Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Book Review: Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films by Molly Haskell

Haskell, Molly. Steven Spielberg: A Life in Film. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.

Film critic Molly Haskell's lively commentary on Steven Spielberg's filmography treats her subject with the right amount of distance, allowing for a wealth of insight. As she confesses in the introduction:

I had never been an ardent fan . . .  He readily acknowledged that he had no feeling for European films. He always wanted his films to arrive someplace. But brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings, things left unsaid, and the erotic transactions of men and women are what drew me to movie in the first place. His great subjects - children, adolescents, - and genres -- science fiction, fantasy, horror, action-adventure -- were stay away zones for me. Even his forays into history were inspirational rather ironic or fatalistic, the work of a man who favored moral clarity, was uncomfortable with "shades of grey." (x)

Free of a mostly male fandom that's enraptured with every shot in a Spielberg film, Haskell applies sharp analysis towards unlocking his films that reveal conscious and unconscious preoccupations. Like many critics who were taken aback at Spielberg's early films and his influence on film history, film historians consider him a regressive force who made entertaining movies with little substance. Haskell cited Spielberg mentioning her back in 1978 as one of his most persistent critics, yet through the course of the book Haskell comes to admire Spielberg as an artist who displayed maturity in his later work. The second half of his career seems to be a response to the first half. 

Haskell often notes Spielberg's avoidance of films that deal with adult relationships, specifically romantic ones. She attributes his preoccupations to his childhood, an outsider in post-war suburbia because he was Jewish and never one of the cool guys. Hence his movies were usually about the nerd who triumphs.

His parents, Arnold and Leah, were both college educated and benefited from the opportunities that arrived after the war. Arnold served in the Pacific Theatre, earned a college degree with the GI Bill, and became a pioneer at IBM as a computer technology expert. His Dad's war stories led to his lifelong obsession with the era. At the same time, Arnold was rarely home and gave first priority to his career, his long absences left Steve resentful at being stuck with a spirited mother and two younger sisters. His relationship with Leah, more like a cool older sister than parental figure, encouraged his creativity.

Stories of Steven sneaking into the Universal lot and watching old time directors in action are legendary. The films he made as a teenager reveal a budding talent, a prodigy of visual story telling. His 1969 short Amblin caught the eye of Universal Executives, an apolitical story about a cool hippy girl and a "square" guy on the road foreshadowed his crowd pleasing sensibilities. After gaining experience in episodic television, famously directed the first Columbo movie, he gained international fame with Duel, a stark tale of a man being chased by a monstrous truck on the back highways of California.

The early films were about the put upon male. Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are nerd fantasies about child like men who triumph against great odds, a shark and stultifying domesticity (at least that's how detractors saw it). By the 1980s, Spielberg was becoming more of a brand than filmmaker, producing films like a factory, franchises launched, but more serious movies. Spielberg married Amy Irving and they had a son Max, after their union ended he married Kate Capshaw and adopted more children. Being a father changed the tone of his films, most notably Empire of the Sun from 1987, which Haskell considers his best. The story of a spoiled child who becomes a refugee taps into the darkness of childhood and the dangers of holding on to its illusions. 

Haskell is especially complimentary towards his later work that begins with Schindler's List, a film brought Spielberg back in touch with his Judaism and led to the Shoah Project, a collection of hundreds of oral histories with holocaust survivors. Amistad dealt American slavery. After 9/11 his work took on a darker turn: post-humanism in A.I. (a project he inherited from Stanley Kubrick) surveillance culture in Minority Report, the psychological toll of the war on terror in War of the Worlds and Munich. Catch Me If You Can is his most autobiographical, a not so nostalgic period piece that explored family, loneliness, and identity. Haskell considers Lincoln and Bridge of Spies valuable works of civic responsibility, especially prescient films in the tainted age of Trump. 

Although Spielberg has spoken of wanting to make a "woman's picture," his protagonists remain mostly male. Unfortunately, plans to make a film about photojournalist Lynsey Addario starring Jennifer Lawrence fell through. Haskell doesn't consider Spielberg a misogynist, but argues he's more interested in masculinity as a subject. He's not alone, filmmakers of Spielberg's New Hollywood generation (Scorsese, DePalma, Lucas, Coppola) primarily made films about men (with a few exceptions.) Now in the #MeToo era, lingering male control of the film industry is all too apparent. Last year actress/director Elizabeth Banks called out Spielberg for not casting female leads, but later apologized when she got called out being inaccurate, The Color Purple deals directly with gender.

The takeaway from the book is that Spielberg's an artist aware of his shortcomings and has labored to address them, winning him more critical points than he received back in the 1980s. Haskell writes sharp prose and says more in 200 pages than what it would take another writer to do in 500. A modern and incisive study, a most read analysis of Spielberg and his told from a wise perspective. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

One of the best reviewed (and despised) novels of the past decade, Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch tells the tale of Theo Decker, a young man coming of age in New York City and Las Vegas during the early decades of the 21st Century. Many have compared The Goldfinch to a modern version of a Dickens novel in the tradition of David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Tartt creates vivid characters. Her writing style channels the suspense and excitement of life. Theo's not the most appealing character, more of a modern day Holden Caulfield, but he's a remarkable narrator. Like Homer, the epic story does what only the best books can do - resonate after reading them. The characters are real and their world blends with your own.

