One of the exciting things about seeing movies over an extended period of time is seeing the growth of a genuine artist. Despite reservations about his early output, it was obvious from the outset that Steven Allen Spielberg was a dynamic story-teller and a wizard in communicating with a camera. His training manuals were the classics of the film-makers of spectacle—the David Leans and Alfred Hitchcocks and Cecil B. DeMilles, the guys who made expansive roadshows that appealed to a mass audience. They made movies of exotic places and large personalities that could fill a Cinemascope expanse with adventure and color and grandeur. They could also manipulate an audience with their technique to fill them with awe and wonder, or propel them out of their seats in an explosion of popcorn. Movies were a thrill-ride, but with better scenery. From the beginning, Spielberg had that impresario spirit to look at an audience as a territory to be conquered: give them bread and circuses and chases. Tell them a story and give them a thrill. Very quickly, he became his own brand: "A Spielberg Film" was something to see.
At this stage of his career, after the high promise of "Jaws" and the lessons learned from the excesses and poor box-office performance of "1941," the lean and mean adventures of Indiana Jones for Lucasfilm emboldened Spielberg to form his own production company, Amblin Entertainment.
"E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982) Having directed the most crowd-pleasing film for the Summer of 1981, Spielberg began developing stories he had ideas for, but not the time or inclination to devote all of his energies to. One was his "haunted-house-in-the suburbs" romp, which became "Poltergeist." Spielberg produced, but gave the directing reins to "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" auteur Tobe Hooper. A variation on the theme--"Gremlins," written by Chris Columbus--was dispatched to Roger Corman alum Joe Dante. An anthology film based on Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone" was on the horizon. But for himself, Spielberg developed a more personal, kid-friendly version of "CE3K"--"E.T., The Extra-Terrestial." A variation on CE3K's "little boy lost" theme, "ET" focused on a lost parasitic alien who gloms onto the middle child of a dysfunctional family, and teaches the kid about self-sacrifice and unselfishness...by, presumably, letting go of the link that was leeching the life out of the boy and sacrificing himself. This makes "ET" the most obvious Christ allegory since Klaatu made the Earth stand still. And, yes, "ET" is also a sci-fi variation of "Lassie." With so many traces of classics running through it, how could it miss having its glowing finger on the pulse of just about everybody in America? "ET" quickly" became Spielberg's second record-smashing blockbuster, trumping Lucas' "Star Wars" (which had, in turn, swamped Spielberg's "Jaws") for the #1 ticket-generating film of all time. One could become cynical about the mega-success of the film, but it does generate strong emotions, tug at the heart-strings and earns its sustained farewell scene with a pay-off where "ET" parrots significant dialogue back to his adopted family. "ET" remained the "most popular film of all time" until it was sunk by James Cameron's "Titanic" 20 years later (a record Camron overtook with "Avatar").
"Twilight Zone: The Movie" (1983) One can't mention TZ-The Movie, without acknowledging the lethal elephant in the room, that being the helicopter crash on-set that killed actor Vic Morrow and the two Vietnamese children he was carrying in his arms. The accident on director John Landis' watch cast a pall over the entire enterprise. There were other segments--Spielberg's, and one each by George Miller and Joe Dante. Spielberg's seemed a natural--an adaptation of George Clayton Johnson's "Kick the Can," a sentimental tale of a group of old folks who lose themselves in a childhood game and return to their youth, literally. Richard Matheson's expansion spends more time with the kids (the least interesting part, really), but as Spielberg was becoming known as a "kids' director" (a title he would grow tired of later), one would think it was playing to his strengths. But, the "Kick the Can" segment is mawkish, and curdlingly sentimental. It wears out its welcome (and its sense of wonder) very fast, leaving a definite change in quality going from the inferior Landis-Spielberg segments into the riskier and better-fulfilled Dante-Miller segments.
