Citizen Spielberg

Citizen Spielberg

by Lester D. Friedman

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Steven Spielberg is the director or producer of over one third of the thirty highest grossing films of all time, yet most film scholars dismiss him as little more than a modern P. T. Barnum--a technically gifted and intellectually shallow showman who substitutes spectacle for substance. To date, no book has attempted to analyze the components of his worldview, the… See more details below


Steven Spielberg is the director or producer of over one third of the thirty highest grossing films of all time, yet most film scholars dismiss him as little more than a modern P. T. Barnum--a technically gifted and intellectually shallow showman who substitutes spectacle for substance. To date, no book has attempted to analyze the components of his worldview, the issues which animate his most significant works, the roots of his immense acceptance, and the influence his vast spectrum of imaginative products exerts on the public consciousness. _x000B_In Citizen Spielberg, Lester D. Friedman fills that void with a systematic analysis of the various genres in which the director has worked, including science fiction (E.T.), adventure (Raiders trilogy), race films (The Color Purple, Amistad), and war films (Saving Private Ryan, Schindlers List). Friedman concludes that Spielbergs films present a sustained artistic vision combined with a technical flair matched by few other filmmakers, and makes a compelling case for Spielberg to be considered as a major film artist. _x000B_

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Library Journal - Library Journal
Steven Spielberg continues to arouse both positive and negative passions after 30 years of career success. Despite the multiplicity of books and articles written about the director/producer, Friedman (scholar in residence, Hobart & William Smith Colls.; The Jewish Image in American Film) claims to have penned the first comprehensive analysis of his films, and he may well be right. Friedman argues that Spielberg is consistently underrated by other scholars, with whom he frequently disagrees as part of his own analyses. Spielberg's films are divided into the not-always-comfortable categories of sf/fantasy, action/adventure melodrama, monsters, World War II combat, problem/ethnic minority, and the Holocaust. Friedman believes that Spielberg's central theme is how modern humans face challenges that sometimes require them to unleash their more primitive selves. Buckland (film studies, Chapman Univ., CA) offers a most useful complement to Friedman's work, a close examination of the filmic structures of Spielberg's blockbusters-from Jaws to War of the Worlds-with practically a shot-by-shot breakdown of some scenes. In deconstructing these films, Buckland uses his own definition of poetics: the activities and techniques involved in constructing a work of art. Like Friedman, he is an admirer of Spielberg's and absolves him of the oft-repeated accusation that his production of the "first" blockbuster (Jaws) ultimately spelled doom for the "little" movie. These two books may or may not be the ultimate analyses of Spielberg's work to date, but they are highly enlightening. Recommended for large cinema collections.-Roy Liebman, Los Angeles P.L. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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Citizen Spielberg



Copyright © 2006 Lester D. Friedman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07358-8

Chapter One

"I'm Sorry I Didn't Tell You about the World": Spielberg's Science-Fiction and Fantasy Films

Science-Fiction and Fantasy Films

Science-fiction and fantasy films reveal more about the cultures that spawn them than the imaginary worlds they ostensibly describe. By extending contemporary societal problems far into the future, or by inserting fantastical elements into present-day environments, these movies encourage viewers to contemplate disruptive communal questions made less volatile by the mediating distance of time, the remoteness of space, and the illusion of supernatural encounters. Fanciful creatures (such as aliens, ghosts, or pixies) interjected into ordinary life, or diverse life forms confronted by human beings in galaxies far, far away, become representatives of "the cultural other," allowing filmmakers to explore current dilemmas of ethnic, racial, sexual, and gender differences freed from the confinements typically associated with depicting daily life. Similarly, films about the problems of futuristic societies set on remote planets reflect social realities and ethical dilemmas on earth. The science-fiction and fantasy genres grant their practitioners license to ponder complex moral and cultural questions, while they simultaneously provide fertile opportunities for dazzling visual spectacles, imaginative creations, and inventive narrative structures.

