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The Cinema of Steven Spielberg

The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light

nigel morris
Series: Directors' Cuts
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Cinema of Steven Spielberg
    Book Description:

    Cinema's most successful director is a commercial and cultural force demanding serious consideration. Not just triumphant marketing, this international popularity is partly a function of the movies themselves. Polarised critical attitudes largely overlook this, and evidence either unquestioning adulation or vilification-often vitriolic-for epitomising contemporary Hollywood. Detailed textual analyses reveal that alongside conventional commercial appeal, Spielberg's movies function consistently as a self-reflexive commentary on cinema. Rather than straightforwardly consumed realism or fantasy, they invite divergent readings and self-conscious spectatorship which contradict assumptions about their ideological tendencies. Exercising powerful emotional appeal, their ambiguities are profitably advantageous in maximising audiences and generating media attention.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50345-7
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: The Critical Context
    (pp. 1-7)

    ‘The Cinema of Steven Spielberg’ has several meanings, including the following:

    – films directed by a bearded, bespectacled Jewish American with seven children who was born in Cincinnati in the late 1940s

    – films involving that individual as writer, producer, executive producer or studio mogul as well as those he has directed

    – what cinema means to that filmmaker; the influences and tastes that shape his work and the view of the world it expresses

    – the contemporary popular cinema his extraordinary commercial success has helped spawn, including audience expectations and attitudes

    – a body of work, more or less...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Close Encounters of the Third Kind: tripping the light fantastic
    (pp. 8-19)

    Title credits fade in and out on black, followed by thirty seconds of darkness. Musical tones emerge individually, building through a crescendo, like an orchestra tuning. At the climax, light floods the screen. It diminishes, revealing headlamps through a sandstorm. A car, then human figures, materialise on the blank screen: the diegesis gradually solidifies, anchored spatially and temporally by a caption, while the music modulates into sounds of wind and sand. The mysteriously shrouded figures, wearing dark glasses, are drawn to something off-screen, windward. One requests explanation. Their leader Lacombe (François Truffaut), appearing from the blankness, leads them towards a...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Duel: the descent of Mann
    (pp. 20-31)

    Blackness. A door slams; an engine starts. A bicycle, dimly emerging, rapidly diminishes: the camera is retreating, through a rectangular, screen-shaped, screen-sized aperture. Daylight: a garage door, drive, suburban house, left behind as the camera pans then speedily tracks forward on squealing tyres.

    A contemporary Phantom Ride thus begins. Those Victorian films from an advancing vehicle celebrated the exciting danger of mechanical motion. They featured at fun-fairs alongside rollercoasters and Ferris wheels, anticipating affinities between cinema and theme park rides later exploited withJawsandJurassic Park. They exhibited film as attraction, spectacle and technology. Their present absence fascinated, rendering...

  7. CHAPTER THREE The Sugarland Express: a light comedy?
    (pp. 32-42)

    The Sugarland Expresswas Spielberg’s project, which had stalled at Universal, sister company to MCA-TV where he was still contracted. Although offered features afterDuel, he wanted to proceed with something original. Alongside pitching proposals, he directed two more TV movies; one, he claimed, was ‘the first and last time the studio ordered me to do something’ (quoted in Taylor 1992: 80). Meanwhile Universal had exclusively entrusted Zanuck-Brown to restore the studio’s leading position. The independent producers knew Spielberg, having produced one of his scripts, but now found themselves recommending a proposal Universal had already rejected. They resubmitted it among...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Jaws: searching the depths
    (pp. 43-61)

    Jawsbecame the definitive modern blockbuster as both large-scale production and box office attraction, profiting from enormous promotion and publicity as well as ancillary benefits. A sociological and economic phenomenon, its reception revolutionised industry practice by demonstrating how marketing ‘could precipitate a national pop cultural “event”, and make millions upon millions of dollars for a single studio with but a single film’ (Gomery 2003: 73).Jawsdoubled the stock value of MCA, Universal Studios’ owner, which had already risen following positive previewing.

