Harbingers of a bold, new tomorrow…

It’s been another hectic few weeks (issues at work, a public lecture, trying to get an article edited and just life generally), and I’ve been unable to finish any of the three posts I’ve been working on in fits and starts.  But just when I thought I might not have time to post again this week, my friend Matt Zurcher came to the rescue.  A couple of months ago the two of us recorded two of our conversations about recent films in podcasts we’re calling “What Price Podcasts.”  Because the editing took awhile (we’ve both been pretty busy), they’re a little less topical than we might have hoped, but I offer them here for your listening pleasure, with two minor notes.  First, I believe I mention Scott Sandage in one of these.  Just to clarify, Scott is a professor at Carnegie Mellon who teaches a class on Abraham Lincoln.  Secondly, while both of these must obviously be spectacular, I hear that the second is the MORE spectacular of the two if you’re only going to try one.  By the way, in the next couple of weeks you may have to brace yourselves for yet another media milestone since I believe the video recording of the lecture I gave on sound in film will be posted as well (and a link will certainly be forthcoming).  Regardless, here are the two podcasts, and feel free to let me know what you think:

What Price Podcast: Episode 1

What Price Podcast: Episode 2

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So let it be written! So let it be done!

It’s that time of year again, and I know we’ve all been looking forward to it.  Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments will receive it’s annual Passover/Easter airing this Saturday (3/30/13 at 7:00 p.m. on ABC)!  As I’ve repeatedly commented, it’s ridiculous that I get sucked into it, but I basically always do.  DeMille regularly managed to take something that really shouldn’t work and somehow make it compulsively watchable, and this is his final (and popularly best-remembered) example.  It got me thinking a little bit, however, about the interaction of film and religion.  Cecil ‘s formula was to emphasize “accuracy” and piety while looking for every opportunity to also play up the sex and violence.  That worked exceptionally well for him, but it isn’t particularly fair to whatever religious tradition ends up in his crosshairs.  But can a film ever be?  If film is an art form (which I believe it is) then it should be able to legitimately deal with anything.  Religion is such a delicate subject, however, that it’s repeatedly shown itself to be a minefield.

Let’s just examine the track record of films dealing with the beginnings of Christianity, shall we?  DeMille’s original King of Kings (1927) was castigated for even showing Christ (something the 1959 re-make of Ben-Hur assiduously avoided).  The Nicholas Ray 1961 version of King of Kings took flack for not only showing Jesus, but also having the temerity to show him, and his disciples, as men of approximately the right ages (rather than as imposing elders with long beards and attendant gravitas).  George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) became such a financial risk that it turned into a long game of “spot-the-star-cameo” (it tends to undermine credibility when you keep thinking things like, “Isn’t that Shelly Winters?!?  Oh, look it’s John Wayne!  And that Pat Boone really IS an angel!”).  Martin Scorsese tried to present a thoughtful and serious discussion of Christ’s mortal aspect in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – and was pilloried for it.  And I know a lot of people who can’t react civilly to the mere mention of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004).  Taken altogether, not such a great track record for film as a vehicle for religious expression, though it’s ironic that lots of people have no problem with a lot of unconventional religious ideas when they’re presented in an art gallery.

I don’t, of course, want anyone to think the issue is solely a problem for Christianity.  Judaism has the aforementioned The Ten Commandments, Hindus get Guide (1965) and Buddhists can watch Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring (2003) – but that’s about it.  And Islam has never quite figured out how to deal with the ban on portrayals of the Prophet, though some filmmakers have given it a shot in films like The Message (1977) and the more recent animated film Muhammad: The Last Prophet (2001).

