DIRECTED BY STEVEN SPIELBERG: Poetics of the Contemporary Blockbuster
By Warren Buckland
London/New York, Continuum Books, 2006. ISBN: 0-8264-1691-8. 242 pp. US$19.95 (pbk)
IN CAPRA’S SHADOW: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Robert Riskin
By Ian Scott
The University Press of Kentucky, 2006. ISBN-13: 978-0-8131-2390-5. x + 288pp. (hbk)
Authorship remains a key if controversial focus of debate within film studies and it is this theme which forms the overarching agenda for Warren Buckland’s study of Steven Spielberg. Deriving his poetic, neoformalist approach from a system established by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Buckland combines a canonical overview of Spielberg’s groundbreaking work in the blockbuster genre, with a detailed technical examination of his films.
The book commences with a succinct survey of the Hollywood blockbuster, an area covered in relatively recent guises by writers as diverse as Tom Shone and Geoff King, attending in particular to the industry’s history of vertical integrated studio organisation and the idea that DreamWorks operates in similar fashion. Buckland contests this claim, arguing that in fact it operates as a freelance operation pursuing its dramatic vision with independent dealmakers. Now that it has effectively been taken over by Paramount, the future of non-conglomerative filmmaking looks dubious.
A concept hitherto under-explored elsewhere and which will prove of use in further like-minded studies, is the chasm dividing external and internal authorship; the former having to do with the director’s managerial position; the latter being the way in which auteurism is classically understood in its Romantic, artistic manner. This is some way from previous studies of Spielberg (by John Baxter, et al) which have tended to be biographical and thematic, appreciating his success as maker of spectacles yet overlooking those specific components which create that distinctive effect.
Crucially, Buckland identifies Spielberg as a contemporary auteur, because
he occupies key positions in the industry (producer, director, studio co-owner,
franchise licensee); he is therefore attempting to vertically integrate the stages of
filmmaking – but, unlike classical Hollywood, the integration is under the control
of the creative talent, not managers. (15)
Previously, auteurs were judged those gifted men working within and against the Hollywood system; with his branding and studio acquisition, Spielberg is Hollywood (in many senses courtesy of Lew Wasserman, the focus of three recent biographies) in his attempt to control both the external and internal authorship of his work.
Buckland skilfully sidesteps any of the true pitfalls of this style of criticism, which dogged much early director studies in which the most hack-like of metteurs-en-scène were exalted to the detriment of those screenwriters who gave them their characters and themes – one is reminded of the case of Charles Bennett, arguably the true architect of Hitchcock’s narrative structure and cinematic worldview. (The wilder extremes of this position could be seen in critic/filmmaker’s Mark Cousins’ hilarious television interview with Rod Steiger some years ago, in the course of which he elicited a reaction of pure apoplexy from the great actor at his suggestion that Run of the Arrow (1957, d. Sam Fuller) was a better film than The Pawnbroker (1965, d. Sidney Lumet), in which Steiger gave arguably the best performance ever recorded on film.)
While many have recognised Spielberg’s gifts, few have attempted such a thorough and systematic deconstruction and definition of his particular added value, which the author defines as an attempt “to reconstruct the artistic reasoning behind the creation of an artwork.” (30) An early chapter outlines the fundaments of directorial poetics, from the basic technical skills listed in filmmaking manuals to the more esoteric concept of formal or organic unity, espoused by auteurist V.F. Perkins. This critical methodology of dominant narrational strategies forms the basis for the remaining bulk of the book, a chronological examination of those of Spielberg’s works which fall under the titular rubric. Buckland considers the film from its basic unit, the shot, and looks at scenic technique and design, as well as considering the overall effect on the viewer. He argues that while Spielberg habitually makes the same basic choices, these often, but not inevitably, combine to create Perkins’ beloved cohesiveness (surely in the eye of the beholder) and have always been overlooked by critics in their efforts to pigeonhole the director’s achievements. Buckland carefully dissects the filmmaker’s individual style, evident from the short film, Amblin’ (1968), onwards, utilising tools familiar from Barry Salt’s statistical analysis format – including shot duration, angle, scale, movement and so on. This, the author reminds us, is the most reliable and systematic form of mise-en scène criticism because it precludes the subjective (158). In case we might suspect any partiality, the author identifies the spreadsheet software that he has used to collate the data from the first thirty minutes of each of the selected films. He tackles particular signature tropes of the director, such as the use of offscreen space, wide angle shots, long takes and a highly mobile camera, and illustrates that even with these elements in place, Spielberg doesn’t inevitably achieve formal unity, sometimes undermining his narrative choices with poorly-placed humour.
