I’m getting sick and tired of HE commenters saying I’m such a Steven Spielberg basher that I have no credibility when I write about his films — that I’m blinded by some blanket aesthetic contempt or whatever. Even Sasha Stone has suggested this. An hour ago I answered a couple of guys who threw this charge at me (“you have zero credibility when it comes to judging a Spielberg movie”) as follows:
I have no credbility because I’m convinced that Spielberg is a high-end journeyman hack with an all-but-incorrigible sentimental streak? There is ample…make that mountains of evidence to back up that view. He’s probably the only hack in Hollywood history with a personal net worth of over $3 billion, but that’s an asterisk, not a disqualifier. He loves what he’s doing and so do tens of millions of viewers, but he’s essentially a showman — an impersonal ringmaster in the Ringling Bros. tradition. He’s not quite the Cecil B. DeMille of our time, but he’s in that realm.
I’ve been grappling with Spielberg and his films for 40 years now (starting with the televising of Duel in ’71) and I feel I really know the man inside and out.
Almost all of Spielberg’s movies have been about the fact that he’s a skilled, highly gifted filmmaker who likes to “get” audiences and sell tickets. The charge that was first thrown at him back in the late ’70s and early ’80s (along with DePalma and Lucas) is that he’s a middle-class, not especially worldly or well-read kid from Arizona who likes to make movies about other movies, and that he’s not exactly swept away or lifted up with great feeling or conviction about the world outside the Hollywood realm.
Spielberg hasn’t really grown out of that. He still lives in his own world. War Horse is the latest of his films to make that abundantly clear.
With the exception of Schindler’s List and E.T. — arguably the only two films in his canon that have delivered truly personal, deep-down convictions and emotions (as opposed to generic sentimentality about family, tradition, the American way of life, the U.S. military during World War II, the paintings of Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth, etc.) — Spielberg’s filmmaking passion has mostly been about being nothing more or less than commercially successful filmmaker.
Spielberg’s mission has always been about making Joe Popcorn enthralled and amused and soothed and entertained, and he’s always done this by showing us how happy and soothed and entertained Steven Spielberg is while making a film. He loves wearing that red coat and top hat and shouting “ladies and gentleman!” through a megaphone and bringing out the dancing elephant and the trapeze artists and the lion and the lion tamer with the boots and the whip and the chair.
Few have his naturally strategic directorial eye, or his special compositional instincts and intelligence. He’s always delivered that special mise en scene excitement, that snap-crackle-popcorn, but he’s never been a serious filmmaker who engages with the world he lives in and/or his own personal core issues (other than his love of cinema).
Spielberg never puts any intimate issues and passions into movies, probably because he doesn’t have any intimate issues and passions (other than his love of cinema). He’s about the cinema of impersonal passion and conviction, about his worship of movies that turned him on as a kid and of great influential directors and great classic films, and of solid craftsmanship and cool smash cuts and great rollercoaster chase sequences and all that.
He’s a jumble of talent and pizazz and a grab-bag of influences without any real core of his own. He’s Mr. Americana, Mr. Hook, Mr. Always (“It’s England, man!”), a money machine, and the most successful shallow filmmaker in motion picture history.
And for 13 years I’ve hated, hated, hated the fact that Spielberg cheated when he went in tight on the old grieving man’s eyes in the beginning of Saving Private Ryan and then cut to Tom Hanks and his comrades on the landing craft about to land at Omaha Beach. That was a wildly dishonest cut (or transition), and for me it brought the whole film down a notch or two.
Spielberg was a golden boy and a filmmaking dynamo operating in the exact right moment in time from Duel through E.T./Poltergeist, although I became convinced when I saw 1941 (which included an hommage to Jaws, four years after that film came out) that he was quite the egotist, and that he didn’t have the outside-the-Hollywood-realm experience or bull-headed integrity to be John Ford or Howard Hawks.
And then he resurged with the third Indiana Jones film (which I genuinely love on a chapter-to-chapter basis).
And then he found Schindler’s List, a story and a subject he deeply cared about and brought his core convictions to, and almost a total abandonment of his usual look-at-how-clever-and-enthused-I-am devices (except for the little red-tinted girl in the ghetto) and sentimentality (except for Liam Neeson weeping with guilt at the end).