Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films (Jewish Lives) by Molly Haskell is an academic approach to explaining and contextualizing Spielberg’s films. This book explores the life of Academy Award-winning director by chronologically documenting his life and paralleling the stories with his various films that he would make in the future. It’s a biography first and foremost, but there’s a fair amount of academic speak that makes the book difficult to read. Haskell is a well-known writer on film and is a strong resource for film history.
In this book there’s a need to juxtapose Spielberg with his mid-century contemporaries, most notably Martin Scorsese, Frances Ford Coppola and George Lucas, just to name a few. Because of the shifts in culture and particularly Hollywood culture and business structure in the ’60s and ’70s , Spielberg joined the numerous influential voices that help create the Hollywood culture and business we know today. Though there are two fields of thought about the types of directors that came from this era: the auteurs and the blockbusters. Spielberg is most commonly credited with being the father of the modern blockbuster with films like Jaws (1975) and Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which was co-created by fellow blockbuster king, George Lucas. Scorsese and Coppola are considered the auteurs between the big four directors.
By connecting moments in Spielberg’s life so directly to his films and visual style, Haskell is perceiving his work from an auteur perspective. The auteur theory became a dominant idea around this era, spanning off of the French New Wave. The theory, most simply, credits the director as the author of the film. Because directors like Coppola and Scorsese seek to have a more consistent visual and storytelling style across many of their films, as well as leaning more towards the unconventional and avant-garde, they better fit the auteur title. Spielberg being more of a mainstream and conventional director, this kind of analysis doesn’t align with his work.
A main focus of the book is to explore Spielberg’s Jewish life and his connection to religion and spirituality. Unsurprisingly, Spielberg’s family was not the most observant, stemming from the wish to assimilate following World War II and the Holocaust. However, the family would still say they are Jewish and partake in Jewish tradition, like the 13-year-old Steven having a Bar Mitzvah. It’s explored as to why and when he began to pull away from religion. There are many examples from his youth that comment on his disinterest, written almost as disdain for anything religious. Haskell approaches the subject by trying to analyze the psychology of a complicated, personal journey through a few clips and quotes from interviews with Steven and his family.
Although it’s well known that Spielberg connected with his religion later in life, for the majority of the first half of the book, his disinterest in religion is written as though all can see why one would push away from religion as if this is the obvious choice. This is best shown early in the book, Haskell links the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark with a moment she perceived as a traumatic experience. Spielberg has shared before one of his earliest memories as being a visit to his family’s synagogue. Haskell cites another biographer’s visual of the religious experience as the sacred Ark is opened during the service.
She extrapolates by saying, “As beautiful as it sounds to our comprehending minds, it must also have been terrifying to this tiny infant — the sheer hugeness and brightness, the spooky elders, the mournful sounds, all contributing to one of the those unbearably intense moments that a child experiences…”(12). She implies that religion is to be feared and that young children are to be scared and scarred by this type of religious tradition. She continues, “For all we know, that Ark may have triggered a primal anxiety attack…Think of the lurid spirits that emerge from the coveted Ark at the end of the first Indiana Jones film: rotting fanged creatures who inflict spectacularly hideous deaths on everyone but Indy and Marion.” (13) This particular connection bothered me in how she twists what could have been a positive experience into a negative one to connect to a moment that was, in fact, designed by multiple people. She doesn’t include the life experiences of co-creator George Lucas or Jewish screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan in her analysis of this scene. With this franchise being known for its collaboration, giving Spielberg that credit as the auteur and as the seemingly traumatized child behind them seems unfair and even daft.
As the book progresses there’s the exploration of Spielberg’s adult life that leads him to reclaim a Jewish identity, which leads him to direct and produce Schindler’s List (1993) amongst other Jewish-themed films and start up Jewish philanthropies. There’s far more focus on the history of production and the story of making the movies and less about the introspection Spielberg may have been having at the time
The text of this book is written much like an academic paper. There are long, run-on sentences that wander too far between points that can make portions difficult to read. As with many books written from an academic point of view, there’s a push to showcase the author’s knowledge on a subject and ability to connect the dots, but not all dots need connecting. Though this book can be engaging at times, on a whole it feels dense.
It’s appreciated that this book strives for a narrative that separates it from other books completed on a well-biographied man. Yet, this book would have been stronger if there was less of a push to connect life events with his filmography so directly. The structure around these comparisons forces the author to find some, even small ones, that may not be well supported. If Haskell looked for fewer relationships between life and work, the ones that she found that are well supported would feel bolder and fresh, but instead, some moments of quality analysis are bogged down by the need to parallel too much. My last question about this biography: as it was published by the Ivy League’s Yale University Press, could they not find a better photo for the cover? USC could probably have donated one.