Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part infinity: Steven Spielberg

I. Duel (1971) II. Something Evil  (1972) III. Savage (1973) IV. The Sugarland Express (1974) V. Jaws (1975) VI. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) VII. 1941 (1979) VIII. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) IX. Poltergeist** (1982) X. E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982) XI. Twilight Zone: The Movie* (1983) XII. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) XIII. The Goonies*** (1985) XIV. The Color Purple (1985) XV. Empire of the Sun (1987) XVI. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) XVII. Always (1989) XVIII. Arachnophobia*** (1990) XIX. Hook (1991) XX. Jurassic Park (1993) XXI. Schindler's List (1993) XXII. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) XXIII. Amistad (1997) XXIV. Saving Private Ryan (1998) A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) XXVI. Minority Report (2002) XXVII. Catch Me If You Can (2002) XXVIII. The Terminal (2004) XXIX. War of the Worlds (2005) XXX. Munich (2005) XXXI. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crytstal Skull (2008) XXXII. The Adventures of Tintin (2011) XXXIII. War Horse (2011) XXXIV. Lincoln (2012) XXXV. Bridge of Spies (2015) XXXVI. The BFG (2016) XXXVII. The Post (2017) XXXVIII. Ready Player One (2018)

What more could I say, that I haven't said already?  Steven Spielberg is, as far as I'm concerned, a living god—hell, at least a living demigod.  He started off with perfection (and on TV, no less!) with Duel, and only got better from there.  Forty-five years later, the man can boast of the best body of work of anyone who ever touched a camera, with fully eight straight-up masterpieces, virtually flawless in their construction, standing atop more than a dozen other merely great films.  He's the kind of director that when he releases something that's only good, you're disappointed.  Yeah, he's amazing.  And handsome.  The end.

...Okay, I suppose I could try to unify this retrospective into one easily-digestible essay.  Over the past several months, we've surveyed the evolution of a master: from the peerless purveyor of popular entertainment, who invented the blockbuster with Jaws and co-invented the timeless super-franchise with Indiana Jones, to the serious man who sought to chronicle history, beginning with The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, and finally arriving in full force with the once-in-a-generation event that was Schindler's List, which maintains its status to this day as the only Holocaust movie that anybody has ever actually wanted to watch.

Spielberg the Entertainer came from an innocent and unfettered place, where instinct combined with rarefied technical skills, and he turned dreams into celluloid with nothing lost in the translation.  It is my contention, and I think you might agree, that the less thoughtful and less mature Spielberg was, the better he was; before he was struck with self-knowledge, his films were purer in their raw spectacle and even rawer emotionalism.  He latched like a lamprey upon his two favorite themes, supernatural wonderment and the breakdown of families, especially the breakdown of relationships between fathers and sons, and virtually every movie he ever made was just one more attempt to solve his own personal issues within a seemingly endless series of mind-blowing fantasies.  The wave crested with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which is still the most perfect distillation of Spielberg's father issues ever made—indeed, maybe the most perfect vehicle for filial emotion ever devised, so that despite the fact that Last Crusade is one of Spielberg's stupidest, most senseless narratives, it is also his most tear-jerking, which, for my purposes, is an easy enough synonym for "profound."  (On that note, could any director have been luckier than Spielberg, when he found his single most important collaborator, composer John Williams, whose ability to dominate human emotions with sound has been equaled only by Spielberg's ability to do it with sight?  I mean, not so much lately, but you know, back in the day, when he was coining iconic themes left and right, like normal folks change their socks.)

But then, something happened: Spielberg realized what he was doing, and self-consciousness seeped into his work.  More often, he toned himself down; or, when he did intend to manipulate your feelings, you could now tell that he was doing it completely and 100% on purpose.  The last time, I think, that Spielberg hit our screens, without a filter, must have been the ending of Schindler's List.  And, yes, Schindler's melodramatic breakdown is what turned a great movie into a perfect one; and don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

Maudlin sentimentality still marks his work.  Only now, it tends to be cut with a whole lot of grown-up cynicism.  A.I. is rightly considered the turning point, and that one is a bleak and unforgiving movie—indeed, its ending is made moderately dysfunctional by Spielberg's apparent unwillingness to own up to just how bleak and unforgiving his story was.  Later, he'd arrive with weepies like The Terminal and War Horse, and they would work—Spielberg's too good for them not to work—but you could see his hand, right there, earnestly trying to poke you right in the fucking eye.

