Thursday, June 10, 2010
Maestro: Steven Spielberg
Known For: Sci-fi blockbusters, socially aware histories, oh and being the most well-known filmmaker in the world.
Influences: Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford Hitchcock, Huston, Costa-Gavras and the list goes on and on and on...
Masterpieces: Stretching all the way back there's Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan
Disasters: Recent sequels not so good, The Lost World: Jurassic Park & Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the why Do Movie Titles Have to be So Insufferably Long?
Better than you remember: recently, A.I. Artificial Intelligence definitely qualifies for this.
Awards: Two Best Director Oscars in the 1990's.
Box Office: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial sits sixth on the list of all-time highest grossing films in the US.
Favorite Actor: Is it fair to count Harrison Ford at four? Hanks and Dreyfuss each have three.
It's not too hard to categorize Steven Spielberg's career into two types: Summer fantasy, sci-fi fare and serious socially aware histories. He started off strong with the former and then through the 1980's slowly shifted focus to the dramatic award winning films until eventually he reached a point in the late 90's where it seemed that his dramatic abilities were at their height (with Saving Private Ryan) and his blockbuster abilities were, well not. (with The Lost World). What would the new millennium bring? Immediately it was evident, and would be confirmed throughout the decade, that Spielberg's two most prominent genres were merging. His blockbusters would be darker, more socially aware, more complex, less for children. This I note because his first film in this vein in fact features a child protagonist. While far from perfect, A.I. doesn't deserve all of the hate it gets. Do you remember the sense of anger permeating the theater when you first saw it? I do. The argument is that Spielberg gave in to his sentimental tenancies and gave us an ill-placed happy ending. But it's not as happy as many think. In fact, the ending that Spielberg presents only highlights how sad the film is as a whole. Consider the robots stand-ins for the human race with their desires to be loved by their creators and ascend to a higher existence, but in the end they are shut off and only nothingness remains. Happy ending? Au contraire, Spielberg has never been so severe.
War of the Worlds, a film that had a lot going for it (the tri-pods are genuinely frightening, the sense of doom is well earned and the 9/11 allusions are rightly placed). But if the film is about people's survival through yet inability to comprehend the scope of tragedy, why sabotage yourself by undoing the films most prominent tragedy in the picture's final minutes? This Speilbergian sentimentality is the most common complaint leveled against him, and even invades his two beloved Oscar-winning pictures. Minority Report fares better. It's Spielberg's most overt use of a summer film to make a social comment and has had real cultural staying power (that motion screen thing you move with your hands seems to have made it into our permanent future lexicon). Spielberg's summer films so sacrificed fun for drama to the extent that he made two dramedies to lighten the mood. Most likely one of them (Catch Me if You Can) will be remembered more fondly than the other (The Terminal), though neither sticks out particularly in his canon.
Which brings us to Spielberg's only real power picture of the last 10 years: Munich. And it's so far from what we consider "typical Spielberg" that I'm tempted to call it "the best Oliver Stone film in the past decade." It seems odd that a film like Munich would have been a long shot for an Oscar nomination, but that's where eight years of dark, flawed, and more complex films found Spielberg's career in 2005. Here there's no happy ending, no satisfying simple truths. It's as close to a masterpiece Spielberg has come lately (though many found it frustrating), and it continues the merging of his styles, being the most thriller-oriented of his dramatic histories. If we're charitably willing to lob off Indiana Jones like an outlying figure skating score (and why not? Enough has been said about it on the internet) then that's where his career stands. His next film, The Adventures of Tin Tin has garnered a lot of buzz, and like any Spielberg movie will be positioned as a big cinematic event.
I feel as though I've merely touched the surface of a man whose had an interesting career as of late. Which Spielberg films of the past ten years do you love or hate or feel are errantly loved or hated? Do you think he's had enough recent success to be a Modern Maestro?