"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984) Things start out promising--with a rollicking parody of Busby Berkeley musicals with the appropriate sentiment of "Anything Goes" to a free-wheeling romp as Indy tries to recover a diamond and the antidote to a poison he's been fed while an all-singing/all-dancing running battle erupts in a crowded nightclub (called the "Club Obi-Wan"). Unfortunately, that "Anything Goes" promise extends to just about every aspect of this lumbering, elephantine production. Far darker and violent than "Raiders" (because of it, the MPAA created the more mature PG-13 rating), it's a mean-spirited, gratuitous exercise with kids beating up on each other, Indiana being beaten with wood-beams and torches, the villain reaching into the chest of a sacrificial victim and tearing out his heart (before the guy is lowered into a lava-pit and burned alive! Alive? He just had his heart torn out!), and a ludicrous race through a mine-shaft that feels like a spastic E-ticket at Disneyland (if the stop-motion puppetry weren't so apparent). Add to this, Indiana (while under the spell of villain Mola Ram) turning into a really evil guy, and any sympathetic audience member has his loyalties severely tested. Also testing are the antics of Kate Capshaw as the high-strung, high-pitched heroine and the by-now-inevitable "cute-kid" named "Short Round" who you sincerely wish Jones will drop off at the next orphanage. An unpleasant experience all the way around. "Anything Goes," indeed. So sorry I went.
Amazing Stories (1985-1987): "Ghost Train"/"The Mission" Amblin's first foray into television was an anthology series (great!), featuring high-end budgets (terrific!) and direction by veterans (Eastwood, Zemeckis, Dante) and talented newcomers (Mick Garris, Phil Joanou, Brad Bird) (awesome!) on some of the thinnest threads of stories that could be stretched out to half-an-hour (...meh!). The "Amazing Stories" always looked good, but 90% of them were dramatically inert, offering few surprises and overstaying their welcome by at least ten minutes. The premiere episode directed by Spielberg, "Ghost Train," based on a Spielberg story (a lot of them were half-baked Spielberg kernels of an idea, although one was turned into the feature length "...batteries not included") was one such example. But damn, if "The Mission" didn't hold your attention and keep you white-knuckled until its far-fetched, disappointing ending. One of the few hour-long stories, "The Mission" is a clever nail-biter about a bomber crew trying to return home with their landing gear inoperable and the lower belly-gunner trapped in his perspex bubble. There's no way the commander (Kevin Costner right before he went big with "The Untouchables") can land without crushing and killing their gunner who has become their "lucky charm." The characters are well-drawn, Spielberg keeps the tension white-hot, and its only the ending that's a cheat. Up until the last minute, "The Mission" is one of Spielberg's best achievements in directing.
"The Color Purple" (1985) When choosing a director who could be counted on to adapt the story of an abused black woman finding her identity and worth after a life-time of having it supressed, Steven Spielberg is not the first choice to come to mind. No space-aliens! No sharks! No cute kids! (In fact, the kids are the meanest little scamps outside a Peckinpah film!) And part of the problem with "The Color Purple" is Spielberg's earnest attempt to turn its rustic story of simple gifts and the struggle for simple dignity into "Gone with the Wind." The approach leads to some raw, unflinching emotions and scenes of grandeur (particularly the way Spielberg weaves the scenes of Celie reading her sister's long-suppressed letters from Africa, with her imaginings of what that far-away country must be, interweaving and warping the continuity of those scenes), but it has the tendency to top-load things with unecessary theatricality. You end up watching the spectacle without feeling the emotions that are trying to be conveyed. One can't help but suspect it was Spielberg reaching for an Oscar, which had eluded him with "Jaws" and "CE3K." Still, Spielberg gets miraculous performances out of Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, and Margaret Avery. Eventually, Spielberg would find a way to get out of the way of the story....