Although each chapter in this book opens by broadly defining the genre into which various Spielberg films fit, these segments provide only limited space to consider complex definitions and broad historical questions, certainly not enough room to examine them fully. Here, it is necessary to note the general distinctions film scholars make between science-fiction and fantasy films before discussing Spielberg's individual works within these genres. Because films iconographically identified with one genre inevitably poach narratives, ideas, and stock characters from other genres, critics often struggle when attempting to make clear distinctions between film categories. Commentators who investigate the boundaries between science-fiction and fantasy films, for example, usually cite the intimate relationships between them, noting how they often spring from similar sources. A fundamental narrative pattern ties these two genres together: supernatural occurrences disrupt comfortable daily routines and challenge characters' conceptions of reality. Ordinary people with whom the audience can identify find their lives irrevocably altered by encounters with supernatural situations that force them to reconfigure their conceptions of the world and their place within it.

The Fantasy Film

In his classic book The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, Tzvetan Todorov asserts that three narrative structures constitute fantasy fictions: the marvelous (events that involve the supernatural or spiritual), the fantastic (events that question common reality), and the uncanny (events produced by the unconscious). Always fits nicely as a "marvelous" narrative and Hook as a "fantastic" or an "uncanny" one, depending on whether Neverland is conceptualized as an alternative reality or a mental projection. Building on Todorov, Wade Jennings argues that the only "indispensable element in a fantasy is a central situation that defies rational or even pseudo-scientific explanation.... The chief distinction between fantasy and science fiction is that in science fiction the drive is toward explanation, toward resolution of the mystery and its attendant problems, whereas in fantasy the situation cannot be explained; it must simply be accepted" (249). Classic fantasy films, as diverse as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Lost Horizon (1937), Mary Poppins (1964), and the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–3), rarely explain how their strange worlds and exotic characters were created: instead,they provide the complex pleasure of allowing us to "believe without really believing" (Todorov 56). We watch these movies knowing that they defy the laws of common reality, giving ourselves up to the delight of accepting them on their own terms.

Fantasy films often invoke a perilous quest that necessitates an equally significant internal journey of personal understanding and self-realization. Protagonists in fantasy films discover or rediscover joy and freedom and eventually comprehend that rational knowledge alone is insufficient to survive the arduous tests they must pass. Fantasy worlds are commonly populated by three general character types: 1) the superman with powers beyond ordinary beings; 2) the child hero who battles evil armed with natural innocence and goodness; and 3) the supernaturally wise mentor to the human hero (Jennings 252–53). The initially dislocated protagonists must find a new place for themselves in these fantasy realms, choosing either to stay within the new environment or return to their old worlds, forever altered by the lessons they have learned. They are forced to examine "their values and decide under what circumstances they can live freely and happily given those values" (251). The question of "what constitutes home" (251), therefore, lies at the deep center of most fantasy films. Given this fact, it is not surprising that Steven Spielberg, a director whose characters perpetually search for sites of emotional stability, reciprocal love, and sustained acceptance, would be drawn to this genre. In one sense, his works from 1971 onward represent a sustained quest to discover exactly where his figures belong, where they might call home.

Spielberg's Fantasy Films

Ironically, critics almost never recognize that both of Spielberg's fantasy films focus on the need to discard childish illusions and accept adult responsibilities. The maturity levels that accompany the cultural demarcations of "child" or "adult" in these movies are determined more by the emotional states of the protagonists than by their chronological age. In Hook (1991), Peter Banning (Robin Williams) returns temporarily to boyhood but ultimately chooses fatherhood over "never growing up," while in Always (1989), Pete Sandrich's (Richard Dreyfuss) death forces him to assume as a spirit the mature burdens of care and protection he recklessly spurned in life. Such shifts allow Spielberg to explore the intimate tangles between past events and present actions, between what we believe was once ours and the challenge of dealing with its absence. Banning and Sandrich lose what is most dear to them; to recapture it, they must accept obligations that entail personal sacrifices. They struggle to accommodate their lives to their memories and losses; they attempt to put things back together as they once were (Banning) or to find new ways to enrich a present that cannot possibly duplicate the past (Sandrich). Each character confronts an amalgam of past and present losses and gains within his individual life and family life to create a successful future. Growth in Always and Hook necessarily involves emotional pain; to mature, Sandrich and Banning must put away the lavish dreams of childhood and place the needs of others before their own desires for youthful pleasures.