    SellingJawsexploited synergy – ‘strategic cross-promotion of products in more than one medium, with sales of each helping...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE 1941: war on Hollywood
    (pp. 62-72)

    JawsandClose Encounters of the Third Kind, while both exemplify the modern Kind blockbuster, demonstrated very different marketing. In contrast to high-profile merchandising strategies ofJaws, the release that established the pattern for New Hollywood,Close Encounters’ narrative image, in accordance with its plot, withheld information. In what Columbia announced as its ‘most ambitious advertising campaign’ ever, 27 newspapers across the US featured two-page ‘introductory’ notices six months before a staggered release. The campaign mounted slowly and press releases stressed secrecy shrouding the production. Newspapers carried daily countdown advertisements before each opening, while theatres showed ‘a long, sophisticated and...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Raiders of the Lost Ark: lights, camera, action
    (pp. 73-83)

    Raiders of the Lost Arkappeared during a recession while Hollywood experienced continuing crisis, exacerbated by perceived competition from new outlets. Celebrating old-fashioned moviegoing, accessible to a wide audience when entertainment markets were fragmenting, it functioned as an industry flagship and assertion of confidence after several expensive and high-profile failures. Spielberg himself needed a hit, to recoup his boy-wonder popular image and restore professional status following1941’ s profligacy;JawsandClose Encounters, although phenomenally successful, had also gone heavily over budget. The result secured New Hollywood dominance for himself and George Lucas (executive producer and, with Philip Kaufman, story...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial: turn on your love light
    (pp. 84-94)

    Anyone able to explain whyE. T. The Extra-Terrestrialbecame the highest-grossing domestic release, then an unprecedented video success, selling 13 million worldwide, would probably stay mum and join Spielberg in millionairehood. (Anon. 1982; 1988a; 1988b)

    LikeClose Encounters of the Third Kind, which prevented Columbia’s liquidation,E. T.was an industry watershed, helping reverse a quarter-century decline in attendances.

    The director himself was reportedly surprised. He supposedly regardedE. a personal project (a luxury permitted by unusual creative freedom resulting from his commercial power, underlined by percentage shares accruing from hisRaiders of the Lost Arkcontract)....

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT Twilight Zone: The Movie: magic lantern man overshadowed
    (pp. 95-101)

    This chapter strategically adopts a biographical perspective, elsewhere marginalised in the book. The abysmal quality and peculiar circumstances ofTwilight Zone: The Moviecomplicate this study’s auteurist rationale and crucially relate it to industry practices.

    Raiders of the Lost ArkandE. T.’s commercial strength facilitated Spielberg’s first project with Warner Bros. The studio owned an idea by the late Rod Serling for a feature based on his TV series,The Twilight Zone(1959–64), uncanny stories bundled into anthology episodes. A portmanteau movie similarly would comprise sections by four directors. A Spielberg connection already existed. Apart from enthusiasm for...

  13. CHAPTER NINE Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: anything goes
    (pp. 102-112)

    IfRaiders of the Lost Ark’s promotion attempted strategic distancing from Reaganism, the blatant racism, sexism and xenophobia ofIndiana Jones and the Temple of Doomsuggest the filmmakers were either ignorant of or unrepentant concerning its alleged ideological import.

    Cole Porter’s ‘Anything Goes’ at the start suggests the latter. Establishing period and milieu (it is performed mainly in Chinese before an Oriental dragon and a girlie chorus of stylised coolies), the song, which could double as postmodernism’s mantra, signals the movie’s carnivalesque disdain for boundaries, freely and lavishly mixing genres and cycles. A rollercoaster of sensation (literally in the...