Buckland uses the fission between external and internal authorship to revisit the long-held view that Spielberg not only produced but also directed Poltergeist (1982), actually credited to Tobe (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Hooper: the commercial aspect of (disputed) authorship meant of course that Spielberg’s name above the title drew the audience in droves. As Buckland points out, Spielberg’s “brand image is closely linked to his internal auteur status, particular themes conveyed in his films. ” (23) While ‘Steven Spielberg Presents’ was a ploy which he would exploit throughout the 1980s with more or less child-oriented product directed by a raft of protégés culled from his TV stable, much of which was critically derided and is to blame for his long, somewhat self-defeating drive toward more serious, critically palatable fare (which, as Buckland reminds us, paradoxically doesn’t necessarily showcase his cinematic ‘magic.’), it is also regularly credited with the infantilisation of American cinema. In a recent interview with the director for BBC, critic Mark Kermode needlessly restates his own personal preference for the blockbusters, the superiority of that body of Spielberg’s work labelled ‘serious’ notwithstanding. (In the same interview Spielberg explained – using Buckland’s style of analysis – why he was wrongly credited with aspects of the co-authored A.I. He also stated that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial) (1982) was his favourite of his own films because of its biographical aspect. Interestingly, Buckland does not consider it in this book.)
In considering both what he calls the precompositional (preproduction) and compositional (visual) aspects of Spielberg’s blockbuster films, Buckland uses Bordwell’s construction to provide a valuable and serious contribution to an understanding of the most iconic and culturally charged filmmaker since Alfred Hitchcock. He cannot, however, redeem the reputation of a filmmaker whose technical mastery, masking ingenious narrative construction, was originally perceived as pure showmanship and now seeks to recover in the eyes of his many critics by tackling ever more politicised subject matter, no matter how brilliantly. Buckland concludes that Spielberg is a filmmaking magician, whose genius lies in this adaptation and manipulation of compositional norms; he has created a fine vocabulary by which to defend this position.
If Buckland’s book privileges the director, then Ian Scott’s biographical study of screenwriter Robert Riskin provides much-needed ballast to a director-driven genre. Early in 2006 critic David Kipen published a manifesto entitled THE SCHREIBER THEORY (Melville House Publishing) in which he argues for the screenwriter’s position as auteur. Riskin’s place in Hollywood history has never been challenged, except of course by Frank Capra, his long-term collaborator, who called his own memoirs The Name Above the Title in a bid to resuscitate an ailing career in an era driven by auteur directors. This publication had the unfortunate effect of casting doubt on Riskin’s huge contribution to that Name; Riskin was of course long dead and therefore not capable of defending his role in the consolidation of Capra’s self-mythologising. Ironically, their collaborative ventures had always called attention to the great American theme of reinvention. The continuities and discontinuities within that director’s career are always linked to those suggested by Riskin’s screenplays, despite Capra’s cinematic achievements prior to their professional marriage; but as Tom Stempel points out in the seminal FRAMEWORK, “what Riskin did was develop the material, provide the frame, that Capra could use to show his talents on.” (Continuum, 1988: 104) Capra had in fact a prior longstanding screenwriting collaborator in the person of Dorothy Howell, Columbia’s leading story editor; he had also established a “visual style and sophistication … rather more than content and certainly more than any social construction in his stories.” (30)
The criteria for considering the screenwriter as auteur lie in what Buckland correctly identifies as internal auteurism: personal style, evident in a director’s use of compositional norms but also perhaps in the screenplay, whose elements are mostly attributed to traditional dramatic structure but sometimes lie more significantly in the intangible aspects of the writer’s personality – his outlook, his politics, his experience, his reflection of and on the culture. (And in Riskin’s case, three-act structure.) Biography is therefore a highly significant element of auteur studies. This is particularly the case with Riskin, whose commercial nous and endlessly quotable dialogue alone mark him out from other screenwriters of his era. His uniqueness, Scott argues, pertains because
His politics, his social examinations, and his wit never screamed at you from
page or screen. Instead, they worked subtly to drag you into his worlds
and into a style that was the epitome of dignity and integrity. (12)
Riskin himself believed that theme was the most important element of the writer’s armoury.
Scott traces the evolution of Riskin’s writing style, from his early one-reel comedies to his brief Broadway output through his Hollywood career and carefully delineates the construction in particular of his strong female protagonists and gender politics, and the conjoining of an observational narrative style with ideological obsession, frequently framed in a story which places an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. He had a series of what Scott calls symbiotic professional relationships; with girlfriend and fellow writer, Edith Fitzgerald; with his brother, producer Everett Riskin; with Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures, where, intriguingly, Cohn frequently stated his belief that the screenwriter should be treated as a star; and most pertinently of all, with Frank Capra, who directed The Miracle Woman (1931) based on Riskin’s (cowritten) play Bless You, Sister, from a screenplay by Jo Swerling, who himself would become Riskin’s lifelong friend. This would mark the commencement of their professional involvement. Riskin would later ruefully, and perhaps cynically, remark in an interview about Capra, “We’ve been married a long time.” (99) Despite apparently conflicting political inclinations, they took parallel paths through the Screen Writers and Directors Guilds and their complicated sense of co-dependency would see them reunited under the banner of Frank Capra Productions and then at RKO, which housed both of their production companies.
