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The Peter Panning of Steven Spielberg - Part 1
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PosterThe "Panning of Steven Spielberg" ran as a two-part series in consecutive issues of Film Comment in 1992, part one in the May-June issue and part 2 in the July-August issue. I don’t see any reason to back off either the general premise – that an analysis of Hook reveals Spielberg’s central preoccupations in his films up to that point – or the individual analysis of movies. With one exception; I believe now I was far too harsh on E.T. Viewing it again recently, I found it much richer than on its first release. I believe you could extend the more general analysis, though, through to Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. Unfortunately, since then, Spielberg’s work has been strikingly banal, except for the fascinating A.I. Whatever hope that engendered, though, was quickly dashed by the crudely mechanical and cold Minority Report.

     The romance between Steven Spielberg and most of the country's film critics officially fell apart this past Christmas, affections irrevocably alienated by Hook. That was the only sour note in the film's release, since it went on to earn unimaginably large heaps of money. And it points to one of the anomalies of Spielberg's career. By far the single most powerful and influential filmmaker in Hollywood, he has always been considered artistically marginal, even by his fans (and certainly by his peers, who annually refuse to give him any awards). Critical praise for Spielberg tends to start out in purely cinematic terms, then leap the rails into more generalized pop-cult appreciation. Enthusiasm for the uplift of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the kinetic force of Raiders of the Lost Ark gives way to gingerly admissions that, in and of themselves, the films "didn't really amount to much." Spielberg's vaunted connection with the American temper, it is explained, was the source of his importance. Like those of Elvis and comic books, the director's champions always seek validation in the cultural marketplace.

     It's natural that Spielberg has been defined as much by his weakness as by his strength; what's striking is that rarely has a filmmaker so often had one confused with the other. Not only Spielberg's box-office preeminence but much of his critical reputation was solidified by a series of glib, manipulative thrill rides that slyly used the cover of "entertainment" to downgrade the expressive possibilities of the cinema. Spielberg dared anyone to bring intellect to bear on his work by launching preemptive strikes of easy irony, monumental sentimentalism, and stylistic virtuosity. Too often, however, even these minor virtues have been lacking, replaced by mere kitsch and panicky technique. Thus, so dubious a venture as Raiders of the Lost Ark, with its sideshow tricks and moral evasions, was hailed not just by hordes of cash-wielding ticket-buyers but also by susceptible commentators willing to substitute a self-serving nostalgia for a cooler regard of history, filmic and otherwise.

     How much more gratifying, then, that over the last five years, starting with Empire of the Sun, Spielberg has been embarked on a rapid, if largely unheeded, rise to artistic maturity, an ascension that reached its culmination in Hook. Here, for the first time, Spielberg pulled together the many different thematic strands, visual motifs, and character types that had been haphazardly scattered through his first 15 years of work, and patterned them into a rich, coherent whole. He came to terms with the nature of his material in a profound way and produced a work of astonishing beauty and eloquent resonance. With Hook, Spielberg establishes himself not just as a mere commercial force but as a major artistic personality and a legitimate aspirant to greatness.

     To fully recognize the achievement of Hook, one must go back over the whole of Spielberg's career, a trip made considerably easier simply by first recounting Hook's story. For in fragments, that story is the story of nearly every Spielberg film.

     At the center is Peter Banning, a grown-up in every superficial way – job, clothes, social position, paternity – but a man deeply unsure of his own manhood. His children are kidnapped in a mysterious, indeed almost telepathic fashion that befuddles Banning; nevertheless, at the insistence of his step-grandmother, partly for the sake of his wife, and with the help of a female fairy, he manages to fly after them into a strange, yet familiar, world. Once there, he discovers the evil figure, Captain Hook, who has seized the children, as well as the Captain's gang – burly, costumed pirates who possess the rough-and-tumble masculinity Peter so painfully lacks. Given the chance to rescue his kids, Banning fails, but vows to go off into the wilderness to prepare himself to fight.

