On Stevie

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:

Jaws #3

And this:

Jaws #5

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:

Jaws #1

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.

Jaws #8

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:

Jaws #2

And here:

Jaws #4

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:

Jaws #9

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:

Jaws #6

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:

Jaws #7

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:

Jaws #10

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.

The Point of It All

I haven’t posted anything for a couple of weeks , first because of Thanksgiving, then because I was busy with some final dissertation stuff.  But now, thanks to strident protests and nasty glares from several people who apparently think I occasionally say something interesting (ahem, Leila and Molly), I figured I’d better not stay silent any longer.

Thanks to my end-of-class survey, I’m gratified to see that this experiment was apparently a success, with almost the entire class reporting that they read the blog on at least a semi-regular basis.  How that will translate going forward, I have no idea, but it doesn’t seem to have been a waste of time.  I’m not teaching next semester, so I intend to range more freely over a variety of topics, and I expect to add at least a couple of podcasts on different subjects in the near future.  For the moment, though, I’d just like to take a moment to reiterate the harangue with which I leave people on the last day of class.

There is no doubt in my mind that on seeing “Introduction to Film Studies” on the transcripts of their undergraduate students many parents slap their heads, cluck their tongues and roll their eyes.  Especially in an age where many traditional literature courses (and the Humanities in general) are greeted with similar derision, film remains a bastard stepchild, accorded little more respect than a course in astrology.  That is, in my view ridiculous, particularly in light of the following postulates:

1.)  In many ways, film is the most vital art form of the 20th century, and remains so in the 21st.  Film combines a multitude of arts including literature, drama, music and the visual and plastic arts, into a single whole.  It may also be understood and appreciated for most of those qualities across a multitude of cultures (though conditions of reception may promote alternate meanings in different contexts).

2.)  Film is our most important means of public rhetoric.  Most of us do not attend lectures, speeches or town hall meetings with our local politicians.  We don’t read the texts of regular addresses by national political figures, review the contents of bills passed in Congress or State legislatures, or carefully parse every word of Supreme Court decisions.  Most of us do, however, watch some part of the State of the Union, see sound bites offered by politicians on the local or network news, and watch documentary treatments of pressing national problems on shows like “60 Minutes”, “The Daily Show” or in films like Fahrenheit 9/11 or (more perniciously) in political advertisements which run non-stop in election years.

3.)  Film is our most important conveyor of history.  History should be the most interesting subject you ever learn.  Everything has a history, and the story part can and should make it automatically engaging.  Unfortunately, it’s frequently taught in ways that make students hate it.  But films aren’t (when they work) boring.  They get the story part. And they stick.  Appalling as Gladiator is in terms of historical accuracy, it’s much more likely to come to the mind of the average person than a chapter from Gibbon.  If the conversation turns to ancient Rome, more people will undoubtedly fall back on images from Ben-Hur or Spartacus than will be able to quote from the letters of Cicero.  And that passage into film history happens much more quickly than people think.  Current undergraduates already have very few significant memories from 9/11, and that’s only a dozen years ago.  Instead, their impressions are formed by the films and documentaries they see about the event.

4.)  Any film tells us something about the time and culture that produced it.  This is always true, whether we’re analyzing the Victorian helplessness of the Gish sisters in an early Griffith film, or just noticing the way people in the background are dressed in a forty year old commercial for Maxwell House coffee.  As documents, films tell us things about their times.  Any film, any time.

Given the truth of those postulates, we need to remember that:

1.)  What we watch is frequently a tiny subset of what’s available (let alone produced), and that makes no sense in a global community.  We have access to more films than anyone ever has, and they’re increasingly at out fingertips.  If we ignore that opportunity to instead focus on a tiny sliver of what’s available, we’re the worse for it.  Why restrict ourselves to what’s been made in America by mainstream studios in the last five years?  It makes no sense.  The world is ours to experience in ways that have never been available before and if we’re smart we want to use that access to learn about other cultures and other times.

2.)  Our responses to what we watch are conditioned and manipulated by the cultural standards which we’ve been taught, and we need to be aware of that.  Silent actors are not all “overacting”.  Special effects from the Fifties are not “bad”.  Epic films are not all “slow”.  We’re just not used to standards which aren’t our own.  Condemning something because we’re not used to it says a lot more about us as viewers than it does about what we’re viewing.  Why have those standards changed?  Why do we respond the way we do?  Does our belief in our “superior” standards have any basis in reality?  Or is it just too hard to think outside our own boxes?

3.) Filmmakers know that they’re trying to manipulate us, and we should reciprocate.  They may do it well or badly, but it’s silly not to remember that they’re always trying.  We cry when E.T leaves, or jump when the shark comes out of the water, because Spielberg is doing a number on us.  And he’s good at it.  The real question is why we’re susceptible, and what that says about us.  Just as importantly, what happens when those manipulations are used for more serious ends than making us jump?

4.)  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with just being entertained, but we shouldn’t really have to turn off our brains to do it.  If we’re intelligent people, we should want to keep thinking.  I’m not condemning those occasional moments where we just want to watch Big Bang Theory episodes (or car chases, or explosions) until our brains liquefy and run out of our ears.  But even those moments say something about ourselves, and we should be able to re-engage the moment something piques our interest.  The world is a wide and wonderful place, and if we turn our brains off too much we miss an awful lot.

As we move into a world where digital photography, distribution and exhibition replace actual film, nothing I’ve just said will change.  If anything, the postulates and conclusions I’ve just outlined will become even more important as we retreat further and further into the great digital cloud which is so in evidence as people walk from Point A to Point B looking at their phones instead of the world around them.  The rules and grammar of filmmaking will continue to be used, and we should know what they’re doing, how they work, and how they affect us on a daily basis.

So now if your parents roll their eyes, you don’t need to worry.  You’ll know what to tell them.  Just say it like you mean it, because I surely do.