Riskin was the most commercially successful of any of the Thirties screenwriters, a fact Scott attributes to his
innate ability to summarize social and cultural attitudes while making the
audience laugh out loud. (36)
This of course was epitomised by It Happened One Night, which swept the Academy Awards and became the model for screwball comedy. The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), another screwball comedy directed by John Ford, proved to be virtually as big at the box office as anything else Riskin wrote. While Scott does not adopt Buckland’s overtly poetic approach to his subject, he nonetheless implies it by looking at those interpretive elements which contribute to filmic meaning: style, structure, plot, dialogue, and the ineffable, tone. His analysis of the social aspect of Riskin’s work is particularly effective and his disentangling of the complex weave of authorship, particularly in the work with Capra on Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936), is exemplary. While there were other films of that era based on what Scott calls “latent social investigation” (104), none was so acutely tuned to the vagaries of New Deal politicking and the actual character of FDR; yet Scott also suggests what no other author has noted about their collaboration on the adaptation of short material for the big screen: they were now, in the shadow of each other’s influence, taking the same path, independently of one another, implicating their co-authored narratives with their own personal stories of success and fame. And, contrary to popular belief, Scott reminds us that Mr Deeds… did not boast Capra’s name above the title.
In the aftermath of that film’s success Riskin attempted to carve out a singular artistic identity for himself and intended to make a career out of directing features. However he got cold feet over making When You’re in Love (1937) and confessed to missing Capra’s “quality control and editorship.” (123) Their reuniting for the convoluted writing process behind Meet John Doe (1941) would, Scott claims, prove that “Capra heroes … also belong to Riskin.” (148) Ironically the Oscar eluded him and went to the writers of the original story instead. The war years saw Riskin exercise complete creative control over an extraordinary series of underappreciated propaganda films for the Office of War Information, Projections of America, which boasted talents as diverse as Ingrid Bergman, Aaron Copland and Josef Von Sternberg, putting Riskin’s ideas in a narrative frame that suggested postwar ideological reconstruction and would be echoed in his screenplay for Magic Town (1947). Of course Capra would, inevitably. gain more kudos for the Why We Fight series. (In his capacity at this office, Scott relates that Riskin acted as a virtual censor for American films overseas and prevented Casablanca being screened in North Africa – for political reasons.)
Providing an interesting symmetry with Buckland’s book on Spielberg, in which that author forensically proves that Spielberg did not in fact direct Poltergeist, Scott offers another angle on Magic Town, which to the uninitiated looks very like a Capra outing and is mostly as good as that director’s other whimsical efforts after World War II, It’s a Wonderful Life notwithstanding. (Magic Town was in fact directed by William Wellman, a wholly underrated Hollywood stalwart.) Riskin reportedly saw Magic Town as “a perfect Capraesque story with a modern twist” (207). Capra would in fact claim that he had co-written it, in yet another spectacular instance of his false reinvention. The divisions between the pair would be set in train by the credits dispute on It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra thought that Riskin sided with Goodrich and Hackett) and later, in remaking Broadway Bill (1934) as Riding High (1950), Capra sought to downplay Riskin’s right to shared credit, which Riskin fought – and won – through the Screen Writers Guild.
While Scott chronicles familiar ground for the consideration of screenwriting in what he calls the “wider, scarred landscape” of film history (235), he does not entirely go along with Joseph McBride’s polemical account which favoured Riskin over Capra (FRANK CAPRA: The Catastrophe of Success, Faber & Faber, 1992); indeed he happily makes the particular point of Riskin’s “exceptionalism” (237) and yet lays bare the facts behind what was a truly collaborative and mutually beneficial screen partnership with Capra. (He also notes a bittersweet coda to Frank Capra’s ridiculous gamesmanship, in the 1970s debate on Capra’s authorship initiated by David Rintels, then president of the Writers Guild. It would appear that internecine battles have their origins in marriage whether professional or familial: Victoria Riskin, the screenwriter’s daughter, was married to Rintels and one critic at least took issue with the connection. In such mundane human experience does the backdrop to filmic debate reside.)
The book’s stated aim is to demonstrate the price that has been paid by Hollywood history in the neglect of the screenwriter: it more than fulfils that ambition, as well as setting the record straight about Riskin’s contribution to screen art, it creates a trope for that period of cinema history and the wider realm of American political culture. It is a model of its kind.
The progression of textual debate within film studies is continually as divided as it is divisive. While much theoretical writing is influenced by the decentering positions of Barthes and Foucault, it is fair to say that the dialogue long ago given a voice by Cahiers du Cinéma and Andrew Sarris is ever more pungent in contemporary terms. Both Buckland and Scott contest assumptions in their particular fields while asserting the need to transform both the understanding and reading of the semantics of cinema studies. As they unpick the fabric of film history, a truer retelling may emerge. The authors may die; but the authorship battles continue.
Originally published in Scope Issue 14, June 2009