg, for all his cinematic brilliance, lacks the means to bring the emotionally nuanced forth. Yet because we are mainly focusing here on his seventies work – on The Sugarland Express, Jaws and Close Encounters – the purpose is to play up the director’s gift for the conventional, and we can perhaps consequently understand why such skills aren’t especially useful for black slavery or the Holocaust.

In The Sugarland Express, for example, there is a scene that sums up well Spielberg’s capacity for moving a story along at a clip even if we’re left puzzling over the emotional details. Early in the film Lou Jean persuades her beau Clovis to escape from the low security prison in which he is held as she says the authorities are going to take away their child if they don’t try and win her back. From the moment where Lou Jean kisses a fellow inmate to shut him up when he looks like he’s going to report Clovis, to the kidnapping of a cop, Spielberg sets the scene with the bare minimum of emotional plausibility. This is about getting the story going, and if we puzzle over the character motivation, we’ve somehow failed to be taken in. For example as Lou Jean and Clovis ask if they can get a lift from an elderly couple after saying they’re friends of a fellow inmate whose parents the elderly couple are, the film doesn’t bother offering up the parents’ scepticism: why if Lou Jean and Clovis were visiting their son were they not sharing the same visiting hours; and mustn’t they be extremely good friends of their boy if they’ve come all the way out to visit him? No, this is Spielberg’s ‘characterisational pragmatism’, his capacity to assume an audience will be too busy anticipating events to concern themselves with implausibility of behaviour.

This characterisational pragmatism is evident in the reaction shot Spielberg often adopts where usually one expression is shared amongst numerous observers. In three reverse dollies near the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we see basically the same expression on everybody’s face as we cut from the alien to the crowd. As John Williams’ choral music plays on the soundtrack, so Spielberg gives us an emotional tautology – a twofold repetition of redundant feeling as we have three reverse dollies and a singular expression. If each dolly offered a different set of expressions, or there was only one dolly, the film would have made its point but not tautologically underlined it. Central to Spielberg’s popular success then is this ‘characterisational pragmatism’ and ‘tautological underlining’.

In Close Encounters, the two come together in the figure of the neighbour who constantly spies on central character Roy and his family. Here the woman is a cliché, a curtain twitcher used to contextualise Roy’s eccentricities, and a person who can provide light comic relief. She is like many a character in Spielberg’s work, basically a reaction shot: a cinematic device rather than a specific character. When for example Roy gathers his family together at four in the morning to go and see if they can catch the flying saucer Roy witnessed the previous night, Mrs Harris looks out through her window. Later when she sees Roy throwing strange things into his house and damaging the garden, and says whatever he is doing is against the law, it is again a reaction shot response as she barely becomes a character. The fact that Spielberg gives us three shots of Mrs Harris looking on before she says anything, gives us once again the sense of tautological underlining. There is no more complexity of thought or feeling from one shot to the next, just as there has been no change of expression in the reaction shots near the end of the film.

However are we really being fair to Spielberg: aren’t his leading figures more filled out? Yes and no. Spielberg is actually quite good on the various hassles in the lives of his leading characters. In The Sugarland Express we get a sense that Lou Jean and Clovis are people who aren’t criminals especially; just ordinary folk who can’t quite get their lives in order, and part of that disorder is a criminal existence. They’re the sort of people who would rob a grocery store on Saturday night because they forgot to cash a cheque on Friday and they’ve no money till the banks open at the beginning of the week. In Jaws, Brody has domestic tensions, too much work on his desk, and the authorities, with their own demands, on his back. The initial stages of Close Encounters are especially good on domestic chaos, as Spielberg and his cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond – who worked regularly with Robert Altman in the early seventies – attend to the peripheral and the background as Roy’s kids are untamed brats more interested it seems in destroying toys and making noise than the creative spirit Roy tries to instil in them. As he attempts to persuade the children they should go and see Pinocchio over playing a game of Goofy Golf, he talks about the pushing and prodding of the latter against the magic of the former. This is central to the strength of the director’s work and possibly its appeal. Spielberg more than many filmmakers knows that while magic and fantasy are all very well, hints of a reality principle are also pretty useful, and this principle tends to reside in his domestic scenes. Some of the best moments in The Sugarland Express, for example, come with Lou Jean and Clovis in the trailer.

