I Watched Every Spielberg Movie. (And Now I Wish I Hadn't.)

Notes from a fan who's seen it all.
Jan. 30 2012 7:00 AM

I Watched Every Spielberg Movie

Now I almost wish I hadn’t.

Still of Henry Thomas in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
What can be gleaned from Spielberg's entire oeuvre, including the early classic E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial?

© 1982 Universal Pictures.

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.

Director Steven Spielberg, winner of the Best Animated Film Award for 'The Adventures of Tintin' poses for a portrait backstage at the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 15, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California.
Steven Spielberg has had a long, complicated relationship with major awards

Christopher Polk/Getty Images.

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.

* * *

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.

The pensive faces looking out with trepidation or determination are a crutch—as is the glowing backlighting and the bombastic music. You could do a similar video essay on Spielberg’s rolling approach shots of folks turning to stand up and look defiant or make a pronouncement or—as in the tediously repeated shots of Emily Watson in War Horse—looking tough-but-concerned. Great filmmakers take eerie stories from the past and pattern their movies against them to give them depth and resonance. Think about the upending Lynch did to the cherchez la femme noir in Mulholland Dr., or the complex ways Baz Luhrmann wove the threads of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz into the underappreciated Australia.

When Spielberg plays with such things—Pinocchio in A.I., Peter Pan in Hook—the resonances are one-note. (E.g., will the robot become a real boy?) He takes images and archetypes he knows will work—because they have in the past—and presents them without additional nuance or complication. (His partisans will say that they are nonetheless effective. Fine; the artistry remains second-rate.)

This big-picture repetitiveness is paralleled by Spielberg’s little touches, which are presented with a similar sameyness. In a Steven Spielberg movie, if a character goes outside, there must be clotheslines in that backyard and in every backyard on the block. A high wind will invariably start up, putting the sheets and clothes parallel to the ground. At night, there will always be a dog barking in the background. If the scene is a city, a character will inevitably run into the street and a car will screech to a halt in front of him. (I was happy to see that one dragged out again in Tintin.) In a Steven Spielberg movie, flashlights are always poking around in forests. (E.T., A.I., etc.; this Jurassic Park scene may be an in-joke.)

Rather than examining Spielberg’s close-ups, it’s more revealing to consider his crowd scenes, which not only betray his excessive reliance on familiar cinematic tropes, but also his increasing weakness for spectacle and his diminishing interest in narrative logic. Rewatching his oeuvre, I lost count of how many times crowds magically appeared and disappeared. In War of the Worlds, one moment there’s a suffocating crush of people; then Tom Cruise’s daughter can just go walking off; then the crush reappears. The same thing happens to the Christian Bale character in Empire of the Sun when he gets separated from his parents. In A.I. the Flesh Fair is set up as a sort of heavy metal concert cum monster truck show. One minute Ministry is playing—metal will apparently always be with us, even after a big flood—with a crowd cheering as robots are chewed up. The next the audience is docile and silent.

And no matter how chaotic the public scene, the film’s hero is always given enormous leeway to set the agenda, take control of meetings, exhibit unexpected rhetorical skills, and so forth. Spielberg’s use of this trope is extreme. Rowdy crowds go silent immediately when his protagonists start talking, their arbitrary logic greeted with serious nods of agreement.

(His work with crowds—arbitrary, forced, confusing—is in keeping with a lot of his plots. Over and over again I was wrenched out of the narrative flow of the films by actions that simply made no sense. He takes his characters and shoves them through various scenarios with little regard for logic or common sense. For a detailed account of some of Spielberg’s most egregious jumps in narrative logic, click here.)

These are all dimly remembered tropes from those movies he (and we) grew up with and loved. Indeed, much of the comfort and pleasure of early Spielberg films is that his understanding of how film works paralleled our own. He spoke to us then in a language we all shared. But rewatching his movies, especially the more recent ones, the scares, the drama, the emotional ups and downs feel hackneyed and even mannered. Look at the tropes in War Horse. Gruff landlord? Check! Stern but loving mother? Check! Farmer with a heart of gold? Check! It is a war epic drawn with a crayon.

* * *

This reliance on what is comforting and communal becomes most problematic in Spielberg’s issue pictures: The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Amistad, and, arguably, Saving Private Ryan. Each of these movies has its virtues; one would have to be a crueler person than I to dismiss out of hand the sober artfulness of much of Schindler’s, the concussive technique displayed in parts of Ryan, and the noble and humanist worldview informing all of those films.