Spielberg's remake of Victor Flemming's A Guy Named Joe (1943) was clearly a labor of love. The film had greatly moved him as a struggling adolescent growing up in Phoenix; it was "'a story that touched my soul ... the second movie after Bambi that made me cry'" (qtd. in McBride 406), and he admired the movie enough to reference it on the television screen in his script/production of Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982). Spielberg's crucial decision was to update the original's World War II combat pilots into modern-day flyers dumping chemical retardants on forest fires in the Pacific Northwest. He chose not to make it a period piece because he worried that contemporary audiences might think, "That's how people thought back in the old days; people don't feel that way in modern times" (Royal, "Always" 146). And therein lies a basic problem. Flemming's film resonated during a wartime environment for two fundamental reasons: It provided reassurance and comfort to hometown audiences struggling with the pain of losing loved ones in the war, allowing them to understand their private sorrow as a necessary sacrifice required for the public good, and it alleviated "the guilt of women who found new men after their husbands or boyfriends had been killed" (Greenberg, "Raiders" 116). But the transition from battling Nazis to dousing forest fires makes Pete's reckless flying feats narcissistic and selfish rather than heroic and noble. Libby, Montana (the film's shooting location), and even the majestic Yellowstone National Park (where Spielberg's crew captured footage of actual fires), hardly compare to the drama and carnage of Omaha Beach or the Battle of the Bulge.

The selfless heroism and military romanticism common in wartime films seemed hopelessly outmoded in 1989. The flight base tucked into the mountains is weirdly anachronistic; despite its prop-engine planes, macho bantering, old-time music, and obsolete phrases ("You big lug!"), it lacks the desperate urgency of a World War II setting. This awareness is self-consciously alluded to several times in the film, most overtly when Pete nearly crashes his plane after running out of fuel. Trying to convince him to take a safer job instructing younger pilots in Colorado, his best friend Al (John Goodman) explicitly makes the analogy that dooms the film:

What this place reminds me of is the war in Europe, which I personally was never at, but think about it: The beer is warm, the dance hall's a quonset hut, there's B-26's outside, hotshot pilots inside, an airstrip in the woods. It's England, man. Everything but Glenn Miller. Except we go to burning places and bomb 'em until they stop burning. You see, Pete, there ain't no war here. This is why they don't make movies called Night Raid to Boise, Idaho, or Fireman Strike at Dawn. And this is why you're not exactly a hero for taking these chances. You're more of what I would call a dickhead.

One can certainly feel sympathy with a dickhead, can laugh with or at him and even admire his actions; but a dickhead can't be a hero in the same mold as a World War II fighter pilot, no matter how skillful his airborne maneuvers or how many fires he drenches. The stakes are simply not the same. Ultimately, Pete's rash decisions seem driven more by an internalized masculine code than by widespread external danger; in effect, he chooses indulgence and bravado over personal happiness, the needs of his ego over his commitment to Dorinda (Holly Hunter). Even Pete's own comment after he dies strikes a self-deprecating, dickheadish note: "What a jerk I turned out to be."

This self-confessed "jerk" is the romantic lead in Always, a rare Spielberg film that focuses primarily on a love relationship between adults. Pete adheres to the typical American-movie image of rugged men with deep feelings they remain incapable of expressing: John Wayne (called up by Ted's poor imitation), Gary Cooper, or Henry Fonda. For such iconic images of masculinity, the voicing of emotions was deemed a weakness, a concession to the "feminine" vulnerability. These men always did "what they had to do," but they did it laconically, and they never overtly confessed their feelings to the womenfolk. In Always, Dorinda begs Pete several times to say that he loves her, to speak aloud the words she longs to hear. Sadly, he does so only before his final flight and—with the engines roaring—a retreating Dorinda never hears him say it. He can only make up for this failing by returning as a spirit to help another man say the words that he could never summon the courage to express.

