Why he'll never be a Grown Up!
Decency, the Boy Scout code of honour, reverence for the American way of life, and even Norman Rockwell these are what Steven Spielberg values and his films reflect, sums up UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA.
A veteran filmmaker who graduated this year...Steven Spielberg
STEVEN SPIELBERG was just thirteen years old when he wrote, financed and made his first film. This year, at fifty-six, he has just released another hit "Minority Report", starring Tom Cruise in the Philip K. Dick story about what could happen if it became possible to prevent a crime even before it had been committed. This year, Spielberg has also released a digitally enhanced version of his 1982 classic, "E.T".
Between these and his first feature, "The Sugarland Express", in 1974, he has directed or produced some 100 movies, both in the earlier age of directing, and in the new age of marketing and big-budget blockbusters. Which means that today, there are two Spielberg films showing commercially in the theatres one new, the other a 20-year old classic. Can any filmmaker hope for two such successes in his lifetime? Spielberg has made many more, from his first mega-hit "Jaws" in 1975, to the perfect ``E.T" (1982), to ``Schindler's List" (1993) and "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). And more.
The story began when he was four years old. His father woke him up one night and took him to see a meteor shower. Looking up at the sky, young Steven began to wonder about the unknown stretches out there. Perhaps that is when the seed of ``Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was born. The son of a computer engineer and a concert pianist, Steven planted trees and charged for admission to his home movies (and sold popcorn, ever the canny businessman) to fund his filmmaking. At 13, he won a prize for a 40-minute war film called ``Escape to Nowhere." At 16, his sci-fi enterprise ``Firelight" was screened at a local hall.
"Schindler's List"...the first of Steven's many hauls at the Oscars.
After assorted film institutes refused him admission, he attended the California State University (from where he graduated only this year, as one of its older and most famous graduates) before dropping out. He walked into filmmaking quite literally, stepping off a Universal Studios tour bus on one of the Hollywood back lots and, legend has it, setting up office in an empty janitor's closet. ``Amblin", a 24-minute feature, got him his first break a seven-year television contract. His television suspense film, ``Duel," was made in 1971. His first feature film, ``The Sugarland Express," starring Goldie Hawn, came a few years thereafter.
``Jaws," the 1975 film about a terror shark, became the first summer blockbuster ever in Hollywood. ``Close Encounters of the Third Kind," in 1977, brought state-of-the-art special effects to the cinema screen. The first film in the mega-hit Indiana Jones series, ``Raiders of the Lost Ark," came thereafter in 1981, making a star of Harrison Ford, and beginning Spielberg's celebrated partnership with effects-crazy friend and ``Star Wars" creator, George Lucas.
With the 1982 classic, "E.T - The Extra-Terrestrial," Spielberg took cinema to truly new heights, turning the tender story of a friendship between boy and alien into a breathlessly beautiful childhood epic. Its digitally enhanced re-release, two decades later, with additional footage, is a masterstroke. Instead of destroying the mystique by attempting a sequel, Spielberg has managed to improve upon perfection (even if the special effects seem somewhat less spellbinding today).
"A.I - Artificial Intelligence"...a rambling feel-good adventure.
"E.T" still makes its audiences collectively gasp with delight when the boy, wide-eyed alien and bicycle all lift off into the open sky. It's not entirely feel-good: our wrinkled friend wants to go home, joyfully exclaiming: ``ET phone home!" in a phrase that has resounded in popular culture ever since. And by the time the confrontation between children and the Authorities has ended, audiences have melted. As Ebert remarks, "E.T" has reduced even blasé Cannes audiences to ``tears and cheers."
The film is well worth a second look, and many more: for fabulous Henry Thomas as Elliot, one of the best child characters ever; and curly-haired, lisping Drew Barrymore who plays Elliot's little sister Gertie. For the fabulous visual effects, and the thrilling music of John Williams, both of which won well-deserved Oscars. And for Spielberg's own child-like delight in mysterious lights and moments of wonder.
By now, Spielberg had been charged with making regressive, people-pleasing action adventures and then churning out sequels. And so, ``The Color Purple," his 1985 film with Whoopi Goldberg, based on Alice Walker's moving novel, was seen as partly a reaction to criticism that he couldn't make a serious movie. The film won 11 Oscar nominations, but none of these were for Spielberg.
The Oscars eluded him until 1993, when he made that dark Holocaust epic, ``Schindler's List." Spielberg wanted Roman Polanski (who had grown up in the Krakow ghetto and lost his mother in Auschwitz) to direct the film. Polanski declined, saying that the Holocaust was still too personal for him to make a film on the subject. Spielberg's own experience of anti-Semitism had been of the suburban high-school variety.
