Child's play: the lighter side of Spielberg
Surely no film-maker has ever moved in such extremes between light and shade as Steven Spielberg. It seems almost hard to believe that the man who brought you Indiana Jones, E.T. and Goonies also made Munich, and Saving Private Ryan. And in one year alone, 1992, he moved straight from the dinosaur action fantasy, Jurassic Park, to Schindler's List, an unflinching depiction of the Nazi death camps.
This facility for dealing with the sunniest and grimmest sides of human nature has made Spielberg an object of suspicion for critics and colleagues, especially in America. When the late British writer JG Ballard was in the US promoting Spielberg's 1987 adaptation of his book Empire of the Sun, he noted "an almost universal hostility" to the director, and recalled being asked by a journalist why he had allowed Spielberg to make a film of his novel.
"When I replied that he was the greatest film director in America," Ballard recalled, "he promptly corrected me: 'not the greatest, the most successful'." Spielberg's wealth is an issue for those reluctant to acknowledge the artistic merit in his work. A mogul who runs his own studio, wields enormous influence in Hollywood and is worth an estimated $3.6bn is hard to take seriously as an auteur.
And yet that's exactly what he is, even if there are some who don't have the imagination to see it. And his children's films are every bit as personal as the ones about war and concentration camps, in fact possibly even more so, because their recurring themes have roots in Spielberg's own story.
His flips from fact to fantasy may be irksome to some, but he's been at it again over the last 12 months. Late last year he released Bridge of Spies, a sombre and accomplished spy drama that recalled the edgy days of the Cold War. It won an Oscar for Mark Rylance, and director and actor have joined forces again in The BFG, a warm and delightful adaptation of Roald Dahl's hugely popular children's novel, which was released here yesterday.
In ways The BFG is something new for Spielberg, in that it uses the latest motion capture and CGI techniques to render the film's major character, a mild-mannered 24-foot giant played with sad-eyed subtlety by Rylance. But it's also a typical Spielberg children's film, full of dark corners, nervous optimism and lonely children abandoned by parents and befriended by mythical allies.
The BFG tells the story of Sophie, a lonely but spirited London orphan who's snatched by a passing giant and taken to his island lair off the Scottish coast. She thinks she's about to be eaten, but instead finds out that her captor is a gentle and bookish vegetarian who's only looking for a friend. They then join forces to foil a group of bloodthirsty giants who've been abducting children and eating them, a typically ghoulish Dahl touch that Spielberg (equally typically) chooses to overlook.
The director has also chosen to overlook a strain of apparent anti-Semitism in Roald Dahl's correspondence and public utterance. At Cannes this year, Spielberg was given a grilling by journalists about an extraordinary comment Dahl made to the New Statesman magazine in 1983. "Even a stinker like Hitler," the writer said, "didn't just pick on them for no reason."
Awkward stuff for the director of Schindler's List, and Spielberg later admitted that he "didn't know much about Roald Dahl, his personal life, when I took on the challenge of The BFG". So he started digging around, and began to realise that Dahl "was the kind of person that… would sometimes purposely say things just to get a rise out of people, just to watch their reactions.
"I think a person who is truly anti-Semitic, that comes out in the work," Spielberg explained recently. "It comes out in the laundry. And nothing he's ever written has held up a mirror to some of the statements he made in 1983. I don't truly believe somebody with such a big heart, who had given so much joy and so much epiphany to audiences with his writing, was an anti-Semitic human being."
He's probably right, and despite the fears of Roald Dahl fans that Spielberg would over-sweeten their beloved tale, he does a very fine job overall of faithfully and imaginatively retelling Dahl's delightfully dark little story. Some writers have even compared it to E.T., the film that turned Spielberg from rising star to all-conquering superstar, and perhaps that's no coincidence. Because BFG's screenplay was written by the late Melissa Mathison, who also collaborated with Spielberg on E.T. way back in 1982.
