Thursday, January 30, 2014

Now I've Seen Everything Dept.: Steven Spielberg (4 of 4)

Steven Spielberg, Senior Year

One of the exciting things about seeing movies over an extended period of time is seeing the growth of a genuine artist. Despite reservations about his early output, it was obvious from the outset that Steven Allen Spielberg was a dynamic story-teller and a wizard in communicating with a camera. His training manuals were the classics of the film-makers of spectacle—the David Lean's and Alfred Hitchcock's and Cecil B. DeMille's, the guys who made expansive roadshows that appealed to a mass audience. They made movies of exotic places and large personalities that could fill a Cinemascope expanse with adventure and color and grandeur. They could also manipulate an audience with their technique to fill them with awe and wonder, or propel them out of their seats in an explosion of popcorn. Movies were a thrill-ride, but with better scenery. From the beginning, Spielberg had that impresario spirit to look at an audience as a territory to be conquered: give them bread and circuses and chases. Tell them a story and give them a thrill. Very quickly, he became his own brand: "A Spielberg Film" was something to see.

The events of 9/11/2001 weighed heavily on Spielberg (as it did all of us) resulting in films where the usual sense of wonder was replaced by a loss of innocence. The shocked expressions of Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds, and the blank look of his "Pinocchio" in A.I. were no longer the awe-inspired faces displayed in so many of his movies. Spielberg's subject matter became darker—even in Tintin—and he seemed to be grasping for stories that illustrated the problems of the world...and how we might best overcome them. At the same time, he became a subtler film-maker, and his collaborators the top of their field.  

War Horse (2011)  Spielberg likes to tell the story of meeting John Ford ("So you want to be a 'picture-maker'") and having Ford make him look at his Remington prints and observe the horizon line of the paintings. "When you're able to appreciate why the horizon is at the top of the picture or at the bottom of the picture, then you might make a pretty good picture-maker.  Now get the f#&% outta here!"

War Horse proved that Spielberg had learned his lesson and quite a few other things as well.  Sure it's a horse story, but it's not like the usual "boy/girl loves horse" type of "growing up responsible" tale.  It's gritty, tough and incorporates an Equine Odyssey that offers an objective but not disinterested view of the best of man's instincts and its worst, and so much of it is done without words (and the words, by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, are quite well done). Pictorially, it is amazing—lush, full, going from verdant Irish hillsides to man-made trenches of death, with the horse (as it would be, anyway, to the audience) the focal point of the story as his human masters fall in and out of his story.  It reads deceptively simple, but Spielberg makes the most of the visual aspects that provide a pictorial sub-text to the story, giving it far more resonance than words on the page could provide.  And there is one episode in the story—a brief truce between Germans and Brits during the first World War that is a grimly humorous reminder of the uselessness of war and how a common goal can shatter a conflict like a disagreement can shatter the peace. War Horse is an overlooked gem.

Lincoln (2012) Spielberg's long-in-the-planning biography of the almost canonized saint of the U.S. Presidency. With the help of his master craftsmen and his Munich scribe Tony Kushner—who manages to convey what was so special (and so irritating) about the man, the team focuses on the last months of Lincoln's life (Kushner's script was voluminous and Spielberg ultimately decided to concentrate on his last months), combining his relationships with the world of his family, compatriots, and enemies at the end of the Civil War, the passage of the 16th Amendment, and his death, while not treading the traditional paths of every other film that touched on the subject—Spielberg doesn't even show Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theater, choosing instead to show the event through the eyes of his beloved son, Willie. It's a stellar cast, all providing exceptional work but dominated by James Spader's lobby-lizard and Tommy Lee Jones, whose Thaddeus Stevens has reasons for delivering the controversial amendment both ideological and personal, and, of course, Daniel Day-Lewis, whose imaginatively scholarly work on the man creates a moving portrait beyond the static images of Matthew Brady, breathing life and voice into them, making the man less of a monument, more of a man, and no less monumental for it. Much more so, the film is an exercise in showing the messy business of democracy—of seeking agreement for the greater good, despite the polarization inflicted by the various points of view, at a time when the nation was warring over higher ideals that are timeless over the short-sighted goals of economy.  Lincoln is an education in the best sense of the term, providing perspective on the man and his times...and ours.

