You’ve seen his movies. Yes you have. He has been the bellwether for all Hollywood success over the last 30 years. Every country’s film industries use him as a comparison for the content of their films. His name is used to either signify high-profile success, or broad, unintelligent Hollywood pabulum, depending on whom you talk to. In a world where the word “entrepreneur” is thrown around without caution, he is a true entrepreneur. He heads up several companies, has started a major film studio, produced hundreds of films and TV shows, directed 28 feature films, and is slated to make two more by 2013. He has won two Academy Awards for his directing, as well as the Irving Thalberg special career award. He even made a few animated TV series that you watched as a kid. His handprints are in the cement in front of Grauman’s famous Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. He influenced the careers of nearly every filmmaker younger than he, and even some older. Despite the boldly adventurous and childlike content of many of his films, he is still often listed – alongside heavyweights like Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford – as one of the single best film directors of all time. Populist filmmakers from the silent era are often compared directly to him.
You know him. He changed your life. He is a populist filmmaker, cleaving close to big-budget and high-profile films, and his films have made literally billions of dollars. He is worth about $3 billion. He is one of the only film directors working who, no matter what he makes, tends to have final cut on his films. Even Hitchcock didn’t have that. The man is a titan. A giant. No matter what you think of his machine-like filmmaking habits, or the content of his bright-eyed optimistic films, it cannot be denied that he, above all, is the one on the top.
Seeing as 2012 marks the 37th anniversary (!) of Jaws, one of the most significant films in Hollywood history, I figured I’d give a lesson on the importance, the career, and the films of the single most famous film director possibly of all time. Let us meet Mr. Steven Spielberg. This article may also serve as a celebration of his most recent Academy Award nomination for his recent film, War Horse.
It will be hard to talk about Steven Spielberg in an objective fashion, as he has had such a monstrous presence in the filmmaking world ever since 1975. Everyone has seen his films and everyone has an opinion. We would not have the Summer Blockbuster without him. And I’m not just talking about in some distant, abstract way; Spielberg literally made the first nationwide blockbuster. And while there may be some controversy about the content quality of some of his films (Amistad is often maligned, some people don’t think too highly of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, or his remake of War of the Worlds), and some feel that he is directly to blame for all forms of contemporary Hollywood treacle, everyone still manages to see his movies, comment on them, and allow them to enter the lexicon of filmgoers everywhere. I will try to be concise, but I will not be able to say everything here. Feel free to comment on my inevitable omissions below.
Indeed, I asked a friend recently, “What do you think of Steven Spielberg?” They sputtered for a good five minutes, not really knowing how to answer that. How do you answer a question like that? Surely you love his films and have an opinion about each of them, but asking about the man himself seems churlish; discussions have to be colored by his sheer ubiquity in the popular film consciousness. It would be like asking what you link of the internal combustion engine. Or t-shirts.
Steven Spielberg, who was born in 1946, was one of those obnoxiously film-obsessed filmmakers whose passion for the form stems all the way back to his childhood. This is not a man who studied elsewhere and stumbled into film later. This was a kid who shot short films in his New Jersey backyard with an old Super 8 camera. He would attend afternoon serials at his local movie house with a startling regularity, and he would re-create the films with friends. He would then charge admission to his films. While I'm sure Spielberg has passions other than film, they are clearly secondary in his life. He did go to Temple, and he did play with friends, but his interest in and obsession with adventure movies has always been with him.
Spielberg is also of the generation of filmmakers whose film education stemmed from two primary sources: The European and Japanese films that came to the U.S. in the 1960s, and film school. The former of these were a break from conventions, and began to demonstrate to many American filmmakers what could be done with the medium. People like Jean-Luc Godard were shaking up the entire aesthetic system. American film up to that point had been kind of stagey, and in many ways resembled live theater. There's nothing wrong with this approach, but there are some things that can only be achieved cinematically. The French New Wave demonstrated this. The latter of these influences – film school – became a kind of requisite in the '60s and '70s for any serious cineaste. Film writing experienced a boom, critics started to become famous (someday I'll write a Free Film School article about the famous critic Pauline Kael), and filmmakers began to openly study film in larger numbers than before. Serious topics were the word of the day, and the artistic potential of film began to experience a boom. Spielberg was raised in this idiom.
So, as a teen, he moved to California and applied to the famed USC film school. And was rejected. He ended up attending Cal State Long Beach (which he didn't graduate from at the time), and taking an editing internship at Universal. Film school was important to him, though, and, in 1994, after he had won an Academy Award for Schindler's List, USC gave him an honorary degree, and even made him a trustee. Before you accuse him of being yet another burned-out college lay about, consider this: Spielberg returned to Long Beach in 2002, and actually completed all the necessary coursework. I hear tell that he submitted Schindler's List as his thesis film. It was accepted. In 2002, he finally got his B.A. Better late than never, I suppose.
Do I even need to bring up his films? I can bring up some of my favorites, but I'll be brief on them, as you know them as well as I, and probably have an opinion on them already. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is still one of my favorite adventure movies, and one I watched incessantly as a teenager. I once wrote a very lengthy essay on the topic just for fun. In terms of pacing, editing, craft and content, you can't really make too many action films superior to Raiders. Spielberg took the existing language of cinema and seemed to subtly redefine how films should be paced, how music should be used, and how action should be shot. He may have been influenced by Jean-Luc Godard, but his filmmaking forebears are clearly John Ford and Michael Curtiz.
