by Allan Fish
Steven Spielberg always seemed such a lovely bloke when seen on TV, made a KBE by the Queen, a fellow of the British academy by his old friend Dickie Attenborough, a devotee of David Lean and Stanley Kubrick. What was not to like? Schindler’s List was released when I turned 20 and was proclaimed as a masterpiece and, at the time, I saw little to discourage that fact. I was an avid reader of Empire magazine for whom he was, along with George Lucas, the ultimate God for what passed for movie geeks in the 1990s. The man could do no wrong.
I’ve written a piece before about the poisonous nature of Spielberg and Lucas’ movie doctrine on American cinema. Readers of Empire magazine would want me lynched. Many of the young students I went to Uni with not so long ago would feel the same. I can’t blame them, they’re only the age I was when I felt the same. Maturity and experience will bring the gravitas required to critique. I was but a child once. Without wishing to come across all religious, in the words of St Paul in Corinthians 13, “I have put away childish things.”
Schindler’s List remains Spielberg’s greatest film, but also in many ways the greatest weapon for the prosecution. His old friend Stanley Kubrick pointed out its misgivings to Frederic Raphael when saying that only Spielberg could make mankind’s greatest ever defeat into a sort of victory. Schindler saved lives, so Spielberg accentuates the positives. You can argue that was Schindler’s story, but maybe then such a story was best served by a documentary, because if you want to highlight the horrors of the Holocaust and begin the Shoah foundation, how ironic is it that it was felt necessary to put a positive spin on it? How depressing that tens of millions more saw Schindler’s List than saw Shoah or Nuit et Brouillard, let alone the masterpieces of Holocaust narrative, Munk’s Passenger or Jakubowska’s The Last Stage.
Then study the after effect that since Schindler’s was taken as Spielberg’s graduation as a ‘serious’ filmmaker, every serious film he’s made since has been praised often to the skies. But Saving Private Ryan was merely two bookend sequences of cinematic brilliance surrounding a moth-ridden clichéd platoon in peril story and, surprise, surprise, another film which made a success of a tragedy. Just as Schindler saved his Jews, Private Ryan was saved. Ra-ra! It was all the more embarrassing when a true visionary returned from the wilderness to make a war masterpiece that same year, The Thin Red Line, and conservative critics found it muddled compared to Spielberg’s film. For muddled, read ‘for adults’. Or take Lincoln, where he doesn’t do a proper biopic of the man, but the accentuated positive of the abolition of slavery.
One cannot entirely blame Spielberg for the state of current Hollywood. In reality, it was a group of rollercoaster films – The Exorcist, Jaws, Star Wars, Halloween, Alien and E.T. – that brought on the blockbuster era and consigned Hollywood into the artistic skip of history. It’s the age of conformity. Spielberg called his new type of filmmaking ‘high concept’, concepts that can be held in the palm of your hand. Films which were in fact the lowest possible concept of filmmaking possible, so this was not just a plan of action, but an inherent lie. As such his entire output has been a blatant falsehood, an act of misdirection and personal gain. The takeover of the old studios by the conglomerate suits meant that they would no longer be making films of artistic integrity but purely to make money. This was an industry first and foremost. It was all about the takings. And so the sequel and franchise generation was born. Today’s Hollywood is like an episode of Sesame Street, brought to you by the number (insert takings) and by the letter $.
So take E.T., a film which predictably finished high on the current childhood countdown. Heck, I had it in there myself, but only because I had to go by my star ratings. But ratings should only ever be an indication as to how well-made an example of a particular type of filmmaking any given film is. E.T. is a ****½ film when comparing to other children’s or ‘high concept’ films, but that doesn’t make it any less loathsome in its ambitions for that. It’s amazing how many people find it easy to dismiss the popular generic superhero movies or comic book movies like The Avengers, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, the Nolan Batman films or whatever because the genre they represent is poisoned to begin with but pass off E.T. as cinematic art when it’s at least as vacuous as any of them and in many ways even more so. At least some comic book movies are subversive. Spielberg’s films are about as subversive as a court martial.
I’m told by my erstwhile eternally enthusiastic partner that such ratings make no sense, how can one give ****½ or ***** to films you hate? Quite easily. Does anyone who rates Salò a masterpiece love it? Or A Serbian Film. Or The Bling Ring, seen as vacuous and empty, but actually viciously accurate in its showcasing the vacuity of our celebrity culture. It’s a film I also hate, but it’s brilliant, all the same. Few film critics could argue against giving top marks to the likes of The Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will, but they’re hateful films created to embody a vile lie. Yet the fact remains they’re milestones in cinematic art, to give them low ratings is to judge them politically not artistically, and thus redundantly. If to hate a film was to dismiss it, then you’d apply it to all art. You’d call Jacques-Louis David’s Marat garbage, rather than a masterpiece of propaganda, the Leni Riefenstahl air-brush of its time. I will have no such double standards.
