I feel in some ways like I’ve made a big mistake. As I stated back when I introed the opening to my weeklong dissection of Scorsese, I started these director-based projects as a way to not only fill in a lot of the gaps in my cinematic knowledge, but also to get a firm handle on what the director I frame the project around is all about.
There’s an obvious flaw there, but I didn’t see it simply due to the directors I had picked. Previous projects included Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, and even Kevin Smith. And the one thing all these directors had in common that I didn’t realize is that on some level or another they’re auteurs. How did I only notice this now?
Steven Spielberg is a good director, but he’s no auteur. And such a simple thing turns these projects from insightful examinations of a person’s body of work into just a handful of films. With its own evolution, to be sure, as new projects are taken on and movies themselves grow as a medium. But without most of the greater meaning that can be gleamed from a director with more upfront voice to their work.
I say that in preface of the inevitable admission: I don’t really have a lot to say about Spielberg’s filmography as a whole. I enjoyed, more or less, my efforts in watching the films I hadn’t seen (or hadn’t seen in so long I was similarly unfamiliar with them) and in revisiting the movies I grew up loving. So instead of a series of big articles, I think I’m just going to offer some shorter thoughts on various parts of his filmography, and we’re going to call this a project.
- Duel holds up surprisingly well. The parts that were refilmed when it made the jump from TV movie to theatrical release are glaringly obvious and kind of kill the pacing, but the simple story of man vs. truck is effective and tenser than most of his later films that attempt to evoke the same feelings.
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of the rare scifi films, or maybe even films in general, to evoke a genuine feeling of joy. The final 20 minutes is full of wonder and awe, a hopeful emotional look at a subject that is so often treated these days as something between monster fodder or terrorist allegory.
- Raiders of the Lost Ark is an incredible movie. It’s the rare summer film these days that has characters that don’t make you want to bash your head against a rock, but Raiders shows there’s another way. It’s silly yet thrilling, irreverent yet not stupid. It has moments that are straight noir and moments that are high action, but it all works.
- If E.T. was a person it should go and beat up JJ Abrams for having the gall to even think the bullshit he tried to foist upon us earlier this summer was in the same league as it. E.T. deserves better.
- To go back to Indy for a bit, Harrison Ford is absolutely ripped in Temple of Doom. It’s actually kind of shocking, because even as an action hero he’s never really been that kind of hero. But he totally earns his shirtlessness in that movie.
- I feel like I’m okay grouping The Color Purple and Amistad together under this point. The Color Purple is a much better movie, I’ll admit, with more realized characters and a better arc to it all. But I enjoyed Amistad far more. Maybe because I like political courtroom dramas more than small focus life epics. Maybe because I can relate to stories of fussy white men better than suffering black women. I don’t really know. It is undoubtedly a failing of taste on my part. It is hilarious that Anthony Hopkins, covered in old age makeup, looks far older than actually-old Anthony Hopkins does these days.
- I cannot unsee adult Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun. Certainly that kid grows up, becomes Batman, and beats the shit out of John Malkovich’s character. It’s very distracting how recognizable he is. It doesn’t help that the movie suffers from Spielberg’s tendency, pre-Schindler’s List, to sugarcoat his war stuff (see also 1941, which I don’t feel the need to mention outside of this parenthetical). If you want to watch a far better movie about children on the periphery of war, I suggest Grave of the Fireflies.
- Always is the worst Spielberg movie. I know Hook is bad and The Lost World is lame to the point of being insulting, but Always is truly terrible. A story of a man who dies and then becomes guardian angel to the man who eventually falls for his grieving girlfriend, it makes Ghost look positively nuanced and interesting by comparison. It’s sentimental pap.
- Hook is a really interesting movie. It’s not a good one, don’t get me wrong, but the story is crawling with allusions to a story about death and legacy and adults rife with mortal terror that never gets addressed. They’re just slipped in there, a better story from an earlier draft perhaps. It’s a pity, really, because the film we get is just so god awful.
- Schindler’s List is good, though I’ve made my one complaint known already.
- Jurassic Park was one of the two movies growing up that were my Star Wars (the other being Terminator 2). It’s the first movie I saw twice in the theaters. I wore my VHS out. Rewatching it I could still quote large sections of it. So I don’t have anything bad to say about it, really, outside of wondering about early CG films and how they’ll age. Jurassic Park really put CG on the map, but the digital dinosaurs look like dino droppings next to the practical ones (a problem I imagine will be exacerbated in the impending BluRay release.) But by the same token, I wouldn’t want them to go back and ‘fix’ it, because that way lies Lucasian madness.
