"When I grow up, I still want to be a director."
Up there for the most important filmmaker in the world to me and even one of the most misunderstood. I naturally loved Spielberg as a kid then kind of lost interest in a lot of his stuff when I was in high school, except for Catch Me if You Can, which I was obsessed with and haven't seen since. Somehow, thankfully, his films came back into my life and I am so happy I got to do this run through his work. When assessing Spielberg, I think it's necessary to to think of his artistic reputation along with the context of Hollywood, genre, form, and most importantly humanity, specifically…
"When I grow up, I still want to be a director."
Up there for the most important filmmaker in the world to me and even one of the most misunderstood. I naturally loved Spielberg as a kid then kind of lost interest in a lot of his stuff when I was in high school, except for Catch Me if You Can, which I was obsessed with and haven't seen since. Somehow, thankfully, his films came back into my life and I am so happy I got to do this run through his work. When assessing Spielberg, I think it's necessary to to think of his artistic reputation along with the context of Hollywood, genre, form, and most importantly humanity, specifically the difference between childhood and adulthood. Here are some of my reflections after completing his filmography. I know it's long but I actually couldn't fit more of what I wanted to say. I guess read the reviews of specific films if you want more.
Film history makes it real easy to look at Spielberg as the "inventor" of the blockbuster and therefore makes him the one person folks can point their fingers at to blame for the shift away from Hollywood auteur driven cinema of the 70s. I could go on about how unintentional it is on the Berg's part, how people forget Hollywood is a business where there is not just money to be made but also money to be lost (that's just the way it is folks), how the general media outlets created an incentive to assess box office, but the most important factor I believe is just how darn engaging it would have been in the 70s and 80s to watch a new Spielberg film. No one loves 70s Hollywood more than me, but I'd be lying if I said most of those films are more entertaining than Jaws and entertainment, let's face it, is what most folk not want, but need to go to the movies for. And even though this Spielberg-Lucas era became the symbol of the blockbuster invention, I personally see almost no correlation between the majority of blockbusters made today and what Spielberg actually stood for. Spielberg certainly has an awareness of this and would address it subtly with Ready Player One; it's not Spielberg sucking out meaning and subtext from pop culture, it's us. Only Spielberg, Halladay, Wade and his friends can figure that out. Better yet, I think the point becomes clearer when comparing a "hit" from today with one of Spielberg's classics. The majority of people I talk to who watch Close Encounters for the first time today will mention how it's weirder than they expected. As entertaining as it is, it's also a very challenging and personal film with a clear point of view. There are exceptions and similarities like Villeneuve's Arrival for example, but I do think if Close Encounters came out today it wouldn't have the sliver of impact it had in 1977. I mean, there's no multiverse, rapid cutting, fight scenes taking place on a freeway or parking lot, or likeable protagonist to be found in Close Encounters! Point is that like I said, blockbusters today primarily do not understand the value of Spielberg's style or influence, which is why I actually like it more when primarily non-spectacle filmmakers carry his influence, which people don't really talk about. Sure, Villeneuve, Nolan, and Bird got it, but fellas like PTA, Fincher, Shyamalan, Bong Joon-Ho, Chazelle, and Soderbergh got it as well to name a few! Even someone who may not seem as influenced like Tarantino, said that Spielberg is a "master", "the perfect filmmaker", and thinks Jaws may be the best Movie™ ever! Francis Ford Coppola compared Spielberg to George Gershwin in that he is both a great artist and a great entertainer. If a filmmaker can do both of those things then I'm happy.