     In the wilderness, Banning finds another gang, this one made up of anarchic children, the Lost Boys. The fairy Tinkerbell insists that Peter is actually Peter Pan, an ageless boy who could fly and who had great success fighting the pirates. While visiting a hollowed-out tree, the site of long-ago rendezvous, Peter suddenly remembers his past; and by confronting both his past and his present, he learns once more how to fly high above the landscape that has come to physicalize his own internal problems. Although his son is nearly seduced into a life of piracy by Captain Hook, Peter shows up in time to effect a rescue and flies back to a happier hearth and home and a more secure and emotionally open masculinity.

     The figure most consistently to be found throughout the Spielberg oeuvre is Peter, the boy/man, whose origins in the director's work stretch back as far as 1971's Duel. In that remarkable debut – a TV movie that was released theatrically in Europe – Dennis Weaver plays a businessman hitting the road the night after he disappointed his wife by refusing to challenge a friend to a fistfight over a perceived insult. Out on a desert highway, he somehow arouses the homicidal ire of a trucker, who – while remaining unseen to Weaver, and the audience, throughout the film – repeatedly tries to run him off the road. As the two duel across the sand blown asphalt, Weaver's increasingly frantic and teary office worker fails at a succession of male heroics: most notably, when he can't help a busload of school kids stranded along the highway (although the trucker can and does), and in another scene when he gets slapped around by some beefy coffee-stop patrons after he has provoked a fight.

     After Duel, the other Spielberg protagonists quickly fall into line: Clovis Poplin (William Atherton) of Sugarland Express is a convict henpecked into escaping from a minimum-security prison; en route to rescuing his baby son from unworthy adoptive parents, he soon has a caravan of police trailing along the road behind him. Amity police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), in Jaws, goes shark-hunting with the piratical Quint (Robert Shaw) only after he has failed to stand up to the local mayor and proved unable to protect his own son from a roving giant shark. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss's Roy Neary is a harassed husband and father who runs away from his family and ends up traveling off in a floating island of a spaceship populated by pint-sized, childlike aliens.

     Even the barely organized 1941 has a Peter Pan figure in the person of Bobby DiCicco's Wally, the kid who can dance but can't cut it as a soldier. Indiana Jones is the Peter Pan figure par excellence, stammering and off-balance in front of classroom Juliets, but brave and deadly in far-off lands. E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial is the Peter Pan story told from the point of view of a Lost Boy (Henry Thomas's Elliott), with the wrinkled/diminutive, old/young E.T. figuring as Peter, while government scientists (like those in CE3K) fulfill the pirates' role. And Spielberg's vignette in Twilight Zone – The Movie, about a gaggle of senior citizens who become children one magical night, features one ex-oldster who elects to stay a kid and goes flying out a bedroom window, a la you-know-who.

     Despite Spielberg's attempts to break with his past work and do something "adult," even The Color Purple – which caps a portion of the director's career – bears evidence of Pan in the person of Danny Glover's Mister Albert. For all his cruelties to his wife, Mister is treated as a child by his father and bossed around by his lover and, eventually, even by the wife herself.

     Persistence of vision is one thing; clarity, something else again. From the very beginning Spielberg displayed extraordinary raw talent, particularly an ability to compose in depth that echoed past Hollywood masters. In Duel he harnessed these gifts and turned a genre project – and a TV genre project at that – into a pictorially striking contemplation of man, machine, and landscape. The vast blankness of the California desert becomes a claustrophobic nightmare: Weaver the quarry finds nowhere to run, whereas the truck(er) finds endless warrens in which to hide. Distant perspectives hold no hint of respite, but suggest myriad threats of torment. Weaver's neurotic performance effectively translates the metaphysicalized environment into human terms.

     If Duel demonstrated how willing Spielberg was to push conventions, Sugarland Express ('74) was evidence that he was equally ready to rein in potentially subversive material. Road movies had become a staple of the explosive youth market in the five years since Easy Rider and were generally potent, if oftimes vague, expressions of restlessness, rebelliousness, and rock'n'roll. Two Lane Blacktop, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, White Line Fever, even Death Race 2000, all came out within a year or so of Sugarland Express, and it's striking how Spielbergs picture lacks the emotional focus, the sense of urgency, that these other films, whatever else their qualities, possess in spades.

