Just as any other cinephile would say, I have many strong feelings and thoughts about Steven Spielberg, the most iconic Hollywood director ever, aside from Alfred Hitchcock, as well as the most successful movie mogul who isn’t just studio brass. The blogathon itself attests to the volume of opinions on this man. Although his movies are generally far from my all-time favorites, he remains nonetheless one of the most important objects of fascination for me. When I heard about the blogathon, I thought about writing an overview of his career in terms of a broad psychological analysis, but with the deadline looming, and with other writers already covering similar territory, I had to take a step backward and think harder about which of my many thoughts about him were the most interesting, fruitful, and (above all) important to me.
Unlike most or all of the other contributors to this blogathon, I identify myself as a filmmaker. No, I’m not a professional yet, but having gone through film school and directed a number of shorts myself, I can at least offer the perspective of a filmmaker. The hardcore technical aspects of the craft are irrelevant to the discussion; what I wish to relate is what I think about Spielberg as a fellow artist of cinema and what he means to me in that context. For me, loving and hating Spielberg is not so much about the movies themselves as it is about about what he represents as an artist.
When I say that Spielberg was my original idol when I started my cinephilia in adolescence, it may sound as sentimentally cliche as something out of a Spielberg movie. However, it’s true, and he remains one of my idols to this day. But I never told anyone that I wanted to be like Spielberg, to emulate him. My admiration was at the way that he came from nowhere as a child with a big imagination, playing with a camera, and made the right career moves to earn the peerless reputation and status that he did.
There is always one, and only one, person in every field that captures the popular imagination like no other. It was The Beatles for classic rock music and Michael Jackson for pop. It was Albert Einstein in the first half of last century in science and Stephen Hawking in recent memory. It was Pablo Picasso and now it’s Damien Hirst. Etc. Similarly, Stephen Spielberg is a one-in-a-lifetime filmmaker. He made the public aware that a director could be a superstar as much as an actor could, even though the Auteur Theory has been dominant in academic and enthusiast circles since before Spielberg’s time. Only Hitchcock previously managed that sort of popularity.
More than just fame, Spielberg’s real magic is his uncanny ability to inspire a child-like sense of wonder, love, and terror, at least in the early part of his career. One of the behind-the-scene anecdotes about A.I. tells of how Stanley Kubrick personally sought to speak with Spielberg because the former believed that the latter knew the secret to blockbuster success and wanted some insights on the matter. Spielberg replied that despite his reputation, he knew no such secret, since no success was ever guaranteed for any of his movies.
Even so, one cannot help but be impressed at the number of top-tier moneymakers in his filmography. And most of these are movies have been widely acclaimed by critics and have secure places in popular culture, now and perhaps forever. These days, the only people who are consistently achieving the trifecta of massive commercial success, nearly universal critical acclaim, and pop cultural staying power are the geniuses at Pixar, and even they can only boast the Toy Story series as having anywhere near the status of Jaws, E.T., Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park, just to name a few.
These days, the amount of money that a movie makes is oddly, typically disconnected from how well-liked (by critics and the public) and memorable it is. And even the biggest hits seldom reach the box office highs of Spielberg’s best. And even when they do, they still often fail to reach a similar iconic status. Does anything in Avatar have much of a pop cultural life outside of the movie itself? I’d say that Titanic, The Terminator, and Aliens are more successful in that regard. Twilight and Harry Potter might be iconic, but they didn’t need their blockbuster movies to gain their reputations. All of this makes Spielberg’s achievements all the more impressive.
Of course, Spielberg also helped change how Hollywood does business at the box office; Jaws invented the business model of the summer blockbuster. Later, as he strived to make his career reflect his desired image as a mature, serious-minded artist, his box office numbers dropped dramatically, and he spent more and more time producing, to the point that he co-launched his own studio with aspirations to challenge the heavyweights in the business. The name of the studio, Dreamworks SKG, attests to an idealistic, child-like ambition that fits well with Spielberg.
