Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Re-Runs: Watching Steven Spielberg

My good friend D, who's a bit younger than I am, recently expressed surprise when I turned up my nose at Jurassic Park. “You don’t like it?” he asked, incredulous. “That’s a great film!”* But even allowing for generational differences in the cultural production of taste, Jurassic Park is not a great film, not even by Spielberg’s standards. And it’s only mildly entertaining. The best thing that can be said about Jurassic Park, bits and pieces of which I watched again on AMC while taking breaks from my Oppen chapter, is that it aspires to be a theme park. Which is rather ingenious, in a way, if deeply cynical. It’s a B-movie weighted down with the hubris of an A-budget and a first-rate cast. Where it should be nimble, it lumbers about clumsily. Indeed, the most pleasurable moments are watching the reaction shots of two pros, the ineffable Laura Dern and the canny Sam O’Neill.

All the JP films are scripted with B-movie logic, but only JP-2 actually delivers the juice: as a re-make of Gorgo, it’s fast, down, and dirty. It can hold its head high alongside such classics as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Gwangi. Though in keeping with the Spielberg template, it can’t forgo shamelessly exploiting the audience with the plight of the child-in-peril. So many of Spielberg’s films are about broken families, of course, but the way he employs the spectacle of terrified children in JP is shameless. (He uses the same gambit in War of the Worlds, but despite Dakota Fanning’s glazed state of terror she can’t quite upstage the hyper-self-conscious and frenetic Tom Cruise).

Jurassic Park on one level is little more than a remake of Jaws, a kind of “Island of the Land Sharks.” But since the monsters are extinct, which is to say, dead and resurrected, then the drama becomes a battle with ghosts, with the idea of the past itself, all as a way to vindicate the triumph of the present.

JP's scale is also a perfect metaphor for the metastasis of the director’s ambition. Designed by turns to produce massive moments of shock and wonder, its whole art consists in invoking the sublime only to reduce it to the kitsch. This is one definition of populist art. It reminds me of Oppen’s disappointment with Carl Sandburg, whose initial impact in conveying the shock of the stockyards decayed into sentimentalism.

Still, there are quick pleasures to be had in JP. If the film's first half is a laborious, elephantine exercise in staging the reptilian sublime as a parable of hubris (in high hubristic fashion), with the thrills all coming from the human invading the wild, then the leaner second half gives us the tighter and spookier thrills of the wild invading the domestic. Velicoraptors in the kitchen!

But seeing it again set me to thinking of one of my favorite Spielberg films; the overlooked Catch Me If You Can. Besides being expertly constructed, with very little pleading for the audience’s affections (despite its broken family theme), the real subject of the movie is the artist as counterfeiter: the producer of his own alternative system of value. It’s hard not to read it as Spielberg’s spiritual autobiography, an allegory for the filmmaker’s art which, as Orson Welles knew better than anyone, consists alternately of deception and surprise.

Which leads me to speculate that Spielberg’s oscillation between two contrary impulses in American filmmaking – Wellsian theatricality and Fordian populism – may help to explain why nothing he has ever made, including the sincere failure of Schindler’s List, has ever really satisfied. He’s too calculating an entertainer (meaning he doesn’t trust his audience) to give pathos without sentimentality, yet too much of an ironist to trust his own extraordinary technical gifts. That’s why a slight film that is nearly all technique, Raiders of the Lost Ark, may actually be his finest. All the affect is in the style.

* Still, as Jay Cocks once sagely remarked to me, there are films that are great experiences, and then there are great films.

1 comment:

  1. Well put, Patrick! As I recall, Ford was among Spielberg's admitted influences. Don't recall Welles, but I can certainly detect elements of Welles in Schindler's List, War of the Worlds (well, for more reasons than the obvious), Munich, and even Raiders of the Lost Ark.