     Part of the reason for Sugarland's tame temperament was that it was made at Universal, the Hollywood major that most nearly defined the term "mainstream" during the Seventies. It was there, at the home of the Airport series, that Spielberg had served his apprenticeship on series episodes and TV films. To be sure, Sugarland did not originate within the Universal bureaucracy; it has an original story by Spielberg and contemporaries Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, who wrote the screenplay, and it is graced with a buoyancy that seems the natural manifestation of youthful enthusiasm.

     But an enthusiasm for form: Never had a director made himself so at home on a busy highway as Spielberg does here. To the shifting geometry of characters trying to speak to each other from variably speeding cars, he brings an aplomb other filmmakers could hope to match only on the safety of a stationary soundstage with rear projections. The young director gets maximum effect from his fashionable use of distance-flattening long lenses (the cinematographer was Vilmos Zsigmond), making police cars appear and disappear to often hilarious effect – reworking Duel’s menace into comedy.

     Yet nothing important ever feels at stake. Sugarland Express is, in fact, a work of cooptation. Amazingly, this story of an escaped convict on the run from the law in order to reclaim the child immorally seized from his wife has absolutely no political content. The combined police forces chasing Clovis (who is a kind of shmo), his wife Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn), and their chummy hostage, Officer Slide (Michael Sacks), across the Southwest are embodied in the avuncular character of Ben Johnson's Captain Tanner, who virtually coddles his perpetrators. Even Clovis's looming death, which seems increasingly inevitable as the movie progresses, is undercut by constant interpolation of Hawn's atmosphere-deflating, ditsy-cute dialogue. The one shootout in the film is played strictly for laughs, a duel between local yokels and the Poplins, who have somehow managed to cut loose from their huge escort for a night. Exigency hangs over much of the action, and again and again the possibilities of virtuoso technique overrule the logic of motivation. Only the gag elements linger on after the final credits.

     If nothing else, Sugarland Express demonstrated to Universal executives that Spielberg could handle a logistically complex shoot, and the young filmmaker moved on to Jaws ('75). That film's screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb, wrote an amusing book about the unforeseeable disasters that repeatedly interrupted the production and provided Spielberg with a readymade excuse for the mismatched shots that dog the action, particularly when it is at sea. If we see Brody talking to Quint against a cloudless sky, and then see Quint framed by cirrus gray, well, that's just the breaks. Spielberg should probably be congratulated for working around the problem as persuasively as did.

     Unfortunately, Jaws was the film on which Spielberg learned the benefits of emotional overkill. Val Lewton's dictum about keeping monsters offscreen is turned on its head; Spielberg leans heavily on a mechanical shark for, not suspense, but mere shock value. Even in the scenes in which he manages to do without the beast's presence onscreen, he indulges in visual overstatement – as in the hydraulic buffeting of the girl swimmer whose death opens the film. For the most part, though, lulling dialogue scenes are topped with sudden shots of the shark suddenly peeking its head into frame as if to shout "Boo!" Momentarily effective, but crudely utilitarian.

     The pulp-fiction characterizations also manage to be vague – and in the case of the alternately brave and wishy-washy Brody, contradictory. As a character, Quint is absurd, an out-of-place Englishman boasting of his blue-collar fishing background while operating a sports-fishing charter and – despite his avowed respect for the sea and sharks – smashing his ship-to-shore radio in an inexplicable fit of rage.

     These are telltale signs of a panicky determination to "entertain," with entertainment defined as an essentially passive, consumer activity. (Who eats whom?) In other words, a typical Universal product of the period. Nevertheless, the phenomenal box-office success of Jaws allowed Spielberg to go ahead with a project of his own – at another studio – and to define himself more on his own terms.

     Close Encounters of the Third Kind ('77) certainly has all the earmarks of a personal project, and asserts a personal style unlike any being offered by the increasingly standardized studios at the time. Starting off with a two-track narrative, the movie features a panoramic, deep-focus, globetrotting adventure, starring François Truffaut as Claude Lacombe, a scientist heading an international team of UFO hunters. The other story, more intimate and small-scale, but based on the same compositional principles, stars Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, unhappy power-company employee, husband, and father.