The sad thing is that although we got a grown-up Director Spielberg in the ’90s (which may or may not have been a good thing, depending on whom one asks), the price paid was a seemingly artistically bankrupt and avaricious Producer Spielberg. The strange thing is that when he wears his director hat, Spielberg is reluctant to make the kind of movies that propelled him to fame, fortune, and power; yet, when he wears his producer hat, those are exactly the kind of productions that he usually supports.
Case in point: the Transformers movies. While their juvenile sex appeal and militarism are a perfect fit for Michael Bay, the concept is vintage Spielberg. That he was interested in producing the Transformers series was to be expected, but there’s almost a kind of hypocrisy in using his name to sell the movies to the public while suggesting, implicitly or explicitly, that such movies are beneath him as a director. And why did he want to associate himself with Michael Bay, a man who may be respected by studio executives but whose popular reputation has always been sketchy? It’s almost like he doesn’t care what the masses think about him, but clearly he does care, which is why all of his “adult” dramas seem so obviously calculated to show that he’s trying to say something important and win some awards along the way. Numerous other questionable producing choices from the last two decades similarly cast doubt on his artistic integrity.
Thus Spielberg begins to enter the late part of his career at a critical point. As his latest movies are found to be less and less successful, as his previously unique enthusiasm and spirit for populist filmmaking fades, and as he coasts on his name for both his producing and directing work, how will he define himself artistically, now that old age and mortality must be growing on his mind? Recently, we have seen him try to return to his younger self, first through Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (in which he literally tried to emulate a style that he claims to have outgrown), and now through his work on Tintin and War Horse, while setting more adult-oriented fare (e.g., Lincoln and Interstellar) aside.
To say that he’s suffering from an identity crisis, or that he might be going through a very delayed mid-life crisis, would be too easy. We’ll have to assess his works through 2020 before we can draw any substantive conclusions. But needless to say, I’m anxious, both in the positive and negative sense, to see the next evolution in his artistic sensibility. Since his is still one of my idols, I would be heartbroken to see him fall out of relevance before he has retired, and on the flipside, I would be elated to see him recapture the throne as King of the World that James Cameron has usurped from him. He need not break box office records to accomplish this; he just needs a new flash of brilliance to secure his place in the pantheon beside his Film Brat peers.
Getting back to my original point, Spielberg represents the pinnacle of what an artist in the commercial, mass-market realm can achieve. No other director has, as often or as well, not only tapped into the collective imagination but also touched the collective unconsciousness (in the Jungian sense). Among the many longstanding debates about art, one that perhaps gets less attention than others is the issue of whether art should offer a universal rather than individualistic experience. In a way, this mirrors the Great Debate about art, the one about how much artists should be concerned with appealing to a broad audience and making money.
The fact is that the cinema of Spielberg brings people together, which is a noble way of considering his mainstream commercial appeal. A popular question asked of directors is why they make the particular kinds of movies that they do, and this might be the key question to ask Spielberg. It would illuminate his goals, his artistic outlook, and how he sees himself. And that means that we would finally have an understanding of how he balances his artistic integrity with his business sense and perhaps give a clue to where he hopes to take his art in the future. Or his answer could reveal him to be the hack that some of his detractors are claiming that he’s become.
One might say that the above question and its possible answers are what ultimately represent what I love and hate about Spielberg. I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and side with the idea that he’s trying to bring people together with his movies. Although I personally don’t care to achieve his sort of massive success, and I chafe at the idea of working within the Hollywood system, I still want the movies that I make to have the potential for broad, universal appeal, even when my ideas are best classified as “art house.” So while I share none of his stylistic, narrative, and thematic sensibilities, I do relate to what is arguably his ultimate goal. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, at the end of the day, Spielberg’s cinema is humanistic, and that is the one thing about it that I will continue to idolize. I just hope that neither he nor I lose our souls in trying to get everyone’s attention and adulation.