- The Lost World, on the other hand, is absolute garbage. Sure, Goldblum does his best and it’s neat seeing Vince Vaughn before he became typecast as a giant douchebag, and the movie has a great Pete Postlethwaite performance, but it’s still not a good movie. Be it the really awful schlocky sequence of a T-Rex wandering through suburbia (weirdly ripped off for the first Transformers movie), or the part where Jeff Goldblum’s daughter uses parallel bars to KICK A VELOCIRAPTOR THROUGH A WINDOW. The movie takes an already kind of silly idea and batters it into farce. It’s just incredibly lazy.
- Saving Private Ryan is heavy handed and almost an hour too long. I can only imagine it was popular because of the opening sequence and because people who don’t know shit from shinola movie-wise watched that one after all the hype.
- A.I.: Artificial Intelligence still makes me cry at the end. I love it, weird tonal shifts and all.
- Minority Report is the best movie about the immediate future ever. Though the guesses it made about phones are pre-smart phone and thus seem really hilarious already. Everybody’s making actual voice calls in the future? Yeah, right.
- The Terminal is way better than it has any right to be, and that rests squarely on every actor that isn’t Stanley Tucci, who was apparently told to drop a giant turd on every one of his scenes. He feels wildly out of place in what’s otherwise a warm, moderately nuanced movie.
- I already wrote this thing on War of the Worlds. Doesn’t really bear further discussion other than to say I think the disintegration ray is still super cool.
- Munich is really amazing. It’s real-life roots and ambitious scope make it a political intrigue/action film that puts every modern Bond movie to shame. And then it gets all thinky in the second half, without being outright preachy. It’s good stuff, better than I could have hoped. It’s easily the most surprising movie I encountered in watching all of these.
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t nearly as bad as everyone wants to make it out to be. The opening half hour is very confused about what it wants to be, and yes it has too much CG and Shia LaDouche being a giant asshole. But Ford can still wear the hat and sell me that this is the same Indy. And when Karen Allen shows up, the magic is there.
I didn’t talk about every movie, because I don’t have something to say about every movie. Sure, I’m willing to admit I finally liked Jaws after being bored by it as a kid. But saying I liked Jaws isn’t interesting. It’s hard to find something to say in movies that are so well spoken for when my opinion on most of them doesn’t differentiate that much from the norm.
And certainly I could go on about Spielberg’s obsession with broken homes and absent fathers and resentful or needy children. But I don’t think it’s very important for me to do so. These movies are part of the zeitgeist, and for as much as I’ve enjoyed this project none of the movies are particularly subtle.
Anyway, I began this project with a sense of doing my homework or eating my vegetables. I’m drawn to things that are usually weirder and more arty or more schlocky than Spielberg’s ultra-mainstream fare. But I found myself really enjoying a good 90% of the project, even in the revisiting of movies that I knew pretty well. And it did provide a good history lesson in broad-audience movie-making, from early blockbusters to the more personal historical films.
We’re getting both this Holiday after a pretty lengthy hiatus post-Crystal Skull. There’s The Adventures of Tintin, which nobody in America but me probably cares about but I am incredibly excited for. And there’s War Horse, which will probably make everyone cry and certainly looks incredibly well shot but I can’t really get up a whole lot of enthusiasm for. Probably because I don’t really care about horses. Or because most of Spielberg’s war movies have been pretty indulgent.
Either way, the trailers are right up there, and I’m going to call this an early project. Like I said, there just isn’t a lot of good meaty stuff to be mined from this. Maybe it’s just that the things I find interesting skew a little less vanilla, or that Spielberg feels so culturally mined out as a filmmaker I don’t consider any contribution I could make meaningful. Either way, here we are.
In the meantime I’ll be taking a break from director-focused projects for a little while to watch some random movies I’ve been meaning to get to and to go on a mini-marathon of the Planet of the Apes films. I’ll be back later in the year with something decidedly artier than Spielberg, and hopefully I’ll have more to say in my dumb-ass quest to reduce all of filmmaking to the man in the big seat.