Bridge of Spies (2015) Spielberg and Tom Hanks reunite to tell the story of insurance lawyer James B. Donovan who was roped into the no-win job of defending a communist spy (a standout performance by Mark Rylance) during the height of the Cold War and, through a combination of ideals and empathy with the man, ended up taking his case, first, to the Supreme Court to save his life, and then, later, to Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie to return him to Russia in exchange for Francis Gary Powers, the captured pilot of an American spy-plane. The film is entirely unflashy, muted and solid, has an impeccable sense of period (with no compromises for younger audiences—which is more unusual than you'd think) and still manages to be intriguing, even when one suspects how it will end—it is, after all, based on a true story. With a script by Mark Charman, it got a polish from the Coen Brothers with an emphasis on ideals...and ideals in the face of pressures, bureaucratic, autocratic, whichever side of The Wall they're on, both sides weigh in on the spirit of morality and grace. Ultimately, it is a story not about winning or gaining advantage, but of aspiring to the better part of humanness, and standing true to it.

The BFG (2016) The BFG is remarkable—stunning in all sorts of applaudable ways. The effects work is stellar, making up the vast majority of the mise en scene of the movie with a fluidity and attention to detail that draws one in with fascination. This is spectacular world-building, similar to the care and beauty that went into Disney' 2016 version of The Jungle Book from earlier that Summer. And the motion-capture performances of Mark Rylance (who was the very sly stand-out for his underplayed work in Spielberg's Bridge of Spies), Jemaine Clement and the other giant actors is truly amazing, completely stepping over "The Uncanny Valley" as nimbly as if there truly were giants of great stride. Spielberg also retains his reputation as a deft director of children, getting a terrific performance from newcomer Ruby Barnhill as the heroine of the story, Sophie.

I was dissatisfied with the film, however, despite it hitting all its marks, and bringing the wonders and chills of childhood to the fore. A great children's film should also appeal to adults, as well. And I found that the film dragged (despite my delight that it wasn't a roller-coaster). Bits of business and Spielberg's scrupulous sense of place by making sure the audience knows where it is at all times bogs the movie down no matter how fluid the camera work and intricacy of the choreography. I found myself drifting off, losing focus and the sense of caring about what was going on. Perhaps it was the circumstances under which the film was made. Maybe the filmmakers couldn't bear to part with a single word or sequence that had been worked out by "Our Melissa"—screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who'd written Spielberg's E.T., and who died from cancer while the film was in production. Gifted she is, but in the editing room, a filmmaker must be equal parts story-teller and butcher. Maybe the affection for the screen-writer overwhelmed the cruelty of the knife that is required to make a tight, concise film that isn't in love with itself, so determined is its aim to win over the audience. I think this was a case of too much affection for the material to the point of protection, and maybe some hubris that a Spielberg children's film was a certain home-run. Nothing is certain in the market-place. This one may be big, it may be friendly, but its quite a few feet below giant stage.

The Post (2017) The Post was squeezed into Spielberg's schedule while post-production continued on Ready Play One and casting hit a snag on another project. The first feature script by Liz Hannah (where it was put on 2016's annual "Black List" of interesting scripts), it has a textual and sub-textual significance during the turbulent Trump years: the obvious, textual one involves the publication of the so-called "Pentagon Papers" (comprised of a Department of defense study on the handling of the Vietnam War from the Truman administration on) by The New York Times and The Washington Post; the sub-textual one involves the struggle of Post owner and publisher Katharine Graham (played superbly by Meryl Streep) to deal with a potentially ruinous and lawfully risky decision to publish when she is being bombarded from all sides by a manfully aggressive phalanx of government and Wall Street types to go against her instincts as a newspaper publisher. Spielberg can be accused of hitting some of the points a bit hard, but there are extraordinarily nuanced sequences, culminating in one amazing sequence of a pressure-cooker of a phone-call where all the arguments in the world cannot dissuade from the role she was born to play and, because of societal and traditional women's roles she has blithely gone along with, she has been denied. The production summarized the story by saying it was "the week Katharine Graham became Katharine Graham" and the pay-off feels more important, personally, than just defying a governmental attempt to suppress the Press, than the breaking free of a woman's lifetime of suppression. It's quite the nifty Big Statement. 

