Thursday, June 10, 2010

Modern Maestros: Steven Spielberg

Robert here, back with more of my series on great contemporary directors. I thought I'd return with a director who, to be honest, I'm not sure fits the criteria of this series. He is a master of his craft, so the "maestro" part is definitely assured. But how about the "modern" part? While his name recognition isn't going anywhere and his influence on the medium for the past thirty-five years is unquestionable, Spielberg's impact on the cinematic landscape has steadily declined in the past ten years. I'm going to try to keep the discussion to that period (since it's the "modern" qualification that's in question). Spielberg may not have made the best films of the aughts, but his career has evolved in interesting ways, and the films that have resulted are worth thinking about.

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.

If we are to discuss films that were damaged by Spielberg's desire to sentimentalize, we should discuss 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?


Agustin said...

I never understood the hatred AI got, but I'm far from considering it a masterpiece, or even a great film.
Catch Me If You Can, is for me, his greatest of the aughts.. Perfect simple popcorn movie.
That's what Spielberg does best.

Anonymous said...

No mention of "The Color Purple"? I've always found that to be as great a film as any of the other's he's done that have gone on to earn "classic" status. Sure it's flaws are more evident upon repeated viewings, but the performances he got out of those actors struck as much a chord with me as "E.T." did.

As far as the "modern" part goes, in a way one could say it applies because, he is still very relevant, despite recent disappointments. But I'm guessing this is more a question of quality, and so that's why I'm having a hard time, because even though he hasn't been consistently delivering stellar films in the 00's, only 1 of the 7 films he's directed in this era (Indy 4) can really classify as an all-out bomb for me. "War of the Worlds" definitely goes off the rails, but it has enough redeeming qualities for me to not consider it a total failure. "The Terminal" was amusing but definitely a minor effort, while "Catch Me If You Can" and "Munich" were (for me) almost perfect. "A.I." is very underrated and I think many people are revisiting it now and realizing that it was unjustly dragged through the mud. And "Minority Report" is a definite masterpiece.

Anonymous said...

*BTW I realize TCP isn't a 00's movie, I just really wanted to show it some love. ;-P

Greg Boyd said...

E.T. should be in the "masterpiece" category. It's easily his best film.

Rebecca said...

Psh, Jurassic Park should be in the masterpieces over Saving Private Ryan! JP just gets no respect.

Trent said...

...and Saving Private Ryan gets way, way too much.

verninino said...

In a fit of compulsion fueled nostalgia I recently purchased and re-watched the Indiana Jones franchise. Unlike Star Wars, it did not hold up well. Too much juvenilia.

I wish I had just insta-Netflixed it-- then I wouldn't've felt obliged to stumble through that gauntlet.

He does have nine films I can watch at any time in any mood that never cease to activate my increasingly dormant cinematic senses: wonder, grace, adventure, wanderlust, rapture.

Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind
Color Purple
Empire of the Sun
Saving Private Ryan
A. I.
Minority Report

But only Jaws, Close Encounters and perhaps Color Purple stand out as quasi-masterpieces.

Why quasi? His films fail to sustainably trigger two essential senses of the sublime: reverie and ambiguity.

Beyond the visceral, Stevie never leaves anything worth pondering. He's tried with Private Ryan, Schindlers' List and Munich, but to my mind he's always failed to sustain it.

/3rtfu11 said...

AI has more problems than its ending. I wish the ending was something that ruined the film but it was ruin before it arrived at the third act. It came on TV awhile ago and I decided to see if the experience would be different it was no different than the first time – I was still angry. The scene that pissed me off the most was the human mother abandoning David in the forest and her human son coming out of the comma and being so fucking annoying with the swishing sounds of his body braces.

cal roth said...

No way Saving Pvt Ryan is a masterpiece. And E.T. is still his best movie.

But I liked very much his movies last decade, exept for The Terminal. All of them had their flaws, but they also showed Spielberg's talents and his great sense of cinema, his ability as a "metteur en scene". Like, his vision of the world is still meh, but his talent as a director is unique.

I mean, if you list the great movies of the 00's, you won't find Spielberg at the top. But if you do the same with movie sequences... it's all about him.

Katie said...

speaking of Spielberg.......E.T. and Jurassic Park were both released on June 11th.

JD said...

I love A.I, I still cry when i think the last scene where he is with her mother anf he finally...

JD said...

I mean, David's happiest day

Andrew R. said...

The greatest director of all time.

Volvagia said...

Over Fellini, John Ford, Ingmar Bergman, The Archers, Woody Allen, Bunuel, Hitchcock, Kurosawa and Scorsese? Foul, I say! Foul!!!!


@ ROB -- "If we're charitably willing to lob off Indiana Jones like an outlying figure skating score "

HAHA. funny reference. if only it were as easy to erase from the memory.

