FILM / Rebirth of a salesman: How on earth did the same man make 'Jurassic Park', and then this? David Thomson explains

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The Independent Culture
THERE'S something serene and unnerving, something more, or less, than human about Steven Spielberg. It's as if, rather than just striving to be himself, he was actually responding to some perilous, deep-seated urge: 'I can be anything.' There are ways in which he intrigues the biographer in me, for this is one of the most telling American lives of the last half-century. So far, let me stress, for he's only 46, no matter that he's been a fixture for two decades. He's done so much; yet as a man he's so unremarkable. Is there enough of him that's real or ordinary, or is he maybe as ageless and steeped in alien wisdom as his own ET?

No, that's going too far. Better, I think, to present the Spielberg of 1993 as an irresistible door-to-door salesman - polite, bright, tireless, endlessly ready to please. In the summer he knocks on the door and gives us his pitch: 'What do I have for you? I'm glad you asked. I have a marvel, a sensation, the thing that in that child's heart you cling to you always long to see. What is it? It's anything you've never seen before - dinosaurs moving as fluently, as life-like, and thinking more quickly than Lord Richard Attenborough. You have to see this to believe it. Can I put you down for two tickets? Three even?'

We bought it. And he was right. As story or drama, Jurassic Park was pathetic; indeed, it was a place where such things had been evolved away, smoothed out by wonders. You're frightened out of your seat, but never moved or interested. (And though Jaws was nonsensical, it did interest us: it touched on legend and fairy tale.) More than 65 years ago, The Jazz Singer was just as stupid, yet it changed everything. Within a year of its opening, every movie had to talk. There were protests and lamentations. The great silent director D W Griffith was supposed to have cried out: 'Give us back our beauty.' But the cause was hopeless, and even Griffith was talking now, trying to compete with Al Jolson.

The influence of Jurassic Park may take a little longer to sink in, but it could be as potent. For what Spielberg's summer hit pioneered (it is already the top-grossing film of all time) was something I'll call beyond photography. What it proved was that impossible things could be made as life-like as moving pictures. Special effects and animation have been working that border for decades. But here is something basic and transforming (and perhaps threatening to our grasp on life): artificial life can look like the real thing. Jurassic Park did the trick with dinosaurs, but it could work as easily with, say, the images of John F Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

The technology now exists to take all the known film or video footage of those creatures, convert it into a data bank, and then generate new images, where they talk to each other, and . . . well, you get the idea. And if not those two, what about Elvis and Diana? Sounds expensive, you say? Yes it is, so far, but so was sound once. Jurassic Park has only encouraged the attempt.

So Steven Spielberg managed that in 1993, and one day he may be on a stamp for doing it. Then, for Christmas (in America), he was back on the doorstep with a fresh line: 'Remember me? No beating about the bush, this time I'm talking Holocaust. All along, I have been Jewish, yet maybe I have not always been up-front about it. Was I ashamed? I don't know - I was busy. Now, I'm a changed man. I married again - did you know? Yes, to Kate Capshaw - Amy Irving is history, but with a terrific settlement. Anyway, Kate converted to Judaism. Through her eyes, I looked anew at my own faith and origins.

'Now - Schindler's List. Right, it is the story of the Holocaust. What is different? For years, it seemed to me this was not a subject for movies. You want to put the audience through that? I asked. Three hours of death? Where is the redemption? Where is the entertainment? And don't knock entertainment.

'Schindler is the redemption. With him you have a hero. This guy - no one knows quite why - he saved Jews. No, not all of them, but enough for a picture.

'You know me. You know I deliver. I do not want to beat my own trumpet, but I will tell you candidly, this time I have done it, it is a new me and a great movie. This one will move you. This is an experience. Tickets? Don't tell me. Do as your conscience guides you.'

All right, I know, that patter's a little broad. But I'm trying to do what Spielberg does: entertain you into thinking. I have a lot of mixed feelings about Schindler's List, so much so that I wouldn't simply recommend it strongly to anyone. I'd say, see it twice] Because the first time you see it it's likely to be the most moving film you've ever seen. It isn't exactly a new Spielberg: he has always been a brillliant storyteller, and once at least - with the hitherto neglected Empire of the Sun - he's made a very dark, prison-camp picture. Still, he's never been so good for such extended periods of screen time. I'll be surprised if Schindler's List doesn't win Best Picture and Best Director, the accolades Hollywood has all along denied him, even though it gave him the Irving Thalberg award in 1986.

Why see it twice? Because it's that good, but also for another reason. It's on the second viewing that you begin to appreciate the alarming analogy between Spielberg and Oskar Schindler, the profiteer who exploited a number of Krakow Jews to make a prosperous business selling pots, pans and enamelware, and then saved his soul by using the proceeds to buy 1,100 lives from the lip of the gas chamber.

Call it having your cake and eating it, or wanting the masses and the Nobel prize, this unironic split personality is what identifies Spielberg with the history and spirit of Hollywood. Not that he deserves to be regarded as just one of the crowd. If you compare Spielberg with all the grand old hypocrite showmen of the picture business - Zanuck, Goldwyn, De Mille, Griffith, Chaplin, Capra, Selznick - then Spielberg stands out for quantity and longevity. Moreover, he is not just a producer or a director. He does both, without flagging and without those vagaries of egotistical neurosis that led most of the giants astray.

Forget Jurassic Park, Spielberg could already lay claim to six pictures in the top 20 box-office movies of all time - Jaws; Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Raiders of the Lost Ark; Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; and ET the Extra-Terrestrial.

Put all of those aside, and Spielberg is also the 25-year-old who made that unequalled study in highway paranoia, Duel; he is the co-writer and co-producer on Poltergeist, one of the most suggestive of horror films, and a work on which rumour and hunch say that he was vital; he is the executive producer on the Back to the Future pictures and on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which is not just an effortless marriage of animation and live action, but the best sequel to Chinatown you'll ever get. And The Color Purple - may it rest in peace. Any of these would earn Spielberg an interesting place in film history. And there are others. Truly, this man is a colossus. And so dull in person] For years, Hollywood has admired and envied Spielberg; the town has looked to him for work; it has had to look away from his astonishing fecundity; and it has waited for crushing failure. He reckons he was wronged at Oscar-time, year after year. He may have regarded himself as an outsider. He need not fear, for he is of the business, a living, walking double-feature, popular and prestigious, determined to offer you anything. This is his season for achingly sincere thank-you speeches, and hushed testimony on how far Schindler has enriched him - irony seldom obtrudes.

Then, in the next breath, he begins to argue with himself about what to do next - another Indiana Jones, or Robert James Waller's meretricious, smash-hit romance, The Bridges of Madison County? It'll be like doing jingles after a requiem Mass. But Spielberg can change on a dime; he is so young still, so full of business-like hopes and sheer in-your-face promise: 'Remember me? No, not movies this time. I have a new kind of question for you: What's the great human political tragedy of modern times? What's the big 'if only' you'd love to put right?

'Got it] Now visualise JFK returned again, running again, the same age, the same charm, presidential, a hero on your screens, a leader. What will he say? As little as possible - no one wants to offend. He'll just crack jokes, make nice, small talk. Be Jack. Jack's Back - a daily series. Can I count on you?'

'Schindler's List' (15): Empire, Leicester Sq (0800 888911) from Fri; general release 4 March.

(Photographs omitted)