Spielberg and blockbusters

Posted by · 7:26 am · April 25th, 2008

Can he do it? After becoming (in his own eyes) a serious filmmaker with “Schindler’s List,” “Amistad,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “A.I.” and “Munich,” is Steven Spielberg able to re-create the magic he almost always brought to his pure entertainment blockbusters?

It takes a look at his journey as an artist to even attempt a reasoned understanding of such a question.

On one hand, I argue that he was always a brilliant director, “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “E.T.” all great examples of his artistry, yet he himself was never satisfied by the reaction to those films by the Academy. It is well documented that Spielberg coveted acceptance in the film community, seeing the Oscar for Best Director as the ultimate acceptance from Hollywood. Snubbed for “Jaws” in 1975, he behaved like a petulant child as live cameras caught it all on film, invited in to see his reaction when he was nominated…but — he wasn’t.

While he finally got a notice for “Close Encounters,” his film was not up for Best Picture, despite being a bona fide masterpiece. Nominations followed for both “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.,” and there is little doubt now that the latter was far and away the best film of its year, vastly superior to the winner, “Gandhi,” which one year later looked like a typical old fashioned Hollywood biopic.

Spielberg’s choice to direct “The Color Purple” was partially governed by the fact that a white filmmaker tackling the black issues explored in that brilliant novel would have to land him in the Oscar circle, which of course is the wrong reason to direct anything. The film was nominated for a whopping 11 Oscars, but Spielberg was ignored, curiously winning the Directors Guild of America Award in one of the more bizarre movie awards happenings of the 80s. Ironically the direction of “The Color Purple” is arguably among the film’s greatest weaknesses.

“Empire of the Sun” was criminally under-appreciated, and to this day remains one of the director’s best films, with only the National Board of Review recognizing it for what it was: the year’s very best.

By the time he directed “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg had two disasters under his belt “Always” and “Hook” (his worst film). And then there was “Jurassic Park.” Spielberg’s deal with Universal stated that he could only do “Schindler’s List” after he directed “Jurassic Park,” because in the words of the executive who OK’d the projects, “Once you have done ‘Schindler’s List,’ you will never be able to direct those kinds of films (read: blockbusters) again.”

Spielberg threw away all of his toys and directorial trademarks for the film, stripped the subject matter bare and crated a movie that looked like a documentary crew had plopped cameras down during the Holocaust. It was an astounding moment of artistic growth for the director, who found deep within himself his voice as a director.

He finally won his long-overdue and much-deserved Academy Award for “Schindler’s List,” which won seven Oscars in all, including, of course, Best Picture. The film actually swept the best picture sweepstakes in 1993, though he did not collect all the year’s directing honors. His cheif competition was Jane Champion for “The Piano” and Martin Scorsese for “The Age of Innocence.” His blockbuster “Jurassic Park” took home three Oscars itself, making the Academy Awards a celebration of Spielberg that year.

“Jurassic Park: The Lost World” came next and as expected, he could not go back. The film was a noisy mess.

“Amistad,” a fine film weakened only by at least one lead performance and a lack of Morgan Freeman, was released in the fall of 1997, expected to be a major Oscar contender. It failed with both audiences and critics, not even managing the status of “Empire of the Sun” a decade earlier.

I remember seeing “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998, at 8:00 a.m., in a screening room in Toronto with the rest of the critics from the city. Nearly three hours later we emerged somehow galvanized after seeing a searing war epic that contained some of the most startling battle footage ever created for the screen. Anchored by another superb Tom Hanks performance, there was little doubt this was the film of the year and would coast its way to the Oscars. Sure it was flawed…come on you must know. It is a flaw of “Citizen Kane” proportions. The language of the cinema telling us at the beginning of the film that we are going into and older Ryan’s memories, and straight the the beach at Normandy. But Ryan wasn’t there! Like no one actually hearing the word “rosebud,” it is a flaw that many people, including myself, seem willing to overlook.

So how does a film, the best directed, best shot, best edited and best…sounding not also take the night’s main prize?? Spielberg won another well-earned Best Director prize only to stand by and watch a frothy little comedy win Best Picture. Ouch!!

In the years since, Spielberg has continued to challenge himself as an artist, never repeating himself. “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” was a masterpiece destined to be re-discovered by future generations and both “Minority Report” and “Catch Me If You Can” were among the greatest films of 2002, with critic Roger Ebert selecting the former as the year’s best. “The Terminal” was an interesting little failure, again anchored by a splendid Hanks performance, while “War of the Worlds” was gritty and powerful, hitting audiences hard with a veiled study of being under attack (again). “Munich,” meanwhile, is among Spielberg’s best work, and yet his coldest film, detached, distant, and altogether brilliant for being such. Such diversity overall.

There is not another American director who has grown as Spielberg has over the last 15 years. The risks he has taken are bold. Like all great artists, he has challenges himself consistently, taking chances in his work, and learning from his mistakes.

So can the question for 2008 becomes…can he return Indiana Jones and strike gold? Hollywood and George Lucas are counting on it. The trailer looks great and they all had a wonderful time making the film, but can Spielberg bring that magic back to the story nearly 20 years since the last installment? Does becoming a director of substance diminish your connection to the mainstream cinema masses and what the people want? Is the price Spielberg pays for becoming the artist he always wanted to be, having the respect he always sought, that he is now unable to direct a pure, popcorn thrill movie??

I hope not. I truly do.

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3 responses so far

  • 1 4-30-2008 at 11:09 am

    Proman said...

    And the answer is… of course he can. Spielberg, arguably the most capable director ever, has never stopped being the the director with the best sense of composition.

    Look at those STUNNING action sequences in Minority Report and tell me it’s not Spielberg excercising his action muscle and waiting to go all out on Indy 4.

    When it comes to Indy 4 the sky (and the script)is the limit. This movie will not be limited by his directing prowess.

  • 2 4-30-2008 at 3:45 pm

    Mr.Gittes said...

    Mr. Foote: You can’t be more right about Empire of the Sun. How can one not tear up at the end?

    It is still Bale’s best performance, too.

  • 3 5-23-2008 at 8:32 am

    Joel said...

    I may be the only one to say it: “Minority Report” was Spielberg’s masterpiece. Enthralling, brilliant, and ingenious.

    Except for “Lost World”, I don’t think I’ve ever not recommended his films. Haven’t seen some surprising ones (“Schindler’s List” being the most infamous unseen Spielberg film for me). He’s America’s finest director at this point. Or at least the most consistent.