From the second volume of Tavernier and Coursodon's 50 ans de cinéma américain. Discovered seven or eight years ago, translated last summer for friends.
The unprecedented commercial phenomenon that his career represents impedes a calm evaluation of his merits as a filmmaker. Spielberg was not yet forty when he already had four of the eight most commercially successful films "of all time" under his belt, including the absolute champion E.T., which earned the distributor sixty million dollars more than its closest competitor Star Wars even before its home video release catapulted it to even more dizzying heights. Such success does indeed make one dizzy, and critical reactions have consequently been somewhat distorted in both directions. Even Hollywood professionals who normally revere commercial success were unsettled in the face of the enormity of his, no doubt judging it indecent. They reacted by obstinately refusing to give him the ultimate reward: an Oscar for Best Picture or Best Director (even though The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, with their mixture of visual opulence and humanist ambitions, seem to combine all the ingredients most likely to charm the members of the Academy).
An unprecedented phenomenon, we were saying. Certainly, but not entirely without an equivalent because it cannot be dissociated from the triumphs of his contemporary and frequent collaborator George Lucas, the inventor of the Star Wars saga, producer of Spielberg's three Indiana Jones films, and, therefore, cumulatively, the uncontested box-office champion. After setting up his universe in the first episode of the Star Wars trilogy, however, Lucas abandoned directing to devote himself solely to producing, whereas Spielberg, while also developing a lucrative career as an executive producer (Back to the Future, Gremlins I and II, Innerspace, Who Framed Roger Rabbit), has pursued film directing, going in a new direction in 1985 with The Color Purple, a film without special effects that wants to be seen as "mature." Whereas Lucas looks like a kind of contemporary Thomas Ince or, to use a more contemporary reference, a Disney-like merchandizer, Spielberg seems to have decided on continuing to be a creator first and a businessman second.
He is a creator contested by a fair number of critics who also seem to be excessively obsessed by his box-office shattering performances. It is not only a matter of money, however. After all, these hundreds of millions of dollars correspond to millions of viewers who are satisfied and even enchanted in the strongest sense of the word. The impact of E.T. on the popular imagination is clearly less superficial than that of James Bond, Star Wars, and the other mega-successes of the last twenty years like Grease, Ghostbusters, and Beverly Hills Cop. The film seems to touch something deep in the universal psyche. From the viewpoint of public support, there are only two precedents, Disney's Snow White and Gone With the Wind, produced by David O. Selznick; two films whose effects it combines: the first primarily addressing an audience of children, the second an audience of adults, while children, adolescents, parents, and grandparents have trembled or cried during E.T. (there is some Disney and Selznick in Spielberg, a great admirer of the former, whom he quotes in his films whenever possible* – it's only natural that he produces animated films – and whose taste for flamboyancy calls to mind the producer of The Garden of Allah, Gone With the Wind, and Duel in the Sun; the glowing, red suns in these films, for example, are also setting in The Color Purple).
Can such support not be "suspect"? For many critics and cinephiles, Spielberg is merely a talented show-off, a master manipulator (of techniques and viewers’ emotions) in whose work everything is borrowed, conventional, formulaic, and only directly connected to the collective unconscious because he has shrewdly been able to identify several major archetypes. For others, however, he is a sublime adventurer who has rediscovered for us (like the lost ark and the grail, mythic and mystical MacGuffins) the sacrosanct spirit of childhood missing from a sadly cynical and disenchanted contemporary cinema. To be fair, this must, as usual, be qualified, since if Spielberg's universe appears simplistic, the “Spielberg case” itself is not.
Spielberg's cinema has often been qualified as anti-intellectual (including by himself) and optimistic, as if these two approaches necessarily go hand in hand; but the former is much more exact than the latter. Of course, in his films the extraterrestrials do not come to conquer or destroy the earth, but in order to communicate (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) or to instruct (E.T., where the "invaders" at the beginning appear to be botanists collecting plant samples), which is enough to separate Spielberg radically from older, more paranoid, movie science fiction where the metaphoric threat always originates in space. When he shows humans and their world, however, Spielberg is much less debonair. He has a taste for satire, even for meanness, exactly like the cynicism of his more "adult" contemporaries. It is not surprising, moreover, that his tendency to take refuge in the imaginary and fantastic, to see the world through a child's eyes, is complimented by misanthropy.
