August 07, 2007
The Growth of Spielberg

I think this is one of the best peices MCN has had in quite a while, and not too soon either. I don't know what's happened to cause all the Spielberg bashing lately, but I think the argument could be made that of all the Brats from the sixties/seventies, Spielberg has been both the most consistent and also has shown the most artistic growth (and also pushed himself farther) than the rest.

The main reason I'm not more excited about Indy 4 is that the prospects of Lincoln, Interstellar and TinTin just appeal to me so much more. Indy is been there-done that, but hey, if it's anything near as good as Raiders, who am I to complain?


Really? Or is it just that you find yourself on the same side of that line as Noah that you consider the piece a good one? Because personally I thought it meandered, made little points aside from personal opinion and read like a big sloppy kiss, little else.

There is a piece that could be written about Spielberg's filmmaking ethic, about why he does what he does in his films, how those actions are indeed defensible, where his career has gone and how these might just be his golden years, but this is not that piece. It's another wandering effort from Poland's new writer, a guy that will get better over time but seems to be full of the "cum" of naivete and wide-eyed idealism at the moment.

Writer fails to mention Spielberg's most underrated, Empire of the Sun. The final scene gets me every time - Bale deserved an Oscar. I agree with Kris, it's not a very persuasive or effective piece about the defense of Spielberg - even though this recent Spielberg bashing by some people is ridiculous. And Munich is not a good movie. But damn it had an amazing trailer.

A lot can still be said of the films that Spielberg directs, but with the one two punch of "On the Lot" and "Transformers" heavily featuring his name this year, I don't know anyone who took two bigger shits on the art of filmmaking.

I'm on board with you guys, and I don't even know why this essay was necessary. Who's been beating up on Spielberg? He certainly gets more of a free pass critically these days than Scorsese gets. Which brings me to the next thing: Noah asks "can you think of any other filmmaker, who had the clout of Spielberg, who would dare to make a film about a slave who speaks no English for most of the film? ". How about Marty, who made an even riskier film that same year about the Dalai Lama, which had very little dialogue, and was far less accessible than Amistad. It also didn't resort to third-act, worn-out courtroom cliches, and also didn't have the benefit of featuring Matthew McConaughey (the next big thing back in '97) or Anthony Hopkins. Scorsese has been genre-hopping just as much as Spielberg, and gets even LESS credit for doing so, regardless of the recent Oscar, which was seen as some kind of make-up award (apparently crafting one of the year's most intense filmgoing experiences didn't have anything to do with it). Where's his article? Where's the defense of his eclectic 90's & beyond output?

My other issue is with Noah's comparison of Spielberg to The Beatles. Are the latter often taken for granted? Sure. But The Beatles weren't known for clumsy endings to their albums, or a lack of subtlety (okay, maybe Paul was). Even Spielberg's fans will acknowledge some of his shortcomings, whereas The Beatles' reputation has very much to do with their near perfect string of recordings in a short period of time. A more apt comparison would be towards a musical artist we've lived with for decades, like The Rolling Stones. Needless to say, like Spielberg, their later achievements have had flashes of brilliance but are overstay their welcomes with bloat, never consistent enough to be considered masterpieces, and though some critics will tell you each new album is the best since Exile on Main Street, you know that it just ain't the case, and even if true wouldn't be saying much considering what you're comparing it to.

Brian, thanks for the kind words and I'm glad you liked the column.

Kris, I replied to your e-mail response to my column and I'm sorry you didn't like it more. But I don't think I really meandered in the piece, as I methodically went through each film chronologically. And my personal opinion is the reason why I write a column, I'm not trying to write about popular opinion or other people's points of view. I was hoping to start a discussion and hopefully remind folks of what Spielberg has accomplished in these last ten years. Once again, Kris, I'm a huge fan and I hope you keep reading.

