Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Steven Spielberg

Arguably the most important figure to emerge from the creative ferment of Hollywood cinema in the 1970s, Steven Spielberg has changed the way movies are made and about what they are made. He is perhaps the Western world's most famous living filmmaker; three movies he directed ("E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" 1981; "Jurassic Park" 1993; "Jaws" 1975) are among the top ten highest grossing films of all time.

His former production company, Amblin Entertainment, was also responsible for such hits as "Gremlins" (1984), "Back to the Future" (1985) and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988). Spielberg has succeeded in combining the intimacy of a personal vision with the epic requirements of the modern commercial blockbuster, but his astonishing success invalidated his acceptance as an artist for many years. Marketplace issues aside, Spielberg certainly travels in august creative company: like Orson Welles, he has been celebrated and penalized for precocity; like Alfred Hitchcock, he has been alternately praised and damned as a master of emotional manipulation; and like Frank Capra, he has been criticized for shameless sentimentality. Spielberg's most important spiritual predecessor, however, is Walt Disney, another creative individual who made himself into a brand name while attending to the serious business of making "frivolous" entertainments.

Several Spielberg films have become landmarks in the development of special effects, both in their visual and aural aspects. This filmmaker, however, is no technocrat nor does he display a serious intellectual interest in science fiction. Spielberg utilizes elements of sci-fi and fantasy but tends to eschew heavy ideas in favor of sublime feelings, such as childlike awe and trust. Indeed, his work has decisively influenced the emphasis in late 20th Century sci-fi filmmaking on the sensibility of youth and they succeed in spite of blatant sentimentality through the director's masterful use of emotionally potent visual imagery. If nothing else, Spielberg possesses an uncanny knack for eliciting and manipulating audience response.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Spielberg did not attend a major university film program. Largely self-taught, at age 16, he fashioned his first film "Firelight", a two-hour science fiction movie, that a local movie house in Phoenix, AZ, consented to run for one evening. His short film, "Amblin'" (1969) impressed executives at the television unit of Universal Studios and Spielberg was hired, making his debut directing the formidable Joan Crawford in the TV-movie pilot for Rod Serling's "Night Gallery" (NBC, 1969). He went on to hone his craft helming episodes of such weekly series as "Columbo" and "Marcus Welby, M.D." as well as three TV-movies. One telefilm, "Duel" (ABC, 1972), about a salesman (Dennis Weaver) pursued by a giant diesel truck whose driver is never seen, was released theatrically in Europe, where it enjoyed both critical and commercial success.

Spielberg's first theatrical film, "The Sugarland Express" (1974) was based on the true story of a lumpen Texas woman and her escaped convict husband fighting to regain custody of their baby. The film anticipates the emphasis on family in Spielberg's subsequent work; his choreographed car chases and deft handling of suspense and comedy marked him as a director to watch. Poorly marketed, this entertaining and poignant feature failed at the box office. Spielberg's second, "Jaws", however, helped usher in the modern age of movie blockbusters. This troubled production--a neophyte director and a disgruntled crew with a malfunctioning automated shark--emerged as a classic adventure yarn that propelled Spielberg to the A-list of Hollywood directors.

His transcendent follow-up, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), revealed the first flowering of his cinematic interest in the world of childhood, an affinity shared with the late Francois Truffaut, who played the head scientist in the film. Though initially terrifying, the alien creatures in this revisionist work resemble strange and wondrous children, presenting a more benign representation than the monstrous conquerors of 50s sci-fi films. These beings offer the promise of life beyond the restrictions of middle-class conventions. When Richard Dreyfuss boards the mother ship for unknown adventures, it is the film's final grandiloquent embrace of the possible.

Riding high after two back-to-back blockbusters, Spielberg attempted a colossal big-budget comedy. "1941" (1979) was a loud, sprawling and wildly uneven film about paranoia in a small California town after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Though it ultimately turned a profit, the film was perceived as a huge and indulgent flop. Spielberg next chose to work under the watchful eye of a tough producer, George Lucas, and fashioned what would turn out to be one of his signature films, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). The movie introduced the world to Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford), the celebrated archeologist and intrepid adventurer that became the most popular screen hero since James Bond and spawned two sequels. During the production, Spielberg was so wearied by the rigors of location shooting that he would relax by concocting a story for a little personal film to feature a couple of kids and a lost alien. This set the stage for "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial"--the work for which Spielberg may well be best remembered. An instant classic, this emotionally overwhelming film transformed its maker's career.

