Steven Spielberg Studies
Steven Spielberg on the set of The Sugarland Express, 1974
by Steven Rybin
Steven Spielberg’s America,
by Frederick Wasser,
Polity, 200 pp.
In his book Citizen Spielberg, Lester D. Friedman notes the intellectual disrespectability sometimes attached to studying a filmmaker as commercially successful as Steven Spielberg. As Friedman reveals in an anecdote, one of his colleagues, upon learning of the author’s chosen topic, characterises scholarly work on Spielberg as ‘the academic equivalent of appearing in a porn movie: how would I ever regain scholarly legitimacy?’ (Friedman 2006, 2). Fortunately, several thoughtful volumes on the director in the last five years prove the worthiness of Spielberg as an object of study. In addition to the Friedman book, these include Warren Buckland’s Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster, Nigel Morris’s The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light, Dean A. Kowalski’s edited collection Steven Spielberg and Philosophy: ‘We’re Going to Need a Bigger Book‘ (reviewed by Daniel Bleasdale in Film-Philosophy 14.1), and the title reviewed here, Frederick Wasser’s Steven Spielberg’s America.
Unlike Friedman, however, Wasser bears no traces of guilt over his chosen subject, and dismisses any concerns over scholarly legitimacy: ‘It is no longer in question whether Spielberg’s films are worthy; the world-wide audience long ago delivered that verdict’ (4). The commercial success of Spielberg’s films, far from impeding serious analysis, is central to Wasser’s claim that the films ‘can serve as the visible marker of larger forces which are more difficult to track without such an index’ (2). Wasser’s take on Spielberg, informed primarily by cultural studies, film industry research and close textual analysis, analyzes Spielberg’s films in relation to ‘how mainstream film handles the socio-political world’ (4), an approach that occasions frequent comparisons of Spielberg’s films to other seminal moments in popular cinema, such as Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and Batman (Tim Burton, 1989). As his analysis unfolds, Wasser charts three stages of development in Spielberg’s filmmaking and its relationship to the larger world of society and politics: his early apprenticeship, including a brief flirting with counter-cultural politics and his development of the blockbuster style; his refinement of the blockbuster style and his first tentative forays into the historical film; and a later synthesis of the immersive style of his earlier successes with a more reflective form of politically conscious historical filmmaking.
Duel, Universal pictures, 1971
The first chapter dates Spielberg’s discovery of a love for cinema to his family’s move to Arizona in the 1950s. Spielberg discovered the movies of 1930s Hollywood through television, a vision of the world that sharply contrasted with images offered by the American cinema of his childhood. ‘Two sets of values competed,’ Wasser writes, ‘and on television Steven Spielberg could watch the populist 1930s movies, while in the theater the current Hollywood movies would reflect a backward movement towards private domestic stories’ (23). Lacking a frame of reference beyond the movies in the sunbelt culture of his childhood, Spielberg’s early attempts at filmmaking focused less on the development of an original historical or mythical perspective and more on honing the stylistic techniques that would grow into a visceral and immersive film style in his later blockbusters. The situation produced a filmmaker ‘whose imagination wanted to engage the history of the Arizona landscape, but did not have the native stories with which to do it’ (22). As Wasser shows, this focus on style rather than an original, clearly articulated engagement with history and culture results in films that, at least early in the director’s career, are exciting but that sometimes lack intellectual focus and clarity. As the author discusses in a passage on the early telefilm Duel (1971), Spielberg’s surprise at sophisticated readings of his film from serious (and mostly European) critical perspectives, as well as the director’s own rather confused responses to these readings, indicates the lack of a coherent worldview brought to the early films by the director.
As Wasser argues in the second chapter, Spielberg’s earliest films also reflect an ambivalent attitude toward the counter-culture that defined their context. In his short film Amblin’ (1968), for example, Spielberg tells the story of a young boy who becomes fascinated with a hippie girl and her lifestyle. But the boy ultimately rejects this counter-cultural way of life even as the film evokes both his and the filmmaker’s fascination with it. Spielberg’s films before the success of Jaws (1975) thus reflect less an interest in asserting an alternative set of values than in exploring the aesthetic possibilities of new film techniques. Wasser argues that filmmakers such as Spielberg and Lucas suffered visual deprivation due to the encroaching medium of television in the 1950s, which reduced the grandeur of classical cinema. Spielberg subsequently compensated with a visceral approach in his own films that aimed at immersing the viewer in spectacle. In some respects, this is a curious argument, given that Spielberg and Lucas grew up in the 1950s, the age of improving color processes and the development of widescreen cinema, whose visceral qualities were thrown into relief by television’s relatively tiny screen. But Wasser shows how Spielberg’s visceral approach was not cinema-specific: Spielberg’s early experience in television, directing episodes for series such as The Night Gallery (1970-1973) and Columbo (1971-1990), provided a training ground for immersive visual storytelling even in cases where the director did not craft the story or characters.