When thinking about these titles, it’s clear that no film can ever satisfy everyone when it comes to religion, and that’s really o.k.  I appreciate the virtues and faults of everything I’ve just listed, but part of what they all should do is prompt a little bit of discussion about the actual ideas which lie behind any of them.  Is it really that awful for the disciples to be depicted as young men?  Do the star cameos detract from Max Von Sydow’s performance as Jesus?  Does DeMille go too far by including Dathan (a character, by the way, who actually appears in the Bible: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Numbers+16&version=NRSV).  Is Marty really out of bounds when he suggests that a wholly human Jesus might legitimately not want to die on the cross?  And all that Mel-Gibson-y violence really does have a theological point, doesn’t it?  And this is where these films make a difference.  They might inspire you (not for nothing am I named “Jeffrey”), and they might upset you, but either way, here’s hoping they get you to actually think about what’s being shown and how it’s being depicted.  If that prompts you to open up your Bible, Torah, Koran, Dhammapada or Bhagavad Gita, then they’ve served a useful purpose (and we should all be more familiar with all of those books than most of us are).

So, here’s hoping everyone enjoys The Ten Commandments tomorrow night (or any of the other films I just mentioned, at your earliest convenience), but when you’re done watching pull out the appropriate scriptures, do a little reading, and see how you think the filmmakers did.  Then see what happens from there.

What would Aesop make of it?

I know, I know, it’s been awhile.  It’s just that life sometimes gets in the way…  At any rate, I’ve watched a few films lately that congeal around an interesting theme, and I thought it might be worth mulling over in writing.  The story of the city mouse and the country mouse goes back at least to Aesop’s fables (maybe further), but in the Twentieth Century the story took an unexpected turn.  By the 1920’s, urban and suburban development started to cause a massive shift away from agrarian ideals and towards metropolitan life.  The struggle contained in that shift is plainly reflected in the narrative content of films throughout the world.

In America, the underrated Harold Lloyd is one of the great straddlers of the rural/urban divide, and no film demonstrates this more than Girl Shy (1924).  Lloyd stars as a shy country boy, so nervous when talking to women that he stutters uncontrollably.  Despite this handicap, he’s written a book about his lovemaking prowess, and travels into the city to visit a publisher.  On the way he encounters the rich (and very metropolitan) heiress Jobyna Ralston, and they fall into a state of complete, mutual infatuation.  After the usual plot pleasantries and amusements, Lloyd is forced to race from the country into town to rescue his beloved from marrying an oily big city bigamist – and the entire last half hour of the film encompasses Lloyd’s trip from the country to the city, during which he uses a variety of transportation types (car, streetcar, motorcycle, horsecart and horse) as he races to the rescue.  The chase not only physically exposes the transformation from rural to urban, but also manipulates the dichotomy between the pure, traditional rural values and the morally problematic pitfalls of city life.  The country boy saves the city girl, but there’s no question as to which locale is preferable.

A few years earlier Henry King explored the same split in his The Seventh Day (1922) wherein a yacht full of wealthy wastrels is forced into port in a rustic town where they’re exposed to quaint rural concepts like “work”, “church”, “sincerity” and (of course) “love”.  Once again virtue triumphs as humble fisherman Richard Barthlemess and his quaint, young sister triumph over the corruptions of the city, enabling improbable love matches with two of the city folk.

As urbanization accelerated, some filmmakers tried to straddle the line by setting their stories entirely in the country and having main characters problematically pine for the big city.  In both Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie (Henry King, 1952) and Beyond the Forest (King Vidor, 1949), discontented women desperately hope to escape small towns by traveling to the nearest metropolis – Chicago.  In each case, they’re willing to manipulate others and compromise themselves in pursuit of the glamour of city life, and in both instances they’re cosmically punished for their malcontented (and implicitly amoral) pining.

The theme emerges even in documentaries as diverse as Humphrey Jennings’ English Harvest – which thoroughly romanticizes country life, and which can be seen here:

Or Godard’s British Sounds, which implicitly criticizes modern work with a segment set in a contemporary auto factory for which the soundtrack is entirely composed of the noises of the shop floor (oh that Jean-Luc!).