This misanthropy is clearly visible in the biting irony with which Spielberg depicts American society and most of the adults who compose it. Personal interest, egoism, pettiness, prejudices, and corruption are present in Jaws, where the satire of the big shots at a whaling station whose sole industry is under threat is clearly more interesting than the horror and special effects. In Spielberg's films, nobody really believes in traditional American values. The crowds in The Sugarland Express cheer for the two outlaws who the police are chasing. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is full of defiance of all forms of power, especially government, with Washington hatching a true hoax and creating a panic to fool the public. Likewise in E.T., where federal agents are an invasive and threatening presence (they look like evil extraterrestrials), while at the end of Raiders government bureaucracy proves its incompetence by burying an extraordinary secret weapon deep in a warehouse inspired by Charles Foster Kane.
This paranoid vision of power – certainly encouraged by post-Watergate era scandals – corresponds to a fashion: Spielberg is not as cut-off from political and social realities as we would like to think. But if the crowds he shows fooled by their leaders are sheepish, it is rare for individuals to rise above the manipulated masses. Spielberg has a contempt for Middle Americans that is noticeable in his depiction of suburbanites, couples, families, and outsiders. Individuals never communicate; they talk without listening to one another. They can be so preoccupied with themselves that they are able to refuse the most tangible evidence of something out of the ordinary: Teri Garr hysterically denies the invasion in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dee Wallace is literally blind to E.T.'s presence directly under her nose.
Let us briefly note that this incapacity – of women especially (the two above-cited characters are presented as a traditional mothers) – to be open to the unexpected and extraordinary, to thinking of anything other than their most material and immediate preoccupations is an aspect of Spielberg's misogyny (a particular case of his misanthropy) that also appears, on another level, in the hyper-caricatured and sexist heroine in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom who is alternatively annoyingly emasculating or a cowardly whiner who Indiana and the kid ignore in a manly way while she undergoes a slew of humiliations that are supposed to entertain the audience (see the woman in Last Crusade as well, who is revealed to be a Nazi spy after a few scenes of smooth talk). Even in The Color Purple – which wants to pay homage to courage, endurance, and the force of character of doubly oppressed women – the caricatured treatment of the characters and situations tends to deprive them of the humanity with which the filmmaker is striving to invest them.
The only exceptions to the rut of everyday mediocrity are children and rare adults who have not lost the spirit of childhood: in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss practically has to become a child again (his suddenly infantile behavior enrages his wife and upsets his own son) before he can access the secret and become one of the Chosen. Naturally, he is misunderstood and vilified by "normal" people: symbolically, he goes against the crowd in the shots evoking Kevin McCarthy alone against everyone on the highway at the end of Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Spielberg seems to be suggesting that the only hope for salvation for this fat, egotistical society resides in the beatific outer space evoked in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The extraterrestrials bring kind words or at least a message of peace. But men must earn it and first learn to decipher it. Close Encounters, a film about interpretation in the many senses of the word, shows us some men with good intentions trying to establish a common language (after the symbolic Babel of languages at the beginning of the film) and finally managing to do so in a way that is both the most unexpected (because it is nonverbal) and the most banal (since it refers to the venerable cliché: "music, the universal language").
The religiosity of Spielberg's message is clear to everyone. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss acts like characters in the Bible who abandon everything to pursue their vision after a sudden illumination. He shares his vision of a mythical mountain – evoking many Biblical mountains – with a woman and her son, and this new group sets off on a pilgrimage guided by the stars like the three wise men. The spaceship looks like a giant Christmas tree and its lift-off is an ascension in a theological as much as a mechanical sense. E.T. is even more explicit: the Christ-like journey of a being from elsewhere who lets children approach him, gives life (even if just to wilted flowers), misses the kingdom from which he has come, dies at the hands of men, is reborn, and rises to heaven in front of his disciples. In this regard, both films respond to and complement each other (we could say that Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the adult version – refusing to grow up – of Elliott, the little boy in E.T.). Spielberg can be vaunted just as well as castigated for making recourse to archetypes that are effective but no less valid. The (not very interesting) question of his sincerity aside, it is clear that a sense of wonder doubled by a sure sense of humor protect the use of these figures from solemnity as well as banality (moreover, as Jung writes, "archetypes are by no means useless archaic survivals or relics. They are living entities which cause the preformation of numinous ideas or dominant representations").
It must be added that the religiosity is considerably defiled (which was undoubtedly inevitable given the context) in the Indiana Jones films, particularly in the third one, where the Holy Grail is only a vulgar gimmick that good and bad guys fight over like any other treasure. A tactlessly literal approach trivializes the myth to the point of altering it completely: this Grail brings a mortally wounded man back to life and gives eternal life in this world (Spielberg is not afraid of mixing his myths, like others their metaphors; but here, the filmmaker's chariot is navigating a volcano, one that we would like to see wake up like in old, exotic adventure films where the eruption manifests the wrath of the offended gods). The free-for-all around the sacred chalice is like a burlesque, while all the evidence suggests that Spielberg wants it to be not only dramatic, but symbolic and edifying as well. Whoever wants to act like an angel, acts like a beast...