"Empire of the Sun" (1987) ...But not just yet. Spielberg recruited Tom Stoppard to script this adaptation of J. G. Ballard's fictionalized rememberance of life in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, and the concepts are a bit more solidified than usual. Spielberg still goes for "The Big Moment" every reel or so, but when it comes to the emotional climax of the film (Jim reunited with his parents after the war), he mercifully underplays it and exploits it for irony. Its one of his best films in his early period, and he gets great performances out of a pre-teen Christian Bale and John Malkovich, from very early in his career. It may, at first glance, seem an odd choice for Spielberg to make, but one can see themes of dysfunction and the finding of hidden strengths that have cropped up consistently in his films, and many of the images he produces in this particular film haunt. He was starting to craft a better way of story-telling than consistently "going for the fences" with every sequence, and create a more mature, understated way to make films. That doesn't mean he wasn't still capable of something bombastic, however...
"Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade" (1989) The third Indiana Jones adventure further expanded the Jones universe. He was still fighting the Nazis later in the war, but Spielberg began his film with the adventures of young Indiana Jones (played by River Phoenix) in a sequence that establishes--probably too much--the trademarks of the elder Indy, right down to bull-whip, hat, and Harrison Ford's scar above the chin. And to further the process along, we're introduced to his father, Professor Henry Jones, Snr., biblical scholar and seeker of the Holy Grail. Connery doesn't quite get a handle on the elder Jones, the portrayal being inconsistent from scene to scene, but he does pull off the essentials--the pivotal scene where to distract "Junior" from grasping at the Grail that is jeopardizing his life (and has monopolized his own) he calls him "Indiana" for the first time, and implores him to "let it go." There are nifty little set-pieces throughout, with a particularly terrific sequence where, using Grail-lore, Henry Jones the younger must best several death-traps, culminating in a literal "leap of faith" to achieve his goals. Ultimately, the film is not nearly as satisfying as the first, but it's a great deal better than the second, so that's progress.***
"Always" (1989) On Spielberg's list of favorite films is one that sticks out like a sore thumb. There, among the films of Kubrick and Lean and Truffaut, is "A Guy Named Joe," a sentimental WWII movie about a pilot who is killed and, having a rough time adjusting to the after-life, returns to look in on and meddle with the lives of those he's left behind. Eventually, he accepts his fate and leaves life to proceed without him. Maybe it has something to do with Spielberg's parents divorcing and his acceptance of it. But in making his own version, his screenwriters took it out of the war and into the realm of fire-fighters, where there is constant risk, but not constant death. For the Spencer Tracy role, Spielberg turned to his "alter ego," Richard Dreyfuss, along with Holly Hunter and John Goodman...and Audrey Hepburn in her last role, playing Heaven's Concierge. Where Tracy in the role could seem selfishly pig-headed, Dreyfuss comes across as selfishly pig-headed and creepily manipulative, leading those he loves to the brink of suicide. When last I looked at this film, I saw it as romantic fluff—and it is—but it is also Spielberg's anti-"Vertigo:" On Dorinda's (Hunter) birthday, Dreyfuss' character buys her "GIRL-clothes" (as she effusively warbles). In the male-dominated flight-world, Dreyfuss' Pete is the only one who doesn't see Dorinda as "just one of the boys" and, like James Stewart's "Scottie" Ferguson, he wants to turn the woman he loves into his heart’s desire, and so manipulates her into becoming what he wants to see. This gives the film added resonance after his death and manipulation of Dorinda (making it just as much her film as his), nearly driving her to suicide, but also showing her how to save her own life. When he turns his back on his former life (and former love), he allows her to be the person she is going to be—and lets her take the path of her life—without him. "That's my girl," is his final ironic line. Poignant, sad, and brave...and a better film than first thought upon a reconsideration.
