Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Spielberg Blogathon: Day 11 (The Final Day)

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): A Film by Steven Spielberg

by Carson Lund

Frankly, A.I. possesses qualities of the termite and the elephant: on the one hand, there is the haphazard, messy presentation in service of a scatterbrained script that bursts with potentially intriguing ideas and on the other, there is the superficial slickness, the empty-headed spectacle, and the ultimately watered-down substance. The tension makes for an experience that is profoundly aggravating during the fact and somewhat of a growing curiosity after. The aggravation met its pinnacle for me in the much-discussed "double ending" of the film, in which Spielberg almost concludes with a succinct and affecting summation of the film's thematic preoccupations only to burst into an outrageously didactic and less satisfying coda. One of the most revelatory images in all of Spielberg's career is that of David in his sunken futuristic cargo staring straight ahead at a glowing blue fairy while trapped inside a Coney Island Ferris wheel. Not only is it visually thrilling but it also presents a rather penetrating and accurate insight into the state of the human race: we are constantly looking ahead to our goals, believing in the unreachable, and even if we are trapped in a fundamental way, unable to fully enlighten ourselves, it doesn't make the experience of searching any less fulfilling. Never mind Spielberg's irksome tendency to dilute the simple power of his images in this scene (David's stuffed bear sidekick's reiteration of "we're trapped") and in the scene directly prior (William Hurt's spelling out of this very philosophy) - this is thoughtful filmmaking at a blockbuster level.

Escapism as Art: Steven Spielberg's Duel

by Eric Kohn

My growing awareness of Spielberg’s mainstream qualities engendered a short-lived disdain for his work, the feeling that he had exchanged talent for showmanship, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Actually, if it took sheer cinematic skill to make the modern Hollywood blockbuster click, Spielberg was the man to do it—an artist-as-movie-brat with strong awareness of the medium’s power over the spectator. But it must be said, for better or worse, that “Duel” displays a sign of things to come. It perfectly lays out the commercial potential of speed (See: “Speed,” of course, and more recently “Unstoppable”) and captures the profound craft behind escapist entertainment—in the right hands, anyway.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

by Ratnakar Sadasyula

In sharp contrast to other alien movies, which generally depicted them as nasty, scheming monsters, Spielberg actually breaks ground here by showing them as friendly and of course he takes it further in E.T. by showing the bonding between an alien and a young boy. Actually in a way the fascination for UFO’s and aliens, is a reflection of average American paranoia. During the cold war it was of course those Russians. So this constant fear of the other, could be Russians/Germans/Japs, some how explains the plethora of literature and movies dealing with aliens attacking planet Earth. Of course the extreme manifestation of this paranoia could be seen in movies like Independence Day. James Cameron again attempted a similar theme of human-alien bonding, in The Abyss, but there it went a bit deeper, with the aliens warning Earth of destruction, if the arms race was not stopped.

Something Evil vs. Duel

by Simon Abrams

If you compare
Something Evil, an obscure, made-for-tv Rosemary's Baby knockoff Steven Spielberg directed in 1972, with Duel, his more well-known 1971 TV movie about a man menaced by a killer truck, you'll see how far the artist regressed over the course of a year. While it's easy to blame writer Robert Clouse's weak screenplay for Something Evil's shortcomings, Richard Matheson's script for Duel could have just as easily automatically sank the project beneath the pretension of it macho premise. The key difference between the two films is their subject matter: Something Evil is about a mother's fears of losing influence over her children while Duel is essentially about gay panic inspired by a traumatic car accident (or at least, the film's comparatively more interesting first half is). Though I readily admit that I could be making something out of nothing here, the fact remains: Spielberg has never successfully made a movie centered around a woman's world. The absent father figure is a staple of his cinema because his movies are typically about men struggling to regain their agency. No dad means no manly influence, which means a lot more in Spielberg's world than you might suspect at first glance.

Loving and Hating My Idol

by Fei Meng

Unlike most or all of the other contributors to this blogathon, I identify myself as a filmmaker. No, I'm not a professional yet, but having gone through film school and directed a number of shorts myself, I can at least offer the perspective of a filmmaker. The hardcore technical aspects of the craft are irrelevant to the discussion; what I wish to relate is what I think about Spielberg as a fellow artist of cinema and what he means to me in that context. For me, loving and hating Spielberg is not so much about the movies themselves as it is about about what he represents as an artist.