One wonders what compels Spielberg to want to act like an angel when nothing is forcing him. It is not only that he believes in the permanence, and therefore the bankability, of the archetypes he is manipulating, but also that he is trying in good faith to go beyond pure entertainment by rooting his popular art in a noble, prestigious tradition. This is the ambition which made him construct an homage to serials, a humble and popular genre if ever there was one, around a Biblical artifact charged with mystic-mythical connotations (the Ark of the Covenant) and then pushed him, a few years later, to enrich it in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with the quest for the Grail, the archetypal model for every quest produced by the western imagination. Let us add that, when he is not acting the angel, he tends to be the beast in another way: the "bestial" compulsion is given free reign in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, deprived of any religiosity and dominated by a perverse delight for refined tortures and other sadistic cruelties in the staging (is the angelicness a safeguard against the excesses of Spielberg's id?).
Some were surprised by the "revelation" of a hidden side to a filmmaker they had believed to be "Disneyian," but a film like Poltergeist from two years before – written, produced, and more or less directed by Spielberg through a middle man (Tobe Hooper) – should have alerted them: Poltergeist is the negative and the negation of E.T., its dark, evil, satanic version. The point of departure is exactly the same: an average suburban American family (the only difference: the father is present; the mother, nevertheless, is the solid, strong element: she saves her daughter), presented humorously, finds itself confronted with foreign forces. But this time the extraterrestrials are entirely evil. They belong to a beyond that is no longer spatial (the distant galaxies of the visitors in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.) but psychic and particularly suspect because it escapes all the physical laws of our world. The bastion of this universe of vengeful spirits, its Trojan Horse, is in the heart of the victims' living room: it is the television set through which they intrude on the family's everyday life, disrupt it, and kidnap one of them. The most familiar object in the modern living room, this electronic marvel that inexhaustibly dispenses distractions and information therefore becomes the vehicle of the forces of evil and a nightmarish experience. Likewise, the childhood terrors that fill the film (which Spielberg admits are personal memories) are rooted in the most banal reality, but transfigured by his imagination. The child's bedroom becomes a laboratory for monsters. Like young Steven making electric ghosts to hide in his closet and scare his sisters, however, the filmmaker concretizes these imaginary fears: the tree, whose silhouette is threatening in the night and whose branches look like arms ready come through the window to grab the child (a memory of the trees in the forest in Snow White, a film that terrified young Steven) ends up being revealed as a supernatural and evil force brought to life by a destructive, physical power. Every familiar element of everyday life is likewise exploited and transformed into a potential or very real threat. What we call reality or normality is an illusory construction built on the shifting sands of irrationality, the way the Freeleng's house is built on an ancient cemetery haunted by the lost souls buried in it.
The first two-thirds of Poltergeist constitute one of the peaks of Spielberg's work, culminating in the superb invention of a rope thrown into the fourth dimension – an umbilical cord that helps the mother bring back to the world her daughter who has been kidnapped by the "spirits,” the placenta covering the child reinforcing the re-birth imagery. After this (false) return to normality, the film sinks into a series of horror and Grand Guignolesque scenes that only seem Spielbergian for their incoherence and gratuity, although it would be naive and not very logical to attribute responsibility for them only to Tobe Hooper, who is only following an undoubtedly very detailed storyboard provided by the producer-screenwriter. It is hard to doubt that Spielberg wanted this horrifying bric-a-brac, partially for its commercial potential but also because it corresponds to a very clear taste in his work for unpleasant, and indeed repulsive, images.
This perverse, infantile taste, already present in Jaws (the contents of the shark's stomach that cause Richard Dreyfuss to faint) is also found in Indiana Jones: the snakes in Raiders (used again in Lost Crusade), the rat-infested tunnel in Crusade, the chirping of insects in Temple of Doom, and, in the same film, the monstrous menu in the extraordinary meal scene: live serpents (coming out of an enormous gutted snake), stuffed beetles, a soup filled with real eyes, brain served in the scooped-out skulls of monkeys. The excess and gratuitousness of this kind of scene is surprising and shocking, but they are only the manifestation of one of the less appetizing aspects of the "childhood spirit" – Spielberg is addressing a pre-adolescent clientele that delights in this kind of joke.
