Let’s cut to the chase. Steven Spielberg makes movies; he doesn’t direct films. While ranked near the top of Forbes’ Most Influential Celebrities, he isn’t even listed on The Guardian’s Top 40 Directors. Mr. Spielberg is certainly good at entertainment and suspense; there is no disputing that. Jaws has stood the test of time for a reason. As well, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report and much of the Indiana Jones franchise are full of excitement. However spectacle is not any substitute for vision or style, a talent exhibited by many of Mr. Spielberg’s contemporaries such as Martin Scorsese, Joel and Ethan Cohen, Paul Thomas Anderson and Terence Malick. Instead of bludgeoning the audience with a message, as Mr. Spielberg tends, these directors develop subtle details of text, background or character. Quite simply, they convey a personal vision. It is a risky business which at times invites censure – look at the current mixed reception to Mr. Anderson’s The Master for evidence – but a film is made for itself, no matter what a producer might demand. Mr. Spielberg is known for delivering his movies to the market, which is all well and good, especially for the studio…until he gets that itch and decides to fight the indifferent shrug that he knows posterity will award him. These attempts at style include The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Amistad and now his latest, Lincoln. Instead of moments of artistry, the audience is assaulted: images of discarded limbs, Lincoln’s hand on everyone’s shoulder and achingly long dramatic pauses attempting to establish tension for things we already know. (Spoiler alert: The 13th amendment passes, the North wins the War, and Lincoln dies.) The end result is a movie (not a film) that is obscenely iconic.In the end, despite Daniel Day Lewis’ best efforts, the movie is tedious because Lincoln is not offered as a man, but a god – a patient one at that! – in a man’s clothing. In other words, Mr. Spielberg has forgotten that the magic of movie-making is in not showing the shark (the icon) until the last act. Instead he has us staring at the shark all movie long, until it’s no longer a thing to be afraid of – or admire – but another drawn-out moment, attempting to bully us into feeling a prescribed emotion. It gets to be so bad that, instead of wondering what might happen next, we’re wondering when the movie will finally end. Perhaps Mr. Spielberg can be convinced to do a Jaws prequel. As much as he might resist, we know his audience – and producers – would love know exactly what made that shark so mad.
(Warning: This entire blog is a spoiler alert.)
Movie endings are sadly predictable. No matter the genre – Drama, Comedy, Romance or Action/Thriller – the tendency is toward that moment of understanding, that smile of recognition that we’re all in this together, as seen in so many films such as Casablanca, Dumb and Dumber, When Harry Met Sally and Avatar. But there are those few that stand out – for better and much worse. At the head of the Much Worse would have to be Super 8 (Abrams, 2011), a misguided combination of E.T. and Close Encounters. Absolutely everything is resolved at the end: all characters touch and understand each other.They also all understand the alien which has terrorized their town and watch in loving awe as he departs to his distant world. (No, I am not exaggerating.) The Grey (Carnahan, 2011) is a close and terrible second. After watching the wolves terrorize and kill everyone else in his group lost in the woods, the audience tenses in anticipation as Liam Neeson finally straps all that broken glass to his knuckles to battle the mother of all wolves…and the film cuts to the credits. And not only that, the film actually cuts back to the scene, after the epic battle, both Neeson and the mother of all wolves dying in the snow. Other disastrously bad endings include Melancholia (Von Trier, 2011) – a giant planet crushes all life on Earth – A.I. (Spielberg, 2001) you think it’s finally over, and a title card appears “2,000 Years Later” – and Angel Heart (Parker, 1987) – when Mickey Rourke finally realizes that he’s the murderer he’s been chasing all along. (Not a few films have fallen into this self-made trap.) It’s not easy ending well, but there are certainly a chosen few worth mentioning. It is truly heart-wrenching to watch the final shot in Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948) when the boy forgives his father for trying to steal and takes his hand. And it’s hard not to choke up in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (Hughes, 1987) when Neal (Steve Martin) discovers Del (John Candy) alone at the train station and takes him home for Thanksgiving. The Deer Hunter (Cimino, 1978), too, has a gut-wrenching conclusion when the cast gathers for a funeral and sings God Bless America, despite the hell they have been put through with the Vietnam War. Another film that oddly stands out for me is Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (Hough, 1974). An obvious derivative of Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967), the film chronicles a pair of wild thieves who, when they seem to have finally outrun the law, are suddenly crushed by a freight train. The end. One of the greatest Hollywood endings almost never happened. Being There (Ashby, 1978) is the story of Chance (Peter Sellers) who has lived in isolation as a simpleton only to be thrown into the world and become an adviser to the President and perhaps will be a leader himself. The final image is of Chance walking on water. We don’t know if this is because he is Chosen or he just doesn’t know any better, but it is a riveting moment. The producers hated the idea and told Hal Ashby to re-cut the film, which he promised to do…and instead actually delivered the film personally – with the ending intact – to the theaters for opening night. It was only after the positive audience response to this ending that the producers relented. This story itself has to be one of the best endings I have ever heard.