I think in terms of modes and genres, Spielberg has traversed across so many it's impossible not to respect it. On one hand, yes, the simple way to put it is that he sticks with either popcorn entertainment or historical dramas, but looking at it a little deeper sheds light on so much more. Across both the blockbusters and historical dramas are more or less several dysfunctional family dramas, cautionary tales, he's mastered horror on a large scale with both Jaws and War of the Worlds, he's under-appreciated as a self-aware and slapstick director (Indiana Jones flicks and The Terminal) and even pairs this style with borderline exploitation cinema (Temple of Doom). I could go on with others like how he does a political thriller with Munich or several science fiction pictures, but it's kind of obvious just looking at the filmography. With that said, no matter what he does, Spielberg always approaches his stories with his sensibilities of melodrama and subjectivity. I'll go over this a little more in a bit, but what I fail to comprehend is how people like to criticize Spielberg for this so easily. I guess yeah, like I said he's easy to point your finger at, but many other filmmakers with melodramatic, classical, and sentimental sensibilities do not get the same criticisms. I guess if you're David Lynch or if you're dead, you get a pass for being melodramatic. To be completely fair, as much as I am the ultimate Spielberg defender in this regard, I will admit when it doesn't work for me; Hook, The BFG, and The Color Purple come to mind. Although again an important historical film like The Color Purple and its tender tones, which remind me more of a woman's melodrama of the 40s and 50s, its criticisms have as much to do with adaptation as anything. Spielberg likes to find the light in the dark, the warmth in the cold, the subjective experience of good hearted people, which again I will talk about when I get to humanity. I really just think the score is so weak in The Color Purple for a Spielberg and it hinders the film greatly. The point I'm getting at though is his overall style and approach means that no matter what subject he's tackling, there's almost a guarantee it will be both humanistic and entertaining, which in many ways is lacking and is what puts his work above the rest to me.
Obviously melodrama and humanism relates to form, and since I've already touched on those a bit I'm not going to anymore here in terms of form. What really does concern me, and what should concern everyone on here on this site or anyone anywhere that wants to make a movie is how few filmmakers are able to instinctively understand screen space or be able to move the camera like him. As he aptly puts, "Geography is one of the most important things to me so the audience isn't thrown into chaos trying to figure out the story you're telling. The audience needs to be clearer than you. I can create suspense if the audience knows where all the players are and they know what the stakes are." No one, and I literally mean fucking NO ONE consistently captures that sense of a given setting/geography for an audience better than Spielberg does. Go see any action film now or even other acclaimed action flicks not made by Spielberg and when the action is going down, try and figure out where you are in every shot and how each one relates to the shot before or after. Not the best example but Venom 2 (a film I admittedly like) suffers from its action scenes because we lose the immersive-ness and don't know where we and all the players are. I genuinely cannot believe so many filmmaking children of Spielberg, even the most talented of blockbusters filmmakers today, aren't able to capitalize on this. And as incredible Spielberg is with the camera in accordance with people in a space, it's almost never ostentatious to the point of eye roll and losing that immersion. It's not solely how good he is with a camera, it's how good he at using the camera to tell a story and emphasis the important dramatic beats, making him more than suited to work in any genre he wants. This also goes without saying, but Spielberg's films deserve praise for their experimental and groundbreaking special effects. Yes of course Jurassic Park is the pinnacle example, since it invented something totally new, but Spielberg doesn't get enough credit for his genius understanding of blending practical with cgi. He understands (usually) that the audience needs tangible elements, but he also knows how cg can enhance the world.
As I said, humanity is so key and both Spielberg's melodramatic tendencies and formal abilities lead us towards that empathy. Peter Biskind says Spielberg's films "infantilize the audience" and that is the direct point Spielberg wishes to make as adulthood and childhood should not be two completely separate stages. The moments of sentimentality are the moments where he truly reveals himself and puts himself out there and does it because he cares about the world and he wants to improve it. He's a subjective filmmaker, a spiritual and (mostly) optimistic person. He can occasionally get criticism for it, but at the end of the day, the intention behind it is what I care about and what apparently many other filmmakers don't care about. "I don't think any movie or any book or any work of art can solve the stalemate in the Middle East today. But it's certainly worth a try" he says. This is what brings me back to my first statement. Spielberg is so important to me not just because he's a formal master and because he consistently entertains me, but because as an artist he's so personal and universal at the same time. He taps into what makes us human and why we need to change. He doesn't think a lot of us are good people, but he believes we all can be good people if we listen to him, each other, and tap into that pure part of ourselves, like Oskar Schindler. Speaking personally, I am so fed up with pure misery and nihilism in movies and generally think people are much quicker to give that kind of thing a pass than they are to criticize Spielberg for trying to empathize.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” - Matthew 18: 1-5. That said, at this point, Spielberg hate may be ironically the more childish thing. As my buddy Aydan Nolan put it: "Dunking on Spielberg? What are we in high school? Cmonman."
The BFG really stinks though.