Thursday, June 30, 2005

Hypocrite, Thy Name Is Spielberg

In 1993, Spielberg re-conquered the popular cinema and its surrounding sea of media with an extremely high-profile, extremely munificent, and extremely canny double-header: the straightforward pop entertainment Jurassic Park, bowing in June 1993, followed by Schindler's List, his most overt bid for political relevance and cultural seriousness, in December of the same year.

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 ad copy memo found such a sympathetic ear in Halbfinger. Intent on portraying Spielberg as an ever-braver risk-taker, the article even congratulates him for having "gambled successfully on audiences' tolerance for prolonged and bloody combat scenes" in Saving Private Ryan. Wait, the moviegoing public didn't balk at massive blood and gore? Who'd've thunk?

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.

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31 Comments:

Blogger darth said...

thats bizarre..a friend and i were just laughing cynically at that article..and how..well, you hit it pretty much on target where we were going with it...glad to know weren't the only ones.

2:07 AM, July 01, 2005  
Anonymous tim r said...

You're angry and you're right - so right I've taken your cue to pitch a feature to my arts desk on how Spielberg has comprehensively lost the plot. Another thing that bugs me hugely is this:
(from the NYT piece)
"Mr. Spielberg [...] said he feared being seen as trivializing the Holocaust when he directed "Schindler's List" in 1993, at a time when he was best known for blockbuster fantasies..."

And yet he has no qualms about the ante-upping deployment of 9/11 imagery within a summer blockbuster?? Isn't it incumbent on the world's most successful director to be just as careful with this stuff in his "fun" movies as his "serious" ones? And doesn't it further deflate WotW's fatuous claim to allegorical importance that he doesn't seem to have given these considerations a moment's heed? To me, the allegory looks like a hellaciously flimsy excuse for added shock and awe, and the irresponsibility of the plane-wreckage scene in particular is breathtaking. (He's looting our humbled collective memory to really get us where we live, but hiding all the bloodied bodies behind bits of fuselage so we don't get too grossed out.)

As for this Munich movie, to say he'll be playing with fire is an understatement. I think we should all be very afraid.

11:57 AM, July 01, 2005  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Ladies and gentlemen, Tim Robey, the savviest print critic in the English language. (And not just because he agrees with me on this point.)

Exactamundo to all of the above. I would add to your proper indictment of the plane-wreckage scene that this, not coincidentally, is also the scene where Spielberg takes a deliriously hypocritical jab at the TV newswoman, at whom the movie audience hissed when she said, "Sure would have made a great story," or whatever. Beyond the absolute boredom of this "insight" (the mainstream media is unprincipled?), it sits even less well in a movie that, as you say, is all too glibly deploying 9/11 hallmarks as a way to authenticate itself and add import to a puffed-up, inconsistent film.

12:15 PM, July 01, 2005  
Blogger jeff_v said...

I wasn't even aware that Spielberg had another movie due this until I read that NYTimes article this movie. Given that this is Steven Spielberg, the biggest fucking movie director on the planet, I'd actually say that he has been working rather stealthily.

Most of what you're decrying is just good business. Is it so stunning to realize that the most successful commercial filmmaking of all-time has a churing PR-machine, planting seeds to nourish as a film's release date approaches?

I also don't see why some of this can't be taken at face value. I'm willing to believe that Spielberg is genuinely concerned that his upcoming film, which tackles a prickly subject, may be misconstrued or used for nefarious political ends. It wouldn't be the first time an audience has appropriated a film or book to serve its own biases. (Or the first time an audience has ever missed the boat on a Spielberg film, c.f. A.I., The Terminal, etc.) There's no implication in that sentence that Spielberg is not responsible for the movie he creates. In fact, the implication is just the opposite, hence the filmmaker's apprehension.

12:35 PM, July 01, 2005  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@Jeff: Plans for the movie, including the casting of Eric Bana and the narrative province, have been percolating in Entertainment wire reports and magazines for about a year. I assume the lack of a set title is part of the relative circumspection, especially since they are trying to avoid a title that invokes the book they're so spooked about. But this has hardly been a private planning process. And since shooting just began, it's an early moment to be hearing about it anyway. How he will have this ready in time for a December release, given how delicate he says he plans to be is rather mystifying.... and of course, the late-December release date itself is business- and awards-motivated.