     The Lacombe episodes offer a marvelous display of Spielberg's most persistent and redoubtable talent, the ability to field several planes of action within the same frame. In CE3K, this approach implants an effective sense of mystery, as ominous elements – from abandoned WW2 bombers to masses of Asian pilgrims – make dramatic entrances in unexpected ways. Spielberg almost never introduces characters or important pieces of decor by letting them penetrate the framelines, by cutting to them, or by panning over to them. (Spielberg, in fact, rarely pans at all, and when he does it's usually part of a larger, more complex camera movement.) Rather, he prefers to shift the elements within the frame, so that important features suddenly emerge (think of the shifting sandstorm at the beginning) or by tracking and/or craning. Spielberg uses camera movements to enlarge his visual field, rather than to follow a character or introduce new information to the characters. It is the viewer, not the cast, who is pulled into a larger world by such movements. Lacombe isn't daunted by the vast number of Indians that fill a valley he is crossing – he's right in the middle of them, after all. It's we who are impressed. When Spielberg holds his camera perfectly still, his characters tend to be in for a surprise; when he moves it, the audience usually is.

     Spielberg's visual coups are not limited to the Lacombe tale. Neary's first encounter with the alien craft, which features nothing more than a man in a truck cab, moving sets of lights, and a lonely railway crossing, is a nifty piece of work. The problem with the film is entirely thematic, with Spielberg's eye constantly having to rescue his tongue.

     All the action in Close Encounters – including Lacombe's obsessive world-wide trek, but especially Neary's compulsive escape from his family - could be explained most richly in psychological terms. However, the film refuses to provide any direct internal motivation for its characters; the motives here are all external, provided by the self-limiting vision of the spacecraft and its Pied Piper-like melody. That's why most critical and popular speculation about the film centered on the exact nature of the huge Mothership and its crew, because if the audience couldn't assign some – any – symbolic value to them, then the film was nothing more than an amiable but empty-headed adventure story.

     If Lacombe never amounts to much more than a diminished figure in a large landscape (unlike Neary, he rarely gets to be the only human onscreen), Roy Neary is more complex, though less fleshed-out than filled-in. Roy is defined largely, and once again externally, by his sitcom family. In true TV style, it's Roy versus the rest of them, with Teri Garr (who would affirm the pattern of slim, wan-faced, tremolo-voiced moms) standing with the kids, rather than by her man. No wonder Roy starts building mashed-potato models of structures that turn out to be a mountain, but could also depict a volcanic island.

     Close Encounters was lauded as a film about hope, but what it promotes is the hope that a man could escape the responsibilities of his family and job. Roy Neary is depressed and unhappy before he ever gives a thought to interplanetary travel. One of the most telling images in the film is of Neary frowning and concentrating on something below frameline in the foreground as the kids squabble in the space behind him. There seems to be no exit for Roy until he meets up with the spacecraft.

     After his close encounter, the imagery in Roy's portion of the film abruptly shifts to a more stylized, though familiar, level. The country roadway where he and a few other selected humans gather to watch a trio of advance craft zoom by looks a lot like a crossroads from The Wizard of Oz. As they stand on a corner marked with the silhouette of a fence and cornstalks, the chosen observe the brightly lit craft arrive from below the brow of a hill behind them, coming into view from within the frame. Spielberg uses offscreen space not just to extend the action laterally – though he does that, too – but to extend the background into an unseen infinity. In other words, Roy's exit magically appears.

     As the film becomes more and more occupied with his story, Roy takes that exit, making a cross-country journey through unknown territory, escaping from a crew of security guards and penetrating the interior of the secret government installation where the Mothership lands. He successfully returns to childhood. But Spielberg resists the notion of psychological regression as motivation.

     The Mothership has been accruing meaning as Lacombe has been going around the world gathering evidence of its arrival. Every bit of evidence contains some larger cultural connotation. The abandoned WW2 aircraft invoke a traditional American patriotism; the Indian masses and their guru, a preoccupation with other ways of knowing; each a form of idealism. The Mothership, with its musical communication, both absorbs and informs these events, which suggest it has a strong cultural component. And given the opening-night klieg lights that adorn its shell, it's an easy leap to identify the Mothership with cinema, or at least Hollywood, itself. However, it's a leap one must make without Spielberg's help. Only with Neary's story does he care to be specific; Lacombe's becomes lost in vast generalities. Ultimately, the stories never cohere.

