Directed By Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster by Warren Buckland

Sometimes, it’s better not to know how the trick is done. Magic works best when the secret stays solidly behind the walls of one’s imagination. The minute you uncover the façade of fact and begin the dissection of the various dynamics, you loose a lot of the luster. Even worse, the ploy no longer holds its original wonder, and the lack of surprise allows the entire enterprise, from beginning to end, to be scrutinized, deconstructed, and spoiled. Gone is the mystical reach of the ruse. Absent is the feeling of awe and infinite delight.

In some ways, this is the reaction one gets after reading Warren Buckland’s scholarly screed on the man often cited as responsible for the post-modern popcorn movie. In Directed By Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster, the landmark filmmaker’s canon is canvassed and considered via an approach that borders on the academic, the obvious, and the technologically specific. In Buckland’s mind, Spielberg is one of film’s greatest prestidigitators, an auteur who should be taken seriously not just for the movies he’s made that scream “artiste!” (Schindler’s List, Amistad, The Color Purple, Munich). No, he feels that the amazingly popular efforts that have helped redefine the concept of mainstream entertainment are his shining cinematic statements.

Buckland beings to draw us in by spending a paragraph on what, exactly, makes up a blockbuster. His definition uses the Golden Era of Hollywood, when studios controlled every aspect of production and distribution, up and through the import of television in destroying said monopoly. It extends the importance of the boob tube by pointing out the seminal directors who were first drawn to the medium (Robert Altman, John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet, etc.) while labeling the ’70s era geniuses (Coppola, Lucas, Scorcese, his title subject) as massively talented “movie brats”. After tying in the Independent scene of the ’80s, he finally discovers the core conceit of a cinematic spectacle. It’s comprised of two very important facets – the amount of money spent on a film, and the amount of money it makes.

It seems like a long way to get to a simple answer, and that exemplifies a great deal about what makes Directed By Steven Spielberg so maddening. Buckland is not out to create a biography of the man, or create a concurrent narrative where his personal life mocks and/or mimics his professional one. No, the main design of this book is to avoid the sensational and the slight to delve deeply — and more times than not, esoterically — into one man’s amazing creative canon. There is no doubt regarding Spielberg’s ability behind the lens. Even with a new age desire to marginalize his efforts as “commercial” or “populist” (since when did these ideas automatically equal bad filmmaking?), he stands far and above the other spoiled sorts who helped save cinema 40 years ago.

Buckland introduces us to the very beginning of Spielberg’s stint as a director, looking at his 1968 short film Amblin’ (the filmmaker would later reuse the name as his production company moniker) as a means of measuring the young man’s impending genius. Starting from the very first shots – of the moon, of a desert landscape — the author begins the piece-by-piece examination of every aspect of Spielberg’s style. It’s a narrative overloaded with jargon, film-speak and intellectualized insight. He quickly follows the man’s work at Universal (on shows like Night Gallery and Columbo) before taking on Duel, a TV movie that many feel first illustrated the subject’s strengths as an arriving auteur.

Of course, once you’ve finished with Buckland’s overly elaborate analysis of the direction, including lists, graphics, and detailed illustrations of camera placement and shot selection, the thrill begins to fade. For many who are interested in meticulous breakdowns of such cinematic circumstances, Directed By Steven Spielberg will be a godsend. Where else would you find a multifaceted overview of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Of course, these aren’t celebrations of sensational epics, but examinations of motion picture minutia that almost borders on the anal.

Buckland is obviously trying to develop a pattern here, to show formulas and symbolic themes that resonate in every blockbuster title Spielberg attempts (remember, the serious films are not discussed — nor is the friendly flop comedy 1941). Part of this is to prove that Mr. ET hasn’t changed very much over the years. He draws convincing comparisons between his ’70s work and later action adventures like Jurassic Park, Minority Report, and War of the Worlds. By bringing us up to Spielberg’s current crop of bank breakers, he hopes to universalize his insight.

But there is another reason for all this rationalizing. The most celebrated chapter in this otherwise overreaching book is a analytic debate, so to speak over whether or not Spielberg “directed” the Tobe Hooper film Poltergeist. Those unfamiliar with the story could probably use a little foundation. Back in the early ’80s, Hooper (famous for the horror film stalwart The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) had earned an awful reputation as a filmmaker of fading glories. He had been removed from both the sci-fi splatter fest The Dark, and the British killer snake saga Venom. More or less considered damaged goods, Spielberg hired his ’70s contemporary to helm his latest production — a supernatural thriller about a family overrun by unfriendly ghosts.

Almost immediately, tongues began wagging over whether or not the final version of the film represented Hooper’s original work, a sly (and rather unpublicized) takeover by Spielberg, or an odd combination of both. Granted, it’s impossible to watch Poltergeist today and not see shades of the man who put Harrison Ford and Richard Dreyfuss through their paces. But Buckland is out to answer the question as definitively as possible. He will not rely on anecdotal evidence, or interviews with participants both during and after the production. No, he will make the determination based on his own conclusions into Spielberg and his style.

Without spoiling the book’s big reveal, Buckland makes an interesting argument. In some ways, it’s a cop out (there are elements of ‘almost as in horseshoes and hand grenades’ in the conclusion). But in other ways, it argues for what this book could have been. Had Buckland avoided all the academia, had he found within each film the single element of intrigue (Jaw‘s almost inert shark, Encounter‘s inside the alien ship ending) and then drew on his knowledge to exam and scrutinize, this would be another sensational insider’s guide. When context is mixed with perspective, we get a sense of understanding and of acceptance.

Yet Directed By Steven Spielberg isn’t willing to abandon the intellectual to let us in as readers. The casual fan will be lost, while those who think they know film and its many divergent properties will be equally perplexed. Some will even be put off by the whole “introduction/thesis/conclusion” approach to the prose. The formalization of the information indeed creates a barrier to really appreciating what Buckland has to offer. Instead of connecting with us, he comes across as a guest lecturer overemphasizing his considerable educational credits. It’s a shame, really. No director needs a studious bolster more than Spielberg. To many in the modern audience, he’s merely the granddaddy of M. Night Shyamalan and Bryan Singer.

Several years ago, a professor of music theory authored a book about the Beatles and their entire catalog. He wasn’t interested in hooks, harmonies, lyrics or cultural impact however, he wanted to do a note for note scrutiny of the Fab Four’s place among the classical masters. Similar to a sentiment expressed by the spirit’s in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, said tome was like trying to read “stereo instructions”. Directed By Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster has a lot of the same problems. Luckily, the subject is so inherently interesting that we can forgive almost all of the highfaluting flaws in Buckland baffling approach. Almost.

RATING 5 / 10
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