Steven Spielberg has always had a surprisingly uneven relationship with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He got best director nominations for a string of his early classics—Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.—but didn’t win for any of them. Schindler’s List, for which he got best picture and director honors, may have seemed like an apotheosis, but nearly two decades on, it looks more like an outlier. While filmdom’s technical world will always honor his movies, the academy as a whole appears to go out of its way to snub him when it can.
War Horse got a bunch of technical nods this year, and even snuck into the expanded best picture lineup. (The only nomination for The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg’s other Christmas movie, went to John Williams for his score; it got bumped from best animated feature by two foreign films and Kung Fu Panda 2.) But there was no best director nomination—just as there wasn’t most of the other times Spielberg made big bids for respect from the academy: not for Empire of the Sun, not for Amistad, not for A.I., not even for The Color Purple (despite 11 other nominations!). And, of course, even when he got his second director statuette for Saving Private Ryan, the academy gave best picture to Harvey Weinstein’s Shakespeare in Love.
Remember, too, that the academy likes big box office—and Spielberg’s commercial accomplishments are so large that they’re hard to even put in perspective. He is by far the most successful director the movie industry has ever seen. (And by systematically getting his company’s hands on many other lucrative franchises—from Back to the Future to Transformers—he is, by a country mile, the biggest nominal producer in Hollywood history as well.) He’s directed two of the top 10 grossing movies of all time, and four of the top 20. That’s adjusted for inflation. It’s an extraordinary achievement for one director set against 100 years of competition.
He came late in that period, of course, when the population was bigger; you might think that makes the feat less impressive. But per capita declines in movie-going are such that there are fewer admissions today than there were in the Gone With the Wind era. First TV and then so many other things have drawn people away from the movies. But Spielberg consistently brings them back.
He is also a movie-making machine: two dozen films in 40 years—plus another half-dozen or so he was intimately involved with as producer or writer. Woody Allen makes more, of course, but his are typically filmed playlets, and technically indifferent. Spielberg often poses himself extreme production challenges, and the results are frequently technologically groundbreaking. His work ethic—as well as his sheer ability to keep two or three mind-blowingly complex projects on track at any one time—is staggering.
Spielberg is critically lauded as well in many quarters—he is highly regarded by many major film critics as a true American auteur. But it’s clear that some people find something missing. The Oscar snubs for most of his most serious films suggest a deep ambivalence on the part of many movie people about his work. After watching and rewatching all of Spielberg’s feature films, I think I understand where this is coming from.
Spielberg’s movies are undeniably powerful. His films function as supreme audience entertainments, almost by definition. But when I revisited them, I wanted to find their ideas: What, after all these features, has Spielberg really said?
My verdict? Not much. Beneath all his technical wizardry is only a simulacrum of aesthetics. The gassy high-mindedness; the complete lack of all but the most bland humor or self-awareness; the boring, slightly pompous exposition that bespeaks a person whose every word is hung on, and never challenged, for far too long. (Watch Spielberg in the promotional material that accompanies the DVD release of his films. He speaks with the breezy self-importance of someone who is no longer contradicted, seemingly, by anyone. He appears to exist in a cloud.)
Steven Spielberg has built a remarkable career by amplifying the familiar—taking what we know, both with regard to the language of cinema as well as his thematic concerns, and saying them loud. But he hasn’t said anything new.
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A video essay called “The Faces of Spielberg” got a lot of attention recently. It’s a fun viewing experience, and the essayist makes his point intelligently and elegantly. Still, I couldn’t understand, watching it, why a propensity by a highly commercial filmmaker to include in his films religiously lit close-up shots of the human face looking up in wonder would be considered anything more than axiomatic. (One could do a much more, uh, interesting essay on “The Faces of David Lynch” in a few hours.) In Spielberg’s hands, this kind of shot is a time-tested way to tell us, the audience, that he’s about to show us something wondrous. It works, of course. But it should be taken for what it is—an achievement in emotional manipulation, not great art.