Hypocrite, Thy Name Is Spielberg
Always one to hope lightning will strike twice (Ray Ferrier's wisdom be damned), Spielberg rather cynically opted for the same trick in 1997, but the law of diminishing returns overtook him. The Lost World: Jurassic Park was a big hit but an instant irrelevance, and Amistad was sloppy, mawkish, and alarmingly willing through story structure, photography, and erratic screenwriting to turn Joseph Cinque into a visual and narrative object rather than a man. You practically needed a machete to hack through all the unnecessary characters and dramatic clutter interceding between the audience and Cinque, whom this whole, confused film was supposed to be about.
Stevie went for a third double-whammy in 2002, with weirder, inconclusive results. Both Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can were sizable hits, but from an aesthetic standpoint, neither of them reversed the growing, damaging strain of inconsistency in his most recent movies. If anything, the "commercial" half of this double-bill did better with critics than the self-consciously larkish Catch, though neither is likely to be the centerpiece of any future Spielberg retrospectives. (They'll probably screen at 9:30pm or 10:00pm on the second half of some double bill that starts with something truly interesting, like Empire of the Sun or A.I. Artificial Intelligence.)
With the coarse and insincere War of the Worlds out to rule the box office this weekend, you can smell in the air that Spielberg, like a boxer with all-too-predictable moves, is about to throw that second punch. Indeed, currently slated for a December 2005 release is his untitled drama about Israeli hitmen who were commanded in 1972 to assassinate the Palestinians who had murdered Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich. I was just belly-aching over at the Cinemarati discussion about War of the Worlds that it's probably the right time for DreamWorks to start farming out the sort of fawning, falsely humble press materials that always seem uncannily well-timed to make Spielberg look media-shy, guileless, and artistically unparalleled just at the moment when he is, in point of fact, saturating the media with a pandering movie replete with aesthetic demerits.
And wouldn't you know it, not an hour after I posted these gripes, I click over to the New York Times and find this article by David M. Halbfinger, which embodies the customary Spielberg PR recipe to a tee. What a cheap manipulator he has become, offscreen as much as on. At the moment, I feel like reviewing (and panning) this absurd article even more than reviewing War of the Worlds itself.
With a straight face, Halbfinger pays tribute to "Mr. Spielberg's preference for secrecy." That's Spielberg, all right, always under the radar, despite the fact that you are reading about his agoraphobia in a lengthy article in the frigging New York Times on the very weekend his name and his movie are plastered onto every available surface in the American entertainment conglomerate... at least, every surface still available now that his primo narcissisto star is gobbling all the headlines.
Spielberg demurely refuses an interview for this article, but wait, the article only exists because he personally mailed his own press-release to the Times and to Israeli and Arab media outlets. How nice that Spielberg's
Seemingly immune to any suggestion that the movie he'll make about Munich and its aftermath might just be a movie, for crying out loud, Spielberg has been hobnobbing with diplomats, government officials, and even Bill Clinton (another who hates to see his name in the papers, as we know) for reassurances and pats on the back. Amidst all the name-dropping, a marvelous sentence combines passive-voice construction with portentous apposite clauses in order to let us know who will really be at fault if the picture sparks World War III or if, like Spielberg's appalling 2004 film, it simply fizzles:
Mr. Spielberg is tackling material delicate enough that he and his advisers are concerned about adverse effects on matters as weighty as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process if his project is mishandled—or misconstrued in the public mind.
Translation: Stevie is losing sleep about the possibility that his movie, which only just began filming, will shake the entire world and impede a peace process that's been well enough fucking impeded by much bigger matters for, depending on how you want to look at it, anywhere from decades to millennia. And he's especially worried in case his project is mishandled (obviously he personally would not mishandle the project) or in case we dumb-asses in the aisles who fail to perceive his lofty intentions and unimprovable technique get the wrong idea and bring on World War III ourselves through our own unfortunate thick-headedness. The article proceeds to hit all the customary touchstones of press coverage on Spielberg, including his philanthropy and activism. Then, apparently having learned nothing from the debacle whereby Amistad's script refused to acknowledge any lineage in Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel, Spielberg seems once again to be filming a project significantly premised in a well-known book that he is attempting to "distance the movie from." In the interest of being fair and balanced, Halbfinger includes some quotes from people who challenge the very premise of ambivalence among the Mossad, but none of them actually have anything remotely agnostic to say about Spielberg himself.
Like Oprah Winfrey, who owes her celebrity to Spielberg, the director compulsively stamps his name on things but still wants to be seen as everyday people, only trying to do what's best for the planet and for all of us. In an even more damning analogy, Spielberg's machine has mastered, and perhaps even prefigured, George W. Bush's PR machine, which has an uncanny knack for circulating leaks, tidbits, and policy trends in which Bush pretends to keep out of the fray while famous names and decoy sources do all the talking on his own behalf. You may have noticed that War of the Worlds is structured much like the speech Bush delivered to the nation on Tuesday evening, the night before War of the Worlds bowed: like the speech, the movie's screenplay and images repeatedly babble out "9/11, terrorists, 9/11, terrorists, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11," in hopes that audiences will succumb to its false grandeur and its cynical attitude of hollow, opportunistic knowing.
The posture of the hypocrite grows increasingly familiar on Spielberg. I recall 1998 and 1999, when I was initially impressed at the director's post-Cannes public comments about the dismaying frivolity and historical unseriousness of Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, only to recant later when Life became a big Stateside hit, and Spielberg was invited to share a stage with Benigni on many occasions. Watch the Oscar broadcast from March of '99, and look who's cheering vehemently as Roberto aerobicizes his way to the podium. The day after the same Oscars, our same Stevie, who is in this business for the sakes of truth and art, not for recognition or silliness, pouts to the press (again triumphing over his Emily Dickinson-like reticence) about the unfairness of Shakespeare in Love beating his film for Best Picture.
The inevitable third-act compromises within Spielberg's films need to stop being taken as disappointments or surprises, no matter how much ingenuity is devoted to recuperating them, and especially given how he's barely waiting for the third act of anything anymore to immediately start compromising it. I really would love for the Munich film to be a good one, coming from a director who made at least three early masterpieces (Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.) before straying into ever-denser thickets of hyperbole, dispersed thematics, compromised trajectories, and inspired images marooned by vague connections. But the kind of PR that's already being drummed up for this film, at a point when it's barely more than a gleam in Janusz Kaminski's eye, seems designed to turn me against it.
Spielberg has profoundly neocon tendencies, convinced that he's the underdog despite his mountainous fortune and limitless reach, abetted by a network of associates who tacitly lend fuel to articles like Halbfinger's, with its avalanche of name-dropping, its blush of coy bashfulness, and its utter evacuation of any divide between his creative ventures and the wellness of the world. (The celebrity puff piece may soon emerge as the final frontier of anonymous sources.) I realize Halbfinger may be a more immediate and even appropriate target of my irritation than Spielberg, but the longstanding and ever-evolving tradition of Spielberg's false positions re-asserts itself every time he goes and does it again, albeit, as in this case, by proxy. If he'd get back to being a real director, instead of a self-glorifier and self-congratulator, or perhaps if his profilers resisted the reflex of adulation and willing, bare-faced co-optation, I might be feeling more generous.
Photo © 2005 Mike Segar/Reuters, reproduced from the New York Times website.