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.
I was at a comedy show – Sean Cullen – years ago in Vancouver, stupidly sitting in the front row, when he was asked me, “What’s your favorite part of the movie?” I answered, “The credits.” This got a big laugh out of him and everybody else after he repeated it several times over. It was an easy laugh, I guess, but I really did mean it. The credits are such a promising moment, the distribution logo rising from the gloom; the Paramount mountain is one of my favorites, fading in, about to be encircled by stars.The music comes up, and the first credit fades in from black. Anything is possible. Imagination knows no bounds.The movie begins. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958) has to have one of the greatest openings not only for the drama of it – there’s a bomb! – but the sheer logistics and technical merit of the initial 3 1/2 minute sequence. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981), modeled after the opening sequences of many James Bond films, has technical merit too, but it’s more a wild ride than anything else. In terms of visual and aural splendor, two poetically astonishing films come to mind. The Thin Red Line (Malick, 1998) combines images of nature, poetic voice-over and the introspective music of Hans Zimmer to convey an eerie calm while Werner Herzog’s stunning opening sequence in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1973) offers a sense of doom through the clouds of the Peruvian Andes and hypnotic soundtrack of Popol Vuh. Another great opening sequence has to be American Graffiti. A simple establishing shot of Mel’s Dinner, coupled with a montage of characters arriving and the iconic music of Bill Haley creates an invigorating atmosphere of innocent excitement. The movies go on from there; some moments are good, others not, and it either ends early or goes on too long…but you always have another credit sequence to look forward and a mountain surrounded by stars.
Screenwriting is a most inconsistent proposition. While there are many films that have great scenes and characters, the work is often lacking in its overall story. Paul Thomas Anderson‘s films, including The Master, fall into this category as does the work of many modern screenwriters/filmmakers, such as Gaspar Noe, Terence Malick, Pedro Almodavar, Jim Jarmusch, and that other Anderson, Wes. I posted recently on Andrei Tarkovsky’s film The Sacrifice, and his struggle with story-telling. This too is an issue for many of the great auteurs: Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni and, even my favorite, Werner Herzog; it’s the image, the motion, the atmosphere first and everything else after that. This is not say that the story arc of Hollywood should be subscribed to in any way. There is nothing so painfully innocuous as to be dragged along through the introduction, conflict, rising action, climax, denouement and all the pain-in-the-ass red herrings in the films of Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Jimmy Cameron or Clint Eastwood.But there is a middle ground out there, something between the poetic image and the Hollywood ride. It’s as hit and miss as the rest, although there are diamonds in the rough. One film that comes to mind is Greg Motolla’s Superbad (written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg); as stupid as this movie can be, the story is true, the characters honest. Another surprising film is Lee Tamahori’s The Edge, written by David Mamet. This film is typical Hollywood, “Jaws with claws” as it was dubbed; however it is well-written. The story structure is effective – except for a weird denouement/climax #2 – and the arc is clear. The characters are engaging, even as types, and interact in an interesting way with both each other and their environment. The message is loud – We must face our demons! – but it’s a good film. And the bear is great. Really.