Up until that point, Steven Spielberg had been a jobbing director in the main, who flitted between action thrillers like Jaws and Duel, and broad comedies like 1941 (a genre, incidentally, that doesn't seem suited to his talents at all). But Spielberg was a cineaste, not a hack, who admired such champions of the nouvelle vague as François Truffaut, and yearned to make films that, however commercial, would also be deeply personal.
There were hints of what would become his unique trademark blend of box office and art house in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Close Encounters was based on the director's youthful obsession with the cosmos, and a Super 8 short film he'd shot as a teenager. And Raiders, which he made with George Lucas, was inspired by the Saturday morning serial adventures that had made them both fall in love with cinema in the first place.
But E.T. cut much closer to the bone, and dealt with the subject perhaps closest to Spielberg's heart - childhood isolation, and loneliness.
When E.T.: The Extraterrestrial was released into an initially bemused marketplace in the summer of 1982, a reviewer from The Washington Post called Gary Arnold very perceptively described it as "essentially a spiritual autobiography, a portrait of the film-maker as a typical suburban kid set apart by an uncommonly fervent, mystical imagination". He was more right than he knew.
After Spielberg's parents divorced in 1960, when he was in his early teens, he retreated from the painful reality of this situation and filled the emotional vacuum with an imaginary alien companion. This extraterrestrial buddy, he later said, was "a friend who could be the brother I never had and a father that I didn't feel I had any more". This theme of anguished childhood would be mined time and again, filling his kids' films with dark undertones his critics have always preferred not to acknowledge.
As a child in suburban Arizona and California, Steven was complexed about his family Orthodox Jewish faith - "it isn't something I enjoyed admitting", he once said. At high school, he was subjected to anti-Semitic sneers, and beaten up: he recalled kids riding by the house and shouting "the Spielbergs are dirty Jews!"
He responded by smearing peanut butter on their front windows, until he discovered the power of the movie camera.
Noting wryly that one of his persecutors looked a little like a young John Wayne, he cast him as a fighter pilot in one of his home movies, a war drama shot on his dad's Super 8 camera with flour bags standing in for explosions. The bully never bothered him again.
After that, film was everything to him. "I was pretty isolated," he recalled recently, "but I had a hobby I was obsessed by. I would come home from school and I would go to my bedroom and I would sit with my little editing machine."
This is the child, obsessive and slightly troubled, adrift from his parents and apart from his peers, who appears time and again in Steven Spielberg's films, his worries abstracted into science-fiction and fantasy.
In Poltergeist (1982), which he wrote and produced but was prevented from directing by his commitments to E.T., the youngest child of smug suburban parents calls forth evil spirits through the family television set, which then abduct her into a netherworld. As one reviewer put it, Poltergeist told the story of "a little girl who puts her parents through the most outrageous tribulation to prove their love for her". In Steven's films, the parents are usually to blame.
Though it's not exactly an official Spielberg movie, the great man's fingerprints were all over The Goonies, a much-loved 1985 children's adventure film. The screenplay was based on a Spielberg story, he executive-produced and was apparently on the set so much that he directed some scenes with the blessing of the movie's actual director, Richard Donner.
In it, a band of child friends are about to lose their homes in a foreclosure, a problem their parents are clearly unable to resolve. So they do it themselves, finding a stash of buried pirate treasure that will preserve their childhood idyll.
He seems to have constantly returned to an early wound that would not heal, but in the mid-1980s, facing increasing criticism for having overly concentrated on children's films, he began to broaden his canvas. Not for the last time, he addressed the ills of slavery in The Color Purple (1985), the cruelty of war in his 1987 coming of age drama Empire of the Sun, and in 1993 he finally shook off accusations of immaturity with his harrowing epic, Schindler's List.
People surprised by the quality and intensity of that film, and of ensuing dramas like Munich (2005), Saving Private Ryan (1999) and his excellent 2012 biopic Lincoln, clearly hadn't been paying attention. Because Spielberg is the cinematic storyteller par excellence, the lightness or darkness of the subject has no impact whatever on his ability to tell it.
But for all the virtues of those Oscar-winning heavyweights, the kids' films are just as important, and maybe even more crucial, to a proper understanding of Steven Spielberg's genius and achievement.