Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Now I've Seen Everything Dept.: Steven Spielberg IV

Stephen Spielberg, Senior Year

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 Lean's and Alfred Hitchcock's and Cecil B. DeMille's, 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.

The events of 9/11/2001 weighed heavily on Spielberg (as it did all of us) resulting in films where the usual sense of wonder was replaced by a loss of innocence.  The shocked expressions of Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds, and the blank look of his "Pinocchio" in A.I. were no longer the awe-inspired faces displayed in so many of his movies.  Spielberg's subject matter became darker—even in Tintin—and he seemed to be grasping for stories that illustrated the problems of the world...and how we might best overcome them.  At the same time, he became a subtler film-maker, and his collaborators the top of their field.  

War Horse (2011) Full review here.  Spielberg likes to tell the story of meeting John Ford ("So you want to be a 'picture-maker'") and having Ford make him look at his Remington prints and observe the horizon line of the paintings. "When you're able to appreciate why the horizon is at the top of the picture or at the bottom of the picture, then you might make a pretty good picture-maker.  Now get the f#&% outta here!"

War Horse proved that Spielberg had learned his lesson and quite a few other things as well.  Sure it's a horse story, but it's not like the usual "boy/girl loves horse" type of "growing up responsible" tale.  It's gritty, tough and incorporates an Equine Odyssey that displays the best of man's instincts and his worst, and so much of it is done without words (and the words, by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, are quite well done).  Pictorially, it is amazing—lush, full, going from verdant Irish hillsides to man-made trenches of death, with the horse (as it would be, anyway, to the audience) the focal point of the story as his human masters fall in and out of his story.  It reads deceptively simple, but Spielberg makes the most of the visual aspects that provide a pictorial sub-text to the story, giving it far more resonance than words on the page could provide.  And there is one episode in the story—a brief truce between Germans and Brits during the first World War that is a grimly humorous reminder of the uselessness of war and how a common goal can shatter a war like a disagreement can shatter the peace.  War Horse is an overlooked gem.

Lincoln (2012) Full review here.  It's still a little too close to my viewing of it (two weeks, but its been on my mind ever since) to have any sort of perspective on Spielberg's long-in-the-planning biography of the almost canonized saint of the U.S. Presidency.  With the help of his master craftsmen and his Munich scribe Tony Kushner—who manages to convey what was so special (and so irritating) about the man, managing to cram the last months of Lincoln's life into the film, combining his relationships with his world of his family, compatriots, and enemies at the end of the Civil War, the passage of the 16th Amendment, and his death, while not treading the traditional paths of every other film that touched on the subject—Spielberg doesn't even show Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theater, choosing instead to show the event through the eyes of his beloved son, Willie.  It's a stellar cast, all providing exceptional work but dominated by James Spader's lobby-lizard and Tommy Lee Jones, whose Thaddeus Stevens has reasons for delivering the controversial amendment both ideological and personal.  Lincoln is an education in the best sense of the term, providing perspective on the man and his times...and ours.

What's next for Spielberg? Hard to say, as he frequently changes his mind in mid-pre-production  about what's "right" to direct (for the longest time he was set to direct Memoirs of a Geisha, then abandoned it). Robopocalypse is in pre-production, and one hesitates to speculate what he'll do with it and just the title made me think about holding off this point as his Senior year (although the artist-maturity is undeniable in War Horse and Lincoln).  There's talk of another "Indiana Jones," but it is merely talk.  And what of Interstellar, the deep-space sci-fi film he was bandying about a few years ago?  One suspects that Spielberg hasn't completely put away childish things—his directorial sense is still infused with a youthful enthusiasm.  But his films have grown darker, more considered, and less feeling like contraptions.

Whatever his future work holds in store, it will be interesting, provocative, maybe even indelible.

Freshman Year (1971-1981)
Sophomore Year (1982-1993)
Junior Year (1997-2011) 

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