An Analysis – Spielberg vs. Spielberg
In a darkened space below the deck of the Orca, a fishing boat that probably isn’t big enough, the Ahabesque character of Sam Quint relays a chilling tale about a mission to deliver an atomic bomb to Japan during World War II. While drunk and still laughing, Quint (played by Robert Shaw) begins to deliver this strange and haunting monologue to his two fellow crewmates, and while the music fades and the camera pushes in closer to his face, the tone of the movie makes an important shift. Carefully worded and with deep sincerity, Shaw explains in great detail about the night his character watched the other soldiers get picked off one by one by a swarm of tiger sharks while they waited in the Japanese waters to be saved by the US military. To anyone who has seen Jaws (1975) more than once, this scene quickly becomes their favorite. Steven Spielberg himself has admitted that this scene, consisting of only dialogue and a few reaction shots, is the moment from Jaws that he was most proud of. What this now-famous boat scene underlines is the dichotomy of its creator.
Steven Spielberg has become perhaps America’s most beloved and successful filmmaker. Through his career he has made popcorn friendly adventure movies, truly suspenseful creature features, and grounded dramatic efforts dealing with war, poverty, and social injustices. There seems to be two different kinds of filmmakers within the mind of the one director, but what separates him from the legions of other directors in Hollywood who also jump from genre to genre is the love and craft that he gives to both of his creative sides. Whether it’s a movie about a cave-dwelling adventurer out to find an ancient treasure or a sullen family man out to find vengeance through political assassination, it is always clear that the man behind the camera is working towards a certain kind of harmony to resolve the contrast of his cinematic interests.
This holiday season Spielberg has not only one movie competing for box office, but two: the motion-capture comic book adaptation The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and War Horse (2011), a sprawling WWI epic based on a popular novel and stage play. But to those of us who follow his career, we know that this of course is not the first time he has done this. Throughout his career we can see a lot of strange couplings where we can observe both Spielbergs at work, the wonder-filled crowdpleaser and the so-called serious filmmaker. Some people seem to prefer one over the other and believe that Spielberg the entertainer can oftentimes get in the way of his more socially conscious side. Brazil (1985) director Terry Gilliam has been very vocal about his disapproval over the Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List (1993), stating that Spielberg sought out to make a movie about a victory, in a situation where in reality nobody actually won.
With a string of smash hits like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Spielberg established himself early in his career as the premiere entertainer of the new Hollywood movement in the ’70s and early ’80s, and along with the George Lucas’s success with Star Wars (1977), he practically invented the summer blockbuster. Having accomplished this before he was even 35 years old, you’d think breaking box office records would be enough to satisfy a creative entertainer, but the very things that made his genre movies so captivating would end up being the same thing that drove him to start make different kinds of films.
Unlike most summer tent-pole releases today, Spielberg has always been able to balance the monsters and mayhem with the meaningful. Within the films of his “classic era” there were always plenty of exciting action scenes and groundbreaking special effects, but never without true character development and important subtext dealing with things such as masculinity, fatherhood, and the search for a greater truth. 1982 saw the release of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. The story of a cute brown alien who’s abandoned with a broken family on Earth, Spielberg sought out to tackle the difficult subject of divorce and in doing so created a decade-defining film. Though still very much aiming at a younger, family-friendly demographic, E.T was the moment where Spielberg can be seen reaching for something a little more serious or, at the very least, a lot less suspense driven or as riddled with complex set pieces. Though breaking his own box office record yet again, he was not rewarded by the Academy, perhaps prompting him to move into a more dramatic and less fictional world, and through the remainder of the ’80s he did exactly that.
The Color Purple (1985), a film about a poor black girl who was raised in abuse during the time of the early 1900s, was Spielberg’s first attempt at a “serious” film, perhaps more geared in the direction of the awards his blockbusters didn’t previously win. Though at the time it was seen as a progressive move for his career, with a few decades now passed, I can see a young director still struggling with his sentimental and sensational sensibilities. In truth, it isn’t a bad movie per se, but it isn’t a great movie either. The problem is with the tone and balance of the picture. The bouncy/swelling score by longtime collaborator John Williams and the unnecessary physical comedy seems very out of sync with the heavy subject matter. Moreover, the movie is much too long, a continuing problem with the “serious” Spielberg. It was an ambitious effort, and at its time it probably seemed like he hit it out of the ballpark because he was still known for movies about aliens and sharks. But looking back, the movie dates pretty badly and the ambition doesn’t really match its reward. However, there are individual moments, strong performances (Whoopi Goldberg is great), and impressive cinematography that makes it very much worth seeing.
Though he managed to fit a couple of Indiana Jones movies in his schedule—Temple of Doom (1985) and The Last Crusade (1989)—Spielberg spent most of the ’80s trying his hat at this new more serious approach. With his hands now too busy, he began to produce, creating a “Spielbergian” brand quality under his Amblin Entertainment production company, giving his lighter amusement to up-and-coming directors. Based on the model of his earlier successful films, Spielberg’s style became almost a type of genre in the ’80s, as seen in Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1983), Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), and Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985). Many other Spielberg clones began to pop up to coattail this movement as well, some of which he had no creative input on—à la Flight of the Navigator (1986) and Mac and Me (1988).