Steven Spielberg: a late-realised appreciation

Steven Spielberg is one of the most prolific, critically lauded and beloved film directors of the past forty years. He’s arguably the most famous figure of the last forty years of cinema, beginning his career as part of the American New Wave movement in the 1970s as the dominant studio system broke apart and heralded a fresh, exciting flood of new work from young upstarts like Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, Freidkin, Polanski and Kubrick. He’s won two Oscars, broken the all-time box office record three times and even been made a honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen. And I’ve only just discovered that I quite like his films. Obviously I knew that I liked E.T., Jaws, Jurassic Park and so on, but it’s only in the past few months that I’ve realised just how much I like them, to the point where at least five of them are in my ten favourite films of all time. Spielberg is a filmmaker I grew up with and who I now realise touched my imagination in a way that no-one else has ever quite managed.

Images, lines and moments from his films are indelibly etched into my mind: the ripples in the cup of water in Jurassic Park, Harrison Ford testing the weight of a bag of sand in the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a bicycle soaring across the moon in E.T., a two-note baseline signalling the arrival of terror in the ocean in Jaws, the bleakness and horror of the D-Day landing beaches in Saving Private Ryan. I saw Jurassic Park for the first time on a video borrowed from the library when I must have been about six – when the velociraptors cornered Lex and Tim in the kitchen, I should have been hiding behind the sofa, but I wasn’t. I was engrossed.

With the benefit of age and a degree, I can now see how deftly Spielberg, especially in his earlier films, mixed dark and light elements into films that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their age. I think E.T.’s “death” might have been the first time I experienced a good guy dying in a film, though he comes back to life (apologies if you’ve somehow contrived not to see E.T. and were thus unaware of that). Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is played for laughs whenever Kate Capshaw is onscreen, but it also includes child kidnapping and slavery and a mad priest who gouges the hearts of unfortunate people out of their chests with his bare hands while they’re still alive.

He’s an instinctive, intensely creative filmmaker – he knows the language of cinema and how to manipulate an audience. The incredulity and awe on the faces of Sam Neill and Laura Dern when they first see the Brontosaurus in Jurassic Park is mirrored on our faces, even though the technology used in the scene is old hat these days and it should take more to impress us. He went back and filmed the shot in Jaws where Ben Gardner’s head rolls out of the hole in the hull of the boat because he wanted one more scream from the audience – it cost him $3000 of his own money to pull off, but he got that scream. The shot of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln waiting alone in his office for the result of the Emancipation Act vote says more than a two hundred word moralising speech ever could. These are the moments that cinema was created for – who else imprints shots and scenes with equal effectiveness these days?

I’ve so far only talked about the films he directed, by the way. His list of producing credits includes Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Back to the Future, Cape Fear, Twister, Men In Black, Band of Brothers, Under the Dome, Animaniacs cartoons – the list goes on. He’s been involved at various levels in the production of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver; the Star Warsfilms, alongside his good friend George Lucas; Barry Levinson’s Rain Man and American Beauty, the script for which he was influential in getting to Sam Mendes, an acclaimed theatre director who had yet to make a feature but ended up winning an Academy Award for his work on the film.

There is a school of thought among some po-faced critics that crowd-pleasing films and box office profits cannot sit together with artistic integrity and, as ridiculous as it seems, there are those that remain unmoved by any film in Spielberg’s oeuvre. They are wrong. Spielberg has, with a couple of exceptions, moved to more serious subject matter since the early 1990s – Amistad (as well as Lincoln) deals with slavery in America, Schindler’s List covers the Holocaust, War Horse is an uninspiring if faithful depiction of World War I as seen through the eyes of a horse and Munich is concerned with the aftermath and reaction to the 1972 murder of Israeli Olympic athletes. All of these films were critically acclaimed, but with the possible exception of Schindler’s List, how many will be remembered with the affection that Jaws et al enjoy? How many will people reminisce about, watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, argue and quote from?

As much as the film snob in me would like to be able to populate my list of ten favourite films with “highbrow” options like À bout de souffle or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it wouldn’t be true: Spielberg’s films speak to the natural love of cinema as spectacle and entertainment in all of us. There are clunkers on his CV, as there are on the CV of every director – there is no great love for Hook, 1941, Always or Twilight Zone: The Movie – but that same CV contains, to my mind, at least twelve pictures that any director would kill to have his name connected to. He finds the moments in a crowd-pleasing story that elevate them to much more than they might otherwise have been, creating cinematic art in the process. As far as I’m concerned, long may he continue to do so.

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