Ready Player One (2018) When Spielberg does dystopian, of course he's going to come up with an alternative to it. The extensive CGI landscapes and characters that suffuses the VR Reality "The Oasis" in Ready Player One is where folks go to when they want to "escape" the reality of life in "The Stacks"—large towers of manufactured homes that have supplanted high-rise apartments as the solution to a growing population and the breakdown of society. Of course, they never really escape—they're just playing at it. The gist of the story is that the creator of "The Oasis" bequeaths his Virtual Empire to whoever can crack the many games contained in that world. The entire world is competing for the prize (including well-funded corporate interests) but the ones who seem to be closest are a motley group of "gunters"—a mongrelization of "egg-hunters"—who call themselves "The High-Five" (who have only met as avatars) have the best synergy to get to the end-game. But, the irony of the competition is that the guy who gets there is the guy who can appreciate not having it the most. He who desires it the least wins the most.

It's a VR version of "Willy Wonka" (with a bit of "Oz" thrown in), celebrating gaming culture while subverting it at the same time with the Big Picture. It's Spielberg at his cagiest and most ingenious.

West Side Story
(2021) Robert Wise's 1960 film of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents street-tough re-working of "Romeo and Juliet" was always a favorite of the director's since childhood. But—like everybody else who's ever watched it—he realized that, as great as it is, it is flawed. And—working with Tony Kushner—Spielberg took pains to improve on them.

And he does. Some of the tent-pole songs were out of place where they were. They're switched to better spots and with better motivations. New York is no longer an abandoned silent city while the songs are sung full-throated in the foreground. The male lead, Tony (played by Ansel Elgort), now has a back-story where both his hopes and his risks are higher, the leader of The Jets, Bernardo (David Alvarez) is a professional boxer, and the city is visibly going through a displacing urban renewal project to make room for the building of Lincoln Center—where the musical would play in 1968—and there is no compromise in casting Latino's for the Jets. Important? Yeah. It is. Especially when you include Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose...and Rita Moreno. Also, Mike Faist is a stand-out as Riff. And Spielberg's direction is smart, assured, and, for the first time in a while, bravura. Reviews were laudatory, but audiences stayed away. Online comments were ludicrous—"I hear that 'they' speak Spanish without subtitles" (Yes, they do, but nothing crucial, just overlapping dialogue and "bridge"-statements) and (my favorite) "Why did they have to remake this?" (I dunno. Why remake "Romeo and Juliet"?). It's subtle, smart and energetic, and in every way surpasses the first version.

The Fabelmans (2022)
Spielberg's past has informed subtly, sometimes metaphorically, his films. The Fabelmans, however, comes right out and spells it out. The movie
originated as a 1999 script "I'll Be Home" by Spielberg's sister Anne, and as Tony Kushner and Spielberg worked on other projects, Kushner kept pushing the director to concentrate on bringing it to a final form, something they worked out over Zoom meetings during the pandemic. It is Spielberg's first co-authored screenplay since A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and is a clear-eyed look at his influences, drive, and conflicts as he set out to make something of himself, in a family split between the practical (his father was a computer engineer) and the fanciful (his mother was a pianist). Along the way, he sees how his dreams can conflict, rather than enhance, his reality and the cost of devotion. It's a great film, much more personal than what he has been doing of late (although his dedication to his craft has never wavered) and his look back may be the final putting away of "childish things" but one doubts that. Spielberg, even as he approaches his 80th spin around the sun, still informs every frame with the enthusiasm of a "whiz-kid."

What's next for Spielberg? There are rumors that he wants to make a new Bullitt movie, starring Bradley Cooper, but it's just rumor stages for the moment. Tony Kushner's script of David Kertzer's The Kidnapping of Arturo Mortara (a historical piece about a Jewish boy raised Christian in Italy) looks to be next. After that, it's hard to say, as he frequently changes his mind in mid-pre-production about what's "right" to direct (for the longest time he was set to direct Memoirs of a Geisha, then abandoned it, and his long-time project Interstellar ended up being directed by Christopher Nolan). Robopocalypse was in pre-production, but isn't anymore. James Mangold is directing "Indiana Jones 5". One suspects that Spielberg hasn't completely put away childish things—his directorial sense is still infused with a youthful enthusiasm. But his films have grown darker, more considered, and less feeling like contraptions.

Whatever his future work holds in store, it will be interesting, provocative, maybe even indelible.

A preview trailer of a five-part video essay on Spielberg on Indiewire.
Highly, highly, highly recommended.

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