The latest Spielberg futuristic thriller..."Minority Report"
``Schindler's List" is not an easy film to see; it must have been far more difficult to make. Directing the film himself Spielberg won his first Oscars for Best Director and Best Film, besides several more, for cinematography, music, adapted screenplay, art direction and editing. But one wonders what a Polanski version might have been like. Spielberg's is in black and white, literally and metaphorically so, for his is not a complicated morality; and the film ends in colour, with the real-life Holocaust survivors whom Schindler saved coming to visit his grave.
If ``Schindler's List" reached the serious audiences, the dinosaur adventure, ``Jurassic Park," was, almost bizarrely, released in the same year, bringing not only the other half of cinema audiences, but also many more special effects and Oscars (best sound; best sound effects editing; best visual effects), and of course, chances for sequels. ``Amistad" (1997), a story of slavery in America, began as a way of telling adopted son Theo about his roots. The year1998 brought a return to the genre of war films, with another Oscar-winner, "Saving Private Ryan", made for his father, who had been a radio operator on a B-52 during the War. But while the special effects can depict the grimness of the battle terrain, they cannot portray the complexity of human nature; and Spielberg was criticised for turning the characters into stereotypes.
``A.I - Artificial Intelligence," starring Haley Joel Osment as a `Mecha', a child robot who has been programmed to love, was to have been made by Stanley Kubrick, who died before he could make it. One is intrigued by the thought of a Kubrick version of ``A.I." It would have been darker, definitely, and not afraid to show the violence that lies in our future. Spielberg's ``A.I" is a strange, rambling, vaguely feel-good adventure through the ages of global warming and another ice age, finally taking us 2000 years ahead, when humans are extinct and only tall, narrow-waisted `Mechas' dwell on the Earth. One critic perceptively remarked that Haley Joel seemed to understand ``A.I." better than Spielberg.
"E.T - The Extra-Terrestrial"...the 1982 classic took cinema to new heights.
``I think that some of my earlier films are better than some of my later ones," Spielberg has said. But even as we begin to agree, he surprises us again. ``Minority Report," too, takes us into the future. It is the chilling vision of a future that is not so far away: 2054, some five decades from now. Precrime is an organisation that prevents crimes by reading the minds of those who plan to perpetrate them. Pre-Cogs, the psychics who detect the crimes as their planners are still planning them, are bizarre creatures that float in amniotic fluid, with sensors wired to their minds. Tom Cruise is a devoted Precrime cop - until the pre-cogs detect a crime that he himself will commit. A perfectly-timed enterprise for today's security-obsessed world.
Family life has been important in Spielberg's films, and in his personal life. Young Elliot, in ``E.T", feels the aching absence of his father (Spielberg's parents divorced when he was still a teenager), while "Jurassic Park" is a total family adventure. Decency, the Boy Scout code of honour, reverence for the American way of life, and even Norman Rockwell Spielberg owns 25 original Rockwells these are what Spielberg values. He has been known to sit through plays he has hated, simply because leaving in the middle might give the wrong signals.
He has grown up in suburbia, and locates many of his films in that complacent country. He has always avoided caffeine; he has never done drugs.
Spielberg's boy-next-door, all-American, squeaky-clean image has made film journalists chafe in an industry that thrives on gossip. Equally, his non-ironic cinematic vision, encompassing not only violence but also, optimistically, repentance and forgiveness, has troubled critics.
He has described his influences: "Before I go off and direct a movie I always look at four films. They tend to be: "The Seven Samurai", "Lawrence of Arabia", "It's A Wonderful Life" and "The Searchers". Film production, for him, is his way of mentoring.
Through his first production company, Amblin and then with Dreamworks, set up in 1994 with David Geffen (of Geffen Records) and Jeffrey Katzenburg (formerly of Disney), Spielberg has produced a range of films like ``Gladiator" and ``American Beauty" as well as the ``Back to the Future" series, ``Gremlins," ``Twister" and ``Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"
So, has Spielberg finally become, in the idiom of ``E.T," a Grown-Up? While accepting the Irving Thalberg Award from the Academy, he remarked, ``It's time to stop balls from rolling and spaceships from landing and the light shows. It's time to deal with what people say to each other when they have an emotional need to communicate."
On the personal front: his marriage to actress Amy Irving ended in divorce; he is now married to Indiana Jones actress Kate Capshaw, and they have seven children, of whom two are adopted, and two are from previous marriages. And that is why he will never be a Grown-Up, not with Capital Letters, anyway.
Because he still tells stories around the dinner table; he drives his kids to school; he plays video games for them; and he will continue to make cartoons, because those are what his kids care about the most.
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