Lazarus, Kundun was in English mostly, but point taken. However, Scorsese does not have nearly the clout of Spielberg. It takes a lot of balls to be the most popular director in Hollywood and use your power to make a film like Amistad which was not a perfect film. Be he spent a ton of money on it, it was his first film for his new studio, and the majority of it wasn't in English. The point is that he's been a risk-taker more often that most directors.

Sorry Kris, it wasn't you whose e-mail I responded to. It was someone else. But, the rest still stands. And I DO love the site.

Noah, what does clout have to do with it? To me, it's less of a risk when you're running a studio, because you're calling the shots anyway. Amistad wasn't a successful film financially, if it had done even worse do you think Spielberg would have had trouble making his next film? Scorsese, on the other hand,had much more to lose by making Kundun, because he has to go to other people for the money. Is it a coincidence that his next film after that financial loss was the low-budget Bringing Out the Dead?

Also, I don't think it takes balls to have the kind of clout Spielberg has and take risks--it's his responsibility! The guys who can do relatively anything they want--Lucas, Spielberg, Eastwood, Howard--should be pushing the envelope as often as possible. But that doesn't just involve taking on a new genre or making a film with relative unknown actors. It has more to do with not being afraid or unwilling to challenge your audience, and I'm afraid that's Spielberg's biggest flaw. He won't risk confusing them, offending them, or anything that might cause them to meet him halfway. Which also plays into his lack of subtlety. You may call this directness some kinf of old-fashioned badge of honor, but I see it as a failure to evolve thematically. Munich may seem to be the exception to the rule, but then we get an awkward sex & violence juxtaposition near the end that shows him flailing when out of his element. Give him credit for getting a little egg on his face though, it's been a while since Hook.

" It has more to do with not being afraid or unwilling to challenge your audience, and I'm afraid that's Spielberg's biggest flaw. He won't risk confusing them, offending them, or anything that might cause them to meet him halfway."

Well said, Lazarus. And that can't be more true with Spielberg's recent effort, Munich. He tried to please both sides and not offend anyone. Case in point: The scene where Eric Bana and his men get booked in the same safe-house with some Palestinian(I think) agents. They then proceed to talk about their "issues." C'mon -unrealistic, Steven. SHOW, don't tell. Soderbergh's Traffic is a perfect example of showing the issue in a non-preachy way. Anyway...

Mr. Gittes, Munich and Traffic are films about two very different issues first of all. And second of all, you didn't think the end of Traffic was preachy? When Michael Douglas gives a big speech and suddenly his whole family is healed because he didn't take the drug tsar post?

Lazarus, you don't think it takes balls for Spielberg to do what he did, then fine. I'm not going to argue that point with you anymore if you aren't convinced. I will say that Scorsese has never had the clout that Spielberg had. Scorsese has always been a more artistic filmmaker, Spielberg is a pop filmmaker. The fact that Spielberg tries to get message into his pop instead of just giving you entertainment takes balls. I don't see Michael Bay doing anything like that and that is exactly who Spielberg would be if he wasn't such a risk-taker.

Noah, I don't want to sound antagonistic, but you failed to explain why Spielberg should get so much credit BECAUSE he has clout. No one is argung that, and certainly I wasn't saying Marty ever had more. As I said before, it's his responsibility as an artist with clout to take big risks. You want me to give him a cookie for not being Michael Bay? Call me crazy but I'll take The Island over War of the Worlds, and over Minority Report's betrayal of Philip K. Dick as well.

My point, which you didn't really address, is that it took more balls for Scorsese to make Kundun the same year Spielberg made Amistad. Two films with dim financial prospects (Kundun certainly much dimmer), but who had more to lose?

As for Munich and Traffic, I don't know that pointing out one scene with Douglas' character (aside from Topher Grace's material, the ONLY speechifying in the film) quite proves the point. I think Gittes was saying that by trying to have it both ways in Munich, Spielberg wound up shying away from really saying anything of importance. Traffic, while open to different viewpoints, is still very clear about its position on the War on Drugs, and about urging sympathy for abusers. Plus there is 10x more thought-provoking poetry in the little league game in Mexico at Traffic's conclusion than Munich's diffused ending in NYC.

