Today begins "31 Days of Spielberg," my month-long examination of the movies directed by my personal favorite filmmaker.
At the outset I would like to make it clear that this project is not intended as a “peek behind the curtain” of the mechanics of on-set filmmaking. Thus, the number of behind-the-scenes anecdotes mentioned throughout this endeavor will most likely be minimal (except in cases where I think they play a significant role in the analysis of the finished film), though I will usually provide some sense of historical context before discussing each film. Furthermore, although I said in my official announcement that I would try to keep this project from becoming a “Spielberg biography” rather than an exploration and evaluation of his art, I do feel it is necessary to have at least some basic knowledge of the early period of his life, as well as where he was personally at the time of any given film he directed, in order to properly understand and appreciate his professional work (as is I believe the case with all artists). Therefore, this experiment will start with a brief synopsis of his “pre-history” with what I consider to be a few significant events highlighted. Many of you will have already heard these stories and I doubt I am going to offer any new and/or exciting revelations into the man’s past here. So, for those who are already familiar with the childhood of Steven Spielberg, I ask for your indulgence.
Let me also again invite anyone and everyone to participate in this project by either chiming in with questions, observations or any other form of feedback here in the comments section of each post or, if you wish, you could express your thoughts on your own blog (if you have one). Just let me know about it and I will see if I can link to it from here so as to provide a “springboard” for dialogue about Spielberg (which, of course, was part of the intent behind this project all along). This undertaking is intended to be for everyone; not just for me. Steven Spielberg is too important and too valuable to be kept to one’s self. We all have to share him.
I hope you all have half as much fun, and get half as much out of this experience, as I have. Thank you for your kind attention.
“I can always trace a movie back to my childhood.”
Steven Allan Spielberg was born on December 18, 1946 in Cincinatti, Ohio, the eldest child of four children, and the only boy, to Arnold and Leah Posner Spielberg. Arnold was an electrical engineer and Leah a former concert pianist (coincidentally, these were the exact same vocations of Orson Welles’ parents) and their decidedly different interests and sensibilities no doubt helped shape young Spielberg’s personality and eventual approach to filmmaking, i.e. a technical skill combined with artistic ambitions. Spielberg’s initial fascination with storytelling (not to mention with the subject of WWII) seems to have originated from his father, a B-25 radio operator, who regaled his son with heroic, and no doubt romanticized, solider exploits. Arnold also took Steven to see his first motion picture (Cecil B. Demille’s Greatest Show on Earth) where, in spite of his father’s assurance that what they were about to see was not “real,” Spielberg was nonetheless thrilled by what he saw on the screen. The event that perhaps most stimulated young Steven’s imagination, though, was when Arnold woke him one night and took him to an isolated stretch of land where dozens of other people were already lying on blankets gazing upward. There they watched in awe as a meteor shower peppered the star-studded night sky with streaks of light. It was on this night that young Steven discovered that the universe was filled with enchantment... and understanding that he never lost.
At a very early age, Spielberg’s family left Cincinatti and moved East to New Jersey and then later West to Arizona eventually settling in California. In consequence of the fact that the location of his home was constantly changing and his parents were often arguing, Spielberg’s family life was not always a pleasant one. Frequent moves ensured that making friends was difficult and Steven felt very lonely most of the time. He was not only unpopular, he was often flat-out disliked by other kids, his complete lack of any physical ability only exacerbating the situation. The one childhood story Spielberg recalls which I find rather compelling––regardless of how much of it is true and how much as been dramatized–-tells of when he had to run a mile for a grade in elementary school:
"The whole class of fifty finished, except for two people left on the track–-me and a mentally retarded boy. Of course, he ran awkwardly, but I was just never able to run. I was maybe forty yards ahead of him, and I was only 100 yards from the finish line. The whole class turned and began rooting for the young retarded boy–cheering him on saying, “C’mon, c’mon, beat Spielberg! Run, run!” It was like he came to the life for the first time, and he began to pour it on but still not fast enough to beat me. And I remember thinking, “Okay, now how am I gonna fall and make it look like I really fell?” And I remember actually stepping on my toe and going face hard into the red clay and actually scraping my nose. Everybody cheered when I fell, and then they began to really scream for this guy: “C’mon, John, c’mon! Run! Run!” I got up as John came up behind me, and I began running as if to beat him but not really to win, running to let him win. We were nose to nose, and suddenly I laid back a step, then a half-step. Suddenly he was ahead, then he was a chest ahead, then a length, and then he crossed the finish line ahead of me. Everybody grabbed this guy, and they threw him up on their shoulders and carried him into the locker room, into the showers, and I stood there on the track and field and cried my eyes out for about five minutes. I’d never felt better and I’d never felt worse in my life.”
Coming from a Jewish family, another sad reality that young Steven had to contend with was Anti-Semitism. In Study Hall his classmates would throw pennies at his head, mutter “Jew” under their breath as he walked by in the halls and, on occasion, display their prejudice and hostility more blatantly and violently. In desperation, Steven would sometimes fake sick so as to stay home and avoid getting beaten up. When he did go to school, Steven’s mother would pick him up afterwards and drive him home for the sake of her son’s safety (even though they lived within walking distance). These troubles had the unfortunate effect of making Spielberg, for a time at least, ashamed of his heritage. In the privacy of his bedroom he would duct-tape the tip of his nose to the top of his forehead in an attempt to make it turn up. Throughout this period of his life, Steven not only felt alone and isolated, he felt like an outsider, an outcast, an “alien.”