  14. CHAPTER TEN The Color Purple: sisters and brothers
    (pp. 113-134)

    Critics who saw Spielberg as a children’s director, or routinely accused him of infantilising Hollywood, were sceptical when he acquired rights to three of the most illustrious and challenging books of the 1980s: Thomas Keneally’s Booker PrizewinningSchindler’s Ark, J. G. Ballard’s Booker-nominatedEmpire of the Sunand Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award winner,The Color Purple. His treatment of adult themes would either signal a turning point or confirm worst fears.

    The Color Purpleenters difficult areas including child sexual abuse, domestic violence, lesbianism, pantheistic religion and race against a background of colonialism and the legacy...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN Empire of the Sun: shanghai showmanship
    (pp. 135-148)

    Empire of the Sunis evidently another typical Spielberg film: its lighting, incessant camera movements, overwhelming music, separation/reunion plot and focalisation through a child are unmistakable. It differs significantly from J. G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel, but no more than most adaptations. Overall it retains Ballard’s imagery and themes while deviating in detail. While the novel is wide-ranging and chaotic in representing mental confusion within a confused situation, the film conglomerates, re-orders, elides and renames characters and incidents for narrative expediency. Exploitation of cinematic possibilities achieves a complementary, self-contained work.

    The novel’s limited third-person narration offers trustworthy explanations (‘The Chinese enjoyed...

  16. CHAPTER TWELVE Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: cut to the chase
    (pp. 149-158)

    AfterThe Color Purple’s critical drubbing,Empire of the Sun’s indifferent commercial performance, and the American network television cancellation of Spielberg’sAmazing Stories,Indiana Jones and the Last Crusadereturned to the crowd-pleasing action cinema with which its director was synonymous. The $36 million movie attracted an unprecedented $40 million from exhibitors in non-refundable bids – virtually guaranteeing profit even before release (Taylor 1992: 112). Spielberg and Lucas’s reputations and a cast including three of the hottest stars of their generations (Sean Connery, Harrison Ford and River Phoenix) were only part of the winning combination. The movie reintroducedRaiders of the...

  17. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Always: light my fire
    (pp. 159-175)

    Prompting mostly lukewarm, but some ‘vicious’ reviews (Taylor 1992: 16),Alwaysproved modestly successful, with grosses of $43 million domestic and $77.1 million worldwide against a $29.5 million budget (Freer 2001: 181, 189). The first of Spielberg’s five-movie package for Universal under new president Tom Pollock, who as Lucas’s lawyer had brokered theRaiders of the Lost Arkprofits agreement,Alwaysgained coverage for being apparently disowned by its director and cast. (Most snubbed its London Royal Command Performance, although this may have been more Hollywood politics than commentary on the film.) Perhaps the frenetic cartoonish elements, along with fetishised...

  18. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Hook: an awfully big Pan(a)vision adventure
    (pp. 176-191)

    Hookis Spielberg’s most and least typical film. From a crudely biographical perspective, it articulates interests and themes consciously discussed over years in interviews, and embodies concerns easily mapped in Spielberg’s ‘private’ life. Studio publicity actively encouraged such readings, setting the agenda for reviewers. On the other hand, a massive calculated money-spinner – the kind Spielberg is widely associated with –Hookis arguably a project over which he had less creative control. It thus offers an interesting test for auteurism.

    Hookwas at the time reputedly the second most expensive production ever (the higher budget ofTerminator 2: Judgment Day(1991)...

  19. CHAPTER FIFTEEN Jurassic Park: another monster hit
    (pp. 192-213)

    TheMaking of Jurassic Parkdocumentary – re-released with the movie on DVD, presumably under Spielberg’s supervision – commences with a clip of Grant (Sam Neill) removing sunglasses to gawp at a dinosaur. This definitive, self-reflexive Spielberg moment, comprising vision, simultaneous belief, disbelief and projective desire, cuts immediately to Grant asking, ‘How did you do this?’ Hammond (Richard Attenborough) replies: ‘I’ll show you how.’

    Creating dinosaurs through advanced biotechnology, as – like movies – larger-than-life spectacles, parallels their rendition through advanced special effects: each utilises complex codes and virtual reality imaging. A respected director plays Hammond, visionary and impresario (likened, in the source novel,...