Memories of Jurassic Park

by Rob Humanick

What I realized, with so much hindsight, was that the reason Jurassic Park disturbed me at that age - raw and easily overloaded with the emotions, sometimes disturbing, on the screen - was that this was a film that took death seriously. Unlike most of the flimsy monster movies I'd seen up until that time -- in which a cop snatched from traffic by the hungry jaws of a monster was just a throwaway figure -- this was the work of someone who considered the spirit and flesh and blood of everyone involved, even the cowardly lawyer and pudgy, greedy hacker. He was too wise and experienced even at that point in his career to not be aware of a certain inherent silliness in the material, and yet this awareness grounds it, by relocating the narrative pull away from the physical action (which is beautiful as well) to the universal human impulses (life finds a way). It's this core of humanity that appeals to me so strongly in all of Spielberg's films, and yet he's not one without his darker sides. If Jurassic Park (and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, among others) tells us anything, it's that Steven likes to kill people. And do I ever love him for it.

Sad that it's ending today... but all good things must end. Many thanks to all those who contributed to the blogathon, advertised it, and read the pieces during what is the busiest time of the year for all of us, no less. We couldn't have done it without you.

Happy New Year, everyone. Much love.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Spielberg Blogathon: Day 10

E.T. The Sacred Cow

by Andreas

All of this is not to say that I find E.T. totally worthless. I just don’t think it deserves the enthusiastic critical accolades it’s received since its release, setting it up as this unassailable masterpiece. For me, it’s symptomatic of Spielberg’s worst and best qualities. In terms of the former, it’s ultra-commercial (and with one rerelease after another, the E.T. profits never stop flowing), preachy, and about as subtle as a hammer to the face, painting with the very broadest of strokes.

Encountering Spielberg: A Steven Spielberg Profile (Part 5)

by Trevor Hogg

Venturing into the realm of science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick, Steven Spielberg produced a cinematic adaptation of Minority Report (2002). In the near future, mutated psychics known as “precogs” are used by law enforcement agencies to predict and prevent crimes. “What first attracted me was that there are two alternative belief systems to this whole Phillip K. Dick idea,” explained the filmmaker. “The one belief system is self-determinism; you are in charge of your destiny. Every move you make is your move and you’re in control of your own life and you can determine the outcome. And the other school of thought is that we are following a map to our destinies that were written by a higher power and we’re just following a script that somebody else wrote. So if Tom Cruise’s character has been fingered to kill somebody, can he change his destiny?”

The Spielberg Ending

by Sean Weitner

So let's really consider those endings, starting with Spielberg's last Oscar at-bat. This isn't about being a fanboy — I've struggled with Spielberg in these pages for a long time — but about trying to take the long view of film history, in which all of this player-hating will seem short-sighted and viewers will acknowledge the director's efforts to take his huge audiences somewhere unexpected as the kind of artistic ambitiousness rarely seen at the multiplex.


by Ilias Dimopoulos

It’s in the tone of Mr. Spielberg’s direction that things begin to radiate the constantly evolving character of the actual director (and writer - for only the second time since Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind…) of the film. “Overcoming” the coldness of the clearly Kubrickean first act, Spielberg indulges gradually to some of his most unforgettable magnum opus moviemaking, building monumental sets, moving his camera in an energetic frenzy of talent and ideas. Supposedly, in the last “to Jupiter and beyond” act, this is well suited. Yet I ‘m not sure how Kubrick would enjoy the second act extravaganza. Which brings me to the first crucial question: Should we in any case bother with “how would Kubrick have done it?” The answer is an emphatic no. Regardless of Mr. Spielberg’s declared homage intention, after all is said and done, A.I should definitely reflect his own intentions.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Spielberg Blogathon: Day 9

Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal or Before the Age of Spielberg

by Greg Ferrara

Steven Spielberg doesn't take part in the documentary (but is thanked in the closing credits) although I'm sure if the same doc were put together now he'd be front and center. Two of Pal's biggest works in the fifties have either already been remade by Spielberg (War of the Worlds) or will be soon (When Worlds Collide). And while it doesn't bother me that Spielberg has made, or will make, these movies, I do wish there was more of an appreciation these days for the work of Pal, a filmmaker who clearly influenced Spielberg in many ways.

War of the Worlds

by Ilias Dimopoulos

Then war breaks out. The father now has to earn his parental credentials. What is of unique interest is what these credentials are according to the director. Mr. Spielberg masterfully builds the atmosphere of terror, an environment where post 9/11 shock and awe is “returned to sender”. American audiences must have felt quite uncomfortable watching such a vivid depiction of innocents being evaporated and (in one of the unforgettable images of the film) an army of homeless people walking aimlessly to nowhere. No, this can’t be mindless summer entertainment; this is an austere political statement coming from the pope of Hollywoodland.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Spielberg Blogathon: Day 8 (Christmas Day Edition!)

