Monday, December 18, 2006

Spielberg and the "Landscape of the Human Face"

Steven Spielberg turned 60 today and I thought I might take the opportunity to share some musings on this highly significant, hugely influential and hotly debated film director, of whom I must admit I am a big admirer, both as an artist and as a human being. I consider him to be not only one of our greatest living filmmakers but a truly great man.

One disadvantage of being both a dedicated cinephile and a hard-core Steven Spielberg fan is that I am almost constantly butting heads with people who seem to think that the two terms are mutually exclusive. I find myself quite often engaged in conversations with people who feel that all "Hollywood" films are by definition inferior movie products. Thus, anyone who achieves the kind of success and popularity that Spielberg has is inherently suspicious because he must have prostituted himself (or "sold out") in the pursuit of true cinematic "high" art (forgetting, of course, that some bona fide geniuses, such as, oh say... Shakespeare were incredibly popular in their day). I almost always end up defending Spielberg's status as a true artist and not just a "mass entertainer" to these close-minded, abrasive, obnoxious, elitist, pseudo-intellectual cinema snobs.

Not that I am bitter or anything.

It just gets a little tiring to hear that it's okay to revere the likes Kubrick, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Bergman, Truffaut, Altman, Scorsese, etc. but say that you want to include Spielberg among them and you get looked at as if you were trying to suggest Pauly Shore belongs in the company of Marlon Brando. I recently got into an online conversation with someone who suggested that Spielberg was no better than Michael Bay and who actually likened Schindler's List to Pearl Harbor. All I can say is that I'm glad this discussion was conducted over the internet and not in person or the police would still be looking for the body. In a way, this blog is sort of a response to that kind of condescending attitude toward Spielberg and his work. It is by no means a comprehensive analysis of Spielberg's style or craft, but I recently re-visited one of my favorite films of his and wound up reflecting on something that I had not noticed before.

A friend of mine likes to say that one "never really knows what a film is about until the last shot." I have to agree. Until the film is over (really over) we cannot be 100% of the film's, for lack of a better word, "message" or "picture of reality." Of course, an astute viewer ought to be able to figure out well in advance of the closing shot what that "picture" is as it's extremely rare for the final image to completely subvert everything that came before it (although it has happened; Being There comes to mind). Oftentimes the last image merely confirms the themes that have been present in the film all along, but in the same way that (as Jim Emerson has pointed out with his ongoing Opening Shots Project) the first image is extremely important in understanding the language/perspective of a particular film, so I would argue is the last image.

In watching E.T. again, I was struck by this final shot:

First of all, besides being (I think) an homage to the final shot of Truffaut's 400 Blows, it comes at the end of an emotional scene in which the alien creature has said goodbye to all the major characters in the film, boarded his ship and taken off. As the ship speeds away into the night it leaves behind a rainbow (just one of many examples of religious imagery employed throughout the film). The camera then cuts to the face of every character who was present at the farewell. First, the smiling mother (Dee Wallace) with the scientist known only as "Keys" (Peter Coyote) standing behind her, followed by the three boys who helped rescue E.T. and then Michael (Robert MacNaughton) holding Gertie (Drew Barrymore). What is interesting about this sequence of shots, though, is that it cuts back to the rainbow one last time before it cuts to Elliott's face. In my mind this suggests the kind of director that Spielberg is and the kind of stories he tells.

Spielberg has often been accused of making movies that are about spectacle over story, that sacrifice character for special effects. Although I will admit this criticism does apply to some of his films, I think it is a gross generalization and an unfair "dig" at him. This final shot of Elliott's face suggests to me that Spielberg, rather than telling stories that are only about the special effects, tells stories about people. There is always a humanity at the heart of his stories: human behavior, emotions, dreams, fears, etc. The "human condition" itself is the central concern of his work (even films that seem to focus primarily on non-humans: i.e. sharks, dinosaurs, aliens, robots, etc). The simple fact that Spielberg chose to end E.T. not on the shot of the rainbow (the image that most other directors would surely have ended on) but on the face of a young boy, I think, speaks volumes about him. The image he wanted to send audiences home with was not a spectularly breathtaking and beautiful illusion in the sky, but rather the very real, and very intimate, countenance of a child (which in many ways is even more beautiful and spectacular).

The image of someone gazing at something out-of-frame is actually a very common one in a Spielberg film. James Lipton pointed this out to the director in his interview on the program Inside the Actor's Studio and Richard Dreyfus, who has acted in three Spielberg films, has joked that the name of the book he will never write is: Steven, Have They Figured Out What I Am Looking Up In Awe At Yet? Spielberg himself has said that he "likes to watch people thinking on screen because it invites an audience into the mind of that character." This may just be personal opinion, but I think that Spielberg photographs the human face better than almost any other living filmmaker.

If the history of cinema is, as some have suggested, the "history of the human face being captured on film" (since more movie frames are expended on human faces than on any other visual element), I think a very good argument could be made that Spielberg, like Tarkovsky and Pasolini, is one of cinema's great portraitists, that he just has a natural gift for depicting what Irvin Kerschner called, "the landscape of the human face."


cineboy said...

Damian, excellent post. It would be an interesting project to “catalogue” the various key images of faces throughout Spielberg’s career – and make the link between the image and the context of the image. It seems to me that a director who places such an emphasis on the human face, and who likes to have the audience wonder about what the character is thinking, is essentially a “humanist” director regardless of how much other technical virtuosity or wizardry his/her films contain. Spielberg is known for pushing the technical filmmaking envelope, but he does so by following the psychological/emotional arch of his characters, who , in the midst of whatever is happening around them, have to make very human choices.

Reel Fanatic said...

He absolutely belongs on the list of greats you enumerated .. he's as gifted a filmmaker as any of those true geniuses, and yet he puts a higher value on simply entertaining people .. what the heck is wrong with that?

Damian said...


First of all, thank you. :)

Second of all, That would be an interesting project I think.

reel fanatic:

I'm with you. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an entertainer. That's the problem I think with many so-called "film snobs." They think that something has to be either one or the other (art or entertainment). It can't possibly be both.

Gustavo H.R. said...

This text is a thoughtful tribute to Spielberg's greatest gift as a filmmaker, which is capturing the genuine human core of every story he tells. Any Spielberg admirer can relate to what is written there. Great read.

Damian said...

Thank you very much, Gustavo. By the way, I love your photo. :)

rob humanick said...

Reminds me of an old MST3K parody of [i]The Lost World[/i], in which they focused on Spielberg's trademark: "Scenes of people [i]looking![/i]".

tomdwayne said...

love your post.
i actually think that entertainment IS art and vice versa - all the great works of art "entertain" your eyes, ears, hearts, brains, tongues...the human being in all his glory.
the problem i have with spielberg is that i think he sold out after "schindlers list". he had always craved the kind of artistic admiration his peers (scorsese, coppola for example) "enjoyed", he always craved (i think he even admitted as such) the oscar as token of artistic achievement - to be an Artiste was basically his holy grail! that kind of unease with the label "mass entertainer" was never to be found in his, say pre-"hook" movies, but he believed the film snob hype more than he should have. he, seemingly, never knew that shakespeare was a business man, hitchcock and wilder were entertainers and journeymen, picasso was a big showoff/-man, and i´m pretty sure van gogh would have loved to make the kind of money his pictures take in now, most great classical composers created some of the most beloved works of musical art for churches and aristocrats/kings ergo money, and the sixtine chapel fresco wasn´t just michelangelo idling away hours on end on his own dime.
film snobs and academics alike like to forget all that as well - if only spielberg had known before he pissed away his "entertainistic" integrity with amistad and lost world.

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