Of course you're right that it's naïve to gasp when a commercial film director makes business-oriented decisions, engages in clever and subliminal self-marketing, etc. And no, I don't think Spielberg is necessarily insincere in saying he's worried about these things. But the idea that he's publicity-shy, or scared off by political reverberations or repercussions, does seem insincere to me. In his last two movies, he has drawn out Homeland Security/September 11 metaphorics that have nothing to do with the cheap, bulbous stories they accompany. And as Tim points out above, this guy is scared of pushing political buttons??

Even if he thinks he's sincere, the position itself does not strike me as sincere, particularly given his increasingly scatter-shot films, hamstrung as they recently have been between self-importance and self-contradiction. I think Oprah was probably sincere, too, at feeling discriminated against and monumentally oppressed in l'affaire Hermès; I'm sure she really did feel that way, and I'm sure she has her reasons, and it wouldn't be the first time, obviously, that a black customer was turned away by an upscale shop. But what drops incessantly out of Oprah's narcissistic accounts of that incident is her own confidence that she could show up to a shop after closing time and deserve automatic entry. Where is this woman coming from? Who does she think she is? She is a monumental cultural figure, but she thinks she's even bigger than that.

Same with Spielberg, I say. What drops out of this article (again, Halbfinger, I'm talking to you, too) is any notion that Spielberg might really blow the political pretenses he's fumbled rather badly in several tries, especially recently, and that he might make an under-conceived movie that causes a problem. I have a hard time believing that if the Israeli-Palestinian peace process falls apart, it'll be Spielberg's fault: I find the very suggestion massively self-aggrandizing, however disguised in the sheep's clothing of modesty.

I concede the naïveté you're charging me with, of getting so worked up over a basic thought process that big-time directors and big-time moneymakers always engage in. But your own Comment alleges a) it's obvious and eminently predictable what Spielberg is doing, and b) he's not really doing it, because he means it. Well, which is it? And if you're going to defend him by saying, "It's just good business," is it worth stating what hardly needs restating... that most things wrong in the world at present are exacerbated if not originated through the practices of "good business"?

And PS, since you, like Tim, are one of the critics I most admire, I'd be hugely curious to know how audiences missed the boat on The Terminal. I had a hard time even finding a boat to miss. Every defense I've heard of the movie so far only works by accepting the massive culture-of-distraction quietism that seems to engulf the whole film.

1:12 PM, July 01, 2005  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Um, shit -- did you hear about Sandra Day O'Connor?

1:19 PM, July 01, 2005  
Blogger Jake said...

Speilberg gets a whole shit load of flack just because he is Speilberg. I agree with you almost all the time Nick, this hiatus has been heartbreaking, but I feel as though all these attacks are unwaranted. Sure, he doesn't deserve his immense fame, but Schindler's List, A.I., Minority Report and Emire of the Sun are all wonderfully layered and interesting efforts. He has talents. I know your article isn't directly about Speilberg's films, but it's obvious you wouldn't have written it if you didn't dislike his work so much. I don't know; I felt the need to fight back on his behalf just because your rants are so damn articulate.

2:13 PM, July 01, 2005  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@Jake: You're right that he catches so much flak because he is Spielberg, but much of the reason he "is Spielberg" is because he and his company so consciously sell him in a certain way. Not just as a commercially successful director but as this person who matters, whose films are Important, whose gestures matter.

I am much less put off by his films than by his own carefully shaped public image, by the cultural tendency to give both him and his films such massive benefit of the doubt (though it is true that underestimating the films is just as easy), and by his own commentaries on his films—now to include his commentary on films he has not yet made. As I say in the blog entry, there is no apologizing to be done for Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or E.T., and Empire of the Sun, A.I., and Schindler's List are hugely impressive achievements, despite having more flaws. I'm not dug in against Spielberg's movies. I do think there are some precipitous drop-offs. Saving Private Ryan has some majestic passages but several damaging blunders. Jurassic Park works just fine, though it's a feebler and cannier gloss on past successes. Once you head into the territory of The Color Purple, Amistad, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, and the Indiana Jones sequels, to say nothing of outright messes like Hook and The Terminal, it seems much more evident that his fame and media access are based on money and brand-name notoriety more than artistic consistency (and this, of course, is a self-perpetuating cycle). If he were acknowledged à la Scorsese as a big-name director with sizable peaks and valleys on his résumé, and if he didn't seem so personally invested in fostering the myth of his own exceptionalism, I'd feel much differently.