Even more interesting to me, however, is the way in which the theme continued (in a perverted way) in a couple of other recent films I watched.  The otherwise execrable Green Card (Peter Weir, 1990) features Andie MacDowell trying to cheat her way into an apartment lease via a fake marriage, because the particular apartment includes an elaborate indoor greenhouse.  Her duplicity is especially ironic given that her life seems mainly to revolve around efforts to encourage the planting of gardens and green spaces throughout Manhattan, thus returning to city-dwellers some of the contentment and clarity previously attributed to country folk.

More amusingly, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (Eli Craig, 2010) inverts standard horror movie formulas while returning to a country/city theme.  Tucker and Dale are “hillbillies”, but they (and the farm-raised college girl who befriends them) are much more reasonable than the city-bred college kids who cause so much trouble by bringing their wanton ways to the country.

In narrative theory, the city/country theme is an example of a “masterplot” where a basic story (in this case over two thousand years old) recurs with minor variations.  Having watched all of these films over the last three weeks, it was striking to me how this particular plot has been manipulated over the course of the last hundred years, and what that clearly suggests about the massive changes in physical existence (and moral conceptions) mankind has experienced in that time frame.  Heaven only knows how it will change further over the next hundred years…

On pigeonholes

In my last post I ruminated on the importance of a filmmaker having someone around to question their worst creative impulses.  But what if those impulses are essential to getting the film made?  Once upon a time, studio output could be fairly accurately identified by what you saw on the screen.  At the most basic level, you could determine the studio based on the casting.  If you knew Great Garbo was the star, then you knew the film was made by MGM.  If it featured Deanna Durbin it came from Universal.  At a deeper level, elements of style were fostered by groups of craftsmen working together and developing a “house” approach to telling a story.  Production designer Cedric Gibbons, for example, imparted a distinctive look to MGM films for over thirty years, while Alfred Newman encouraged a continuity of musical approach at 20th Century Fox for twenty years.

Today, however, freelancing is the norm.  Most filmmakers have to put together financing in whatever way they can, and they don’t generally have the opportunity to work with the same people in the same place for an extended period.  This has all sorts of consequences on the eventual product, not the least of which is the self-indulgence of certain players who manage to acquire enough cultural capital to get their work produced.  That’s part of the issue I discussed last time.  The topic gets even more interesting, however, when you flip it on its head.

If I mention Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson or Oliver Stone, even casual filmgoers will immediately be able to pigeonhole those directors in distinctive ways.  Stone focuses on left-leaning political narratives.  Anderson makes quirky, intimate, comedy-dramas.  Tarantino loves violence, hyper-referentiality and “Tarantino dialogue”.  These tendencies are so extreme that we all understand the use of invented terms like “Wes Anderson-y” and “Tarantino-esque”.  That isn’t to suggest that someone in the Fifties couldn’t refer to something as “Ford-ian” or “a Deanna Durbin type vehicle”, but it strikes me how essential the adjectives now are to the production and promotion of particular films – and how limiting that can be.  The cults of personality that develop around these directors are predicated on them hewing to their particular identifying quirks.  Could Tarantino make a musical?  Can Stone make a film absent political content?  Can Anderson make a science-fiction movie?  The answer might be “yes” to all of the above, but will they ever really be able to find out?  Even given their success, each of them is beholden to a certain fan base with certain expectations, and the cost of breaking outside of their acknowledged pigeonholes might be felt in reduced budgets, critical backlash and an attendant loss of popularity.  Once the merry-go-round starts spinning, it’s awfully hard to get off.