But that noble and humanist worldview starts to feel thin when you watch all those movies in a row. In each of his issue films, Spielberg presents a bleak world, then finds a ray of hope within it. Often, that contrast between light and despair is rendered visually, and not always comfortably so. In Ryan, the gray, grainy, skittery feel of the invasion of Normandy clashes with the gauzy shots of the aged Matt Damon at the grave sites. In Amistad, the awful portrayal of the Atlantic Passage jars against the scenes in which John Quincy Adams, like a character in a play, stands off from the people he’s speaking with to declaim his lines into the distance. Spielberg is sacrificing aesthetics in his intense desire to sequester the harsh material cinematically. He never commits to a worldview that doesn’t ultimately have a sunny patina.

Like a good liberal, he’s done two essays on race. I think the black actors in both The Color Purple and Amistad are directed dreadfully. The Color Purple is an embarrassingly constructed, acted, and edited film. When Shug and her new husband make a surprise visit to Mister and Cele, the latter pair—Danny Glover and Whoopi Goldberg—don’t exhibit coherent human emotions. They simply stand on the porch silently, looking like boys who won’t eat their spinach. Shug’s husband doesn’t seem to notice, not even when Cele elaborately wipes his kiss off her cheek right in front of him. If you recall Alice Walker’s story, Mister is hiding letters to Cele from her sister. In the film, to have this revealed, Shug has to announce that she’s going to go check the couple’s mail. (In what universe does a visitor to someone’s house go check their mail?) Meanwhile, inside, Mister and Shug’s husband are literally rubbing food on each others’ faces.

In Amistad, particularly at the beginning, the hulking black actors are portrayed bumping their chests into each other, uncomfortably like apes. Once out of captivity their rippling, muscled bodies bear no relation to what captives left to rot in a hold would look like after weeks at sea. While I’m not sure I agree, it should be noted that Spielberg was also criticized for the comeliness of the women’s bodies in the naked shower scene in Schindler’s.

As for the latter film: Those who love it won’t be dissuaded from their love; others, like me, who find its ponderous pace and leaden exposition fatal won’t be dissuaded from theirs. But I will point to one scene that exemplifies this failing, fairly early on, in the Krakow Ghetto. (I can’t find it in the scripts available online, so I suppose it’s possible Spielberg himself put it into the film.) A group of people on the street are discussing their plight. One guy talks, with a bit of jocularity, about a dream he had. “I was broke and sharing a room with 12 people I didn’t know.” He wakes up—here’s the big punch line—“only to discover I was broke and sharing a room with 12 people I didn’t know!”

This sample of mordant Jewish humor, which I think can be fairly described as tepid, is followed up, incredibly, by a woman saying, laboriously, “You laugh about it?” The guy replies, with a Jackie Mason shrug, “I have to laugh!”

* * *

When it comes to Spielberg movies, however, you don’t actually have to laugh. In fact, one of the weaknesses people have noticed about his work—but have not, I think, yet commented enough upon—is that he can’t do comedy. Early in his career, there are some nice comic moments—in Jaws, in Close Encounters, and in E.T. (Recall the scene where the kids go trick or treating and E.T., covered with a sheet, sees a diminutive Yoda figure, and moves to follow it.) But he has not directed a successful comedy. And he’s tried. 1941 was an attempt to pull off an It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World-style comic panoply, complete with some elaborate fight and dance scenes, all set against a panorama of life in Los Angles when paranoia about a potential Japanese attack supposedly gripped the city. Watching it today is like watching a comedian flop on stage. There’s a lot of energy, and increasingly desperate moves, but no one laughs.

Ten years later, in Always, which starred Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter, Spielberg tried his hand at a romantic comedy—a well-worn genre which you’d think a student of Hollywood like Spielberg could pull off. The result, though, is an unromantic uncomedy of the first order—there are Sarah Jessica Parker-Matthew McConaughey movies I’d rather sit through. The humor is wooden. (Seriously. Just watch the movie’s “funny scenes.”) Richard Dreyfuss looks like an aging gigolo. In one scene, John Goodman, for some reason, does some decidedly uncomical dancing, and Hunter has the challenge of feigning laughter during it. It’s the sort of scene a rom-com director with a deft touch might have managed with aplomb; here the effect is cringe-inducing.