Spielberg clearly had more to lose in 1997 with Amistad, considering that it was his first film for his fledgling studio. He could have made some dumb blockbuster to help his studio make some money when it was losing it by the truckload, but instead he directed a film about slavery which was definitely never going to be a massive hit.

You want to take The Island over War of the Worlds, go ahead. But I'll take Saving Private Ryan over Pearl Harbor, which is what happens when people with great visual talent who are terrible with actors make war movies.

Gittes pointed out one scene in Munich, so I did the same with Traffic. And there is no correct position to have on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, that is the point. No one side is more right than the other, so how could you expect a movie about that conflict to have a clear position? It's position is that killing people is wrong, no matter what cause it is for.

Look, I think we'll just have to agree to disagree. Apparently, it wasn't that my column wasn't good enough, it's that you don't share the opinion. And that's fine. Or perhaps my column wasn't good enough. Whatever the case may be, I have said my peace and you have said yours and let's just let that be that. I hope you will enjoy future columns by me and I enjoyed this discussion and really the point of any column is to get people talking about the subject which was definitely accomplished here.

" I hope you will enjoy future columns by me and I enjoyed this discussion and really the point of any column is to get people talking about the subject which was definitely accomplished here."

You're certainly right, Noah. The discussion you started here was far more interesting and constructive then most on other message boards. Kudos to you and I'm looking forward to your next column, keep up the good work. That said:

I guess we'll have to agree to disagree. My interpretation of the final scene with Michael Douglas's family was not one of healing, but an attempt at it. Who knows what will become of them? I believe Douglas says something like, " We're here to listen." That kinda leaves it up to speculation about the fate of their characters.

My point is that Spielberg(and especially Paul Haggis) need to take a cue from Traffic. Soderbergh delicately balanced a complex issue/conflict and effectively showed the players, issues, and varying opinions associated with it -in this case, the war on drugs. One could say Soderbergh was arguing for the legalization of drugs, others could say law enforcement needs more funds and manpower. It is just my opinion, but Spielberg didn't really say anything in Munich. He either could have taken a stand on one side or, like Soderbergh and Gaghan, show the issue and leave it to the viewers. Lazrus was right in saying that Spielberg shied away from saying anything of importance. And because of Spielberg's inability to say something of importance in Munich, I believe the pic is not even close to his "top films."

BTW: Lazrus, the final scene in Traffic - JESUS. So haunting, so thought provoking. WOW. But that's just me.

Gittes--Yeah, I'm getting chills just thinking about it. The Brian Eno music helps too. I love how in the DVD commentary Soderbergh explains how he'd been using that piece as temp music for years, and actually left it in this time.

I also don't know why Del Toro's perf seems to have fallen out of favor since 2000. I still think it's one of the greats.

Noah--Yes, we'll agree to disagree with regard to the quality of the films in question. But I still take issue with the notion of clout and risk. You say how Spielberg was taking a big chance making Amistad with his "fledgling studio". What's strange is that it DIDN'T do well, and whaddaya know? It didn't ruin his career, or Dreamworks. Yeah, he could have done a dumb blockbuster like The Lost World, but it didn't matter because he knew he'd have NO PROBLEM making another film, whatever he wanted to do. Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't the epic Saving Private Ryan shot right after that? I don't remember him having trouble getting that one off the ground.

On the other hand, as I mentioned above, Marty's film after Kundun was Bringing Out the Dead. Is it possible that he could have made Gangs of New York sooner had he made another film for the moneymen instead of a tone poem about the Dalai Lama? Possibly.