2:49 PM, July 01, 2005  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

P.S. @Jake: I should have added, I appreciate hearing from every new name and voice—thanks for chiming in, and for the compliments, even while we disagree on these particular points. (As with everyone else, I really am taking your viewpoint to heart and mulling it over.)

2:51 PM, July 01, 2005  
Blogger jeff_v said...

I guess I'm slacking on my upcoming movies buzz, because I had heard zilch about Spielberg's new one (whereas I hear Scorsese's name attached to a new movie every day, it seems). I get your point that it's disingenuous to write a publicity puff piece about the shy, retiring mega-star film director, but beyond that I don't see the vitriol. I certainly don't see how drumming up interest for one's film (my idea of "good business") can be linked to "most of the things wrong with this world."

There's no contradiction in my assertion that Halbfinger has essentially written a advertisement (which is sadly what most entertainment reporting is), and that Spielberg actually may be genuinely concerned about the reaction his film might arouse. How else is Spielberg supposed to communicate his apprehensions? It doesn't sound like anything he'd say or do would be able to please you, short of not making another movie at all. The timing of the release of the new film strikes you as suspect --if Spielberg really were committed to his subject, you're saying, he'd take longer and pay no attention to the Oscar season. But the fact is, "serious" Hollywood films are almost universally crammed into the last quarter of the year. What was a gamble with Saving Private Ryan was not that it was a shoot-em-up flick for the Summer season, but that it was an R-rated, almost three-hour film dealing with a musty (if venerable) subject. Those types of movies are almost always saved for late in year. (And no, I do not consider the fluke Oscar-winner Braveheart to be the same type of movie.)

Who knows how much time Spielberg needs to make his next film? I see no correlation between time-between-projects and quality in his ouevre.

I'm curious as to which recent Spielberg films you see as self-important. I haven't seen War of the Worlds yet, but The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can are probably the first titles that come up if you google "minor" and "breezy" respectively. Minority Report was smart (if overthought and undercooked) genre fare. So now we have to go back to A.I, which, dadgummit, is important, not self-important. Maybe I'd agree with you on Amistad (a well-intentioned snooze), but that's stretching the word "recent."

I don't think Spielberg is flawless at all. Everyone of his movies has problems, and his career is one of peaks and valleys. Who, besides Armond White, would disagree? I don't see anyone giving Spielberg a free pass. In fact, among the serious film critics, Spielberg has long been locked in a catch-22 where he's damned for making juvenile fantasies and then upbraided for daring to leave his "specialty" for adult subject matter. Sure, I guess among the Entertainment Tonights of this world, he's a God among directors, but he's persona non grata in most cinephile circles.

I do think he's an important director whose films deserve scrutiny. I also feel that, more than any other director, he has cultural clout. I don't think it's implied in the article that Spielberg's film would single-handedly derail the Middle East peace process, but sure it's not beyond the pale to consider how a likely Oscar-nominated movie from the world's biggest director might set the table for public discussion. You only have to look back at Million Dollar Baby and the euthanasia issue for that. It's not that that film itself will cause problems, but that people will use it to further their own issues.

If time permits, I'll get back to you on The Terminal, Nick. I don't think it's a very good film, but I don't understand this 'pockmark on humanity' talk either. Short story: it's a genial, Tati-esque comedy that never ignites and overstays its welcome.

3:43 PM, July 01, 2005  
Blogger jeff_v said...

I really ought to preview my posts. Sorry for the typos.

3:45 PM, July 01, 2005  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@ Dr. S: Yes, I did read earlier today about O'Connor's announcement, and I can't even deal with that news yet. Though I found this response worth pausing over.

@ GreenCine Readers: Who knew my middle-of-the-night tirade would catch a wave? (By the standards of my blog, anyway, this is a wave!) I'm happy to have the new visitors and respondents, whether or not you are sympathetic to what I wrote, or at all persuaded by it.

3:46 PM, July 01, 2005  
Blogger jeff_v said...

Okay, here's my brief defense of The Terminal before I attempt to beat traffic...

One of the things I appreciated about the film was how it highlighted how much of our lives we spend waiting. Not just waiting in line for lunch or tickets or what have you, but waiting for recognition, peace of mind, a true vocation, a soulmate --in short, waiting to fulfill our destiny. It seems that life is constant delayed gratification.