Spielberg is often accused of being a sentimentalist. This is an accusation I myself have leveled at him. Have you seen War Horse? I think Spielberg is less sentimental than he is enchanted by his childhood objects of affection. He was tooling around with cameras as a child and has re-created his favorite serialized short films into features on several occasions (that's what Raiders is, right?). And while his films can be emotionally manipulative (his name is often used to as a synonym describe just such manipulation), I feel that he's just aiming for a more childish mindset. Spielberg, even in his darker films, doesn't seem to have darkness within him. When he made E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in 1982, he was making a film very cogently about children and the way children emotionally react to the world. As such, most people who watch it are incredibly moved. In his film, Spielberg often puts children in peril. This is less from a reckless hatred or a need to see children hurt than it is a way to get children to relate to the film better. Even though adults can enjoy his films, I think they come from a very wide-eyed and innocent place.
In more recent years, Spielberg has moved away from that, and has been trying some more bold experiments. Minority Report (2002) is a science fiction film that's driven more by complex speculative ideas than it is flash and wonder. The Terminal (2004) is a sweet Jacques Tati-like comedy of manners. In 2001 he chose to complete the science fiction project that Stanley Kubrick always wanted to make, and made A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, a film about the consequences of an intelligent emotional robot that only knows its own programming. And while the film is controversial, and lengthy discussions can be addressed, it was clearly Spielberg experimenting with a Kubrick-like style.
His sense of wonder can, I think, even be applied to his more dramatic material. Racism is handled expertly in The Color Purple, as he gives a very human face to minority struggles in the South. His two 1990s WWII films Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan are raw and immediate emotional explosions about the awe of human violence, and the immediacy of the wartime experience (the former for European Jews, the latter for American soldiers). Schindler’s List seems especially dear to Spielberg, as it was a film that allowed him to discuss his faith, and the hope people can derive in the midst of Hell.
Spielberg directs with his heart, and not his head. He saves his head for the business side of things (which he does ably, by the way). The content of his films all come from a need to instill a direct heartline to the audience. He wants child-like awe, or a gut-wrenching human reaction to the horror. A.I. notwithstanding, few of his films have been about actual philosophy. He tends to shy away from intellectualizing. His 2005 film Munich is the only one that seems to delve a bit further. Spielberg does not typically direct a philosophy (like, say Ingmar Bergman or Akira Kurosawa). His stories are not ciphers for a particular idiom. His films exist to tell stories, and to excite us. And, with great success, he has managed to excite kids and adults of several generations.
His films may not be critically peerless – Hook has its apologists, of course, but it's not well-beloved the world over, 1941 is seen as a mess, and volumes of online ink have been spilt in vitriol over the fourth Indiana Jones film – but his films are all blockbusters. They all make huge amounts of money, and are, generally speaking, very crowd-rousing. His films have, not even adjusting for inflation made an average of $156 million dollars (according to Box Office Mojo). Which brings me to Spielberg's single most significant contribution to modern film: Blockbuster Mentality.
Before 1972, films were released in what is often called a “road show” format. A few prints would be struck, and they would show only in big cities, usually Los Angeles and New York. If they were popular in the big cities, the prints would starts to tour the country. They would show in increasingly smaller cities, often running for years, as the rest of the country got to catch up to L.A. There is something to be said for this approach: for one, it made audiences more excited to see a big hit, and it allowed good will to build over time, ensuring a film's success. For another, advance word of a stinker would get out well in advance, and they could be easily avoided. But in 1975, when Spielberg made his super-hit Jaws, a new idiom was tried. Rather than letting a print work its way around the country, why not make hundreds of prints, and show them in theaters all at once? A national release date was declared for the first time, and Jaws opened all over the country.
Its quality certainly helped matters, but Jaws' sheer ubiquity made it a national sensation. After Jaws, there was no going back. Films were going to be released nationwide from now on. Generations of kids could now, the country over, commonly discuss their films. Major studios will now only release major releases nationwide. It wasn't until the indie boom of the early 1990s (which will no doubt also have a Free Film School lesson of its own someday) that the small-market films began to enter the picture again in earnest. But every nationwide release down to this day is due to the model set by Jaws. If you live in a small town in the middle of the country, you've probably had to wait weeks – sometimes months – for some indie hit to make it to your town. Imagine, though, that most cities in America had to wait for the biggest hits. That's the pre-Jaws era. We live in the post-Jaws era. AJ 37.
Despite his ubiquity, I still haven't seen all his films. I still need to get cracking on Always and Empire of the Sun. But, usually without trying, I have seen the bulk of what he has made. It's likely you have too. I suggest you sit and watch your favorite film again, and really try to get into the man's mindset. It's not easy to think about something that is so hugely everywhere, but it would nourish us to try. So the next time you're watching Jurassic Park, try as hard as you can to distance yourself from the dinosaur thrills, and let the man speak to you. What is he saying?
Homework for the Week: Watch your favorite Spielberg film. Now watch one you haven't seen. What makes them exciting? How do they compare to earlier action films? To more recent ones? How often do you sense Spielberg's influence in the movies? In movie marketing? When you see his name on a product (and he has acted as executive producer on countless projects) how does it make you feel? Is Spielberg a brand? Is the brand helping or hurting him as an artist? What sort of film doe she make? What sort of film should he make? Tell me what your favorite Spielberg film is below.