Spielberg is not a man to be "content" with a popular and commercial triumph, even one without precedents. Looking to modify his trademark image and prove he could do more than super-serials and juvenile epics with special effects, he announced plans to direct a "serious," "adult" film (these are his own terms, or in any case those attributed to him), a film with real characters, where he would tell a story "through the performances." But just as soon as it was chased away, Spielberg's true self came galloping back: the result, The Color Purple, is a monument of redundant vulgarity. Two years later came Empire of the Sun, far superior, sometimes even admirable, but manifesting the same incomprehension (or is it simply a refusal?) of the demands of its subject.
In both films, Spielberg takes on an intensely dramatic theme, a story with occasionally unbearable aspects, and treats them like a musical comedy, a music video, or an ad for a luxury product. As the horror of the situations increases, his cinematic treatment puts them at a distance by making them beautiful. Celie's tribulations in The Color Purple accumulate and surpass those of all the heroines in Ponson du Terrail-style melodramas and almost make those of Justine de Sade's heroines look like mere trifles. Their very excess and the flamboyant style in which they are staged, however, quickly drain them of any authenticity. Jim Graham, the young hero in Empire of the Sun – who by the end of the film reaches approximately Celie's age (14 years old) at the beginning of Purple – spends four years in a Japanese concentration camp with other British and American soldiers, but, in spite of the terrible living conditions in the camps, he seems to get through the test as in a dream, in a state of permanent exaltation lumping him together with the protagonist in John Boorman's Hope and Glory (transformed by a childish or pre-adolescent way of seeing, the horrors of war become a marvelous experience; but this approach, totally convincing in Boorman's film, becomes hard to accept in the context of Empire, where the prisoners are literally dying of hunger, are savagely beaten, and where every day is a constant struggle for survival).
Robert Benayoung, the only unconditional admirer ("unrestrained" in his own words) of Spielberg among "serious" critics in France considers both films "masters theses on life lessons rivaling [Mark] Donskoy and King Vidor" (Positif, no. 343). If he means professional mastery, we can only approve the description: Spielberg's virtuosity and his technical control are impressive; the weaknesses for which he is criticized are not clumsiness, everything is intentional. As for the "lessons," we are more skeptical. Celie and Jim's adventures are such extreme cases and Spielberg's approach disdains believability to such an extent (his vision of reality, which is in fact a kind of phantasmagorical hyper-reality, consists of simultaneously stylizing and magnifying its characteristics) that the force of his characters' personalities and their ability to survive lose any exemplary power; it's a bit as if comic strip super heroes entered a naturalistic drama. Celie's transformation of Albert's kitchen, for example, is so much like a "before/after" sequence in a commercial that it provokes laughter (it is almost a gag intended for a cartoon) more than admiration. In Empire, the entire economy of the camp and a good part of its life seem to be organized around the bartering activities of a twelve-year old boy; for us to believe this, Spielberg would need to demonstrate how it functions, but such attention to practical details and the reality of things would contradict his heroic and mythologizing vein. The more the film progresses, the clearer it becomes that the kid's astounding socio-economic success is a gift we must accept without discussion.
The old popular expression "it's just a movie," seems to have been made for Spielberg, especially these two films that aspire to humanism. We never for a second forget that we are in the cinema (this artificiality is actually part of their charm, which is real, especially for Empire). Rendering a reality (historical, ethnic, social) about which he has no direct knowledge (the exoticism of Alice Walker and J.G. Ballard's novels is what must have attracted him), Spielberg imposes his cinephile filter. Pauline Kael describes Purple as "a remake of Song of the South by Visconti" (according to her, Spielberg sees 1909 Georgia the way a European filmmaker would). We might add that such jubilatory sequences are less evocative of Donskoy or Vidor than the Sam Wood of the end of A Day at the Races.
