Steven Spielberg: entertainer or artist?
For all his brilliance, the director gets a hard time from critics who don't accept the mixing of serious projects with lighter crowd-pleasers that's defined his career
It's a typical Spielberg move. Back in January, he released a weighty political drama which, though set in the early 1970s, could hardly have been more topical. The Post starred Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep as Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham, editor and publisher of The Washington Post, who defied the Nixon White House by publishing the Pentagon Papers.
While the ostensible villain might have been Nixon, Spielberg had another president in his sights, and the movie was praised for its defence of the importance of a free press. It was weighty film-making, a serious story beautifully told, and while The Post won nothing at the Oscars, perhaps it should have.
Now, just a few months later, comes Ready Player One, a sci-fi yarn based on a frothy bestselling novel and charting a teenage boy's search for meaning (and money) in a futuristic virtual reality game. The film, which is released here next Friday, has been indifferently received in America, and some reviewers have suggested it seems a strange project for the 71-year-old director to be wasting his time on at this stage.
This oscillation between serious dramas and effects-heavy family entertainments has typified Steven Spielberg's career since the mid-1980s, baffling critics, though not the cinema-going public. How, his detractors wondered, could one man make Schindler's List and Jurassic Park in the same year? And if he was making movies about dinosaurs and aliens, was he the right person to be tackling subjects like slavery, terrorism and the Holocaust?
A critical snobbery about Spielberg's work has always existed, especially in America, where his ability to make thoughtful and innovative films while attracting huge audiences has been particularly resented. When the English writer JG Ballard was touring America promoting his autobiography, a reporter asked him why he had allowed Spielberg to make a film out of his novel, Empire of the Sun. "When I replied that he was the greatest film director in America," Ballard recalled, "he promptly corrected me: 'Not the greatest, the most successful'."
This seems a little churlish, when you look back on Spielberg's extraordinary career, but his sin seems to have been populism - making his name with crowd-friendly blockbusters the whole world could enjoy. E.T., Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark: it's not very Eisenstein, is it, and ranking the director in the pantheon of the greats seems problematic.
While François Truffaut was happy to appear in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that's about the only time Spielberg's name has been mentioned in connection with art-house cinema, or the nouvelle vague. Then again, arty films are not his intention: he's a storyteller, pure and simple, and a rather brilliant one at that. And though his CV is so diffuse in terms of style and subject that it seems almost absurd to talk of overarching themes, there are enough biographical threads running through his 45-odd year movie career to make a case for describing him as a sort of commercial auteur.
As such, you could compare his standing to those Hollywood directors who achieved greatness while working within the constraints of the studio-era. I'm thinking of people like John Ford, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock, and Spielberg has every right to be thought of as their creative equal.
When I was watching The Post, it occurred to me that if cinema contains a language (and it does), then Spielberg's command of it is far in excess of his peers. His ability to tell a complicated story using images and editing is breathtaking. At one point in the film, reporter Bob Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) searches his pockets frantically for quarters to feed a payphone, scattering coins everywhere as he closes in on the story of his career.
Spielberg's films are full of such wonderfully observed moments: like the dolly zoom on Roy Scheider's face in Jaws when his character sees a boy on a lilo being attacked by a Great White Shark; or the Mossad agents racing to avert a bomb attack on a terrorist in Munich, because they've just realised his daughter is at home; or the boy fleeing the ghetto clearance in Schindler's List who jumps down an open toilet into a lake of excrement that turns out to be already occupied.
He has a unique way of visually getting to the heart of a scene, finding exactly what needs to be said and saying it. His films are cinematic in the truest sense, and even the lesser ones contain moments that stick with you. And perhaps it's no surprise that Spielberg is so fluent in the language of cinema, because he's been speaking it since he was a child.
He has talked recently of the bullying he was subjected to at his Arizona high school, where he was beaten, and called a 'dirty Jew'. Refuge was at hand in the shape of his father's home-movie camera: the young Spielberg used it to create his own short films, staging train crashes and other disasters with his toys. Later, he began using classmates as actors in more sophisticated productions. Cinema became his way of coping with the world, especially after his parents separated when he was still only 13: that event would traumatise him, but also provide stirring emotional undercurrents for some of his most successful films.
While he was studying film at California State University, he got an unpaid intern job at Universal Studios' editing department.
There, he made his first professional movie, Amblin', a short film about an encounter between a hippie surfer and a mysterious young woman. It won a couple of minor awards, but more importantly caught the eye of studio boss Sidney Sheinberg, who promptly offered the unknown 21-year-old a seven-year directing deal. It was an opportunity Spielberg would take full advantage of.
First came Duel, a slender enough story about a motorist who's pursued by a psychotic truck driver. It was an insubstantial idea, but Spielberg spun it out beautifully. Then he swapped a killer truck for a killer shark, and the release of Jaws in the summer of 1975 would change his life forever.
Nothing much needs to be said about the excellence of that film, on which the young director managed to overcome a nightmarish shoot, difficult actors and a dodgy mechanical shark to create a monster masterpiece. Its orchestration of suspense was worthy of Hitchcock, it helped create the summer-blockbuster tradition, and made a fortune at the box-office. But instead of following the film's success down a predictable path, Spielberg doggedly pursued his own vision.
Rejecting offers to direct King Kong and Superman, he turned instead to an idea inspired by his father's love of science-fiction and alien stories. Close Encounters of the Third Kind starred Richard Dreyfuss as an Indiana lineman who drops everything after seeing what he thinks is an alien spacecraft. It was a charming film, a critical and commercial success, and after it Spielberg would have a free hand to make whatever he wanted.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and E.T. established him as the consummate mainstream entertainer, the king of the summer blockbuster, but in 1985 he surprised everyone by directing The Color Purple, a gruelling account of an African-American woman's experience of rape and domestic abuse in early 20th-century Georgia. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards but failed to win any, highlighting industry resentment of a man who thought he could move from alien movies to serious dramas and get away with it.
Things would get worse in the 1990s, when Schindler's List was subjected to absurdly rigorous critical inspection simply because Spielberg had directed it. Based on the true story of a Nazi Party industrialist who saved the lives of over a thousand Jews, the film was harshly criticised by some Jewish groups for a shower scene which camp inmates survived, and for daring to tell an ultimately positive story about the worst mass genocide in human history.
They neglected to notice that Spielberg had arguably dramatised the horror of the death camps more unflinchingly than any other filmmaker to that point. But it was Spielberg, who made those funny alien movies, so what right did he have?
Though he has directed more sparingly in recent years, Spielberg has continued to mix highly accomplished serious dramas (Munich, Lincoln, Bridges of Spies), with lighter, more overtly crowd-pleasing work (War of the Worlds, The BFG, Adventures of Tintin). What are you, his critics have asked, an entertainer or an artist? Why not both, Spielberg might reply: it ought to be his mantra.