My numerous qualms about the work of Steven Spielberg are generally close enough to the surface to be easily exposed at the slightest provocation. I tend to shudder at the thought that he’s considered a major American filmmaker, and the continuance of that reputation does not speak well, in my view, of the entire American industry. That said, he can hardly be ignored given the boundless extent of his financial success. The foundation of his lofty position is laid very early in his career, and I’ve always held that he’s made four really good films, the last of which was released in 1982 (to save you having to look them up, I refer to JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and E.T.). There are a few other solid films along the way (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN and the recent LINCOLN come to mind), but I find it difficult to argue that he didn’t peak early, and that he hasn’t been coasting a bit ever since. Because it was of enormous import to the establishment of all sorts of new trends and methods within the film industry, JAWS is the Spielberg film I use in class, and it’s probably the one I think is most worth seriously discussing.
Everyone knows that JAWS is about a giant, killer shark, but it’s about something more than that. It’s also about how one of the “movie brats” of the late Sixties brilliantly succeeds in manipulating his audience. This is done in many ways, beginning with the story structure itself (split neatly into an early “horror” section as the town is terrorized by an unseen force, then shifting into “adventure” mode as our three heroes sail off to confront the beast), but one of the elements which always strikes me most forcefully is the use of photography.
In the “adventure” half of the film, Spielberg was confronted with a very clear problem, and he managed to resolve it brilliantly. Stated simply, he needs to balance the suggestion that these three men stand alone against an elemental force of nature with the difficulty of keeping things visually interesting. To this end, the film utilizes three dovetailing strategies. The first is to repeatedly punctuate the action with shots which emphasize the isolation of a small boat on a very large ocean. Constant visual reminders are included, such as this:
At the same time, however, that little boat is divided into very specific spaces, which are utilized in visually creative ways. A shot from Robert Shaw’s perch in the crow’s nest, for example, clearly delineates locales fore and aft, as well as the overhead perch itself:
The different zones are naturally apparent in this straight on profile of the ship, where we can pick out the various key areas including the fore and aft deck spaces, the pulpit, the bridge, the cabin, and the crow’s nest.
The most important strategy, however, is Spielberg’s use of blocking within shots to both keep us interested and to continually reinforce the central idea of the crew’s isolation as they face off against the shark. We can see evidence of this in both of the above images, as each of the three men occupies a different zone of what we know is a very small boat. Further good examples are here:
In each instance, the actors are distributed across the screen in ways which utilize as many parts of the boat as possible, and they tend to maintain that balance within any given shot even as they move through the available space. Perhaps even more interesting, however, are the ways in which Spielberg specifically uses his images for something more than straightforward visual interest. In a shot like this, for example:
Here Spielberg spreads the actors across the boat while emphasizing the isolation of the craft on the ocean – except that it’s not as isolated as anyone might prefer given that the two barrels indicate the presence of the shark.
In one of the most well-known scenes in the film, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss compete with each other over the respective scars and battle wounds they’ve acquired during years of ocean-going adventures. The conversation takes place inside the confines of the cabin, but Roy Scheider’s character is very much excluded. This is already clear because we know that he hates the water. It’s also shown visually as he stands apart, despite the narrow confines of the space:
During the course of the scene, Scheider gradually becomes comfortable enough to join the other two at the table, visually reinforcing that they’re all working together in pursuit of the shark:
The culmination of these strategies come in the final minutes as the shark attacks the boat, methodically demolishing each of the separate zones in turn, eventually leaving only Scheider, who retreats to the last space available to him:
Here, finally, the isolation of one man against the sea, working from the last “safe” place, is clearly delineated by the photography, which provides a neat pay-off of the strategies the director has been utilizing for the second half of the film.
And here’s where my problem with Spielberg emerges. This film works brilliantly. It’s engaging, exciting, scary – everything he wants it to be. He plays the audience like a fiddle. But what’s the point? The point here is to be scary. And there’s nothing wrong with that. He succeeds. But has his later career in any way lived up to the promise of his own technical mastery? I have to say no. His post-1982 films have ranged from treacle (Always, The Terminal) to laziness (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Lost World: Jurassic Park) to both (Hook, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull). His attempts to reach for significance have generally faltered on his own authority (think of the “Cadillac of the Skies” scene in Empire of the Sun, the overly showy performances of The Color Purple, the misplaced narrative focus of Schindler’s List, or the smug portentousness of Saving Private Ryan). Even worse are recent efforts such as War Horse or The Adventures of Tintin, which alternate between perfunctory and insufferable. Lincoln is his best film in years, but that’s largely because he stays out of the way of a solid script and a powerhouse lead performance.
Making a film is not an easy thing, and early on Spielberg showed that he had a natural talent for it. He knows how to manipulate an audience. Jaws demonstrated his skills. And what’s he done with that? Despite making a lot of money, not nearly what he could have. And that’s my problem with him.