  20. CHAPTER SIXTEEN Schindler’s List: darkness visible
    (pp. 214-238)

    During the ghetto liquidation scene inSchindler’s List, violence increases and intensifies beyond virtually anything previously imagined in mainstream cinema. A storm trooper plays piano in a darkened room. Fellow officers appear. ‘Bach?’ inquires one. ‘Mozart’, insists his companion. The narrative halts to ponder coexistence of destructive evil with sublime creativity in the same culture – or species, depending on your position.

    To some, this is the film’s intellectual and moral core, cinematic realisation of problems theorists such as George Steiner had been examining for half a century. Others consider it banal. As will become apparent, this was among many issues...

  21. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN The Lost World: Jurassic Park: more digital manipulation
    (pp. 239-250)

    Critics committed to a biographical agenda wondered why, following the recognition and commercial success ofSchindler’s Listas an adult movie, Spielberg returned after a three-year break withThe Lost World: Jurassic Park(Freer 2001; Perry 1998). Although technically and formally highly accomplished, it appeared something of a pot-boiler: a child-oriented regression to the science fiction/action-adventure mould. The novelty of digital effects and the topicality of cloning were by now diminished. However, even Spielberg’s freedom to select projects depends on delivering hits. He had a five-production deal with Universal. A blockbuster, presumably, was Universal’s price for riskingSchindler’s List. Spielberg’s...

  22. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Amistad: black and white in colour
    (pp. 251-269)

    In 1839 fifty Africans on the schoonerAmistad, bound for slavery, rebelled, killing some of their captors. Their trial for piracy and murder, first in Connecticut, later appealed to the US Supreme Court, established that colour was not a barrier to human rights. Their actions arguably led to the establishment of the Civil Rights Movement after the American Civil War, culminating eventually in the Voting Rights Act, 1965. Self-defence overrode both the criminal charges and numerous competing property claims that complicated the case together with domestic political expediency and international diplomacy.

    Spielberg necessarily simplifies. John Quincy Adams’ (Anthony Hopkins) five-minute...

  23. CHAPTER NINETEEN Saving Private Ryan: Hollywood on war
    (pp. 270-298)

    Spielberg and his star, Tom Hanks, accepted minimum payment forSaving Private Ryanin return for twenty per cent each of the gross. This indicates low hopes of early profitability at Paramount, for whom Amblin made it rather than DreamWorks, but shrewd negotiation by the main players’ agents. World War Two movies had not been a 1990s trend; this one was unlikely to attract financing without Spielberg’s name. Spielberg declared willingness to ‘risk not entertaining anyone or not having anyone attend’ (quoted in Magid 1998: 56). Yet it earned $440 million worldwide (Freer 2001: 272) and becameVariety’s sixteenth-highest grosser...

  24. CHAPTER TWENTY A.I. Artificial Intelligence: eyes wide open
    (pp. 299-315)

    A.I. Artificial Intelligencewas keenly anticipated, partly because of mysterious Internet marketing (Vulliamy 2001: 20; see, and partly curiosity. Would it be ‘the ultimate meeting of two of cinema’s most inventive minds’ or – Spielberg’s image obtruding again – ‘sentimental travesty of Kubrick’s intentions’ (Gumbel 2001: 11)? Although Kubrick, having co-written a ninety-page treatment, asked Spielberg to direct in 1994, Spielberg penned his own screenplay from Kubrick’s notes and drawings after Kubrick died – his first sincePoltergeist, and the first of his own he had directed sinceClose Encounters.

    Accordingly, authorship dominated debate. A.I. polarised but fascinated critics. Its title inevitably...