Given that, however, it’s important to acknowledge someone who claims that he’s had enough, and who seems to be getting off the ride with conviction.  Steven Soderbergh’s reputed “last feature film” is out today.  He’s said for some time that he would stop when he turned fifty, and now he’s reached that point.  Unlike the filmmakers mentioned above, he’s never exactly established a particular niche (or attendant throng of rabid supporters).  Instead, he’s ambled along at his own pace, working on things which interested him and producing a lot of interesting work in the process.  Over the last 25 years he’s done “independent” (sex, lies and videotape) and “popular” (Erin Brockovich, Traffic and the Ocean’s series), but also been willing to experiment with casting (mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano in Haywire and porn star Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience), distribution (Bubble was essentially released simultaneously in theaters, on television and on dvd), a variety of genres (science fiction with Solaris, historical drama with The Good German, “art film” with Eros – we might even consider Magic Mike a musical) and otherwise unconventional narrative structures (the four hour, two part Che).  Not all of these films work, but Soderbergh has definitely not bent to anyone’s expectations, and the hits have enabled him to maintain enough freedom to experiment with the misses.  So, as he rides off into the sunset this week (at least as things stand now) I’m happy to tip my hat to someone who hasn’t managed to have his name or career adjectivized while still getting it done.  May all of our careers be as unpigeonholed.

The Long and the Short of It

Over the last several weeks I’ve repeatedly found myself having the same conversation, frequently revolving around Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  “It was alright.  I enjoyed it,” someone will say, “but why was it so long?”  I entirely agree that Django is about forty-five minutes longer than it should be, but what interests me is why the filmmakers made this apparent misjudgement.  For me, the excessive length places Tarantino in the company of directors such as Spike Lee and Oliver Stone.  In each case early work exhibited a sure hand and the possession of a valuable set of skills.  The progression of their careers, however, exposed filmmakers painfully unable to control their own creative excesses.  What is lacking in each instance is someone to say, “That’s a bad idea”.

Disagreements between studio heads, producers and directors go back at least to Erich Von Stroheim and his quarrels over both Foolish Wives (1922) and, more famously, Greed (1924).  Heedlessness of any budgetary restraint on the former got the director sacked from Universal Studios, and his eight-hour first cut of the second was  reduced by 75% for the eventual release version.  In the usual formulation, these two films helped to cement the primacy of penny-pinching producers over visionary directors for the remainder of Hollywood’s “classical” period.  According to this narrative, true creative freedom was only restored with the collapse of the studio system (in the mid-Sixties) when directors were released from the Promethean rock of studio oversight, and no longer had to operate under the eagle-eye (and liver removing claws) of pesky producers.

The problem, as always, is that it’s not that simple.  The dictates of money-men are frequently cited in discussions of post-production editing.  In the last week, in unrelated conversations, I’ve discussed such examples as Cromwell (1970) (shorn of at least 40 minutes of additional footage), The Abyss (1987) (which initially lost the entire original conclusion) and the Chinese film Warlords (2007) (shortened by 15 minutes for American audiences).  Sometimes, though, producers point in the other direction.  Michael Curtiz’s The Egyptian (1954) is about 25 minutes longer than it should be because Daryl Zanuck’s mistress was cast in a role that should have been drastically shortened.  Henry King’s The Country Doctor (1936) includes about ten story-stopping minutes of Jean Hersholt rolling around on the floor with the Dionne quintuplets, simply because they were a huge marketing draw.  Either way, the problem is not new, and opinions can vary about the pros and cons of length or brevity in either direction.

What seems to matter most, though, is the tension between the different sides of the director/producer, art/money equation.  If a powerful producer can productively butt heads with a strong director, the intersection of their opinions is where the “magic” happens.  In many of the Oscar-nominated films this year, however, that tension seems to be lacking.  Django is exhibit “A” in this argument.  Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to believes that the film should probably end at the conclusion of the crucial financial dealings between the characters of Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DeCaprio – but it doesn’t.  Instead, Quentin keeps on rolling through several extended sequences (maybe forty additional minutes of screen time) including the weakest scene of the film (in which the director has a central cameo).  My reservations about Tarantino are well-known, but I don’t mean to unduly single him out.  Lincoln has about three endings too many, and even something as relatively intimate as Silver Linings Playbook could easily be shorn of twenty minutes to tighten the pacing.  In each of these cases a strong director has managed to trump any objections by the force of his personality and reputation (or, more pointedly, by acting as his own producer).

