Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Now I've Seen Everything Department: Steven Spielberg, Freshman Year

In which the author, having seen everything there is to see on the subject makes a capsule summary of each,* looking for trends and contributing what he calls an Ouvre-view.**

Subject: The Films of Steven Spielberg, Freshman Year

Duel, 1971 Precocious with movie cameras and making his own features, Spielberg snuck onto the Universal lot and absconded his own office, then with hard work and mentoring got to direct his first television feature--an segment of the "Night Gallery" pilot starring the formidable Joan Crawford. It was the stuff of industry legend. But folks really stood up and took notice with this "ABC Movie of the Week" adaptation of Richard Matheson's bare-bones short story: a man in a car against...something... in an 18-wheeler, out in the desert. In a TV environment where budgets ruled all, Spielberg managed to give his minimalist film a movie feel, with elegant travelling shots, charging effects techniques, and, in moments calling for panic, almost-hallucinatory extreme close-ups. But there's more to it than technique. Spielberg also gives the demon-truck the supernatural quality it deserves, creating a seemingly unstoppable foe. He provides a rousing climax, then ends with a melancholy, existential coda, elevating the car-versus-truck story. He also had the benefit of an all-stops-out performance by the underutilized Dennis Weaver.

The Sugarland Express, 1974
With all that was to come after, folks forget that Spielberg's first film was this Goldie, "vehicle," featuring a long, slow car chase, an unsympathetic lead and a down-beat ending. Critics took notice, but nobody bought tickets. That wouldn't happen again for awhile. Goldie plays a mom who springs her husband out of prison, takes a guard hostage and leads a convoy of patrol cars on a quixotic trip to rescue her child from a foster home. Spielberg wouldn't attempt this level of crowd-no-pleaser 'til later in his career. He also populated his cast with a fair percentage of locals with no previous acting experience for color, a technique he'd also employ in his next little film.

Jaws, 1975 You'll find an early analysis here. There's not much to add, other than, with time and close inspection, the seams show a bit more in this roller-coaster crowd-teaser about an "eating machine" picking off citizens of a Massachusetts beach community during high-tourist season. The movie's bi-polar: On land, it's a Hitchcockian tease, but on open water, it's a bit like "Duel"--frenetically hyper-busy with bits of business and one crisis after another. But what could the kid do? He had a shark movie, but for 95% of filming he had no shark. Water and weather conditions changed from moment to moment, but John Williams' insistent score keeps you focused on the action. And he's helped immeasurably by an odd, brilliantly picked cast. Spielberg's lead was a character actor usually given sinister second-banana roles, and for the other denizens of the good ship Orca, chose two character actors who, in style and personality, were oil and water: the classically trained Welsh boozer/playwright Robert Shaw, and the pinched, hectoring Actor's Studio product Richard Dreyfuss. With a cast like this, the shark's almost superfluous for generating drama. Spielberg changed the book considerably and provided a "wowser" of a finish (in the book, the shark just...dies) that, over the original author's objections,*** pays off mightily. Over-time and over-budget, it became the first wide-opening Hollywood blockbuster, setting the stage for how films were presented, marketed and hyped for the next 30 years.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977 Flush with the success of "Jaws" and his name now a household word, Spielberg parlayed his clout to make a dream project that star Richard Dreyfuss announced on "The Mike Douglas Show" "will turn Columbia Pictures into a parking lot" if it wasn't a success. Based on a bit of one of his childhood 8mm movies, partially on a commissioned script by Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver"), the evolving storyline started out as a film about a pesky alien attack, and turned into one about obsession, dissolution and ecstatic epiphany. "Everyman" contractor Roy Neary is touched by a light from beyond and the scorch-marks it leaves on his face dig deep into his brain leading to a compulsive scavenger hunt-like search for the answers. He's joined by other adrift souls (including a mother searching for her alien-abducted toddler) and, Job-like, is rewarded for his trials...and his faith.**** Released the same year as "Star Wars" and uncompleted to Spielberg's satisfaction at the time, it can now be seen as he intended (and without the unnecessary scenes inside the Mother-ship that bankrolled Spielberg's tinkering). The completed film shows Spielberg's willingness to broach dark material before making his way to the light at the end of the tunnel. It also shows his growing directorial skills with kids (as was briefly displayed in "Jaws") not only in the performance of the pre-verbal Cary Guffey, but also in the heart-breaking performances of the actors who portrayed the Neary children.

1941, 1979 After the "Jaws"/"CE3K" one-two-punch, Spielberg set his view-finder on a screwball/slapstick comedy--ala "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"--the basis of which was a John Milius/Robert Zemeckis/Bob Gale script about California attack hysteria in the days following Pearl Harbor. What was a relatively clever, modest script balooned into an elaborate loud-mouthed farce with a star-studded cast headed by a coke-addled John Belushi and the likes of John Candy, Dan Ackroyd (of course), Slim Pickens, Warren Oates, and even Christopher Lee and Toshiro Mifune (playing it straight). "1941" is barnacle-encrusted with in- and out-house jokes, starting with the same skinny-dipping gal from the beginning of "Jaws" being hoisted into the air on the periscope of a surfacing Japanese submarine. It's all "Jerry Lewis"-subtle and the wanton destruction on several fronts is considerable and wearying and ultimately signifying...not much. But it could have been even more extreme: John Wayne was too miffed at what he considered the anti-Americanism in the script to play General Stilwell (Robert Stack stepped in), and the lookouts on the Ferris Wheel were originally to be "Honeymooners" Jackie Gleason and Art Carney (but became Murray Hamilton and...Eddie Deezen). "1941" bombed at the box-office and all the blame went to Spielberg for running over-budget and overboard. Hollywood dismissed him as an irresponsible flame-out. But he had friends in high places.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981 On a post-"Star Wars" vacation in Hawaii, George Lucas and Spielberg made plans for a series of films based on the old movie adventure serials, but amped up with modern story-telling techniques and special effects centered around a globe-trotting archaeologist named Indiana Jones (Tom Selleck was the front-runner to play him, but as he was tied up playing "Magnum, P.I." on tv, Harrison Ford slipped on the ever-present fedora).***** Based on a story by Lucas and Phillip Kaufman, Spielberg protege Larry Kasdan fashioned a taut, wise script winking at the genre and poking fun at the cliches while playing up the mysticism. With the overview of Lucas, Spielberg, for once, kept tight rein on the production and came in on time and under budget, allowing him to retrieve his industry cred--helped, no doubt, by the healthy receipts of a cracker-jack film. Spielberg's career was revitalized, and more importantly, his work with Lucas inspired him to form his own business model for film-making. he would stop being a studio work-for-hire and, within a year, would start directing and developing film projects under his own production masthead...Amblin Entertainment.

* With any luck

** Ouvre: 1.the works of a writer, painter, or the like, taken as a whole.

*** "Jaws" author Peter Benchley hated the movie's end, finding it unbelievable and embarrassingly "cowboy." Showing the film to a group of marine biologists, he was mortified to watch them cheer hysterically when the shark blows up.

**** James Lipton, when he interviewed Spielberg on "Inside the Actor's Studio" asked Spielberg the professions of his divorced parents. He was an inventor specializing in computers. She was a music teacher. Lipton then asked him if it had occurred to him that that was why a computerized synthesizer (that learned the language) was used to communicate with the aliens. "It just occurred to me now.." was Spielberg's flustered reply.

***** How it came up was Spielberg confessed to Lucas that he wanted to direct a James Bond film, to which Lucas replied, "I've got something better than Bond." Naturally, when it came time to cast the father of Indiana Jones, the first person they asked was original movie Bond, Sean Connery.

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