Probably the shrewdest, most ironic corporate placement in the entire film was that sign for the 'Borders' store, which seemed to pop into view too routinely to be only a blatant product shill--Spielberg has enough clout not to have to do that unless he wanted to use it for a point. This film was about 'borders' (barriers)--between countries, cultures, classes, and even human hearts. As much as anything, The Terminal was lamenting America's loss of an open arms Liberty...an openness and willingness to give some benefit of doubt...an openness that's slipping away at the official level, yet still bubbles along beneath the radar of homeland security...under the table, ad-hoc, stubbornly clung to by those souls still willing to believe in the virtue of getting in, staying in, and building the American dream.

The film could have ended with Victor stepping out into the city. Everything that follows after that is easy to surmise and it's only Spielberg's over-indulgence of what he supposes the audience needs in the way of gratification that keeps that film puttering along. I also got a little tired of the repetition of the cutesy jokes and the laborious set-ups for the different supporting characters' arcs. Zeta-Jones' character was well-conceived, but as a performance I found it lacking in life/believability. I dunno, maybe I'm just used to seeing Emily Watson in that kind of role.

5:20 PM, July 01, 2005  
Anonymous goatdog said...

Damn. I'm late to the party. I love Spielberg, and I want to slap him sometimes. I want to slap him now because of his public hand-wringing over his Munich movie, and I haven't seen War of the Worlds yet; perhaps I'll want to slap him even more afterwards. But he made Schindler's List and Raiders and lots of other wonderful films, so I can't be too angry at him (but I love to read you, Nick, when you're typing with hackles raised).

7:06 PM, July 01, 2005  
Anonymous tim r said...

Me too! Whatever its news value, the tone of Halbfinger's piece really is brown-nosey beyond the call of duty; the thought underlying almost every paragraph seems to be "Is there anything God-like filmmaker Steven Spielberg can't turn his hand to?" And the answer to that is "Yes, quite a lot right now!" @Jeff: The Terminal is self-important - it's also ideologically complacent to a degree I found fairly icky, and devotes all its bustling energies to creating a cute little parable for a world-order that doesn't actually exist. (Look at the real Viktor Navorski's story to see how Spielberg set about turning reality into fantasy there.) And Nick has made similar points about the clueless attempts at context in War of the Worlds, brilliantly described by The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw as "a non-war of non-worlds". If Spielberg has lost his ability to ground such movies in recognisable political climates, do we really trust him to dramatise a Mossad retaliation mission without ballsing up the specifics?

10:00 PM, July 01, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not much to add except: brilliant article/rant, Nick. I agree with every single word (on both Spielberg and his latest).

- Ali

1:06 AM, July 02, 2005  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@Ali: Thanks, and welcome to the blog. (You'll let me know privately, right, if you're the Ali I know and love from college? No need to be bashful!)

@Jeff, and Everyone: What I'm saying—and I admit that, in the scope of things, what I perceive as Spielberg's narcissism ain't a hill of beans, etc.—is that "It's good business" is sort of a catch-all rationale for all kinds of dubious statements and enterprises, across the spectrum of the major to the local to the ephemeral. It's also the only criteria by which Spielberg comes off looking well of late: his last few movies, as Tim R. underlined in his most recent post, no longer inspire the kind of aesthetic much less ideological confidence that would lend more credibility to this fawning profile, and possibly to the movie he's so anxiously bringing before the cameras.

When I refer to the director getting a "pass," I'm not referring to cinephile circles but to this kind of mainstream journalism, which tends quite complicitly to a professional mythos that should have dimmed, at least a little, long ago. I suspect that if any other director were facing these crises of conscience about such incendiary material, even an article prompted as here by the filmmaker's own correspondence would find room to ask some questions about the director's qualifications about his prior record in these sorts of situations. But we don't hear anything about how furious Alice Walker and millions of her readers were with Spielberg's thematic mauling of The Color Purple, or the enormous and very public fracases over Amistad and its creative origins, or about the hugely divided critical reactions to the last two films and their willful 9/11 allusions... Purple and Amistad especially are movies that Spielberg loudly trumpeted as landmarks, for his own career and for his audience, and yet they are hardly slam-dunks: deeply troubling, I would say, and the latter two films, in their quieter ways, are even more so. But the article, which I have to take as largely dictated by Spielberg's own offstage "press release," just wants us to feel bad for the tough spot he's in, and how hard he's trying, while encouraging our confidence that he'll find a way, as if he always has before. The GreenCine editor poked at me for refusing to credit Spielberg for deliberating so carefully. Well, isn't it a base-level expectation that directors should be thinking about what they're doing? In a case like this, beneath the white-washing attention to his pangs of conscience, I'm more interested in the skepticism required by his recent finished products than in cutting him slack because, hey, at least he didn't phone it in.