What in its essence is E.T. about? Spielberg devotees will tell you it’s about the love of small boy for his alien. In reality, it’s a film about conservative conformity. Just as the term ‘high concept’ film is a lie which actually means the opposite, so E.T., rather than be a film to take you out of yourselves and soar to the sky, is an empty miracle of misdirection. It’s a definitive ‘work of art’ for a generation which doesn’t know what art is; a masterpiece for Luddites. At fadeout, the men with guns chase away the alien off the planet, and all returns to as it had been. It’s all about maintaining the status quo. As for Close Encounters, that ultimate mess of sci-fi populism, the aliens are again whiter than white (they’re either 100% good or 100% evil, no in between), but what is its message? Don’t ever grow up, maintain a child’s viewpoint. Make mashed potato mountains out of your lunch. Forget the contradiction that if we all viewed things as children, we wouldn’t become the scientists required to contact alien life in the first place. It’s as if the scientists – and Truffaut isn’t playing one of them for nothing – represent arthouse intellectuals, and Spielberg wants to see them brought down to his childish level. You see, they agree with him now, so please, no more art, let’s have Star Wars XII or Alien 7.
It’s a reduction to its basest terms, I’ll admit, a gross over-simplification, but the irony is that is exactly what Spielberg built his empire of ‘cash over art’ from. Spielberg wasn’t responsible for the destruction of film art and the lowering of artistic ambition like the bar in a limbo competition – but he exploited the climate of the day better than anyone else. He’s cinema’s supreme carpetbagger, not the Nazi Brownshirt who burnt books in the Königsplatz but the opportunist who sold matches and gasoline to the Brownshirts to make a quick Deutschmark. And if that seems in poor taste for the man who made Schindler’s List, remember he made Jurassic Park in the same year, the biggest advert for toys– he even shamelessly puts in a pan over the shelves of merchandise. Schindler’s thus feels as sincere as a billionaire donating his name to a hospital wing.
We live in an age where magazines like Empire or Total Film continually promote Spielberg as the greatest director of all time in their laughable readers polls and the likes of Zemeckis, Lucas, Scott, Cameron, Abrams and all the other little Stevens rank highly, too, when in actuality neither should make a top 200 in terms of artistic significance. If people were to just love E.T. in a simplistic childlike fashion but admit its shortcomings, you could just about swallow it. But the result of this euphoria and deification of such a man has led, indirectly or inadvertently as may be, to the ghastly state of affairs the American film industry is in today where the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson are the exception that proves the rule and the majority just want to be J.J.Abrams, Zack Snyder or Antoine Fuqua, and Spielberg is enthroned like Phideas’ Zeus at Olympia.
What’s worse, the lie has always been there. Take The Wizard of Oz, that ultimate wish-fulfilment fantasy. We’re told it’s about the American dream, of a place over the rainbow of milk and honey and pot of gold. That may be what Arlen and Harburg felt when they wrote the song ‘Over the Rainbow’ as Jews viewing the horrors of the Jewish persecution across the pond, but in retrospect time has poisoned its view. Dorothy returns home, as happiness is in your own back yard. If it isn’t there you didn’t really want it to begin with. What else is that but telling people to dream of a place over the rainbow if you like, so long as it remains a dream. Don’t think of colour, stay in sepia. Have no ambition to better yourself. Stay put. Your dog’s still going to the pound (nothing’s changed, these ‘dream’ films always end with the status quo resolutely maintained). Do not ever pass go and do not even think of collecting 200 bucks. The American dream was one of opportunity and making things happen through hard work and integrity. Oz is a place at the end of the rainbow where actual happiness is a sham directed by a man behind a large curtain. (Sound familiar?) It’s like the end of Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days, when, having been around the world in 79 days, he arrives back, breathless, to where he started, the Reform Club, only to find it’s shut and they won’t open up for him. Thanks for coming all this way, but if you’d be kind enough to move along. Thank you.
