Sunday, May 5, 2013
Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #1 - Steven Spielberg
-Raiders of the Lost Ark
-ET: Extra Terrestrial
-Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
-Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
-Saving Private Ryan
-Twilight Zone: The Movie
-Close Encounters of the Third Kind
-AI: Artificial Intelligence
-Catch Me If You Can
-Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
-War of the Worlds
-The Lost World: Jurassic Park
No other living director's name can be so immediately associated with great movies.
Steven Spielberg is standard by which all great movies are made.
Steven Spielberg has changed the way the movie industry works.
Steven Spielberg is not a director. He is a wizard. His movies cast a spell on you.
To be sure, some of the spells backfire. He has made some truly bad films. But even in most of those films, you can find memorable gems. The Lost World has genuine thrills in it. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull can be kind of fun if you turn off your brain.
The shortcomings of his mediocre movies tend to stem from the fact that Steven Spielberg's favorite director is also Steven Spielberg. After AI, he has not been able to edit his movies down to an appropriate length. And that can be the difference between a good movie and a great movie. AI changed Spielberg as a film-maker. His friend, Stanley Kubrick, died before he could make AI. So Spielberg decided to make the movie for him.
Now, I think Stanley Kubrick is a terrible director. Don't get me wrong, his visuals are amazing. But the visuals are a means to an end. The visuals should serve the story. Kubrick believed the opposite. After AI, you can see much more Kubrick in Spielberg. And because of that, he will keep visually interesting sequences in that detract from the trust of the story when they should be cut. If you take 30 minutes out of Catch Me If You Can, the narrative is tighter, more exciting, and ends on a high note. Take an hour out of Munich and you have a movie that is morally comprehensible as well as an edge of your seat thriller.
As I noted when I began this series, many directors are never able to recapture the magic of their early days. I am more optimistic for Steven Spielberg, because his skill is still evident, as in his latest movie Lincoln. He has learned more subtlety, but this has not diluted his power. The opening scene of that movie does so much with the visuals and the story without you realizing it. Lincoln is a man apart. Admired, adored, but aloof and lonely. You get all of this from the first 5 minutes. Spielberg can still weave a powerful spell.
But let us go back to those early movies that made his name what it is today.
Jaws: One of the 10 best films ever made. It has a solid script and good acting. But that movie is what it is because of Spielberg. Everyone today is familiar with the problems they had with Jaws. The mechanical shark was supposed to be shown in most of the movie. But it barely worked. The young Spielberg had a choice: stick with the original plan or try something bold. He chose the latter. He understood that while movies are visual, it is not always about showing the audience something. You can give them a visual cue that will send their imaginations into overdrive. To this day, the night scene at the pier still thrills me. And you never see the shark. You see a tire and a broken section of the pier. And those two things stimulate my mind to fill in the blank with something horrible. I don't think people realized the first time they saw Jaws how little the saw of the shark. That's because Spielberg cast a spell on you.
Raiders of the Lost Ark: If you think about it, very little in that opening sequence that makes sense. But you don't care because Spielberg pulls you into the excitement. Raiders is actually much darker than I think people remember. Indiana Jones is a rather dark person, full of cynicism and doubt. But Spielberg keeps putting him in more and more dire situations so that you never stop rooting for him. And even when the movie moves slowly, you are filled with wonder. The scene in the map room is essentially Indy reading and standing. And yet Spielberg's use of light and shadow (not to mention John Williams music) draw you in.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: There is no question that this movie has flaws. But it is hard to argue with how exciting the movie is. The action sequences are bigger and more arresting than Raiders. Everything in the movie from when Indy starts freeing the slave children is pure movie magic. And he tops it all off with the best scene in the movie: the bridge. Willie Scott's reaction is a perfect reflection of what is going on the mind of the audience.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: I remember a few years ago I did a mini marathon of Indiana Jones movies to get ready to see Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I skipped through Raiders and Doom, but I found I was glued to every frame of Crusade. This is not only the best of the Indiana Jones series, it is the best adventure movie of all time. Put it up against the other 2 movies and not only does it move faster, is more fun, has more twists, is more exciting, but it also has a completely enthralling emotional truth about fathers and sons. Spielberg shows the ever present gap between a man and his father. The experience of raising a son and being raised by a father leave vastly different impressions. Indy and his father are different in ways that can never be changed. But the bond of love is so strong. The son just wants the father to recognize the man he is. And as Indy reaches for the Grail, his fingertips nudging it, Henry says "Indiana." All the sound drops away, the focus of Indy's world shifts and returns to the real treasure in front of him: the love of his father.