As for The Terminal, I don't mean to be a jerk, but I think we'll have to agree to disagree. Among all of his fair-to-middling movies of late, this is the one I can't even see as "middling." I find it embarrassing. The gargantuan, self-consciously exorbitant set design, as far as I'm concerned, is already an index of self-importance for a story that becomes so puffball so soon. I see where you're coming from in the broader read of the film as being about waiting, or about local-level camaraderie, which this film very nearly pitches as local-level utopianism... But for this reading to work, the insistent specificity of the embarking scenario and its contexts—national dissolution, mediated political catastrophe, Homeland Security despotism, America's treatment of immigrants—evaporates entirely. Why construct so much detailed and falsely "relevant" scaffolding if you really just want to make a Tati-lite riff on Casablanca? War of the Worlds does the same thing: busily amassing details that try to specify the invasion as an allegory of 9/11, then sheepishly scuttling those allusions so that it's free to play dumb about its own dumbness: "Calm down, this is just a film about a dad!" The loudest, final thesis of the film is that people who put their trust in God's hands are the wisest of us all, that "no one lives, or dies, in vain," even though, incidentally, no one we know well in this movie dies, in vain or otherwise. All further proof that Spielberg, at least in these two movies, has no political backbone.

But, listen: A.I. had me unexpectedly cheering at its rich visions and themes, and happily seeing past its few infelicities. In an admittedly bum year, Saving Private Ryan snuck into the bottom of my Top 10 list. I can't imagine any huge transformation in my view of Spielberg as a public figure, but if the Munich film is good, I'd like to believe I'll eat crow and fess up to it.

And I promise not to keep beating this horse, except to respond to subsequent comments.

1:52 AM, July 02, 2005  
Blogger David Shultz said...

Why does Speilberg's film have to be made? Did it never need to be made in the first place? If it's such a touchy thing, if it really has the potential to anger other nations and blow up delicate political situations, then why would they continue to consider it? It's as if Spielberg wants another excuse to seem "adult" when in truth his talents best like in entertainments like Raiders, Jaws, and E.T.. He brings something unique to films like the afore mentioned three, I just hate when he abuses his talent to creat faux-art. His work has become so self-conscious. The only Spielberg film I've truly liked in recent years has been Minority Report, with A.I. bringing up the rear simply for being interesting and even well-made till a certain point in its running time.

A Spielberg moment I've always hated: His press-release warning people about Saving Private Ryan, basically claiming his film is of a level of violence not seen before in cinema. How idiotic, superficial, and naive/ignorant! To me, of the two '98 war films, The Thin Red Line (I know, I know, I bring this up all the time, but what a great film) should come with a warning. Spielberg's film, to me, felt forced and rather bland, with some fine photography here and there and nothing special or new on top of its gloss; that he made such a press release, to me, came off as completely arrogant, as if he were the only director to attempt to create a war movie that is a 100% real portrayel of war. Malick's, however, was the more painful of the two (in a profound sense, not an "ouch this movie is crap" sense) because Malick actually has talent when it comes to imbuing profundity in characters or filming visceral scenes of battle, and everything felt more real, and therefore affected me in a more raw, transcendent way that Saving Private Ryan just can't achieve. The Thin Red Line didn't feel as if the audience was necessarily in mind throughout the entirety of production, and for that I'm thankful. Malick chooses to film a million feet of footage and "find" his film through the editing process, while Spielberg seems like he has preconcieved notions about every scene, movement, performance, actor, and word. That, right there, is the biggest division between their two '98 war films. That whole press release...man, what a jerk. I can't stand him...