  25. CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE Minority Report: through a glass, darkly
    (pp. 316-329)

    Following critical and box office disappointment that soon ‘fade into obscurity’ (Gomery 2003: 79), damage limitation appears to have extended to playing down Spielberg’s involvement inMinority Report. Marketability depended on promoting Tom Cruise in an action thriller, rather than Spielberg directing science fiction, despite his long-standing association with the genre and the two movies’ similar setting and visual style. Indeed Spielberg’s name was absent from billboard advertisements. YetMinority Reportembodies and extends the director’s most interesting and typical concerns.

    The ostensible narrative begins with a rapid montage portraying a murder. Bleached-out hazy shapes rack focus:...

  26. CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO Catch Me If You Can: captured on celluloid
    (pp. 330-342)

    Purportedly factual,Catch Me If You Canagain raises questions of veracity and interpretation – if not as serious as those concerningSchindler’s List,AmistadorSaving Private Ryan, at least commensurate with its biopic status, which is how critics categorised it (French 2003, Norman 2005). Its autobiographical source, however – reissued with the movie’s strap-line, ‘The true story of a real fake’ – follows a remarkable disclaimer: ‘To protect the rights of those whose paths have crossed the author’s, all of the characters and some of the events have been altered, and all names, dates and places have been changed’ (Abagnale 2001)....

  27. CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE The Terminal: all that jazz
    (pp. 343-351)

    The Terminalopens with the camera craning over a departures board. Rapidly flipping letters spell multitudinous destinations, connoting escape and opportunity, glamour, romance, apprehension, adventure. For Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) this screen surface, clicking and whirring like a film projector – not an arbitrary association: the board displays the movie’s titles – will reiterate denial rather than access. Viktor soon inhabits the terminal: metaphorically the spectator/screen border, an interstice separating everyday normality from desires, aspirations or emotional confrontations.

    The airport, like Hollywood movies, is a selective microcosm of, and insight into, the USA, with which it is contiguous and whose values and...

  28. CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR War of the Worlds: rays in the mirror
    (pp. 352-358)

    IfHookentered ‘a minefield of psychosexual obsessions’ (Baxter 1996: 364), andA.I.was ‘a seething psychological bonanza’ (Hoberman 2001: 16), these are understatements compared toWar of the Worlds(2005). It retreads familiar Spielberg concerns, combining large-scale disaster-movie spectacle, science fiction fantasy involving alien contact, technological trauma, technical virtuosity, cinematic self-reflexivity and auto-citation, with family psychodrama.Close Encounters’ andE.T.’s negative, it resurrects a darker, misanthropic Spielberg glimpsed intermittently over three decades. Its blockbuster treatment of America threatened by an unstoppable alien force isJawswrit large. Also evident, infinitely multiplied, is masculine testing against a ‘projected’ mechanical double...

  29. CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE Munich: bitter fruit on the olive branch
    (pp. 359-375)

    Days afterWar of the Worlds’ successful opening a terse statement quietly announced Spielberg had started a film based on the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympics. It opened in the USA less than six months later, after low-key, almost minimal marketing – a review, background feature and exclusive interview with the director inTimemagazine to support pre-release advertising, but no test, press or industry screenings – and elsewhere fairly quietly in ensuing weeks.

    The tenor and positioning ofTime’s materials evoked an old-fashioned documentary ‘discourse of sobriety’ (Nichols 1991: 3–4). The cover featured the director, solemn...

  30. CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX Audiences, subjectivity and pleasure
    (pp. 376-393)

    Mainstream cinematic pleasure depends onactivesubject positioning, determined by interaction between specific textual strategies and discourses always already in play. Barthes’ assertion that ‘writable’ texts ‘make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text’ (1974: 3) now extends to all textual encounters: ‘works are made to mean through the process of reading’ (Allen 1987: 75). Accepted wisdom concerning passive spectatorship, assuming classical narration to be ‘invisible’, has ceded to cognitivist notions of mental schemata cued by narrational devices. These processes are unconscious insofar as narratives obey extrinsic (such as generic) norms, already internalised by the...

    (pp. 394-420)
  32. INDEX
    (pp. 421-434)