Sometimes, the added thoughtfulness backfired; he's never been a thoughtful filmmaker by nature, and overthinking things (alongside a compulsion to put some kind of emotional satisfaction into everything he made) perhaps led to that idiosyncratic condition, known as the "Spielberg Ending," where things either fall apart as a logical construct, or just keep freaking going, despite the fact that a conclusion was reached forty minutes ago.  For examples of the former, see The Lost World: Jurassic Park, A.I., The Terminal, War of the Worlds, and, according to most commentators, though not yours truly, Saving Private Ryan.  For the latter, see Catch Me If You Can, Lincoln, and even, to some degree, the otherwise bodacious Adventures of Tintin.  (And The BFG is a special case: the ending certainly makes sense, but you'd almost prefer it if it were just plain broken, if only it were also satisfying.)  It all began, however, with The Color Purple—notably the first "Serious Spielberg" film there was, and which marches on long past the point where it needed to have stopped.

But note well that this isn't to dismiss the even more numerous Spielberg movies that end like glittering flawless diamonds: Duel; The Sugarland Express; Jaws; every Indy movie, even the one no one likes, but especially the first three; Close Encounters; E.T.; Empire of the Sun; the aforementioned List; Amistad; SPR; War Horse; Munich.  (In fact, if you want to get technical, Munich has a Spielberg Ending that goes on for like a whole damned hour, and has a potentially-filmbreaking attempt to shoehorn in the director's usual melodramatic fixations, albeit in a very unusual way—sex!—but Munich actually uses its longeurs to say something for once, rather than just indifferently wind down a narrative that the director didn't know how to finish.  And that's one reason why Munich is so damned great.)  Oh, but lest we forget: if you wanted, you could add 1941 to both lists of terrible Spielberg endings; hell, you might even have to.  If you asked me, however, that movie collapses in upon itself like a black hole due to the Zemeckian factor, not the Spielbergian one.

(And that's a good a segue as any for a minor point: over the years, Spielberg also produced 150 or so motion pictures, via both Amblin Entertainment and DreamWorks SKG.  Hey, you don't become a triple billionaire by just directing things, you know.  We have taken a look at some of his most important productions—or, at least, his best—notably in our Robert Zemeckis retrospective, for it was Spielberg who united the Back to the Future Trilogy with money, and the rest is history.  We likewise took a glance at a few of his other productions during this retrospective, taking aim at Poltergeist, The Goonies, and Arachnophobia.  Should we have reviewed An American Tail, too?  Almost certainly!  But, honestly, An American Tail kind of sucks, and I really, really didn't want to watch it twice in a single calendar year.  So please accept DreamWorks' attempt to step on Disney's feet, The Prince of Egypt, as a consolation prize; since at least that piece of Greater Spielberg is actually awesome.)

Anyway: Spielberg's growing cynicism, fueled by the new political climate after September 11th, hit its peak with Munich—his last masterpiece for a long while, and by far his most adult motion picture of all.  But even as the old, child-sized tools went unused, new frontiers beckoned to Spielberg, and at least since 1993, an experimental bent, and a renewed love for formalism, has increasingly defined a director who was once (and to a huge degree remains) a committed populist: and so we have, in order, List, a black-and-white movie with radically different shooting styles, depending upon which character is in focus; Jurassic Park, one of the first examples of a CGI-driven cinema of attractions; Saving Private Ryan, a war-is-hell exercise that does its level best to make you puke on your living room floor; Minority Report, a bleach-bypass antiseptic dystopia; Munich, a paranoid thriller that could have been made right alongside the terrible events it depicts; Tintin, proof that Spielberg could make one hell of a bitchin' cartoon, and also that mo-cap animation could work (take that, Zemeckis!); and War Horse, which is so classicist in its influences that, in the context of 2011, it honestly feels experimental.

That leaves us with his Late Period work, where the new thoughtfulness of the Serious Filmmaker has threatened to overwhelm the instinctive Entertainer; indeed, it's only here that the Two Spielbergs actually seem to diverge, since even Spielberg's very dourest films (List, Amistad, SPR) were all still intended to be compelling.  But, in 2012 and 2015, Spielberg set himself to the creation of a pair of edifying historical bores, Lincoln and especially Bridge of Spies, adequate films that still have the power to moderately entertain—but could thrill no one.  Meanwhile, The BFG simply feels fatigued; though at least it's fun (not to mention actually attractive, for the first time in a while in a Spielberg joint).