You know, I think I dislike Spielberg as a director too much to organize a coherent point. This was mostly babble, but my main points: Spielberg is the least artistic "auteur" among major directors claiming to "do it for the art," and Spielberg is not capable of directing towering works of absolute, serious art without slipping up in a major way or pandering to what a media-saturated, cinematically uneducated audience wants to see in a "serious work of art." He's brushing against Ron Howard territory, and I wish he'd stop (we don't need another one) and return to his Jaws era. Those were great movies.

This entry outlined everything so perfectly.

3:24 AM, July 02, 2005  
Anonymous goatdog said...

"Malick chooses to film a million feet of footage and 'find' his film through the editing process..." Except he never found it. I think Saving Private Ryan was infinitely better than The Thin Red Line because, at the very least, it seemed like there was a coherent thought process going on behind it. In his twenty-year walkabout after Days of Heaven, Malick lost sight of what it means to make a movie. All of his worst instincts came to the fore, and he finally made a movie that fit his harshest critics' opinions of his earlier films (films that I loved). I wish he had had "preconceived notions about every scene, movement, performance, actor, and word," because maybe then I wouldn't have alternated between chuckling at the ponderous narration and being dismayed at the pointless parade of stars being wasted onscreen. Even if I accept a good friend's assessment of Ryan--"two great battle scenes sandwiched around an episode or two of Combat"--it still has more going for it than The Thin Red Line.

So Spielberg plans his films obsessively. So do a lot of directors, Hitchcock being the easiest example. There's no inherently better or worse way of doing things. Dithering about in the fields for months doesn't necessarily equal art. All of Spielberg's great achievements were planned obsessively, and so were his duds. And I still want to slap him, even though I find myself defending him.

10:51 AM, July 02, 2005  
Anonymous Mork said...

I just don't see how Oprah owes her fame to Stevie . . . people DID know who she was before The Color Purple.

Outside that, agreed for the most part.

12:09 PM, July 02, 2005  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Just in case you haven't seen this yet, I thought I'd add it (a paltry contribution to this discussion, I know).

From GoldDerby.com (emphasis added):
It only started filming a few days ago, but the lead contender for Best Picture at the next Oscars is clearly Steven Spielberg's still-untitled thriller about hunting down the killers of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Award voters love real stories, especially when they're important ones about persecution told by Spielberg. Schindler's List reigns as the only film in modern history to win Best Picture from every major awards group. Spielberg's next film is a bit of a gamble, calendar-wise: it must finish up shooting in 10 to 12 weeks in order to meet his promise to exhibitors that it'll be ready for theaters on Dec. 23.

9:54 PM, July 02, 2005  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@David and @goatdog: Ah, the perennial Line/Ryan debate. Y'all both know that I'm much more in the Malick camp on this one: what an amazement to see a war film where our beliefs are not assigned to us, to include the fact that nothing in the film requires me to buy the florid meditations of the characters. Part of what I take The Thin Red Line to be about is the killing or possible killing of several young soldiers who are still flailing (in some cases, very much flailing) to understand what they've put themselves on the line for, and what it all means. I love Malick for doing that. I think goatdog is right that shooting styles and in-studio habits don't automatically mark anything as good or bad, though with a slight adjustment to David's logic, I would say that Spielberg's compulsion to (try to) plan every single audience response to each shot becomes quite overbearing.... especially once the assigned ideology of the end sequences ("Earn this," "Tell me I'm a good man"...) don't add up all that well with the themes communicated by the opening. I like Saving Private Ryan, I like parts of it quite a bit, but I love The Thin Red Line, and I think it's much the greater film.

@Mork: I didn't mean to sound paternalistic there: "Oprah owes everything she's got to Steven Spielberg." I do think Oprah went from being "known" before 1985 to being someone who could call some shots and get her feet in a helluva lot more doors after The Color Purple; even she has said that she owes Spielberg for that. But perhaps I needn't overstress that point.

@Dr. S: Yeah, I saw that tidbit, and groaned a little. But that's pretty much OscarWatch for you, with or without Spielberg leaking them a memo. The idea that Spielberg's involvement + serious subject = "This is gonna win an Oscar!" is still not my favorite, but it's much preferable (because much sillier) than the more grandiose global-political speculations and the larger-scale embrace of Spielberg's entire oeuvre that we find in the Halbfinger piece.

Re: the Oscars, last year it was Hilary vs. Annette, this year (how apropos!) it could easily be Spielberg vs. Malick Redux. I have high, high, high hopes for The New World.