In most Spielberg films, anything that threatens the family and its routine existence is evil. In "Jaws", the normally safe harbor of a public beach is threatened by a great white shark. The heroes of "The Sugarland Express" and the Indiana Jones trilogy are transported from normal life to a world of exciting adventure though, in the former, the consequences are tragic. As a young filmmaker, Spielberg seemed to prefer the child's world of harmless adventure (c.f., "E.T.") to the violence and hardships of the real world. Significantly, Spielberg presented WWII through the eyes of a youthful protagonist in "Empire of the Sun" (1987), a transitional work, and he oversaw an Oedipal fantasy as the producer of "Back to the Future", in which a son remakes his parents from nerds into successful yuppies.

The Lucas collaborations—"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984), in particular—have aspects that some find embarrassingly racist, imperialist, and misogynistic. Even his affecting adaptation of Alice Walker's novel "The Color Purple" (1985), although dealing with racism, wife-beating and lesbianism, recreates the air of an old-fashioned Disney film. That Spielberg co-produced and co-wrote "Poltergeist" (1982) and took over directing the film when Tobe Hooper was incapacitated is significant, for it presents the dark underside of suburbia that is only hinted at in his own films.

There was a marked shift in Spielberg's artistic and commercial concerns beginning in the mid-80s, as he began devoting more time to producing. With the notable exception of the continuing Indiana Jones franchise, the projects he chose to direct were departures from his usual material. After "The Color Purple" and "Empire of the Sun", he directed Always" (1989), his first romantic feature in which he also dealt with issues of emotional commitment, loss, and mortality. Even "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989) broke new ground, shifting the locale to Europe and the emphasis to Jones' family dynamics. While the action sequences were largely uninspired, the spiky father-son banter between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery was the film's highlight.

Through Amblin, Spielberg continued to oversee the production of a series of popular escapist fantasies, animated features and conventional genre films into the 90s. He even diversified into TV with the fantasy anthology series, "Amazing Stories" (NBC, 1985-87), which he executive produced and provided with many of its stories. Though lavishly produced and often dealing with Spielberg's characteristic themes, too many of the episodes were slight and unsatisfying, although at least one, "Family Dog," an animated outing with director Tim Burton, was spun off into its own 1993 series . He achieved far greater success with such children's animated series as "Tiny Toon Adventures" (syndicated, 1990-95) which attempted to resurrect the style and sensibility of classic Warner Brothers animation, the knowingly retro "Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs" (Fox, 1993-95; The WB, 1995-1998 ) and its spin-off "Steven Spielberg Presents Pinky and the Brain" (The WB, 1995-1998); along with "Freakazoid" (1995-1997) and the short-lived "Toonsylvania" (1998). Spielberg's involvement with high-quality retro animation stemmed back to his stint producing the 1988 film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" which pioneered effects techonology that allowed live action characters to interact with animated creations.

On the big screen, "Hook" (1991) was Spielberg's long-awaited return to fantasy material. A lavish yet quirky update of the Peter Pan story, the film displayed its maker's increased concern with the responsibilities of parenting, the therapeutic aspects of regression and preparing for death. Budgeted at over $60 million, the film garnered mixed reviews and decently impressive box office but--due to an unprecedented deal brokered by Creative Artists Agency wherein Spielberg and his stars, Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, and Julia Roberts split a huge cut of worldwide revenues up front--failed to make much money for its studio.

The Spielberg of the 90s again made directing a top priority, lending his name to various Amblin products while leaving producing chores to others. "Jurassic Park", a $70 million adaptation of Michael Crichton's dinosaur disaster novel, represented a return to the kind of muscular adventure that served Spielberg so well in the past. The film was a special effects breakthrough and boasted awesome action sequences though the characters were unusually shallow. Intriguingly, Spielberg did relatively little publicity for one of the most aggressively marketed films in history. He had juggled post-production work on "Jurassic Park" in Paris--with George Lucas reportedly lending a hand stateside--with filming his long-awaited WWII Holocaust drama, "Schindler's List" (1993) in Poland.