     It's easy to consider 1941 ('79) a mere footnote – albeit a very expensive one – to Spielberg's career. Perhaps because its writers had such strong personalities of their own – Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale wrote the screenplay, while co-exec-producer John Milius contributed to the original story – Spielberg's voice is only the loudest of several. Even the characters seem to assign themselves to particular writers' visions: Treat Williams's belligerent GI, Sitarski, acts like a symptom of Milius's John Ford preoccupation, a specific variation on Lee Marvin's "Boats" Gilhooley in Donovan's Reef; whereas the continuing episode featuring homeowner Ned Beatty's backyard anti-aircraft battery, though as shrill as the rest of the film, anticipates the gentle, Middle America satires in which Zemeckis and Gale would specialize shortly thereafter. Spielberg's weaknesses also march front and center here, particularly his uncertain historical sense and his poor grasp of time and place. Its title notwithstanding, the film doesn't evoke its period for a minute.

     Yet for all its lack of organization and perspective, 1941 does continue Spielberg's preoccupation with the Peter Pan story. Once again, a group of pirates appears, and this time they're even on board a ship, the Japanese submarine helmed by Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee. And certainly John Belushi's "Wild Bill" Kelso, the apparently unaffiliated flyboy whose anarchic presence is enough to throw any already disruptive situation into further chaos, is the lostest Lost Boy ever.

     Most fascinating is the character played by Robert Stack, the real-life General Joe Stilwell, who does virtually nothing during the whole film but watch Dumbo in a largely empty movie theater. Despite his attraction to this putatively childlike entertainment, Stilwell is the most mature, the most manly, character in the teeming cast. He brushes off reports of the riots building in intensity outside the theater until, finally provoked, he goes out and, with a few barked orders, brings sudden, silent order to the noisy tumult. Yet while he watched the film Stilwell had laughed and cried with abandon and without embarrassment. Here, finally, is a Spielberg character who had escaped to his childhood, yet returned, utterly sure of his adult status.

     Spielberg recovered from the box-office disappointment of 1941 in spectacular, even historic fashion to direct two of the biggest commercial successes in film history: Raiders of the Lost Ark ('81) and E.T. ('82). To my mind, Spielberg bottomed out with Raiders, which, in its preoccupation with the deliberate and mechanical manipulation of the audience, is one of the most un-human, inhuman, and anti-human movies of all time. It uses its evocation of old-time serials as an excuse for incorporating all kinds of racist caricatures, yet at the same time (thanks, probably, to producer George Lucas's fondness for the questionable theories of mythologist Joseph Campbell) insists, by constantly framing its hero in larger-than-life terms, that its mundane derring-do has some sort of cross-cultural significance. And just as it elevates the mundane to the pseudo-profound, the film trivializes the Ark of the Covenant, reducing it to a multiple-head ray gun.

     The "Boo!" tactics of Jaws reappear with a vengeance; a typical idea of terror is to have Indiana Jones thrown into a huge nest of snakes in a buried desert vault. Not only are such thrills crude, their touted effect overrides every other consideration, including dramatic logic (what have those snakes been subsisting on all these years?). No sense of drama, logic, detail, or character consistency is to interfere with the enforced enjoyment of each discrete thrill.

     These prevarications infect every aspect of Spielberg's style in Raiders. In one stunning shot he shows us the Nazis' huge archaeological dig, constant activity drifting back and forth across the big screen, while drawing our attention to the far distance where, silhouetted against an orange sun, Indiana Jones and his small crew dig away at their own find. Beautiful, but overinflated and completely dishonest. There are far more native workers and Nazis than needed to complete the task at hand – they are there simply to make a good "scene" – while Jones's conspicuous actions, made all the more obvious when he dons his trademark fedora, should attract the attention of even the least sentient passerby, never mind a battalion of eagle-eyed Nazi sentries.