Does that mean what you think it does?  Of course: we couldn't close a Spielberg retrospective without once again mentioning the muse who led him into the second half of his career, good old Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's cinematographer on virtually everything he's done since Schindler (the only exception was the cartoon).  So: Christ, Janusz Kaminski, what is your deal?  You can be amazing one movie, and wretched the next.  Schindler remains the DP's greatest achievement, and that's certainly not nothing; indeed, any man who could shoot such disparate films as A.I., Minority Report, The Terminal, and Munich can only be called "genius."  But as Spielberg visibly disengaged from aesthetics in 2012, in his zeal to deliver history without special adornment, at least beyond the essential "movieness" of all of Spielberg's films, what he and Kaminski actually did was simply default to their basic aesthetic—and their basic aesthetic is obnoxious and awful.  (See also, Catch Me If You Can, a near-waste of its time period.)  The BFG, whatever its flaws, at least represents a recognition that if you have a cinematographer like Kaminski, he must be given concrete tasks.  Do that, and he is amazing; do nothing, and what you get is merely a shaft of light, stamping on a human face forever.

So let us celebrate the man, despite his late-career slip!  (I guess that's why he's only a demigod, right?)  If we're lucky, he'll be with us for years to come, and his next films are already announced: The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (another chronicle, which at least promises to be less narratively and emotionally dry than Bridge of Spies) and Ready Player One (which I assume will be kind of like Pixels, except not psychotically terrible).  (ETA: And that is not exactly what Ready Player One was--it's more like A.I.: But Fun--but I guess Pixels Except Not Psychotically Terrible does capture a lot of it.  Meanwhile, there's The Post, which just kind of snuck up on us, but proved that Spielberg's ability to chronicle history has not permanently atrophied.)

In the spirit of celebration, then, you will find below a ranked list of all of Spielberg's movies, from Duel to The BFG The Post Ready Player One and damned near everything in between (regrettably, Spielberg's third TV movie, Savage, is not available in any form I'm aware of; it is the sole omission).  What I want to direct your attention to is not just how many are great, but also how few of them are actually bad.  How many filmmakers can say that, in forty-seven years and thirty-one theatrically-released films, they only made three crappy ones, plus one lousy TV movie?  The answer, of course, is "nobody."

33. SOMETHING EVIL  (3/10)
31. ALWAYS (5/10)
30. 1941 (5.01/10)
29. BRIDGE OF SPIES  (6/10)
28. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN  (6/10)
27. HOOK  (6/10)
25. LINCOLN  (6/10)
24. THE COLOR PURPLE  (7/10)
23. THE BFG (7/10)
22. WAR OF THE WORLDS  (7/10)
20. WAR HORSE  (8/10)
19. THE POST (8/10)
17. EMPIRE OF THE SUN (9/10)
13. AMISTAD  (9/10)
12. THE TERMINAL  (9/10)
10. JURASSIC PARK  (9/10)
9b. POLTERGEIST**  (9/10)
9a. THE GOONIES***  (9/10)
8a. ARACHNOPHOBIA*** (10/10)
8. MUNICH  (10/10)
7. DUEL  (10/10)
6.  SCHINDLER'S LIST  (10/10)
4.  JAWS  (10/10)

Films marked with one asterisk (*) indicate anthology films which Spielberg directed one segment of, but since the specific anthology film I'm referring to is Twilight Zone: The Movie, and Spielberg's segment kinda blows, I don't feel comfortable treating it like a Spielberg flick.  Maybe if this were a Joe Dante or George Miller retrospective, I'd be willing to attribute the ownership—but not so much here.
Films marked with two asterisks (**) indicate films "directed" by Tobe Hooper, but actually directed by Steven Spielberg.  Maybe.
Films marked with three asterisks (***) indicate films which Spielberg produced, and had a real hand in, but did not direct.




    1. Not everyone's cup of tea, I suppose, but it's easily my favorite. The hard part was trying to decide whether or not Last Crusade was better than Raiders, since Last Crusade has higher highs, but is way, way more inconsistent. (And Jaws is right there, too, arguing that maybe my top three Spielberg movies shouldn't also be the three original Indiana Jones movies, for propriety's sake, but I told Jaws "no.")

  2. Your 'Close Encounters' review seems to have been swallowed up by the internet!

  3. By the way, #1 is correct.

    1. ^ Oops, forgot to put my name

    2. Well... swallowed up by me. I wanted to rework it in light of The Fabelmans, as it involved a lot of biographical stuff that was based on some dubious conceptions; I'll have to get back to it whenever I address The Fabelmans' outstanding omission here. Would've been good if I could've gotten to go see Close Encounters in a theater during its recent re-release, but alas!