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): Look Again

by Adam Gentry

See, the ending is anything but a happy one. It is impossible to recreate all that an individual human being is from a single strand of DNA, even in the fantastical world of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Even if it were possible to recreate a person’s body (which is not entirely inconceivable), DNA isn’t truly what makes a person a unique individual. Memories created by a singular life experience are the things that define who someone is. If it were possible to reconstruct someone’s body, there would be no way to restore that person’s soul. The lights would be on, but the same person wouldn’t be home.

Encountering Steven Spielberg: A Steven Spielberg Profile (Part 4)

by Trevor Hogg

“Now that we’ve been educated in Hollywood’s version of how dinosaurs are created by man, it’s a tougher challenge to justify why these characters, who wouldn’t ever imagine returning to that nightmare alley, decide to go back,” remarked Steven Spielberg. “It’s not unlike William Holden being asked by Jack Hawkins, in The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957] after that horrendous ordeal of escaping from the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, to lead an elite commando group back in.” Jeff Goldblum reprises his role of Dr. Ian Malcolm, who upon learning that capitalist John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has persuaded the mathematician’s paleontologist sweetheart Dr. Sara Harding (Julianne Moore) to observe dinosaurs on a second island location, angrily responds, “You sent my girlfriend to the island alone? It’s not a research expedition, it’s a rescue mission!” With that remark, the story is immediately set in motion.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

by Allan Fish

We know with hindsight that announcing one’s plans is a sure-fire way to make the almighty laugh, and fate robbed us of the opportunity by Kubrick’s sudden and much-mourned passing. Spielberg was one of the coffin bearers at his funeral, and they had been close friends since the days when Spielberg watched Kubrick shoot The Shining while waiting to begin Raiders of the Lost Ark. When the notion came for him to take up the baton for his old mentor and friend, he could do no other. He even made the film not at his customary Universal but at Stanley’s home since 1971, Warner Bros. It would be the first time since Close Encounters that he would write the finalised script himself.

Happy Hanukkah to the Spielberg Family!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Spielberg Blogathon: Day 7

Making Contact: Spielberg's Close Encounters and E.T.

by Jim Emerson

Spielberg's (and "E.T." screenwriter Melissa Mathison's) characters use every conceivable means to make contact: gestures, symbols, telepathy, spoken language, written language (Elliott and Michael leave Mary a note to inform her of E.T.'s resurrection and their plan to get him back home). But perhaps the closest encounter of all is actual physical contact. As Michael gently strokes E.T.'s cheek in a farewell caress, the alien exhales a delicate, almost orgasmic sigh, full of sorrow, gratitude and yearning. In "E.T.," the act of touching often carries with it the miraculous power to heal. In the film's final scene, gesture, language and touch are fused: E.T.'s healing gesture (a glowing fingertip, applied to Elliott's wounded digit and to Michael's trick knife-in-the-head -- like the peanut, the latter is fake) becomes associated with Elliott's exclamation, "Ouch!" E.T. expresses his pain at having to leave Elliott by tapping his chest, motioning toward Elliott, and saying, "Ouch." Elliott repeats the movement and the word. Finally, E.T., echoing Elliott's earlier promises (as he left E.T. in his bedroom, and as they both lay dying), combines his healing gesture with the words, "I'll be right here." E.T. touches his own lips, and then, with that glowing fingertip, touches Elliott's forehead. Though lightyears of space and time may henceforth separate Elliott and E.T., each will continue to live in the other's mind, the other's dreams.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

by Ratnakar Sadasyula

He wears a hat, has a stubble. He dresses in soiled jacket, rough jeans and equally soiled shirt. His only weapon for protection is a whip and a small pistol. He is afraid of snakes and most of the time he keeps running in and out of trouble. Yes I think you got whom I am talking about, Indiana Jones, the hero of 3 Hollywood blockbusters directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and by far the best of all, the 1981 classic Raiders of the Lost Ark.