"Hook" (1991) A "package" deal--all the major players shared the same agency--"Hook" is an elephantine film in desperate need of a light touch. And what should be a story with a sense of elation feels a bit juiced-up...like its been pumped with performance-enhancers, not unlike "1941." It feels claustrophobic, where the elaborate nature of, well, everything becomes wearying. Robin Williams wasn't too happy working on it. Julia Roberts wasn't. Dustin Hoffman appears to be enjoying himself, but he also appears to be playing to himself. And Spielberg, working on a complicated set-bound production found himself annoyed with the shenanigans of the kid-actors playing "Lost Boys." The "kid's director" had met his match. Or maybe he'd grown up just a little--a little ironic for this "Peter Pan Grows Up" tale. Or he was trying too hard to recapture something he'd already left behind.
"Jurassic Park" (1993) Here's the deal: Spielberg, after years of owning the rights to, and nurturing the script for "Schindler's List" finally bit the bullet and decided to direct it himself (he'd been trying to get Scorsese to make it). Universal, his studio of choice, wasn't convinced of the box office potential of a black-and-white movie about the holocaust (Go figure!), so they coerced Spielberg to first make "Jurassic Park," which had far greater box office potential, in order to off-set the loss. One can quibble about how craven a movie "Jurassic Park" is -- like "Hook" isn't -- but one has to admire the pedigree and brio that Spielberg brought to the project. The casting is superb: Sam Neill, Richard Attenborough, Samuel L. Jackson, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Peck all bring spark to the cyphers of Michael Crichton's novel. And it's Spielberg in full "eating machine" mode. It's his most devilishly-intended thrill ride since "Jaws." One particular scene stands out: Neil and the kids—there are kids, but they're good this time—have to scale an out-of-commission high-voltage electric fence, while elsewhere in the Park, Laura Dern is trying to restore power to the Island. Spielberg hangs on the sequence putting the boy in mortal danger of frying...and he stages it in an almost gleeful way (maybe it was those irritating "Lost Boys" from "Hook..."). The other thing about "Jurassic Park" is that it was aided immeasurably by Lucasfilm's post-production efforts to seamlessly integrate CGI dinosaurs into the frame. The results are spectacular, and changed the way movies have been made ever since. For some reason, Spielberg seems to be the master of integrating CGI and live-action than most directors...save for James Cameron.
"Schindler's List" (1993) While Lucas and Co. slaved away making pixilated dinosaurs, Spielberg was in Poland making "Schindler's List." After years of toiling with the screenplay and casting, Spielberg was making his dream project...and he was miserable. The subject matter and the brutal way that he was presenting it...and the "ugly step-sister" reaction of Universal to it...deeply depressed him. Reportedly, he would call Robin Williams every night to make him laugh to get through it. Whatever it took, "Schindler's List" is a revelation. There are no camera tricks. No flashy set-ups. There is no romanticism. "Schindler's List" is bare-bones movie-making, and only once, where Schindler breaks down over the lives that might have been bought, does it become sentimental. It's the most un-Spielbergian Spielberg movie that he had directed to that time. He got uniformly terrific performances out of his cast, but particularly Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley and the best performance that Liam Neeson has ever displayed, probably because Schindler was a notorious performer. After years of reaching in subject matter to win Oscars, this one won him Best Director and Best Picture. Spielberg had arrived.
His pattern would now be to produce any number of ventures, take a couple years off, and then speed through two films a year. To do all that, he needed to expand his capabilities from merely heading a production company, like Amblin. He would have to become a studio. The one-two punch of the profitability of "Jurassic Park" and the prestige of "Schindler's List" would allow him to accomplish that.
*** But, not as good as the fourth would be. When I first did this retrospective, the news of the Return of the Great Adventure was a sad reprise of "The Last Crusade's" best line: "George, Steven, Harry...let it go." But, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" was a return to the series' roots, reflecting the times—and the movies of the times—in which it was set. "Skull's" setting was a nice congomerate of 50's B-movie material with commie paranoia, saucer-men, and far-fetched nuclear fall-out all playing hands, while moving on to a mature understanding of the world and one's life in it. There's an essay coming up about it called (for now) "Indiana Jones and the Frightening World of Tomorrow." Look for it at this blog-site.