Friday, December 9, 2011

On Steven Spielberg

"Serious" cinephiles aren't supposed to enjoy Spielberg films. His films are manipulative, simplistic, too populist, too gooey, too sentimental. There is quite a few people out there who have no respect for Steven Spielberg or his films. It's understandable, to a fault. Not everyone has to like Steven Spielberg. Do I think some Spielberg films can be on the manipulative side? A bit too sentimental and simplistic? Absolutely. I still think that there is a place for Steven Spielberg's films and that he deserves to be discussed as a serious filmmaker. Regardless of what you may think of him.

The Spielberg name is pretty much the only director's name out there who you can trust when it comes to mainstream blockbuster films. Aside from the last Indiana Jones movie, he has an amazing track record with the summer blockbuster. Going backwards: War of the Worlds, Minority Report, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones trilogy, ET, and Jaws. You can't really ask for a better line up of entertaining films. I never really take them for more than what they are and there's nothing saying you have to respond to every film in the same way. Some films are serious, thoughtful films and some films are more simple, entertaining films. There's nothing wrong with both.

Besides, Spielberg has done both. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, AI, Munich, and the upcoming War Horse. Now both sides of Spielberg are similar thematically. They all pretty much have Hollywood-type endings and his more serious fare is where he gets the "manipulative" criticism. But if you know what kind of film you're getting from Spielberg, is that really much of a surprise? See, I know what I'm getting from Steven Spielberg at this point. I still think he can make pretty powerful films with striking images. And I applaud him for using his stature as an A-list Hollywood filmmaker for going after difficult subject matter. The stories may not be told in a difficult way, but they're still very effective and emotionally stirring. Spielberg is a director who isn't afraid to go the emotional route and I feel that if you realize that and know that about Spielberg, then you shouldn't be surprised at the results. His films can still mean something, they can still be great. Is he a lesser filmmaker because, overall, he tries to make his films for a mainstream audience? I don't think so.

The fact of the matter is there is no other mainstream filmmaker who can be as appealing as Steven Spielberg is. There is no other filmmaker who can consistently switch gears from the light summer fare and the serious dramatic fare and still get people's asses in the seats. Spielberg had it figured out from the beginning. You make the big budget blockbuster film and you get the freedom to make the serious film that gets you awards. Plus, it's not like Spielberg shies away from portraying the dark side of humanity: Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and even Munich have scenes that are as difficult to watch as any other film of its kind. It's no "Salo" obviously, not even close, but considering the type of audience these movies are for, they are still fine films and way better than what they could have been.

Consider James Cameron's last two films: they are overly simplistic love stories with huge budgets and they are the top two grossing films of all-time. What I like about Steven Spielberg's films is that they can be a bit simplistic, but I never feel as if my intelligence has been insulted. I still think he respects his audience and there's really not much more you can ask for than that. Plus, I admire him for the fact that he hasn't completely given up shooting on film. Unlike his contemporaries, George Lucas and James Cameron, he still sees the value of shooting on celluloid. The fact that he can't quite give up with shooting on film makes him endearing.

Spielberg respects film, he respects the craft of making movies. He may not always produce the greatest films (see Michael Bay and the Transformers trilogy), but when it's in his hands, he usually comes out with something thrilling or interesting to watch. Even a bloated blockbuster like The Lost World has some pretty great parts to it even though the movie falls apart when the dinosaur winds up in the city of San Diego. He's made a lot of fluff, but it's great fluff. And he will be greatly missed if he were no longer around. At least he still tries to make good serious films and good blockbuster films. It's clear that Hollywood has stopped trying altogether, they clearly do not care anymore. Spielberg does though and you can tell. Consider how much money he has made in Hollywood. There is absolutely no reason why he should keep making films from a financial perspective. He's also has the Oscars, he has the fame, he has a lot of respect. Yet, he still wants to make movies because he genuinely loves the craft and he loves to tell stories.

The next few years should be interesting as he has both War Horse and Tintin this month, Lincoln next year, and Robopocalypse in 2013. There's gonna be plenty of Spielberg to go around in the next few years and no matter how good or bad the films wind up being, at least you can find comfort in the fact that he still cares and is committed to the craft of filmmaking. He's not just phoning it in for a paycheck (ok maybe he was with Indiana Jones 4).

It just irks me a little to see people go so far out of their way to speak ill of Spielberg. I'm not fond of all of his films, but I don't think he deserves nearly the amount of derision he gets from a lot of cinephiles out there in the world.

War Horse looks to be signature Spielberg. It might be sappy, it might be manipulative, it might be a bit simple. But that's Spielberg. He still knows how to tell a good story on screen and he still cares about telling a story on screen. It's not just about selling a new action figure for him. I guess you can say that I occasionally have a bit of a soft spot for the man. I grew up on his films and when I watch Jurassic Park or ET or Jaws, it brings out the kid in me again. I also wouldn't hesitate to show my future kids his films. It's better that then the latest Alvin and the Chipmunks movie.

Honestly, today, when it comes to movies from Hollywood you have to pick your battles. To constantly pick on Spielberg just seems wrong to me. I value filmmakers such as Spielberg, or now Christopher Nolan. I feel like people pick on them simply because they make big budget films that gross a lot of money. Sure, they're not as intelligent or thought-provoking as some fans of their films say they are, but they're in a class of a very small amount of filmmakers who can make big budget films entertaining without making them stupid. Plus, nobody cares if you're too smart for Inception or too "real" for Saving Private Ryan. Enjoy the movies for what they are, enjoy the filmmakers for who they are. Trust me, the film universe would be way worse off if they weren't making movies. Way, way worse off. I shudder when I think about it, in fact.

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