[9 July 2007]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
I know this sounds crazy, but ever since yesterday on the road, I’ve been seeing this shape. Shaving cream, pillows… Dammit! I know this. I know what this is! This means something. This is important.
—Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Dear Dad, you told me an honest man has no fear, so I’m trying hard not to be afraid.
—Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), Catch Me If You Can
“My dad used to tell me war stories,” recalls Steven Spielberg. And, so, he says, as if the plot was inevitable, his first movies, 8mm and starring his friends, were movies about World War II, with titles like “Fighter Squad” or “Escape to Nowhere.” You can see about 30 scratchy seconds of these film, dated 1961, in TCM’s documentary, Spielberg on Spielberg, as the director explains the art form’s appeal. “I was infatuated with the control that movies gave me,” he says,
in creating a sequence of events or a feeling or a train wreck with two Lionel trains that I could then repeat and see over and over and over again. I think it was just the realization that I could change the way I perceive life through a funnel, or another medium, to make it come out better for me.
Partly charming and self-deprecating, and partly quite pleased with his own manifest genius, Spielberg is most assuredly a skillful storyteller. If he’s able to change the way her perceives life, he also likes to share that view: his movies are, more often than not, fantastically crowd-pleasing. In this interview with off-screen, unheard Richard Schickel, filled out with clips from Spielberg’s films, he tells stories you’ve probably heard before: he grew up in whitebread Phoenix, he snuck onto the Universal lot as a college student, he dropped out of school to pursue his dream, he directed Joan Crawford for his first TV directing job, a Night Gallery episode. He remembers that the crewmembers were apprehensive of his geeky youthfulness (and he does look awfully young in still photos from these olden days), and were “just shooting daggers my way.” In turn, he says, “I wore my viewfinder around my neck like some kind of talisman that would protect me against all evil.” It’s a terrific image, delineating this kid launching himself into his career with a mix of chutzpa and anxiety, buoyed by his faith in the magical power of his technology.
He also learned an invaluable lesson, he declares: “I needed someday to get final cut.” He had to wait a bit for that, but only a bit. Once he saw the script for Duel (1971) and lobbied for the chance to direct it, it was clear Spielberg was more than able to handle that magic. If it’s not news that Sugarland Express (1974) and 1975’s Jaws (which he calls “Duel of the Sea”) were hectic, fortuitous shoots, that Goldie Hawn was a talisman in her own way, or that the mechanical shark malfunctioned—spectacularly. Even if these stories are familiar, most are worth hearing again. Consider that Spielberg frames the mechanical breakdown this way: “I never planned for a Plan B, which was basically to make the film as scary as I possibly could by suggesting the shark without actually having to show the shark.” Though he claims the experience of making the film was “horrendous,” he also earned enough clout with the film that has been deemed the first summer blockbuster that he also earned final cut for films that came after.
While Spielberg’s comments on each movie are clever, insightful, and entertaining, they’re also too brief (in part this is a function of the sheer number of films he discusses, but it’s still disappointing not to hear a word on Francois Truffaut). What holds Spielberg on Spielbergtogether are the thematic threads he traces through his own career—alienation, the desire to connect and control, the links between creativity and technique (or, as he says with regard to Jurassic Park, the combination of “science and imagination”). If he doesn’t speak in detail about stylistic choices (say, how he decided to situate the camera for thus and such a shot), Spielberg is smart about the effects of business on art and vice versa. He insists he was grateful for the “drubbing” he received for 1941. Because he felt “humbled,” he was able to go forward feeling both less “precious” about his work and to understand its connections with other people (his friend George Lucas famously produced Raiders of the Lost Ark (released in 1981, two years after 1941), and so appreciated his responsibility for someone else’s money.
It appears that the material lessons of the flop translated into thematic lessons as well. as the documentary suggests, Spielberg’s most emphatic films—even those unloved by critics, like A.I. (2001) (no mention here of Hook)—are functions of personal commitments. It’s plain that Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T (1982) have acute political dimensions, concerning communication, violent responses to difference, and the rampant authority (“If we can communicate with aliens,” he asks, “Why can’t we communicate with each other?”). Spielberg describes them in intimate terms, recalling his own sense of isolation as a Jewish kid growing up in gentile neighborhoods (“The 600-year-old ET,” he says, “is probably the most lost of all the kids I’ve ever had in a film”).
He also shows understanding of his own limits, growth, and gifts (he calls The Color Purple  his “first grown-up film,” doesn’t mention the controversy over his selection as director, and credits the film with providing him the experience he needed to make Empire of the Sun (1987) and Schindler’s List ). He acutely describes Empire as taking the child’s point of view. He describes Jim’s (Christian Bale) shared love of flying (read: “freedom”) with a “Japanese boy [Takatoro Kataoka] on the other side of the wire, who is training, by the way, to become a kamikaze pilot.” He cites as well J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel as a source for this vision: it “made selections of what a child grabs onto with his eyes compared to what an adult chooses to look at.”
With this and films following, Spielberg is increasingly focused on differing perspectives—not good and bad, but opposed and overlapping—as they shape and disrupt experiences, doubts and desires. His WWII movies, Schindler (and the Shoah Foundation, which evolved from Schindler) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), as well as Amistad (1997) and A.I., appear in this film’s chronology as specifically pre-9/11 work, asking difficult questions about moral choices and personal ambitions, and finding positive answers, embodied by individuals (Spielberg focuses on efforts to communicate by pushing past language in Amistad, even as the language of John Quincy Adams [Anthony Hopkins] is so central).
Movies that follow, including Minority Report (2002), The Terminal (2004), and 2005’s War of the Worlds and Munich (disappointingly, no mention of Catch me If You Can in the documentary), are “fully informed by 9/11.” Though Spielberg points out that Munich is as much a “political thriller” as an argument, the genre makes the politics salient. Here, you want more, but the documentary flags. By the time Spielberg rather generically calls film a “language,” you’re wishing this one was longer, so that he might have developed the themes he’s introduced.