Goldie Hawn as Lou Jean Poplin, Sugarland Express, Universal Pictures, 1974
By the 1970s, Spielberg also developed an ideological relationship with his subject matter and by extension his audience, that for Wasser has as much to do with his early success as his interest in visceral filmmaking. Spielberg’s first theatrical venture, The Sugarland Express (1973), a lovers-on-the-lam film cut from the same counter-cultural cloth as Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974), nevertheless sympathized with the character of the police captain Tanner (Ben Johnson). As Wasser writes, Tanner signaled in Spielberg’s work ‘a further interest in the middle figure; the everyman as the hero’ (61), or in other words, a step toward the crowd-pleasing blockbuster cinema of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1983), which form the subject of Wasser’s third chapter. Here the author argues that Spielberg papers over the ideological contradictions and ambivalences of his earlier work, effectively setting into motion a critique of American authority while at the same time mitigating that critique with an immersive film style and sympathetic characters. As Wasser writes, Jaws presents a ‘jaundiced view of local government’ that ‘mirrored a general loss of respect for authority’ (71). But by the end of the film – after the three central characters, including the authority figure Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider), unite to kill the shark – the greater emphasis is less on critique of authority and more on ‘the director’s desire to stitch together his own generation and everyone else as members of an all-inclusive audience’ (73).
Here the ideological ambivalence of the earlier films is eschewed through characters that, theoretically, any viewer can identify with, and through a perfection of a visceral style which for Wasser relegates any direct political engagement with subject matter to the background (7). In the fourth chapter, Wasser shows how this retreat from political engagement continues in the director’s 1980s blockbusters, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which represent less an engagement and critique of authority and more a satisfaction of the audience’s desires for wish fulfillment. For Wasser, in the early 1980s Spielberg thus become complicit with the marketplace values and the retreat of the private citizen from public life that were characteristic of Reagan’s America in the 1980s.
In the fifth chapter, however, Wasser locates a gradual emergence from this political cocoon through both early experiments in the historical film and blockbusters that tentatively distance themselves from the right-wing ideology of ‘hard body’ films such as First Blood (1982) and Die Hard (1988). ‘Hard body’ cinema represents a mythic revision of the Vietnam War and a public acceptance of the vigilante hero. Such films function for Wasser as a ‘cultural expression for male anxiety as the workplace (including the military) let more women into a variety of jobs’ (141). In this context, Spielberg’s later blockbusters Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Jurassic Park (1993) are more forward-looking, offering ‘soft body’ male heroes (such as Ford’s Indiana Jones), significant roles for women (Alison Doody in Last Crusade and Laura Dern in Jurassic Park) as well as an international cast that reduces any sense of American exceptionalism (143). So too do these films, particularly Jurassic Park, strengthen Spielberg’s commitment to honing his immersive film style through the latest technologies while at the same time retaining his commitment to shaping believably human characters. Thus, in Jurassic Park, ‘the cinematic payoff is not only that Spielberg can create a dinosaur but that he can also convincingly combine the dinosaur with the photographic elements, i.e. the human actors, within the same space’ (150).
Wayne Knight as Dennis Nedry, Jurassic Park, Universal Pictures, 1993
As the book proceeds, Wasser finds that Spielberg’s filmmaking matures through its engagement with historical subject matter. As the author discusses, films such as The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987) grant Spielberg a historical frame capable of reaching a more diverse and, in the case of the latter film (which was more successful overseas than in the United States), a global audience. The turn to history also signals a larger ambition on Spielberg’s part: ‘The historical film uses history to speak of present times and to intervene in contemporary politics’ (11-12). For Wasser (influenced here by the work of Frederic Jameson), Minority Report (2001) is a more historical film than Schindler’s List (1993), because the former occasions a more direct critical engagement with ‘realistic representations’ of presently existing human society than Spielberg’s ostensibly more ‘historical’ treatment of the holocaust, for Wasser ‘a relatively easy look at the past’ that ‘does not urge us to reform the present’ (159-160). Spielberg’s gradual synthesis of his earlier immersive style with his new interest in historical filmmaking occasions the most intriguing question Wasser asks: how does the director reconcile his blockbuster style, which for the author tends to encourage an unreflective mode of spectatorship, with the mode of the politically engaged historical film, which seeks to actively involve its audience in thinking through the implications of cinema’s representation of history and its relevance to the present?
