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.