Filmed in black-and-white, without big stars and few slick stylistics, this bleak version of Thomas Keneally's Booker Prize-winning novel (based on a true story) marked a dramatic change-of-pace for this purveyor of warm WASP visions. For once, he went against his instincts and made an impressively restrained, documentarian drama of Jewish suffering that built to a shattering yet life-affirming conclusion. The resulting film earned Spielberg the most respectful notices of his career. Spielberg was now widely hailed as one of the masters of world cinema. (That the film, which earned seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, also grossed over $100 million domestically didn't hurt either.)

As an encore, he returned to familiar ground with the inevitable sequel "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" (1997) which merely rehashed the story of the far superior original. Spielberg then tackled the tricky historical drama "Amistad" (also 1997), based on a true story of a mutiny on a slave ship that spawned a legal battle in the USA. Meticulously staged, the film was noted for its depiction of the Middle Passage, a harrowing portrayal of the conditions of slavery. The following year, Spielberg returned to WWII for one of his most acclaimed films, "Saving Private Ryan". A nearly three-hour fictionalized look at a unit sent to locate the sole survivor of four brothers serving in the military. the film earned praise for its no-holds-barred depiction of the battlefield, although the characters bordered on cliche. Critics anointed the picture one of the year's best on its release in July and it subsequently earned over $200 million at the box office and received 11 Academy Award nominations. Although favored to take home the Best Picture award, it didn't, but Spielberg was crowned with a Best Director statue.

In the fall of 1994, Spielberg, recording mogul David Geffen and former Disney production head Jeffrey Katzenberg formed a new multimedia entertainment company, christened DreamWorks SKG, which would produce live-action and animated features, TV programs, recordings and interactive computer software in a relatively cost efficient manner. According to Spielberg, DreamWorks would grant its filmmakers "moral rights" to protect the original versions of their films after release. The studio also decided to give its animators and screenwriters contracts that guarantee them a share of a given film's success in defiance of the standard creative bookkeeping for the industry. Spielberg was to oversee the design of the studio's planned physical plant, laid out like a college campus on the old Howard Hughes aircraft site near the wetlands of Playa Vista, California--however, after much back-and-forth the Playa Vista plan was scrapped and DreamWorks ended up being housed on the Universal lot, co-existing with Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment facilities. The game plan was that Spielberg would oversee the production of live-action features, Katzenberg would direct the state-of-the-art animation division, and Geffen would head SKG's independent recording label.

The fledgling studio's first small screen efforts met with limited success; only the Michael J Fox vehicle "Spin City" (ABC, 1996- ) was a hit. Other efforts like "Champs" (ABC, 1996), a male-bonding comedy, and the overly-familiar police drama "High Incident" (ABC, 1996-97) came and went quickly. Even DreamWorks' first major feature "The Peacemaker" (1997), a nuclear war thriller, enjoyed only a modest box office, but the studio eventually came into its own with hits such as "Saving Private Ryan," "Shrek," "The Ring," "Gladiator," "Galaxy Quest," "American Beauty," "A Beautiful Mind," "Meet the Parents" and "Minority Report," which company produced and/or co-produced with other studios.

Spielberg was also not without success on television, being one of the executive producer of the long-running smash hit medical drama "ER" (1994- ) created by Chrichton, and the hugely-rated Sci-Fi channel miniseries "Taken" (2002) and the similarly popular Western-oriented TNT mini "Into the West" (2005). His most impressive accomplishment on the small screen was the HBO mini-series "Band of Brothers" (2001), based on historian Stephen Ambrose's book about Easy Company, the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army. Spielberg produced the powerful 10-episode series with Tom Hanks, and "band of Brothers" earned a multitude of Emmys along with critical and popular acclaim.