Pete is sent back to earth not only to liberate Dorinda emotionally, so she can love another man, but also to do penance for his macho stance, which Spielberg overtly critiques. "The love we hold back," Pete tells Dorinda when he releases her to embrace Ted, "is the only pain that follows us here." As Spielberg put it in an interview:

It's a story about a man who had a chance to say everything important to the one person he loved and didn't say it until it was too late. And now that he's gone, his mission—so to speak—is to come back and say all the things he was never able to say as a living human being. (Royal, "Always" 146)

By demonstrating how Pete breaks free of typical masculine stereotypes only after he is dead, and how deeply he regrets his inability to do so while still alive, Always undermines the code of manly conduct validated in those 1940s films Spielberg so dearly loves, aptly illustrating how conventional standards of emotional suppression, stoicism, and silence create a lonely and chilling gap between men and the women they love. As we will see, the director's ability to undercut narrative stereotypes is extensive and almost totally ignored by sympathetic commentators and hostile critics alike.

In detailing the female partner in this adult love relationship, Always offers a confusing melange of ideas. In the film's most consistently criticized scene, Pete brings Dorinda some "girly clothes" for a birthday present. Beaming with delight, she tells him, "It's not the dress; it's the way you see me." She quickly changes into the outfit and, when she reappears, turns the rough-and-tumble, grease-smeared firefighters into befuddled little boys rushing to wash their hands before they dance with her. David Denby summed up the general response in New York magazine when he wrote that Dorinda's entrance is "'the most purely sexless moment in Spielberg's long, long career as a boy, and it made me realize to what extent sex in his movies is a matter of dreams and idealization'" (qtd. in McBride 408). Dorinda is a mosaic of mixed messages. She is a tough-talking, clever-bantering Hawksian heroine who flies a plane to show her displeasure with Pete and rescues trapped firemen to save Ted. Yet she is also a severe mother figure who threatens to leave Pete unless he gives up the thing he loves most: fighting fires from the air. Dorinda attempts to clip the wings of the main character, simultaneously agreeing to forego her own aerial ambitions and to "ground myself and be your girl."

And now things get curioser and curioser. Most American romance movies reward audiences by having the man and the woman—whom viewers know are right for each other from their first introductions—recognize their mutual attraction and ultimately merge in a blissful union. In Always, to the contrary, the people meant to be together must learn to live without each other forever. In fact, Pete prepares Dorinda to love another "big lug." The film's emotional movement runs totally against traditional genre conventions; instead of figuring out how to be together, Pete and Dorinda must learn how to let go of each other: he by abandoning his jealousy, and she by opening herself up to new romance. "Anything you do for yourself," counsels Pete's celestial guide, Hap (Audrey Hepburn), "is a waste of spirit." While we may recognize and applaud Spielberg's efforts to twist genre expectations, which he does far more frequently than commonly recognized, the temporal setting thwarts his intentions. Audiences could accept that Rick must send off Ilsa to be with Victor Laszlo in Casablanca (1942) because wartime responsibilities demanded such noble self-sacrifices; but the director, Michael Curtiz, never forces viewers (or more importantly, Rick) to watch Victor and Ilsa—the less-than-ideal couple—in a passionate embrace, as Spielberg does in Always, creating an incredibly uncomfortable scene that transforms Pete into a distraught voyeur. Ultimately, however, he evolves from the childish daredevil to the mature surrogate father who guides Ted ("That's my boy!") into becoming an expert pilot and a suitable match for Dorinda ("That's my girl!").

Why is Always the "most forgotten film" of Speilberg's career (Freer 190)? Financially, it ranks substantially below even his other generally acknowledged critical and popular failures: compared with 1941 ($90 million) and Hook ($119 million), Always grossed $43 million in its stateside theatrical release—a reasonable figure for any director not named Spielberg. The theme of love lost, a foundation for high tragedy as well as bodice-ripping romances, is not inherently antithetical to popular tastes. A year after Always, Jerry Zucker's Ghost (1990) racked up box-office records and Academy Awards with a similar premise, although the buff Patrick Swayze comes back from the dead to protect Demi Moore, not to prepare her for another man. Joseph McBride contends that the film can be best understood "as about Spielberg's acceptance of loss" (406), that the director's affection for his source material blinded him to its "irrelevance for contemporary audiences" (406), and that it flopped because of the "wide disparity between the sophistication of its craftsmanship and the relative shallowness of its romantic relationships" (409).


Excerpted from Citizen Spielberg by LESTER D. FRIEDMAN Copyright © 2006 by Lester D. Friedman. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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