10:16 PM, July 02, 2005  
Blogger David Shultz said...

Re: the Oscars, last year it was Hilary vs. Annette, this year (how apropos!) it could easily be Spielberg vs. Malick Redux. I have high, high, high hopes for The New World.

Somewhere along the line Malick better get credit for being one of the greatest, most consistent directors in American cinema. I will defend that man's greatness to the death!

Nick, why do you think Hilary Swank's unprofound performance connected so suddenly with audiences? (I know that's off the topic, but I'm curious about your opinion. You can email me if you'd like if you don't want your comments to get off topic: savethepenguins@mac.com ).

2:33 AM, July 03, 2005  
Anonymous tim r said...

Hell yeah. And that's such a beautiful defence of The Thin Red Line: it's about men fumbling towards meaning, not giving us a definitive philosophy on anything much. When people snigger about those voiceovers - admittedly an easy thing to do - they tend to ignore the fact most of them are strings of questions, not assertions. The movie is all ?, really - I agree with Nick that it's Spielberg's which keeps telling us what to think. And there's something so much more democratic and, in a way, humanistic about Malick's attitude to casting - step forward, Jim Caviezel, blink and you'll miss George Clooney - than Spielberg's rigid Hanks-down deployment of his star power. But then I don't need much persuading on this score: Saving Private Ryan is just a good war movie, and The Thin Red Line is my favourite film of all time...

3:05 AM, July 03, 2005  
Blogger David Shultz said...

And that's such a beautiful defence of The Thin Red Line: it's about men fumbling towards meaning, not giving us a definitive philosophy on anything much. When people snigger about those voiceovers - admittedly an easy thing to do - they tend to ignore the fact most of them are strings of questions, not assertions.

Because of these profound voice-overs, some critics and most audiences wrote off The Thin Red Line as pretentious, but Spielberg's film, I thought, always felt like it was done with more pretense than anything else, like he went into the film thinking "This, this is going to be a great, Oscar-winning movie." With Line, nothing felt manipulative, the dialogue didn't pander to what Oscar-voters and audiences kill for, and that is probably why it was so well-regarded, just like A Beautiful Mind or even Cinderella Man, the latter of which is wowing at Oscar screenings for no apparent reason (it was a completely useless film). I agree with Nick that it's not necessarily what I said at the end of my first comment that divides the two films, but that Spielberg's film feels manipulative in all of its aspects (especially the opening and closing framing device, oh please).

1:00 PM, July 03, 2005  
Blogger David Shultz said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:00 PM, July 03, 2005  
Blogger Joe R. said...

Going back to the Munich project for a second - I do think that Spielberg has reason to be concerned. Mostly because I don't think he can pull it off. Unless I've been misinformed, he's telling the story of the Mossad agents who are comissioned to hunt down and kill the remaining Black September members who perpetrated the attacks?

This is a project where the morality has got to be swirling all around - issues of murder, revenge, justice, not to mention the Arab-Israeli conflict. We've seen time and time again that Spielberg cannot do ambiguity. I still very much like a lot of his films - I take the SPR side over Thin Red Line - but I think a film that resides this firmly in a moral gray area is well beyond his capacity.

3:16 PM, July 03, 2005  
Anonymous goatdog said...

@defenders of The Thin Red Line's "profundity" (and how do you like those quotes around that word? they sort of look like my sceptically raised eyebrows...). I had a conversation with a good friend about the thin (red?) line between pretension and profundity, and he proposed that in many cases it came down to whether you liked the damned thing or not. I seriously disliked much of Mr. Malick's overrated opus, and it was all incredibly pretentious to me. Y'all found it life-changing, thus profound. Thoughts? Could it be that simple?

(Please don't confuse my defense of Ryan with a defense of the clunky, inexcusable framing story or "earn this." Gah.)

4:38 PM, July 03, 2005  
Anonymous tim r said...

"..."

5:10 PM, July 03, 2005  
Anonymous goatdog said...

tim: you're probably right.

6:41 PM, July 03, 2005  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Wow, I hate to be the bearer of bad cultural news again, but has anyone been paying attention to this R.Kelly epic opera "Trapped in the Closet"? Hie your ways to online video clips. Summer, if you're reading, this one might need to be part of your rumor this week...

7:44 PM, July 03, 2005  

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