I have never been the Spielberg junkie most film buffs are but the last time I really loved him was that double whammy JURASSIC PARK / SCHINDLER'S LIST in 93 which is like the best of both Spielbergs you name in the very same year.

@VERNININO well put "But only Jaws, Close Encounters and perhaps Color Purple stand out as quasi-masterpieces.

Why quasi? His films fail to sustainably trigger two essential senses of the sublime: reverie and ambiguity."
Maybe this is what i should have been bitching about all these years when complaining about his sentimentality. Maybe it's actually this lack of ambiguity that troubles me most. I mean, sometimes -- not as often as Spielberg would like -- sentimentality can be earned and moving.

Volvagia said...

He's still "good" but, not nearly a "modern maestro." He would have been up until '98. (Almost every director, however great, has some bad works. See: Altman and Popeye, Jackson and The Lovely Bones, Ridley Scott and Robin Hood, Spielberg himself and 1941 and Woody Allen and 1/2 his post Sweet and Lowdown career, actually a director who would work as a neat parallel analysis piece in regards to Spielberg, in terms of career arc, unless it sounds too obvious.)

Josh said...

Absolutely a modern maestro.

I love Spielberg's 2001-2005 run because, though frequently imperfect, those films represent an artist totally engaged with his times, and falling over himself to produce work that engages with and reflects the events of the day. For me, the excitement of that process - and the jaw dropping prowess Spielberg continued to show film in and film out - mitigates a lot (if not all) of the flaws in the individual films.

I only wish the fallout from Munich - and the upheaval at DreamWorks over the last five years - hadn't so thoroughly derailed the second half of the decade. Glad to see he's winding up again with War Horse and Tintin.

Gustavo said...

Maybe it comes down to a matter of taste and preference. His predilection of approach is not ambiguity - but the sentiments his films often elicit always seem earnest to me.

His technique is masterful. His themes and "obsessions" are there, since his earlier outings - anyone can see them. I tend to be unimpressed by "cold" and "distanced" narratives as much as other people are put off by his sentimentality. To me he most definetely is a modern maestro, as A.I., WOTW and the much-maligned INDY 4 show it.

BTW, has anyone noticed how DIVISIVE his recent films actually are?

Sawyer said...

I think his greatest achievement of the decade was getting good performances out of Tom Cruise in an action film (two of them actually!).


Gustavo. you are the second person I have "talked to" that thought INDY 4 represented good work so i know there have to be more. I just... "we watched different movies!" to quote an argument cliché :)

Gustavo said...

The only other one is probably Roger Ebert, LOL.

dfwforeignbuff said...

He has made some really fine film. I loved Artificial Intelligence just for the spectacle of it all. With Others I agree how can anyone forget the Color Purple. Really I think Schindler's list is one of the greatest films of all time. I remember in the theater at mid film wanting a bathroom "intermission" with music like the old days. I liked Minority Report also. most of his sci fi has been good. Et also one of the great films of the modern era though crassly commercial. Munich was a different film for him but good I enjoyed nothing (to me) comparable to an oliver stone movie. I really have been thinking of re watching Schinlder soon.

Henry said...

I admit it. I love Spielberg's films. The DVDs are all over my entire collection. I'm one of those fans who find very little wrong with his work and don't really understand the vitriol against him (believe me, it's out there). I regard AI as a masterpiece, though there are times when I watch it and I'll still get pissed off at the overly sentimental ending. The movie really should've ended at the bottom of the ocean. But AI gets a pass because the rest of it is so brilliant. You're correct on War of The Worlds. Minority Report was the best film of 2002, IMO. I still love watching that film on DVD. I'm one of the ones who did like Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull. Everything but Shia LaBoeuf. Don't shoot me. No mention of Amistad? I thought that was an underrated masterpiece. He's probably had two, maybe three outright disasters in his career: 1941, Hook (still cringe when I think of the first time I saw that), and The Lost World (though I did like some parts of that film).

Daniel Armour said...

Although there are a lot of his films I haven't seen (such as Jaws), I've become a pretty big fan of Spielberg over the last decade and I thought the majority of the films he's made in the 2000s were amongst the Top Fifty of the decade. On a more personal scale, A.I is among my Top Thirty Favorite Films of All-Time.


Daniel -- get thee to JAWS immediately. It might be my favorite spielberg. give or take RAIDERS or SCHINDLER'S


i noticed a lot of people mentioning 70s and 80s films though in their comments and WHAT ABOUT? i think Robert is specifically talking about the last ten years so those aren't omissions so much as previous eras

Josh said...

i like Indy 4 movie too, for mostly, yes, sentimental reasons.

however, i would unabashedly advocate in favor of The Lost World. on a plot level, it's beyond silly, but it's also one of the most sublimely directed blockbusters of the last fifteen years.