     Criticizing such lapses amounts to nit-picking because the film is almost exclusively composed of nits. Perhaps more revealing is the much-praised scene in which Indiana gallops up to a roaring German truck on horseback, climbs aboard, overpowers the guards, and takes the wheel – only to have to fight off enemy vehicles that crash into him, and an acrobatic Nazi who in turn clambers aboard the truck, dislodges Indiana, and forces him to repeat his original actions all over again. The scene plays much better than it should, thanks to the performance of Harrison Ford as Indiana. Ford is in the tradition of great American action stars, introducing grace notes of humor, surprise, and frustration without ever undermining the essentially serious approach to his character. But the rhythm of the scene pays no mind to character at all. From the moment Indiana leaps aboard the truck, the film is cut in an unvarying, fast-forward monotony, without any of the modulations that would reflect Indiana's emotional responses to the situation. The rapid clack-clack-clack reduces all the dramatis personae to mere cogs in a high-speed machine.

     Spielberg handles the spatial context with the same delicacy with which he crunches the temporal. Although the chase nominally takes place in a desert, the landscape surrounding the speeding truck changes according to the dictates of various gags. It's unfortunate, but forgivable, that in consecutive shots the roadway should be alternately paved and unpaved; logistics can dictate shortcuts. But for the background scenery to rush from desert sands, to forest trees, to rocky cliffs, and back and forth among all three, shows nothing but contempt for the action. Indiana Jones, in such a context, isn't mastering his fate, he's enjoying a thrill ride with its preordained safe conclusion. Spielberg is displaying a carnival barker's ethics.

     Indiana Jones is the dark side of Peter Pan, the boy who won't grow up because nothing he experiences, no matter how melodramatic, causes him to undergo any sort of change. Adventure is as fungible as the baubles he steals from Third World temple sites, something to be enjoyed and consumed and then discarded. Adventure isn't an experience, it's a commodity.

     Raiders threw Spielberg off his artistic stride and it took a while for him o regain it. With E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial he remained committed to the hard sell, pushing sentiment on the audience with the same determination with which he had pushed shock in Jaws, wonder in CE3K, comedy in1941 and thrills in Raiders. However, E.T. is the first film in which Spielberg directly confronts his thematic preoccupations.

     With its recurrent Pan figure reduced to an all-but-mute, walking nub, E.T. becomes an examination of both what Spielberg's Pans flee from and what they escape to. The three kids at the film's core have been abandoned by their father, who's run off to Mexico with a lover, just as Peter Banning has neglected his children and later run off with Tinkerbell. E.T. has left home, too, of course, even if inadvertently, and he both joins the kids in their anarchic urge – getting young Elliott telepathically drunk – and gives them a group purpose, even if that is just getting him home, rather than slaying Hook. E.T leaves his new friends only because his very life is at stake; he cannot survive physically on their world, just as Peter Banning, despite loving the Lost Boys, cannot survive emotionally in Never Land.

     The reversal of the classic story's point of view is useful in throwing Spielberg's preoccupations into relief, but as far as the movie itself goes, it narrows the range of available emotions. Spielberg seizes upon every melancholy notion that drifts across Elliott's psyche – notably loneliness and the feeling of being abandoned – and pumps it up.

     Once again, though, his uncanny visual sense often saves him. The opening sequence, in which dark, hulking men with flashlights hunt for a frightened E.T. in a dark forest, is the truest moment of terror Spielberg had yet produced. And for all their hysterical buildup, the flying scenes have a powerful wish-fulfillment lift to them, as first Elliott and E.T, and then the two of them plus Elliott's friends, fly over an adult world of strife and cross into their own forested Never Land.

     Spielberg's next three directorial projects – the second segment in Twilight Zone – The Movie ('83), the sequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom ('84), and The Color Purple('85) – found him wrestling with the relationship between his material and his technique.

     Although the most grossly sentimental of his efforts, Spielberg's Twilight Zone episode is also among his most delicate (in part because of the cinematography: Allen Daviau worked on some of the director's most beautiful films, E.T., The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun). His cast of senior citizens start out as stereotypes, but Spielberg films their interchanges in patient long takes that humanize them considerably. And the story's conclusion – that it is better to retain the memory of childhood than long to relive it – anticipates Hook's.