Perhaps the ultimate poster-child for the tendency to filmic loquaciousness is Peter Jackson whose roughly four thousand endings to Return of the King demonstrate a director utterly unable to exercise narrative discipline.  I’ve not seen The Hobbit, but I’ve heard nothing about the plans to extend it to three films which mitigates this opinion.  The point is made even more succinctly by the fact that Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong (1933) runs nearly twice as long as the original (187 mins. vs. 100 mins.), while having a fraction of the overall effect.

My larger point here is the importance of having someone around who can argue against you.  In film-making, and in life generally, it’s important to have a contrarian close by.  That doesn’t mean that it’s always good to argue just for the sake of argument, and it certainly isn’t a suggestion that people should fight all the time.  But nothing is more damaging than always getting your own way, especially if there are sound and reasoned arguments against your position.  Some people never figure this out, and some people just can’t handle it (these are the people who always take disagreement as a personal attack).  Hollywood egos are famously touchy, and the way the system works now it’s harder to keep a devil’s advocate on the payroll, but just because Quentin, David and Stevie haven’t entirely figured out that it would be good for them doesn’t mean that it should stop the rest of us.  If we keep it in mind, we’ll do better work and profit by it.  Plus then we could all leave happy and save ourselves an extra forty-five minutes.

 

2012: Sorry About the Apocalypse

It’s been a busy end of the year, which involved not only the holidays, but a four-day whirlwind trip to New York to visit many too-little-seen friends (with apologies to those I missed).  At any rate, blog posting has fallen by the wayside, but the semester will be starting up again next week, so the schedule should be more regular.

Much as I dislike end-of-the-year lists, I was perusing my record of what I watched in 2012 and thought it might be entertaining (for me, anyway) to cite some of my more interesting viewing experiences.  I don’t want to generalize too much, but even my own records indicate how much actual film has almost disappeared from the life of the average viewer, and how many alternate venues there now are for examining cinema history.  The difficulty, of course, is that the attempt to cash in on all that new technology frequently leaves less familiar titles by the wayside, but those titles (paradoxically) can never be better-known if no one can see them.  It’s a chicken and egg problem, turning into a bit of a death spiral, but I think the following list indicates that anyone who’s interested can walk the tightrope successfully if they put forth an effort.

For the record, my first film last year was most of the surviving bits of Gregory La Cava’s charming Womanhandled (1925), starring Richard Dix and Esther Ralston, and available on DVD in the latest “Treasures from the American Film Archives” Collection.  The year ended with Flicker Alley’s very nice blu-ray of the always entertaining The Most Dangerous Game (1932).  In chronological order, the highlights in-between those bookends included:

1.)  The Shining Hour (Frank Borzage, 1938) – This model piece of studio product is available from the Warner Archive on a made-on-demand disc.  Starring Joan Crawford, Melvyn Douglas, Robert Young and Margaret Sullavan, I expected soap opera-ish piffle – which, to a point, it is.  The combination of talent behind and in front of the camera, however, made it much, much more, giving it a weight and polish which far exceeded its potential.

2.)  The Red Dance (Raoul Walsh, 1928) – Someone posted a crappy, illegal, bootleg copy of this to YouTube – but if they hadn’t none of us would ever see it without going to an archive.  Not a masterpiece, but a well-photographed, fairly ripping adventure film which I’m grateful to have had the chance to watch (no matter how dubious the circumstances).

3.)  Young Eagles (William Wellman, 1930) – I wanted to use this World War One aviation film in my dissertation, but I didn’t have the money to go to California just to watch it in the UCLA archives.  Fortunately Film Forum (in New York) was holding a William Wellman retrospective, and I managed to swing a trip.  Again, not a classic, but a worthwhile piece of work, immensely useful for my own research, which is absurdly difficult to see.  This was a nice 35mm print at one of the last (and most important) remaining repertory houses in the country.

4.)  The Girl I Loved (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1946) – Kinoshita is a major filmmaker whose work has essentially never been available outside Japan – until the good people at Criterion decided to post a huge chunk of his filmography on Huluplus, effectively moving him from the “famine” to the “feast” category.  This film had strong echoes of John Ford, and it may be the most emotionally wrenching piece of work I’ve seen in a number of years.