But moviemaking with himself behind the camera remained the director's primary passion, and he continued to explore the boundaries of his talents within a commercial context. Although he was unable to fully integrate his own crowd-pleasing filmmaking sensibilities with the more bleak and philosophical viewpoint of one of his idol, director Stanley Kubrick, when he elected to make "A.I. Artificial Intellegence" (2001), a Pinocchio-like sci-fi fable Kubrick had mused over for over a decade, the film was a noble failure, with several arresting moments, eye-popping visuals and fine performances from Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law. But Spielberg returned to top blockbuster form when he adapted Phillip K. Dick's sci-fi novella "Minority Report" (2002) and tapped Tom Cruise, one of the biggest movie stars on the planet at the time, to star. A fast-paced, intense and compelling thriller, "Minority Report" was Spielberg's leanest and meanest film in years, despite its abundant sci-fi trappings, and showed that the director still stood head-and-shoulders above the new wave of video-game style directors of similar action-adventure fare. The director followed that artistic and commercial triumph with yet another impressive achievement that same year, helming "Catch Me If You Can," the true-life story of con man Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), the youngest person ever to make the FBI's Most Wanted list. Not only did Spielberg flawlessly recreate-on both a realistic and nostalgic level-the 1960s setting and coax DiCaprio's most charming and mature performance to date, he cannily cast his close collaborator Hanks against type as the downtrodden, schleppy FBI agent who doggedly pursues the con artist.

The director re-teamed with Hanks a third time for a seemingly unlikely project, "The Terminal" (2004), in which Hanks plays an Eastern European immigrant who, due to a political regime change and passport snafu, is forced to reside in a New York City airport terminal until his documentation glitch is resolved. Although the film had its share of wonderful moments, overall it was one of the director's more artificial-feeling efforts. Much more effective was Spielberg's riveting remake of the H.G. Wells sci-fi classic "War of the Worlds" (2005), adding a contemporary spin on the familiar tale while also culling inspiration from some of the best elements of earlier incarnations, including Wells' novel, Orson Welles' radio broadcast and the 1950s film version, bouyed by a spectacular array of special effects. The director re-teamed with Tom Cruise, casting the actor as a working class deadbeat dad who must step up and protect his two children during a horrific alien invasion (The film was nearly overwhelmed by the controversial morass of publicity that surrounded the seemingly erratic behavior of Cruise in the weeks prior to the release).

By year's end, Spielberg, who had begun favoring a fast-paced production schedule for his projects, launched into his long-gestating project "Munich" (2005), a tense chronicle of the clandestine team charged with seeking retribution against the terrorists responsible for the slaying of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The director collaborated closely with two of the film's primary screenwriters, Eric Roth and, later, Tony Kushner in the hopes of crafting a script and story that would offer a balanced look at the politically charged events that were certain to polarize special interest groups on either side of the issue (particularly Israeli, Mossad and Palestinian leaders), and with a cast that included Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Geoffrey Rush and a host of emerging unknown talents, Spielberg assembled a three-hour epic that, despite external criticisms over its politics and psychology, stood as one of the director's masterworks, utilizing all of his talents as a cinematic storyteller to dizzying effect. Although Spielberg tred carefully in the media to avoid any messy backlash, the film was unquestionably an artistic triumph. He was honored with several award nominations, including an Academy Award for Best Director. Meanwhile, as the year closed, the director reached the end of his run with another pet project with the sale of DreamWorks to Paramount Pictures, having failed to fully flower as a full-fledged movie studio.

Spielberg's success has allowed him to pursue numerous philanthropic and cultural pursuits. He refused to accept any earnings from "Schindler's List"--calling it "blood money"--and channeled those millions into the Righteous Persons Foundation, which has granted money to a range of projects that impact on modern Jewish life. He also served as chairman for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, an ambitious project devoted to filming interviews with Holocaust survivors. Back in the entertainment world, Spielberg lent his name and clout to several organizations devoted to film preservation and artists' rights. In addition, the director also made a habit of buying back Oscars that were put on the auction block by the heirs of now-deceased recipients such as Clark Gable, and returning the trophies to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, free of charge. The once awkward outsider has become the ultimate insider, generally considered as one of the most powerful individuals in Hollywood.


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