I just don't understand why you think S.S. should be saluted any more than any other director who takes on a big gamble, whether it's Ridley Scott & Kingdom of Heaven, or Cimino and Heaven's Gate, or whatever. The difference will still be that Spielberg was playing with essentially his own money, and didn't have to worry where more would come from.

But that's the reason right there, Lazarus, he was playing with his own money. He didn't take that money and sink it into a movie that he knew would be a guarantee return on his investment. When that movie lost money, it was HIS money that the film was losing.

And if Scorsese had simply met Harvey Weinstein earlier, he could've made Gangs of New York. And the truth is that it didn't need all the money that was spent on it. There was no reason that movie should have cost more than The Age of Innocence, which is a far superior movie. But I digress.

Also, I'd like to point out that a 3 hour World War 2 film with graphic violence released in the middle of the summer isn't exactly a sure-thing either. And it wasn't hard to get off the ground, but it wasn't an easy film to make.

Look, we disagree Lazarus, perhaps I'm not articulating my point correctly, but you seem to think that Scorsese is a bigger risk-taker. Guess what? I agree with you. Artistically speaking, Scorsese is not only a better filmmaker, but also a bigger risk-taker. But that's not what my column was about. Scorsese is never unfairly maligned by cineastes. Speilberg is. That's the point. I've quite enjoyed this discussion with you, I must say, and I hope you see this as a friendly argument rather than some kind of fight.

Mr. Gittes, please don't get me wrong, I definitely am a fan of Traffic and Soderbergh. I was not a fan of the ending, though. I think that Spielberg says a lot in Munich, as much as Soderbergh says Traffic even. But, it's comparing apples to oranges really. They are both "issue" films, but the war on drugs has a definite RIGHT side, while the Israeli/Palestinian conflict does not. And thanks for the kind words, by the way :)

I don't consider the discussion antagonistic at all Noah, and that your piece in inspired this intelligent exchange means it was a successone way or the other.

You['re right in that Spielberg gets bagged on much more in general by cineastes, but Scorsese isn't exactly teflon these days. There are many people who don't think he's done an thing good since GoodFellas, and there are some who are so filled with resentment of DiCaprio they can't enjoy his recent work, some even begrudging the Oscar this year. I think that Spielberg's last decade of filmmaking gets much better treatment than you think, esp. when compared with Scorsese's.

On a side note, I think Gangs of New York is on a much bigger scale than Age of Innocence, which was for all practical purposes a sitting room film. It's not the costumes and props that are going to jack up a budget, it's all the locations and people-wrangling. How exactly could that film have been done on the cheap? They could have saved money by using digital effects but that's about it. It was always going to cost more.

And while i think Innocence is in Marty's top 3 or 5 films, I think Gangs is a brilliant mess on the level of Apocalypse Now, and even if we never get to see the "original" edit, I think it will age very well and hold much for future viewers who will see it without all the hype.

I think that now that Scorsese has made The Departed, which everybody loved and it even won him and the film an Oscar, I think he's put on a higher pedestal than Spielberg. Rightfully so, I might add, but I think with Casino, The Departed, Aviator and even Gangs of New York, people give Scorsese a bit more respect. Especially since historically, it's comparing the man who made Taxi Driver to the man who made Jaws. I don't know about you, but as much as I love both films, I'll take Taxi Driver any day.

Gangs of New York is a much bigger film than Age of Innocence, but I think that that's the problem with the film. It didn't need to be so big, it didn't need the Draft Riots. I thought the Draft Riots scene was interesting from a historical perspective (it was something I didn't know a lot about), but it really doesn't have a lot to do with the main characters. Anyway, I think some money could have been saved. It should cost more than Age of Innocence, but it didn't need to cost a hundred million I don't think. But that's just my opinion.

I think that's a pretty apt comparison, Lazarus, between Apocalypse Now and Gangs. I think that both films are great and fall apart in the last half hour.