The novel begins with 13 year old Theo visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mom (they are very close) on a day he's been suspended from school. An explosion at the museum leaves Theo an orphan, forever separating him from his mom. The loss sets his life on an entirely different trajectory. Theo is taken in by a wealthy New York family, then moves to Las Vegas to live with his estranged father who left months earlier. Once in Vegas he meets Boris, a Russian who will become his best friend, easily the most memorable character in the novel. The son of a Russian miner, Boris seems to have been everywhere and done everything by the age of 15. Together, Theo and Boris have many misadventures often fueled by alcohol. Another tragedy brings Theo back to New York for the second half of the novel.

Back in New York, Theo becomes an antique dealer under the tutelage of Hobie who becomes his mentor and surrogate father. They share a connection to event that started the book. More secrets are revealed as Theo comes of age, mostly surrounding a stolen painting that connects all the characters. The second half loses some momentum as themes of addiction, fate, friendship, and fate vs chance are all explored. Is everything connected? Or is everything random? Or both? The final section moves to Amsterdam and briefly loses focus, but lands on its feet over the last 100 pages.

Great novels illuminate life; opens up new possibilities. Moments, imagery, and characters feel hauntingly real thanks to Tartt's immersive writing style. A novel about art, specifically the question of beauty and whether art makes us better people. Art is a positive force in the life of Theo, his mom, and Hobie, yet all see it differently.  What gives us meaning seems to be the question Tartt's attempting to answer in this 800+ page book.

Tartt's novel created a stir among critics who dismissed it as too popular and not literary enough. One may call it a potboiler, but the themes are heavy and the characters are complex. Even in our period of hyper technology and political instability, aspects of modern life Tartt wisely avoids, although I think it's possible to get a political subtext out of the story.  Human emotion and experience remains the same, questions that occupied Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens still hover over everything else. Tartt gets this and harnesses the power of the written word in the best way possible. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Book Review: Horror Films of the 1980s by John Kenneth Muir

John Kenneth Muir’s exhaustive history of 1980s horror is fascinating trip through the decade that gave us slashers, retro obsessive cinema, and horrifying allegories. Muir views the genre as a response to the social and political climates that shaped them, and horror at its best sheds a light on reality. The real life horrors of the 1980s were manifold: nuclear warfare, the AIDS epidemic and the subsequent sexual panic, out of control consumption, and the oldest fear of all: the monsters within all of us.
Muir often returns to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid” mantra as the defining characteristic of the 1980s. President Reagan made grand promises and waxed eloquently on the majesty of the American experiment, while at the same decimated the working class through tax cuts and Union busting, presided over the selling of arms for hostages, and talked a tad too freely about nuclear holocaust being God’s Will. Wes Craven’s unforgettable creation Freddy Kruger (played with gusto by Robert Englund) attacked teenagers in their dreams, just as Reagan infiltrated the subconscious of America with bright visions of city’s on the hill. The decade’s aversion to reality manifested itself in a shabby pop culture of MTV stars and fake moralistic/successful people on television (Bill Cosby being a prime example). But horror movies at their best shined a light through the facade of a schizoid culture.
The ironic element is how tame the 1980s look now in comparison to today. I was born in 1979 so those years were my childhood. Memories of He-Man guys, Diff’rent Strokes, The Muppet Show, Return of the Jedi, Hulk-a-Mania, Late Night With David Letterman, foment waves of nostalgia. Hell, even thoughts of Reagan taking the podium conjure images of continuity and dare I say statesmanship. Elitists wrote screeds against the new gilded age culture that grew trashier with each year, yet at the same time there’s self-assurance to the decade that resonates. 
Video stores and video arcades were meccas of pop culture bliss outs, a far different experience from doing an Amazon Prime search. One of the decades best genre films from 1984 Night of the Comet celebrated consumerism and apocalyptic culture with a subtle irony, honesty, and a distinct irreverence that leapfrogged over the rest. Nightmares are always around the corner, but why not try to have a good time anyway?
Reading over the 300+ reviews, there's sense of diminishing returns as the decade unfolds. The early years were riding the wave of the explosive 1970s. The horror genre reached an apogee during the early years of the decade, an indicator of a changing culture. Slashers became the most popular subgenre, one where the tropes became a kabuki play. May autuers emerged, the trend setters of the 1970s like Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and Tobe Hooper continued to raise the standards of the genre. New comers Sam Raimi, Tom Holland, and James Cameron expanded the possibilities of horror. One hit wonders are legion.
Muir applies the closest analysis to even to the most oppressive of clunkers, usually finding some element to praise. Even for the mediocre movies, and most of these are average, John gives you a reason to check them out. Some of these films are widely available and are regularly aired on cable television or are available to stream. But many of them are not. There are many hidden diamonds in this book that deserve a wider audience: Obscurities such as Alone in the Dark, Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff, The Entity, and many others. 
Horror fans will have much to savor with these volumes. For those looking for an iconoclastic look at the 1980s without the tired genre of Reagan hagiography, Horror Films of the 1980s will illuminate how movies are not only entertaining and an invaluable source of escapism, but an educational journey into the subconscious