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Spielberg (2017)

Spielberg documentary poster.jpg

His strength is really his ability to tell a story in pictures instinctively. What makes Steven Spielberg tick? Susan Lacy’s HBO documentary commences with on-set filming of Bridge of Spies and then materialises into a meticulously constructed mosaic of interviews, excerpts and archive footage beginning with footage shot by the film’s subject as a child when he used home movies to escape his loneliness and his parents’ disintegrating marriage. As Martin Scorsese states, Spielberg has always been a personal filmmaker, utilising movie themes to articulate his own experiences. And perhaps the one shocking revelation here is that Spielberg didn’t speak to his own father for 15 years, mistakenly believing that he had split the family. The truth was that his mother was having an affair with his father’s best friend, whom she eventually married. His father and his older sisters spared the boy the truth. He didn’t have the grades to get into film school so he conned his way into Universal Pictures by getting off the tour bus and putting his name on the door of an office (maybe…) and impressed Sid Sheinberg enough to get him to underwrite his TV work there for 7 years, making his debut directing  movie queen Joan Crawford in an episode of Rod Serling’s show Night Gallery. Getting involved with that group of fellow wannabe filmmakers who came to be christened The Movie Brats, he had a support system of guys (they were all guys!) who would eventually become the most successful directors in the business. They all talk here – Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma and it’s nice to hear them speaking directly rather than through the medium of the third party commentators in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls. The culture was converging, the older directors were on their way out, they were on their way in. Amongst that crowd Spielberg was a nerd who wasn’t into sports or drugs or rock ‘n’ roll, as De Palma observes. Reworking his family difficulties into his films Spielberg created a modern point of view and an immediacy that plugged into the zeitgeist like no other filmmaker:  he knew what we wanted before we did. His one big budget failure was 1941 and it was George Lucas who got him back on track making a film that he promised him would be better than James Bond after he spent a year in a hole ruminating his misstep. So it was that after Jaws and CE3K he then entered into the world of franchises with Lucas making Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lacy is careful to permit Spielberg to critique his own failures or damp squibs even while his contemporaries and stars and co-workers are heaping praise on his energy, his techniques and the panic he manages to hide when he doesn’t know what to do next:  his reaction to the set being placed in the wrong situation on the beach for Saving Private Ryan being a case in point. It’s as though his eye bypasses his brain and goes straight to the camera. He himself states that from his earliest days he felt he was writing with the camera (he probably wasn’t what the Cahiers critics had in mind). A happy second marriage to actress Kate Capshaw and the addition of children made him confront more difficult topics after getting critically burned with The Colour Purple, a film that exercised many when the popcorn king dared take on the black experience and from a matriarchal perspective at that. He wasn’t exactly drowning in awards with the fantastic WW2 epic Empire of the Sun either and screenwriter Tom Stoppard questions his resorting to sentiment. But it was another instance of his desire to empower a child and to take control of  the story of their life. Making Schindler’s List made him confront his Jewishness. He admits he dumped his bag of tricks and utilised a handheld camera bringing an immediacy to the terror in monochrome. At the same time that he was shooting the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto on location he was editing Jurassic Park in the evenings: when everyone in the edit suite saw the astonishing leap in computerised dinosaurs created by Dennis Muren they knew it was something special. As Lucas appositely states, it was the end of one era, the beginning of a new one. Saving Private Ryan was also a war film like no other and the shock of the shooting experience is vividly conveyed by Tom Hanks.  Lacy is canny in deploying some of the best US critics to venture their reading of the director, after setting up the Pauline Kael prediction about how Spielberg’s career would pan out – not as a screen artist –  while the UK’s Dilys Powell isn’t mentioned:  Janet Maslin, J. Hoberman and AO Scott all have their say and it makes for a very thoughtful chorus of opinions given their sometime antipathy to his work (and some of the more problematic films like The Terminal or Hook are basically ignored).  Latterly his films have taken a prescient turn, from the scenes in Minority Report and War of the Worlds that vividly reference the shock of 9/11 and the surveillance society, to the Middle East issues that are tackled in Munich: any equivocation in these stories can be calibrated with the explanation that the man himself is torn about how to deal with the perpetrators of terror. So, for Hoberman,  He’s the Hollywood equivalent of a public intellectual. The loosely connected Amistad, Bridge of Spies and Lincoln deal with democracy and the law and the origins and problems of America itself. Despite his success, Dustin Hoffman says Steven’s like a guy who works for Steven Spielberg. The director himself is quick to point out that he has worked with a large team of the same people for decades and calls editor Michael Kahn his blood brother; John Williams he says rewrites his films with music. In the end, all his films he says are father and son stories about separation and reunification – even Lincoln!  And there’s an unpredicted coda to his parents’ bitter divorce (what you might call a twist ending). This is very long at 147 minutes but there isn’t any gristle in an absorbing and fluid chronicle bringing together the many influences around the most important filmmaker of our time. It’s an authorised film but doesn’t suffer for that – he is very open about what drives him and how he works.  He declares happily that he has never had therapy:  Movies are my therapy. Hallelujah – for that we are all truly grateful.

About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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