American populist entertainment was always about escapism, from the depression and the war, but then they were made by great craftsmen who knew how to make films both entertaining and deep, people like Billy Wilder (he was seen as too cynical at the time, Ace in the Hole was vilified), Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, John Ford or Raoul Walsh. As an artist Spielberg isn’t fit to clean Raoul Walsh’s eyepatch. Once upon a long ago, the likes of Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk and Otto Preminger were ignored by American critics until the French upstarts of Cahiers du Cinema turned it on its head. Now they’re accepted as masters. Do I agree with the Cahiers crew’s rigid perseverance with the auteur theory? No, it’s flawed. But that theory was a necessary step on the road to the cinematic appreciation we, at least in parts of the world, enjoy. We can now see that Sirk’s films aren’t just tawdry women’s melodramas, but films rich in subtextual depth and brilliant mise-en-scène. That’s now accepted. The real message of Spielberg’s films, as I have documented them, is still seen as the lunatic fringe. People have it indoctrinated in their systems that he’s the bee’s knees. Loving all type of film, as many do, they’ll say there’s room for the Spilebergs of this world as well as the Kiarostamis, Sonos, Ceylans, Diazs and the real visionaries of modern film. They’re absolutely right, but let’s not confuse Spielberg’s intentions with theirs. Artists are out to stay loyal to their personal vision, while Spielberg is loyal to making popcorn entertainment for the increasingly pliant and subservient masses and making the studios a shedload of cash. How can sensible people look back on the Reagan/Thatcher era with so much understandable hatred but look back on Spielberg with nostalgia, when he embodies the same ethos? Spielberg famously once bought the Rosebud sled from Citizen Kane to put in his office for inspiration. One is reminded of that famous anecdote about Pablo Picasso, in Paris during the war, receiving a visit from a Nazi officer in his garret, who finds a postcard of Guernica on a table and turns to Pablo saying “you did this, yes?” And Pablo replies in all seriousness, “oh no, you did. Take one, souvenir.” Many people loathe Guernica because it’s so monstrous. But what else could Pablo do to paint an act of such monstrosity? No stunning painting of a real mass bombing in brightest colour would have been of any artistic integrity. He wasn’t going to do a Spielberg, accentuate the positives like in Schindler’s List where there were none.
I know many people see my approach to film as hard-line, as bloody-minded, as unyielding, and in parts they are right. But it’s because I care so much about film as an art I won’t stand back idly and see it so compromised. As a person I have nothing against Spielberg, who seems genial and knowledgeable about film, but as I mentioned above it’s the effect his cinema is having on film internationally that is catastrophic. The mass media manipulation that rules our every day is a far bigger picture than Spielberg’s lowest common denominator cinema, but it contrives to bring us closer to the world of Orwell. For we accept the bastardisation of our language so that a term could be invented to mean the opposite of is literal meaning – ‘high concept’ – then just a small step to reducing the scope and majesty of language itself, to the very real Oceania. So if I rant and rave I understand I turn many people away and have deliberately stayed away from commenting on individual pieces, but they’re the people who just think “it would be this way anyway, why bother changing anything.” Film isn’t real life, but it’s reflective of it and I despair at the world if everyone had that attitude. If Nelson Mandela or Steve Biko had just thought “Apartheid is here, we can’t change it, let’s just make do.” In political terminology, it’s the party of blissful ignorance, its emblem a sloth hanging from a hammock. Again a simplification to the point of reduction, granted, but the philosophy is the same.
It boils down to this. Film is an entertainment, but entertainment isn’t in itself art. If it were, any sport would be an art, a Punch and Judy show would be art. Many people I respect – and some I love deeply – adore Spielberg, but it makes me smile a wry smile when they regard themselves as film connoisseurs, for what they’re doing is the equivalent of turning up at the Boston Tea Party and telling the rebels to put the tea back in the boat. WE DON’T WANT ANY TROUBLE! Peace, brothers…tolerance…love one another…Mammon is the real God and Steven is his prophet. It’s this attitude that ensures only Spielberg and his progeny have their films at multiplexes and arthouse masterpieces are relegated to big cities. I wonder how quickly those who love Spielberg but live in Paris, London or New York would be to praise him if they had to put up with cinemas only showing his work in say Limoges, France, Silver City, New Mexico or, dare I say it, Kendal in the UK. Well, screw that. I’m Howard Beale yelling “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The Spielberg idolaters are the bosses discarding me as a lunatic and planning to have me shot on a live online feed. And I admit, if this site was sponsored, you’d get some great capital from it and the hits would go through the roof – Sam would be wringing his hands in glee, oh the statistics, the statistics!!! Who cares if Allan’s dead, we got 277 comments! But it wouldn’t change the central problem; cinema with artistic integrity is a chicken and the media’s idolatry of Spielberg is wringing its bleedin’ neck. And we’re applauding him…