by Roderick Heath

I’ve expected myself to reevaluate Amistad over the years, to decide it’s preachy, stagy, and minor. Yes, seeing perpetual beach bum Matthew McConaughey in the film is actually more distracting now than it was at the time when he was still a fresh-minted star. Nonetheless, Amistad has instead consistently remained my personal favourite of all Spielberg’s dramatic films. Whilst it doesn’t conjure anything quite as startlingly staged as the Krakow and warfare scenes in its trilogy partners, it also doesn’t provide anything as excruciating as Schindler’s List’s more stilted dialogue exchanges, or Private Ryan’s flimsy present-day frame, and its attempts at providing a kind of Socratic dialogue within itself are the most integral and persuasive of his several attempts at such. I take enormous pleasure in every sequence, every performance, in the deeply, physically convincing recreation of the historical milieu and the care with which Janusz Kaminski filmed it. It is fitting that Amistad gave to cinema the career of Chiwetel Ejiofor, one of our finest contemporary actors, as well as the charismatic Djimon Hounsou. Every bit as rigorous in terms of intense physical detail and production polish as his other films, it is nonetheless the most beautiful, coherent, and classical of all Spielberg’s serious works. Amistad achieves the effortless blend of the near-mythic and the intimately conversational those old-school cinema heroes the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Dieterle, and Michael Curtiz could bring to such dramas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Spielberg Blogathon: Day 6

Saving Private Ryan (1998): What Is Happening?

by Adam Zanzie

I think Samuel Fuller is really the only filmmaker, out of all the filmmakers Rosenbaum mentioned in his review, who had a significant influence on Saving Private Ryan. Fuller and Spielberg were evidently good friends during Fuller’s lifetime (Spielberg had cast Fuller as the Interceptor Command officer in 1941), and, thus, Fuller’s influence is already present in a handful of Spielberg’s later films: Short Round in Temple of Doom, for example, was named after the kid from The Steel Helmet; and, in Minority Report, a violent scene from House of Bamboo is playing on television during the sequence in which Anderton’s eyes are taken out. Saving Private Ryan, thus, has a lot of scenes that reek of the influence of scenes from Fuller’s own war films. From The Steel Helmet, Spielberg recycles a scene in which GIs shoot in all directions at a sniper hiding in an elevated area, as well as a scene in which GIs contemplate executing an enemy POW. From The Big Red One, Spielberg recycles the device of a soldier who starts out a pacifist and ends up a cold-blooded killer by the end (Jeremy Davies’ Upham = Mark Hamill’s Griff). And you can tell that Spielberg probably watched the D-Day sequence in The Big Red One dozens of times before heading off to shoot the D-Day sequence for his own film.

The Great Schism: Spielberg As A Villain

by Elliot Gallion

The movies to which Steven Spielberg has as-of-late lent his name and capital, both creative and financial, are detrimental to the art form. I do not want another Transformers movie from EXECUTIVE PRODUCER STEVEN SPIELBERG. I do not wish to see a $250 million movie based on an idea that could have been pitched by a producer of daytime cartoons from EXECUTIVE PRODUCER STEVEN SPIELBERG. I do not wish to see another Indiana Jones movie. I do not wish to have my local multiplex polluted with the likes of a full-length feature film that consists entirely of digital motion capture. I do not wish to see movies with more people filtered through computers than people with organs in their bodies whose sadness and humor are actually alive. I do not care if “anything is possible”; the harvest at the end of the frontier has so far yielded little crop. I want to see movies about people living in the world. By my assessment, Steven Spielberg—either through his own work or by his support of others—has abandoned that basic precept.

Duel (1971)

by Chris Zafeiriadis

The film features a one and only central character, on the road for a business trip. He travels alone in an almost deserted highway, and during that trip, and without either wanting it or having sought it, he finds himself in a race of survival (“everybody runs”), face to face with a mammoth dirty truck. A giant road shark, who seems to be the ultimate-born baddy, terrifies and attacks his victim without obvious motivation. All right... the last bit was a bit too easy, so I take it back without wanting to push further the obvious reference to that other glorious movie.

The Color Purple (1985)

by Jake Cole

Alice Walker initially questioned the choice of Spielberg as director, a fair objection considering the entire point of the novel is that men (and specifically white men) run the world. Walker relented when she saw E.T. and considered the director's portrayal of the alien and the abuse it suffered as that of an ethnic minority. However, Spielberg's thematic concerns make him a surprisingly easy choice for the film: his own history of father issues translates well to a larger critique of masculinity, while his earnest, if naïve, sentimentality ensures that he tries his best to break down racial barriers.