This question occasions both Wasser’s strongest praise for the director as well as his highest degree of ambivalence about the value of the films. Wasser notes how a dichotomy at work in discussions of Spielberg’s career – a separation between the style of the “popcorn films” and the ambition of the ‘serious’ historical films – becomes a dialectic at play in the films themselves. Wasser locates a false start to this dialectic in Amistad (1997), a well-intentioned historical drama that falls short in terms of both historical inquiry and film style (the author argues it is one of the director’s most aesthetically stilted works, rejecting the visceral style that characterizes almost all his other films). With Saving Private Ryan (1998), though, Wasser finds a productive tension at play in Spielberg’s use of style and his ambition to involve the audience with questions of history. His style is as immersive as ever, particularly in Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach sequence. However, Spielberg’s commitment to immersion is so extreme that, paradoxically, it begins to call attention to itself as a technique: ‘The placement of the explosions were random, and unnerved the audience, confounding the usual expectation that explosions would either be featured in the center of the frame or placed far in the background’ (177). While Wasser critiques Spielberg’s focus on the private experience of the soldiers rather than the collective goals of the war (a move in which the director effectively rejects the social populism on which the 1930s Hollywood films he revered were based), the style of Saving Private Ryan succeeds in prompting its audience to think through the very idea of historical representation in the cinema.
But it is in this discussion of Spielberg’s historical films, valued by the author as the director’s most vital contribution to a socially engaged mainstream cinema, that certain problems in Wasser’s approach to Spielberg’s relationship with his audience also become apparent. Early in the book, Wasser presents the thesis that Spielberg’s films are meaningful not as an expression of a personal vision but in negotiation with his audiences. In discussing the director’s blockbusters the author qualifies this thesis by writing that Spielberg actually anticipates and articulates anxieties in the mainstream audience, effectively granting the director a larger degree of agency in any potentially dialogic relationship with his viewers that might emerge from his dialectical play with the popular and the serious (100). Elsewhere, Wasser links Spielberg’s cinema directly to the zeitgeist, showing how the desire to please the audience animates Spielberg: ‘All his films reflect the audience’s desire. The audience wanted Jaws and Close Encounters to be escapist and so they were’ (10). This reflects the rather mechanical, deterministic picture of the meaning-making relationship between the auteur and his audience at work throughout the book.
It ultimately remains unclear why Spielberg’s filmmaking choices should necessarily result in the realization of an already existing audience desire. For Wasser, when Spielberg turns to the genre of the historical film, the director begins to challenge his audience to think through the meaning of the very way in which his blockbuster style represents history. While the author’s discussion of the complex relationship between the historical films and their audiences is in many respects the strongest part of Wasser’s argument (one of the book’s highlights is its analysis of Minority Report), it is not immediately clear why an audience member could not bring a similar perspective to Jaws or E.T. After all, even if the films themselves, on a textual level, are ‘unreflective’ (that is, lacking aesthetic distance in favor of visceral immersion), this does not mean they necessarily preclude reflective, philosophical analysis. A more nuanced conception of spectatorship, and perhaps even of aesthetics, might have usefully subtended Wasser’s engaging discussions of the way in which the films themselves encourage (or not) further reflection with the ideas and social issues they present.
Despite these quibbles, the merits of Wasser’s study lie in his ability to clearly show how Spielberg’s films dynamically develop in relation to their social and cultural context over the course of the filmmaker’s career. The socio-political approach to the material does not mitigate Wasser’s ability to analyze Spielberg’s approach to film style. The author nicely teases out how Spielberg’s commitment to an immersive film technique operates in different ways during different social moments. Good discussions of Spielberg’s use of computer-generated imagery on Jurassic Park as well as the director’s use of color, sound, and camera work in engaging his audience with his historical films – the author’s discussion of the stylistic approach to Saving Private Ryan is excellent – offer useful opportunities for the text to open up further questions in the classroom about the relationship between social meaning, the historical film, and film style. At times, of course, the reader may find herself questioning the assumptions that the author occasionally falls into during his discussion of style. At one point, for example, Wasser suggests that Spielberg’s filming of The Sugarland Express was, in comparison to Terrence Malick’s Badlands, ‘less contrived and more mobile … because his setting was the near present’ (59). But it is not at all clear why a contemporary setting should necessitate a particular kind of style or protect against contrivance. However, in exploring Spielberg’s relationship to his audiences and in carefully investigating the development of the director’s career over the course of over fifty years of American history, Steven Spielberg’s America continues to disprove the notion that in studying the most popular director in the world one gives up scholarly legitimacy.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Universal Pictures, 1982
Piece originally published at Film-Philosophy |
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