Empire of the Sun is Spielberg's most ambitious film and undoubtedly his most successful with Close Encounters. He once again confirms his talent and his limits, the latter so directly linked to the former that it would feel in vain to reprimand him. We remain stunned by the size of the production, the brilliance of the direction, and the way in which the one sings the others praises. Other films have probably used an equally large number of extras, but very few have so productively showcased them. Some crowd shots filmed with a crane (there are countless crane shots in this film and the camera is rarely static) make the famous shot of the Atlanta train station in Gone with the Wind look petty and insubstantial. This reference is not accidental: the Selznick quality we noted at the beginning of this text manifests itself again in the mix of vastness, unrealism, and a flamboyance sometimes at the limits of good taste that characterize Empire (Spielberg even puts a giant poster for Gone With the Wind in a street scene at the beginning of the film). The first part (the sequences in Shanghai) – busy, very active, constantly visually inventive – creates a euphoria comparable to certain moments in Close Encounters. For about the first hour, the film is so impressive that we wonder how Spielberg will maintain his distance (the film is 145 minutes long). And in fact, Empire begins to lose steam and disintegrate in the second half. Each sequence is enormously finessed, but remains isolated, as if it was conceived for itself alone with no relationship to the general structure, the overall rhythm. As in Indiana Jones, the film becomes a series of spectacular set pieces that hide or extremely schematize what is exciting about the subject: the realities of camp life, the relationships of the prisoners among themselves and with the Japanese, the problems of survival. The sequences follow each other without revealing any connection between them. Therefore, we notice the symbolism of Jim's passages back and forth between the British section and the American section of the camp, but we have trouble understanding what motivates them. This incoherence is all the more regrettable since the organization of the script hints at a real concern for the construction and the composition, in the musical sense of the word: certain visual themes (like the juxtaposition of toy planes and real planes) are repeated and modulated over the course of the film. This concern can also be found in the music itself: the Welsh song Jim sings in church at the beginning of the film is superimposed over a Japanese military song at the end.
Aside from a few ideas like these, John Williams' music remains abominable: redundant, emphatic, and underlining in broad strokes every emotion in the worst Hollywood tradition. Spielberg explains with candid frankness his predilection for Williams: "I know how to bring a tear to the viewer's eye, but he knows how to make them flow" (interview in Rolling Stone, no. 459 – two years before Empire). In Empire, it often feels like the purpose of the music is less to bring tears to our eyes (there is hardly a moment to be truly moved in such an overly grandiose film) than to inject a vaguely mystic solemnity to images in which Spielberg seems to lack confidence.
Religiosity is more present than ever, in a context where it would not seem to have much place. An atheist (he defines himself this way) preoccupied with God, early in the film Jim dreams of him as a tennis player and imagines him at the end in an apocalyptic photo whose flash is the explosion in Hiroshima. There's an impression that Spielberg is looking to make his film "deeper," more significant, while he already had a story with exceptional gravity and amplitude at his disposal, which could have done without such supplements if it had only been treated more directly. Religiosity is only one of the familiar Spielberg characteristics we find in Empire. It is striking that a film that wants to be so different from the earlier ones resembles them so deeply (its Spielberg's natural way – the sign that he is an auteur!). One example among hundreds: when the prisoners evacuated from the camp arrive in an immense stadium where the luxury furniture of their previous homes is stored – their limos, pianos, harps (everything perfectly conserved after four years in the open air!) – we can recognize his taste for bric-a-brac, for the surreal juxtaposition at the end of Raiders (which is citing the ending of Citizen Kane) or the scenes in Close Encounters where airplanes from thirty years before are found in the desert (or, in the "special edition," a cruise ship buried in the sand). This scene makes no sense, plays no role in relation to the rest of the action, serves no purpose other than to allow the director to please himself – like so many other scenes in his films that are equally gratuitous and playful – like the boat found in the sand or the thousands of hands raised in unison in response to François Truffaut's question in the same film. Such moments often please us and we would grudgingly stay away from our pleasure. But Spielberg seems not to want to admit that his – laudable – decision to handle more "serious" themes and subjects comes with responsibilities such as not indiscriminately giving in to the compulsion to be playful. He wants to be taken seriously while continuing to be a child: for him, play ultimately counts above all else. Hence the caricatures, the Guignolesque style of The Color Purple, and the trivialization of the subject in Empire of the Sun.
We know that Spielberg bought the young Charles Foster Kane's sled, "Rosebud," in a studio prop auction (it is hanging on his living room wall). Such an acquisition does more than satisfy the desire of a cinephilic collector. Rosebud, a key word in Citizen Kane, represents the lost paradise of childhood – doubly lost since the symbolic object is thrown in the fire in a final scene that seems to fascinate Spielberg (meaning even the memory of this paradise is destroyed; the world – contrary to the viewer of Welles' film who the camera puts in the know – will never know what Kane's last words mean). By recuperating the sled, was he not figuratively saving it from the flames and in doing so denying the passage of time and death, bringing the spirit of childhood back to life and affirming its permanence? In the above-cited scene in the stadium/warehouse in Empire, the young hero rediscovers intact the symbolic objects of his childhood that had brutally been torn away from him like Rosebud from Charles. Spielberg's work has a sincere and touching desire to preserve this lost childhood paradise, to invest it, or even to convert it, as if to turn Wordsworth's verses in Intimations of Immortality and common experience into lies. This chimerical but seductive project excuses the infantilism, which is the other side of the coin.
*It hass even been said that E.T. was a copy of Peter Pan.