But as Amis notes in his piece, Spielberg is rarely comfortable with ‘adult relationships’. “After all, he de-eroticised Indiana Jones in Raiders, who was originally conceived as a playboy, as he excised the adultery from Jaws [the novel].” We might add that the way Roy kisses his wife (Teri Garr) in Close Encounters suggests he is much more interested in the sky and the sublimated nature of the feelings between Roy and another UFO witness, played by Melinda Dillon. Spielberg may insist in the Amis interview that he has “an incredibly erotic imagination”, but if Freud once claimed happiness is sexual happiness, Spielberg’s figures often lack this dimension, no matter the brief and tender sex scene in The Sugarland Express, the skinny dip at the beginning of Jaws. This isn’t especially to attack Spielberg’s work for lacking sex scenes. Though the seventies was clearly a decade where cinematic imagery was liberalised, numerous filmmakers still showed little sex in their films: Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and George Lucas were all as coy as Spielberg when it came to showing flesh on screen. No, it is more the lack of intimacy in his work that seems consistent with the limitations he shows when using similar devices in family entertainment as in his so-called mature films, and this also touches upon our comments on the way Spielberg uses reaction shots: that he limits rather than explores character.

Spielberg’s brilliance in creating everyman, or everyboy, figures, means that inner life and external dilemmas are much less developed than what we’ll call quest narratives, taking into account Robert McKee’s as usual over-emphatic assumption in Story that “all stories take the form of a quest.” McKee also talks interestingly of great films requiring three levels of character conflict: inner conflict, personal conflict and extra-personal conflict. Spielberg’s quest narratives, though, are so busy pointing up the quest aspects that the human dimension gets lost to the adventurous dimension: the outer conflict takes precedence over the inner and the personal. Spielberg’s films are often marvellously synopsis friendly: shark terrorises town; can local sheriff and shark experts save the day? A flying saucer lands on earth; will people find in themselves a sense of awe to welcome their guests? In E.T. a young boy befriends an alien and helps him get back home. But what makes a wonderful film pitch doesn’t often make for complexity of emotion and feeling, and we usually sense in Spielberg’s films that the inner and personal conflicts are really dawdlings before the main event. Where a great director manages to bring in the other levels of conflict as the film picks up a modest pace and thus creates layers of complexity, Spielberg’s fondness for if you like immodest pacing tends to dissipate intimate levels of conflict for the problem with the shark, the dinosaur or the spaceship: the bass pedal. Where the first section of Close Encounters proposes a marital collapse in the face of Roy’s boyish fascinations, by the end of the film the spacecraft is the thing as wonderment totally eclipses the dramatically layered.

Yet this perhaps just about works when the films are contained by a generic dimension which allows for that mastering of the conventions so many commentators on Spielberg talk of, but while Spielberg may be a master of pace as Hitchcock was the master of suspense, does pace undermine character because it doesn’t give room to characterisational specifics when the pace picks up? Even in a fairly early domestic scene in Jaws, about twenty minutes in, Spielberg works in two tension moments. The first is when Brody is looking through a shark book and his wife surprises him as he reads; the second when a bit later his wife tells him their son is out playing in the water, and Brody rushes to the window worried that his son is at risk from the shark. There is the need in Spielberg’s work not to explore dilemmas but pace the tensions: the further into the work the more accentuated this need for tension becomes. After an hour the domestic disappears altogether from Jaws; in Close Encounters the family recedes as the spaceship becomes more prominent. When critics mention the devices in Amistad and Schindler’s List it is as though Spielberg possesses less an artistic sensibility that explores dilemmas, than an entertainer’s need to create obstacles to be overcome. In Steven Spielberg, Joseph McBride quotes Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night, with Wiesel’s father observing that “every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer.” Spielberg’s brilliance as an entertainer of conventions, of tautological feeling, of cattle prodding an audience, of characterisational pragmatism, of immodest pacing, lies in setting up questions that do have answers. He creates quest narratives that allow for obstacles over dilemmas, and in form and content Spielberg more than any other filmmaker killed seventies cinema’s sense of enquiry. He replaced the searching questions about where a nation was going with local problems more easily resolved.

There is an irony in this; for Spielberg more than anyone suggests range both geographically and temporally. He has gone back as far as the slave trade, has tackled the pre-historic in Jurassic Park, covered the deep blue sea in Jaws, explored the possibilities of outer space in Close Encounters and ET, the future in The War of the Worlds, AI and Minority Report, and shown as vivid a sense of war as anyone in the famous Normandy landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan; in the hell of the death camps in Schindler’s List. Which other loosely seventies filmmaker has covered so much? Yet here is the paradox: no director more than Spielberg led to the trivialising nature of eighties film after the exploration of the previous decade. Why this has been the case we have hopefully indicated. It is as though so many of those heavy-duty later projects were making amends for the earlier ones – but still using the very same technical conventions in the process of doing so. And were these not the sort of conventions other more adventurous seventies filmmakers were trying to open up? Spielberg may believe in his more recent work he has been paying for the pleasure principles of his youth. However, we’re more inclined to think he’s a little like a cinematic juggler; but someone who doesn’t quite know the difference between juggling with oranges and juggling with people’s emotions.

©Tony McKibbin