July 27, 2011 Leave a comment
Well, here we are. Over twenty-thousand words and nearly a month later, and this odyssey through the films of Steven Spielberg has reached its conclusion. Writing these twenty-five entries certainly had its ups and downs. There were some pieces that just seemed to write themselves, while others felt like a struggle to find something interesting and new to say beyond, “Hey, I like this movie.” For that alone, it’s been quite a learning experience for me as a writer. So now that we’ve reached the end, it seems appropriate to look back and take stock of what I’ve learned.
For instance, I’ve learned that next time, pick a director who didn’t make twenty-five damn movies.
Okay, on a more serious note, thinking about and re-watching these films, the obvious theme that ties them together is family. I’m not going to spell it out film by film, but so many of Spielberg’s protagonists are motivated by their families, either their loss or their potential loss: Brody’s son being attacked compelling him to go after the shark; Elliot finding in E.T. an escape from his fatherless family; Celie reclaiming her sister via her letters; Indy and his dad (and son, for that matter). Time and again, there’s the idea that a family is worth fighting to keep together. And if you go outside the films he directed into his vast producer credits, you see this theme played out there as well, from Poltergeist all the way up to this year’s Super 8. Given that his parents divorced when he was in his teens, it makes sense that Spielberg would embrace the idea of keeping families together in even the most extraordinary of circumstances.
Speaking of extraordinary circumstances, there’s also what I like to call “the suburban adventurer.” Spielberg is adept at taking ordinary people and putting them in fantastic situations, be it battling sharks or chasing aliens or being stuck in an airport terminal. Very few of his films center around people you’d call particularly well-off. Only Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List have protagonists I’d call outright wealthy, and both Jim and Oskar are eventually stripped of their wealth. Most of the time, his characters are normal working class folks whose tidy little worlds are shaken up by circumstances beyond their control. It’s the dream of any kid who grew up in a suburb and wished for something to come along and break the monotony, although I’m sure the young Spielberg would have preferred E.T. over the aliens from War of the Worlds. Even the glaring exception to this, Indiana Jones, is a fairly boring college professor when he’s not bullwhipping his way around the world. No matter how fantastic things get, there’s always a foundation of normalcy beneath it. That makes it incredibly easy for the audience to identify with these characters; these aren’t perfect action heroes, they’re us.
But enough looking back, because this year Spielberg’s got two films for us to look forward to: War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn. Of the two, I’m less excited about Tintin, but that’s mostly due to being so excited for War Horse I can barely contain myself. The trailer for it just achingly beautiful, and the fact that its main character is a horse gives me hope that the film will be light on the dialog and heavy on Spielberg’s trademark visuals. As for Tintin, it’s Spielberg doing a swashbuckling adventure, and his first foray into animation (at least as a director), but I’m not a huge fan of the motion capture concept. It seems like an unsatisfying middle ground, so real it makes you wonder why they simply didn’t go live action, but so unreal you wonder why they didn’t just go with a heightened purely animated style, especially given its comic origins. But Spielberg has always been one to embrace new cinematic tech, and has the knack of knowing how to use it for more than just its own sake. Getting two new Spielberg films within a week of each other is going to be one hell of a Christmas present.
I tend to think of Steven Spielberg as “my” director. Not that I’m claiming exclusive ownership, but the peak of his hit-making coincided with the peak of my childhood and early adolescence. So many of my memories of me and my father involve Spielberg movies. I grew up as a person as he grew up as a filmmaker, and I’ll always feel some sort of connection to him. And he definitely knows how to push my buttons; he may be as manipulative as some say, but when he’s this good at it, I don’t care. No other filmmaker has made me feel more joy and excitement, nor made me shed more tears. Even his worst films contain moments that soar, so that even if loses his way from time to time, the promise he offers is more than worth the risk of the occasional disappointment.
Way back when I started this, I explained that the title “The Immortal Beard” referred to the similarities between Shakespeare and Spielberg in that they were the most popular storytellers of their day, both masters of their chosen artistic languages. To me, there’s as much poetry in the dolly zoom from Jaws as there is in “To be or not to be.” And while Spielberg may not form the core of English curricula across the country, neither was it Shakespeare’s intent to be the focus of academic study. Both sought to weave their tales for the masses huddled in the dark and waiting to be swept away. Our Globe today may not be as round, there may be a screen instead of a stage, and our groundlings may use cell phones, but our bard is no less immortal.