Encountering Spielberg: A Steven Spielberg Profile (Part 3)

by Trevor Hogg

“I’ve always found that science speculation was about the preternatural,” observed Spielberg. “It is more or less what the name implies. It’s elements of nature that we know exist; we’re just not sure how they exist or how to measure their existence. But they’re things that we know are around us in everyday waking life. Science fiction, of course, is just boundless. It’s to the limits of one’s imagination. And so far it hasn’t been discovered where those limits reside.” Teaming with directors John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), Joe Dante (Gremlins), and George Miller (Babe), Steven Spielberg recreated two classic episodes and produced two original stories inspired by a classic Rod Serling television series for Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). The director was responsible for the second segment called Kick the Can where a group of seniors in a retirement home play the game of kick the can which transforms them back to their childhood selves. Production on the project was seriously marred when a fatal helicopter crash occurred during the filming of John Landis’ portion which led to the deaths of veteran performer Vic Morrow (The Bad News Bears) and two child actors.

Man vs. Machine

by Joel Bocko

A visual tribute to Duel.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Spielberg Blogathon: Day 5

Minority Report

by Ed Howard

The film's literalization of seeing the future is so potent because it's a metaphor or a model for the cinema, but even more poignantly it's compared to home movies. Anderton spends his days looking into the future, but his nights are spent immersed in the past, in home movie recordings of his young son, who disappeared and is presumed dead. We never say that we are seeing the past in the same way as we talk about seeing the future, but when we look at home movies or a photo album, we are in fact seeing the past, visually engaging with memories. When Anderton pulls up the footage of his son playing on the beach, selecting it from a larger collection like a connoisseur, he engages with it in much the same way as he does with the precogs' visions of the future: looping and rewinding, revisiting key passages as though hoping to extract some meaning, some tangible clue, from these images of his laughing, energetic son. It places Anderton's work in heartrending relief, as an effort to find the truth in these video images of the future, the truth that eludes and mystifies him when trying to make sense of the loss of his son through video records of the past.

Family in the Spielberg Canon

by Ilias Dimopoulos

Telling of contemporary reviewers’ inability to convert imagery and concept into words is the comparatively prevalent notion of Steven Spielberg as “the family man” of modern Hollywood. It’s one thing to be a gifted entertainer and a completely different one to be a conservative storyteller of children stories to childish adults. People tend to overlook the difference. It’s easier that way.

The Greatest Film I've Ever Seen

by Damian Arlyn

Although controversy has always surrounded Schindler's List, I myself wasn't aware of most of it upon its release. All I heard was praise for the film. This was probably just as well since my passionate love for the film would've blinded me to anything negative anyone would've said about it. As the years have gone on, and I've watched it numerous more times as well as familiarized myself with the various writings on it, I feel I am in a better position to understand and appreciate the problems that people have with it (David Mamet famously called it "emotional pornography"). I can acknowledge that Schindler's List is not a "perfect" film (if such a thing even exists), but as the great Pauline Kael (who, incidentally, did not care for the film) once said, "Great movies are rarely perfect movies." There may be legitimate criticisms of Schindler's List, but they are not significant enough to undermine the overall greatness of the finished product. If Schindler missteps occasionally it does so because it reaches higher than most other films dare to. I've long thought it's better to strive for greatness and "fail" than aim for mediocrity and succeed.

Spielberg's Kids

by Machelle Allman

One of my favorite year end lists is the MSN "Moments out of Time". I love to see if the moments in film that I’ve fixated upon make the list, plus there’s the added bonus of discovering new ones. So many films in their entirety are aggravating at worst and boring at best, but there’s almost always at least one or two moments that catch the breath, or tingle the spine, or jolt the gigglebox. When I think of Spielberg, I tend to think of those transcendent moments almost as disconnected from the surrounding film. This is not to say that his films do not hold up, on the contrary, Spielberg has a remarkable stamina for making whole artworks. However, he also has an ability to find the perfect moment and lock it down for posterity.

Let 'Em Burn

by Bill Ryan

Steven Spielberg first showed that he had a way with violence in 1975 with Jaws. The severed, sinking leg, the terrifying, almost surreal death of the Kintner boy, and the brutal end of Quint still have a strong impact today, but Spielberg rather quickly backed away from that (unless you count the deliberately pulpy fantasy violence of the first two Indiana Jones films, which I don't) and became known for many years as a filmmaker of grand family entertainment, whose occasional attempts to branch out into more mature films, for lack of a better term, were slapped away by critics and audiences (most unfairly in the case of Empire of the Sun). But in the 1990s, he suddenly became one of the most deft, unblinking and morally complex creators of violence on-screen. This is not the sort of thing that a filmmaker is generally given credit for, as such, but I'm nevertheless going to point out that Spielberg never gets credit for it. At best, his way with violence is ignored -- because it's too low a thing to be appreciated? -- and at worst he's badly misunderstood.