I often think these sorts of debates come down to accessibility and group think. That which is more rare is more valued. By and large, people can access Spielberg's work. They can take a social message out of Jaws about the conflict of capitalism and social responsibility or they can simply have a good thrilling time. But often with art films, unless you 'get' it--or access it--on the higher plane your enjoyment will be limited, your enjoyment will be a more rare experience. And I think there is a corollary to that experience, that there is a subtle devaluing of the experience taken from a popular masterpiece because many other people took a powerful experience from it.

GK Chesterton said it best: "By a curious confusion, many modern critics have gone from the proposition that a masterpiece may be unpopular to the other proposition that unless it is unpopular it cannot be a masterpiece."

as for the group think, this is basic primate social structure. We try to impose our views on others, and the internet is a curious vessal for finding like minded screechers trying to escape the group think of their real life for a more pleasurable group think in line with their own particular quirks.

Are Antonioni fanboys inherently any better than Spielberg fanboys? Nope, but they can find each other quite easily on the internet and form their own community and strict sense of group think about film based around their tastes and requirements.

This is by and large what mags like Fangoria or sites like CHUD do for horror films, or, say, AintitCool for genre pictures. It's what sites like the Leaky Cauldron do for Harry Potter and children's literature. It's why a site for Orson Scott Card has a forum mostly populated with denizens of a highly articulate but a strong conservative and neo-con perspective, but a site for George RR Martin is at the opposite end of the political spectrum. People seek out a community of like minded individuals and reach out to try to assay the cultural waters for reassurrance and affirmation of their core beliefs.

What Spielberg does in his films is the sort of filmmaking that Ford, Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray have been praised for, lauded and studied since their careers were over. Spielberg is most similar to Ford, in that he was successful creatively, critically and fiscally early in his career, but of late Spielberg's critical reception has begun to appear more and more like the critical reception Hitchcock often received during his most creative periods--acknowledgement of his artistic achievements with Vertigo, Rear Window, etc pretty damn rare. And I often feel that Spielberg's artistic achievements with ET, Empire of the Sun, and Raiders of the Lost Ark are equally rare today.

So in that sense I know exactly where Noah's article is coming from. And I think he's laid out an interesting case for what could be a really compelling argument if the issue were pursued further.

damn, I hit post too soon, a couple clarifications, in caps:

"...acknowledgement of [Hitchcock's] artistic achievements with Vertigo, Rear Window, etc WERE pretty damn rare. And I often feel that CRITICAL ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF Spielberg's artistic achievements with ET, Empire of the Sun, and Raiders of the Lost Ark are equally rare today.

I see where you're coming from, movielocke, and even though Hitch's masterworks weren't appreciated when they were released, I think enough time has gone by to fairly judge Raiders and the other films you mentioned. Are you saying that the Indiana Jones films are on the same level of artistic achievement as Rear Window or Vertigo? Raiders is a pastiche of a lot of different source material, and is far from anything beyond an entertaining film. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre probably has more to say thematically. And I wouldn't call E.T. that much more than a nice little yarn. Perhaps something comparable by Hitch is North By Northwest, but that WAS appreciated at the time.

Ford was a populist filmmaker like Spielberg, but I'm also not seeing the depth of The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in the latter's work. While a few of Spielberg's 90's and beyond films appear to have a bit more depth to them (and this certainly varies from film to film), I just don't think there's enough subtext to put him among the ranks of Hitch & Ford, let alone Antonioni.

I'd put Raiders up against NxNW, ET up against Rear Window and Empire of the Sun up against Vertigo. The first and last are fairly decent matchups.

the last, in particular, I find intriguing. Spielberg's most complex and dense thematic, structural and visual film up against the same of Hitchcocks.

I've found it's mostly pointless to get involved in debates online about Spielberg's films because so often people irrationally hate/dismiss them or heap generalized praise that is equally frustrating. I won't equivocate though, his films are of a high artistic caliber, and yes the best stand against the best of Hitchcock and Ford as artistic masterpieces.

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