Much to the dismay of his sisters, Steven took a lot of his frustrations out on them in the form of practical jokes and tricks. He would terrify them with scary stories that involved monsters under the bed, ghosts in the closet and a sinister, spindly tree that stood right outside his bedroom window (unfortunately, Steven’s tricks backfired as he often ended up scaring himself even more than his siblings). Another manner in which Steven was able to retreat from the harsh realities of life was to escape into his own private “fantasy world.” He didn’t read much but he watched movies and television. He also played with toys, one of his favorite activities being to wreck his model trains. After his father threatened to take the train set away if he continued to destroy them, Spielberg found a way to enjoy the sensation of crashing them repeatedly without running the risk of losing them: namely, recording it with an 8mm camera and then playing it back as many times as he wanted. It was with this simple act of capturing an event, which he himself orchestrated, and then vicariously living through the two-dimensional depiction of that event that Steven Spielberg the filmmaker was born.
Perhaps as a penance for torturing his long-suffering sisters, Spielberg would include them as “actors” in his home movies. He also discovered that movie-making served as an excellent means of survival in the neighborhood. Steven found he could make friends with the bullies by promising to put them in his movies; as long as he was directing them, they weren’t hurting him. His earliest films were silent, minimal in length and incredibly meager in budget but as Steven got older the movies grew longer, more elaborate and more expensive. They also started to resonate with themes that would become staples of his later work. Fighter Squad combined actual war footage with re-created shots of a young pilot in the cockpit of a real (though grounded) jet. Escape to Nowhere, besides having what Spielberg would later call “the most esoteric title of his career,” was a forty-minute war film that actually got Steven some attention in their local paper and won him first prize at the Arizona Amateur Film Festival Contest. His most ambitious project, though, was a 140-minute movie (his first foray into sound) called Firelight whose story dealt with, among other things, UFO’s. It played on March 24, 1964, at the Phoenix Little Theater and recouped all of its $500 production costs, even going into profit (according to Steven by “one dollar only”). It was a harbinger of things to come.
Another theme present in Firelight was that of family disharmony and it was, alas, soon to become only too relevant in Spielberg’s own life. After years of fighting and counseling Arnold and Leah Spielberg finally divorced. Arnold moved out and Steven, now the only man in a family of all females, found adjusting to life without a father to be one of the most trying experiences he’s ever had to endure. Though the two of them would eventually reconcile, Steven was upset with his dad for many years after that (the absent father becoming yet another prominent theme in his later films), but Spielberg has nevertheless been very outspoken in praising his father for encouraging him to pursue his own passions and supporting his decision to make movies (oftentimes funding his filmmaking ventures) rather than forcing him to follow in his own footsteps. After graduating high school, Spielberg applied to several film institutions throughout California, but was rejected by all of them (the harshest “cut” of all coming from the school he most wanted to attend: USC) on the basis of his failing grades--the irony being, of course, that his grades were poor because of the amount of time he spent working on his films. Spielberg eventually enrolled at California State College at Long Beach and continued to make student films. During this time, he even managed to bluff his way onto the Universal Studio lot* where he could observe firsthand professional filmmaking up close, sitting in during the editing of shows like Gunsmoke and even getting thrown off Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain set at one point.
*Note: There has been some dispute over the accuracy of Spielberg’s “sneaking onto the lot” story. Snopes.com, for example, presents differing accounts of that particular period in Spielberg’s life. While I have little doubt that Spielberg, being a master storyteller, has embellished the tale in order to highlight the dramatic appeal, I personally do not see the multiple versions as being completely irreconcilable and am inclined to accept the substance of Spielberg’s version (if not perhaps all the details).
After several years of not getting noticed, Steven decided to make a serious attempt at producing a film that would display his filmmaking talents to commercially-minded studio executives. He spent $15,000 on a 22-minute road movie/romance, set in the Mojave Desert, about two hitchhiking teens in love. Working with wannabe cinematographer Allen Daviau, Steven shot the film in ten days on 35mm film stock without dialogue (but not, significantly, without sound) and called it Amblin’. Though he now laughs at the self-consciously artsy, youth-grooving film (calling it little more than a “Pepsi commercial”), the scheme worked. When the film won prizes at festivals in Atlanta and Venice in 1969, Spielberg was immediately seen as an up-and-coming talent with a bright future (Paramount executives even attached Amblin’ to the front of Love Story for 1970 release). His biggest break, however, came when Sid Sheinberg, then head of television operations at Universal Studios, saw the film and offered Spielberg an unprecedented seven-year contract. Consequently, Spielberg dropped out of school (something he later regretted) and went to work for Sheinberg and Universal. Steven’s first job was directing one of the three segments of a pilot for a new show by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling.
The show was called Night Gallery.
TOMORROW: The “eyes” have it