Hook, from 1991, is another film marred by Spielberg’s awkward, unsuccessful handling of comic material. More recently, Spielberg attempted an odd mix of Tati-like miming and episodic low-level slapstick with Tom Hanks—a great comic actor—in The Terminal. The results are tedious.

Why can’t Spielberg do comedy? Comedy relies on the human touch, usually in the form of skillful comic acting. And Spielberg has a surprisingly weak record when it comes to eliciting great performances. He works wonders on the nonhuman level—sharks, dinosaurs, robot alien invaders, and so on—but he doesn’t seem as interested in actual human beings. For a director of his stature, a surprising number of his films are filled with relative nobodies. Sam Neill, the lead in Jurassic Park, is a decent actor, I guess, but I’m having a hard time visualizing him, and I just watched the movie again. Does the name Paul Freeman mean anything to you? He was Belloq in the Indiana Jones films. The actors getting top billing in E.T.? Dee Wallace and Peter Coyote.

Even when he uses first-rate thespians, he rarely gets great work out of them. Dreyfuss, Goodman, and Hunter are serious performers, but they all flounder in Always. Glover is a considerable talent, too—but look how one-dimensional he is in The Color Purple. He spends half the movie mugging like Buckwheat. He grimaces, bugs his eyes out, and hops around in a big dumb show of getting socks out of a drawer and so forth. He’s supposed to be running a big farm, and yet when he’s not being menacing or brutalizing someone he’s a total buffoon.

In 40 years of making what are typically critically acclaimed and often quite prestigious films, Steven Spielberg has garnered more than 100 Oscar nominations for his work. But the vast majority of these are in the technical categories. (This week, War Horse got nominations for art direction, cinematography, sound editing and mixing.) Martin Scorsese, Spielberg’s coeval and the director of roughly the same number of films, has helped five actors to Oscars. Spielberg’s tally? Zero.

* * *

Thus far, the reviews of War Horse have been decent, those of Tintin fairly middling. No one stateside will regret missing Tintin. If you happen to get stuck in a theater with War Horse, you will see a classic Spielberg movie—a lot of people doing arbitrary things to move a plot along, paired with some undeniable technique and ladled with dollops of loud, intrusive music. The plot itself? Well, it seems that some doughty British men got a bit banged up in the early years of the 20th century, and a few, apparently, were even killed. But thankfully one fine horse made it through unscathed, even after it ran into—horrors!—some barbed wire, so there was a bright side.

I’ve never understood the complaints about the consequences Spielberg’s early hits—Jaws, Close Encounters, and the like—supposedly had on the movie business. What’s wrong with unforgettable action movies with imaginatively conceived sequences and snappy writing—films that, for a time, brought an entire country together in a shared aesthetic experience? Pulp Fiction still got made, and so did Blue Velvet. Back in those days, Spielberg was using tropes from an earlier time; today, 30 years on or more, those films have themselves become archetypes, ones imitated by a new wave of directors.

In the last year, both Jon Favreau (Cowboys & Aliens) and J.J. Abrams (Super 8) have offered us Spielberg homages (in both cases, oddly enough, under the protective producership of Spielberg himself). Is it a coincidence that, in both cases, the directors delivered work far beneath what they are capable of? In Cowboys & Aliens, which could have taken Indiana Jones into a new world of genre mashups, a delicious premise starts out amiably enough, introducing a spectrum of characters one by one. But then the demands of showcasing the technology overwhelms the story. The characters become inconsistent and the plot becomes increasingly risible. (Wait—the aliens sent Daniel Craig back to earth with a secret weapon on his wrist that could blow up their spaceship?!)

Super 8 is even weirder; it’s a deliberate homage to the Great Master’s work, right down to the camera flares that salute E.T. It starts with group of kids making movies, just like Spielberg himself did. Abrams elicits their charms and emotions effortlessly. But the movie’s second half is a drag; forced, arbitrary, noisy, and senseless, just like much of the later work of Spielberg himself. Abrams let his sensibilities be overwhelmed, just as Spielberg did—by the stiltedness of The Color Purple, the heavy-handed sentimental manipulations of Hook, the schlockiness of War Horse, or just the sheer noisome randomness of Minority Report or War of the Worlds. It’s almost as if Abrams’s unconsciously encoded into the film the arc of Spielberg’s career. It’s the story of a filmmaker whose talent for great pop art was too thin a foundation on which to build bigger things—and it’s ultimately an arc of failed promise.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon. More at www.hitsville.org.