Always in focus
By Joseph McBride
Steven Spielberg is the most successful film-maker in the brief history of cinema - which makes him, according to Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park, "arguably the most influential popular artist" of the century.
Now, at the age of 50, he is about to embark on a further venture, founding a new Hollywood studio with his friends Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen; it will be called SKG, from the initials of their surnames. If it succeeds, it will be a demonstration that the dinosaur can be revived, that the Hollywood of the studio era was just waiting to come back to life, that the dream works. And this is more or less what Spielberg has been demonstrating throughout his career.
He grew up in an age when the values of the old Hollywood were deeply unpopular among the young. The Middle America of the movies was patriotic, clean-living, family-oriented; above all, it believed in the values of capitalism, at a time when the prevailing ethos was anti-capita list.
The hippie generation that came to maturity in the late 1960s burned flags, took drugs and sought for an alternative to a society that worshipped big bucks. Even in America, the film-makers that the young admired were arty, experimental, often politically committed and usually European. The young Spielberg, on the other hand, didn't do drugs, drop out or demonstrate. He didn't even seem to be very keen on girls. The movies he liked were the ones that did big box office, the ones that everybody enjoyed. It is hardly surprising that, at school in the late Fifties, he was dismissed as "a nerd".
However, while he was still in high school, those who had called him names were starting to reconsider. As soon as he got hold of his father's 8mm movie camera, Spielberg began to make pictures; not funny pictures in which his friends acted up, like the Goons or the Beatles; not clever pictures, edited to look like Eisenstein; but genre pictures, mainly science fiction, which involved persuading the police to let him film their cars and airlines to allow him on board a real airliner. He was one of those rare adolescents who know clearly, down to the last detail, what they want to do with their lives.
The driving impulse is not hard to find. As a child and a teenager in Cincinnati, Ohio, in Camden, New Jersey and, most of all, in Phoenix, Arizona, Spielberg felt like an outsider. The true extent of the anti-semitism that he encountered is uncertain, as McBride shows in the reminiscences of interviewees who knew Spielberg at the time; but the point is that he was conscious of it, conscious of the fact that there were not many Jews in Arizona, ashamed of being one and secretly bitter at the treatment he received.
But the overt response was more complex. Much like the Jewish moguls who founded the great Hollywood studios in the 1920s and 1930s, he admired the society that excluded him. And, like them, he made films that celebrated many of its values.
There was usually an outsider somewhere in the movies, often played by Richard Dreyfuss (the oceanographer in Jaws, the cable repair man in Close Encounters); or else there were aliens who, in Close Encounters and ET, depart from the premises of all those Fifties alien-invasion movies, and turn out to be friendly. Meanwhile, Spielberg may have been taking out some resentment in his depiction of suburban life as small-minded and prejudiced. But all this could only be read after the fact. The audience came to be entertained, and Spielberg gave them entertainment, not self-analysis.
The sort of 1930s movies that Woody Allen was satirising in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Spielberg was actually making in the Indiana Jones series, B movies done with A-movie budgets and modern special effects. There is comedy in them, but no defensive, postmodern irony; and the high production values are designed to cover the seams. Reading McBride's account of the making of Spielberg's movies, one is reminded of what a messy business it really is, and all the agony and uncertainty involved in getting a film on the screen.
McBride, author of a revealing biography of Frank Capra, has done an impressive job. He seems to have probed the memories of everyone who has known Spielberg, from his mother's friend Grace Robbins in Camden ("he looked like he was in a dream world," says Mrs Robbins of the boy Spielberg, with perhaps a hint of wisdom after the event), to the production designer on Jurassic Park. He is not afraid to report unflattering or critical comments, while preserving a degree of objectivity and balance in his own judgments - though they are rare.
The accounts of making Spielberg's major movies are enthralling and will be useful to anyone studying them; before that, however, there is rather too much of Spielberg's childhood and adolescence for the weight that McBride manages to attach to it in relation to the films.
In fact, the story of the Jewish boy growing up as an outsider in Middle America, then beating it at its own game, is almost too neat; one has only occasional glimpses of a credible personality behind the masks. The turning-point, both Spielberg and McBride agree, came with Schindler's List, like many of Spielberg's other films in that it was a risk, triumphantly justified, but unlike them in dealing with an overtly Jewish subject. Does it represent, finally, coming to terms with his Jewishness, or did he bury it?
In any event, one must admire his courage, as a popular film-maker who has spent a lifetime pleasing his audience, in undertaking a black-and-white film about the Holocaust, the most downbeat subject of all.And, now, we can look forward to The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park, due to open here shortly and a typical Spielberg film, fulfilling every child's dream that dinosaurs could be made to walk the Earth again. Sheer enjoyment.