Also, I will never forget the thrill, both emotionally and intellectually, when Indy said those 7 words: "That is the cup of a Carpenter."
ET: I just re-watched this early Spielberg film and it holds up just as well now as it did in the early '80's. This is a testament to the timeless nature of many of Spielberg's movies. But this film is, at its heart, a fairy tale. It is a story told from the perspective of a child. But it is also smart and sophisticated. It is child-like without being childish. Besides all of the great use of lighting and color, I only noticed something very important on my last viewing. With the exception of the mom and the main scientist who talks to Elliot, you don't see any of the adult's faces for most of the movie. Spielberg captured the worldview of a child, for whom grown ups are strange and distant like aliens. It is only after ET dies that the masks literally come off and Elliot has entered the world of adults. He lost his innocence. But then Spielberg tries to bring the wonder of childhood back to a broken world and he does it beautifully.
Jurassic Park: This is a movie that made you love and hate the dinosaurs at once. They were wonderful and terrible, just as any force of nature. This could have been another action/adventure. The other 2 Jurassic Park films are mediocre at best. But the first one absorbs you completely in the majesty and terror of the park. Many talk about the movie as a breakthrough in computer animation, and this is true. But Spielberg, unlike George Lucas, knows when to use CGI and when not to do so. You never felt that the danger was unreal because of the special effects. He also knew when to hold back until a reveal of a dinosaur would have its greatest effect.
Saving Private Ryan is one of his most important movies. His staging of the invasion of Normandy carries with it a realism and horror seldom seen in a movie. From the moment the camera pans down onto the metal barriers on that gray beach until the camera slowly pushes into Tom Hanks' haunted eyes, I am riveted. The rest of the movie is also excellent, if a bit too long. Spielberg shows that war is hell. But he does not condemn it. He understands the heroism of the soldiers, even as the bend and break under the stress of combat. And because of that hell, you respect them all the more. One of the simplest and most arresting moments for me is when Hanks' Capt. Miller simply stares longingly at simple pleasures like hot coffee, sandwiches, and shaving razors. Too much is asked of him and too little given. And Spielberg makes you understand that it has to be this way.
But the crown jewel of his career, never to be topped is without question his utter and ultimate masterpiece: Schindler's List. There is no movie like it. There never will be. I just re-watched this a month ago and every shot, every frame, every edit is genius. It was as if he summoned his entire will towards making a movie that would transcend everything else. I could write a book about how amazing this film is, from its use of light, shadow, color, symmetry, movement, music, etc. But the best way I can describe it is to describe the experience I had in the theater. Spielberg showed us the hell of being good. Schindler is broken by his virtue. His conscience comes alive and it breaks his heart. His line, "one more person..." is so haunting because he is damning himself for the good he failed to do. And yet this tortured Schindler is better than the oblivious Schindler at the beginning of the movie. As the movie finished with that incredible transition from narrative to documentary, that silent 7 minutes drilled its way into your heart, reminding you that you did not just watch a movie. You watched real life. And when the credits began to role, not a single person in the theater could move. It was like coming up for air. I had been completely transported away from my life in 1993 America. I wasn't in a movie theater. I was in World War II Poland. And when I came back, I felt like my life had changed. I felt as if I was somehow different inside.
Very few great works can do this. I've only had this experience two other times: seeing Return of the Jedi as a child and seeing The Passion of the Christ as a man.
And one more note on Spielberg. It amazes me how respectfully he treats faith. I do not know if he is a religious man, but he treats those who believe with more deference than most in Hollywood. The soldiers praying in Saving Private Ryan are not freaks to be mocked. He does not couch the hatred of the Jews in Schindler's List with some kind of religious animosity. In Amistad, there is this incredibly moving scene where an illiterate slave tries to figure out the Gospel story from the pictures drawn in a Bible, and this gives him a melancholy hope. In that same movie, the Catholic judge turns to God for help in making a just decision. Even the Indiana Jones movies (not Crystal Skull) hold the artifacts of religious faith with great respect.
As a devout Catholic I cannot tell you how important that has been for me. Steven Spielberg has not only been a shining light but also an oasis from the cynicism and sneering of the movies. Apparently there are many in Hollywood who cannot stand Spielberg's movies, which is why he did not win again for Lincoln. But I guarantee that at the heart of that is jealousy.
When it comes to film, no one will ever match what Spielberg has accomplished. To paraphrase what Ben Johnson said of William Shakespeare:
Steven Spielberg is not a director of our time, but a director for ALL time.