5.)  A House Divided (William Wyler, 1931) – An especially powerful performance by Walter Huston anchors this tale of a spineless son, a mail-order bride, and a really nasty father in a small fishing village.  Despite an Oscar-winning director and lead actor, though, don’t look for a legit copy.  This one is only available as a bootleg dvd.

6.)  Battle of Warsaw -1920 (Jerzy Hoffman, 2011) – I’m still not on the 3-D bandwagon (even as it loses speed), but this Polish film made some of the best use of the technology I’ve seen.  Of course, despite domestic success it didn’t get a wide release in the United States.  I was able to see it because it was screened as part of the CMU International Film Festival (in collaboration with Pitt’s Polish Film Festival).

7.)  They’re A Weird Mob (Michael Powell, 1966) – One of Michael Powell’s last films is the super-quirky little tale of the travails of an Italian immigrant to Australia.  I’d heard mixed things about it, but found it both fascinating and charming – after procuring a copy of the only legitimate stand-alone release from Australia.

8.)  The Loves of Pharoah (Ernst Lubitsch, 1922) –  The heroic work of piecing together this early 20’s Lubitsch film from multiple archival sources was matched by the bravado of releasing it on blu-ray.  It had to be ordered from the German distributor, and I’m not asserting that it’s a lost classic, but it’s another example of the possibilities of an international marketplace which has made lots of obscure titles exponentially easier to see (and it’s a perfectly entertaining historical drama).

9.)  Dynamite (Cecil B. DeMille, 1929) – I taped this when it was broadcast on television a number of years ago, and finally managed to watch it.  Like so many other DeMille films before 1935, it knocked my socks off with its sheer narrative audacity.  Describing the ridiculous convolutions of the plot would be a disservice, so you’ll just have to trust me – and keep an eye on the TCM schedule since that’s currently the only legitimate way to see it.

10.)  A Bell for Adano (Henry King, 1946) – I’d seen very little about this unexpectedly touching story of U.S. servicemen wrestling with the realities of reestablishing normal life in occupied Italy.  Part of the reason for that is probably that King’s elegaic (and sometimes quite pointed) film is only available on a dvd from Australia.

11.)  The Egyptian (Michael Curtiz, 1954) – Somewhere along the way I’d gotten it into my head that this film was supposed to be a crashing bore.  While it’s not a complete success (more about that in a future post), I was pleasantly surprised, not only by the stellar picture on this limited edition blu-ray from Twilight Time, but also by the degree to which I found the story and production engrossing.

12.) Cheyenne Autumn (John Ford, 1964) – This is far from Ford’s best film, but I bit at the chance to see this in a 70mm screening at Lincoln Center.  Though it’s nice to see it on a screen, the only available print is not in the best of shape and subtitled in Swedish.  And then one of the projectors broke…

As I said, this isn’t a list of  “favorites” so much as a catalogue of interesting or surprising film experiences.  I didn’t attend either of my usual film festivals this year because of dissertation work, and the films I saw during my annual trip to the Library of Congress weren’t especially revelatory.  Part of my point, though, is that the number of viewing options seems to increase constantly.  Of the above, 1, 2, 4, 8 and 11 (MOD discs, YouTube, HuluPlus and Blu-Ray) would have been technologically unavailable even five years ago.  7 and 10 (multi-region dvd playback) would have just barely been possible fifteen years ago.  3, 5, 6, 9 and 12 (screenings, television broadcast and bootlegs) have been with us for decades, but still involve paying close attention to theater, television and festival programs or you risk missing them.

As the Cheyenne Autumn screening indicated, the continuing transition to a digital world points us closer to the apocalypse for some kinds of viewing (especially actual film), but newer options spring up constantly and it’s important to take advantage of what’s out there.  It takes a little work (not to mention some careful scheduling and money), but the world hasn’t ended yet, so we still have time.

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.