     Temple of Doom is, after 1941 and Hook, Spielberg's most critically disdained film. It is something of a mess, largely as a result of the collision between his increasing thematic complexity and the rigid demands of the Indiana Jones structure and its inherent racism, here at its most disgraceful. And Spielberg's crude attempts at gross-outs (serving crabs and snakes at a dinner) wouldn't have passed muster in a primitive two-reeler. However, the much-deplored violence – most infamously, cult priest tears beating heart from sacrificial victim – lends the otherwise precious and baldly arbitrary action a keen edge. (]ust incidentally, Temple’s violence has never inordinately disturbed any kids I know.)

     It should also be noted that this "off" entry contains one of the most revealing scenes in Spielberg’s canon and an acknowledgment, thanks once again to another superb Ford performance, that the Indiana Jones character has a disturbing, evil side. At one point Indiana has been tied up and drugged by the cultists – another swarthy, all-male group – and forced to drink blood, which turns him into an obedient zombie. Forced to work an apparatus that will feed his nominal girlfriend, Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), to consuming fires, Indiana is deaf to her screams for mercy. It is the little Chinese boy, Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), who, by accidentally poking him with a (inadvertent or not) highly symbolic burning stick, awakens Indiana from his trance and thus saves the day.

     A wild fight ensues, but Indiana and Short Round do manage to embrace and assure one another of their undying devotion, a rapprochement far more passionate than the one between Indiana and Willie. Add an evil boy maharajah who walks about in effeminate attire and jewelry, and it almost seems that Spielberg is introducing a homoerotic element into the action. But given that a Spielberg hero is once again championing a bunch of boys (villagers enslaved in a mine) against a bunch of men (the cultists), and considering Spielberg’s theretofore-characteristic avoidance of any serious mention of sex, the scene is more complex, if less titillating, than that.

     Tempted by the violent cruelty of adulthood, Indiana is called back to childhood’s innocence by his surrogate son. If as a result he ignores Willie, that’s a better fate than the pinioned death that was in store for her. What’s more important is that he abandon the corrupt world of adults and once again affirm his essential child-ness. The film even closes with a shot of Indiana and Willie – happy, it seems, at being a mom – being engulfed by a tide of laughing children.

     Childhood is solace, even in Spielberg’s version of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. That film opens with a sumptuous view of two girls playing in a field of high flowers. The view needs no explanation; the explosion of color, the cameras joyful tracking, brim with pleasure that is both immediate and nostalgic.

     From there, it’s more or less all downhill, and in a most predictable way. Spielberg had never demonstrated any knowledge of history, or even life as it is lived off a movie screen, and he utterly fails at drawing a convincing portrait of rural African-American life during the first half of this century. Nobody’s life has any texture; how various people got where they are, and what they do to stay there, is never made clear. The actors most likely to indulge in caricature – notably Oprah Winfrey – dominate their scenes, turning them into one-note set-pieces of sentimentality. Danny Glover, whether with Spielberg’s connivance or not, never stops trying to soften his character, an essentially cruel and unfeeling man, until he becomes so soft he no longer makes any dramatic sense. The musical score (Quincy Jones doubled as producer) is anachronistic; at one point a character listens to a jazz record years before the first one was made.

     Yet as jumbled as the film is, it has moments of tremendous beauty and, more important, beauty crossed with seemingly contradictory emotions. When, early on, Celie has her infant son seized from her by her incestuous father and carried off into a snowy night, the scene, which extends from Celie’s bedside, through a cabin, and out a door to the ominous figure of the father, brings forth startling echoes of, of all people, Griffith. The tenderness in the foreground is shadowed by lurking cruelty, and an abrupt shift in emotions is translated into physical action by the entrance of the grasping father. It is melodrama, all right, but in the highest sense, and the emotions, as boldly stated as they are, ring true. Love, hate, despair, and hope all coincide in a single shot.

     Nothing like that recurs in The Color Purple. But it did point ahead to the next four films, films that would mark the eventual emergence of Steven Spielberg as a great filmmaker.

(read Part 2)

Henry Sheehan
May-June, 1992
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