IN THE KINGDOM OF YOUTH
STEVEN SPIELBERG: The Unauthorised Biography by John Baxter HarperColli ns pounds 18
Sunday 07 July 1996
Taken together, those passages begin to disarm reservations about the life of a man still only 50. After all, the life and the work are far from settled. Spielberg's new business enterprise, DreamWorks, has yet to show itself. In the next few years, he might take over the whole business; for he has always cast himself on a ladder, with only one way to move - upwards. That might make a writer hesitate, just as he would have to be daunted by trying to penetrate the citadel of Spielberg. Biography depends on intimate material and some inner perspective, but Spielberg is famous for seeking to control the ways in which he is perceived. So no one was ever going to say anything too unexpected or dangerous about this man - the God, as he is called in Hollywood, with insufficient irony.
Nor is it the case that anyone close to Spielberg - Amy Irving, say, Kate Capshaw, Tobe Hooper, George Lucas, Harrison Ford or Jeffrey Katzenberg - has spilled any embarrassing beans. Baxter implies that a few people with the Amblin organisation (Spielberg's boyishly- named empire) have talked to him, but they are not named and none of their remarks is damning or scandalous. Instead, the book has rather more the feeling of having been written in London than Los Angeles.
One must add that John Baxter is not a muck-raker or prosecutor by nature. Still, the thing that most impresses in his book is the calm, careful and nearly gentle way in which it builds up our disquiet that the movie kingdom and our society as a whole should be so ordered that Steven Spielberg is its Gatsby, its Kane, and such a shining young example.
The achievement of Spielberg needs little introduction: nearly any kid of the last 20 years could list his credits. And it is Baxter's most intriguing point that Spielberg not only caters to youthfulness, but extends and preserves it. Spielberg was seldom a happy or confident child, and he was sensitive to the break-up of his parents' marriage. Not that he had hard times. He was also indulged in his pursuit of amateur film-making, and raised in the scheme of being a huge hit. But his education was largely conducted in the place education is meant to dispel - the dark. In other words, he is the archetype of a generation for whom knowledge of the world has been replaced by a weird, manic memory for old movies. The tough, relentless naivety that results is often alarming, and there is nothing more disturbing in this book than Spielberg's urge to make a father-figure and role-model out of Steve Ross, the flattering, indulgent and none-too- ethical tycoon who led Time Warner and lives in history as the man to whom Schindler's List is dedicated.
Baxter is properly admiring of much in Spielberg: the over-riding urge to be a mass entertainer; the charm and tenacity that could handle Joan Crawford in his TV debut and make folk epics out of Duel and Jaws; the genuine sense of wonder in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; the occasional, bold failure, like Empire of the Sun, which some regard as Spielberg's best picture; the ability to deliver under pressure - for so many of his films have involved very difficult material, huge casts, elaborate special effects and an enormous load of expectation. Baxter sees the story-telling instinct and the eye for active imagery. He sees the fruitful interest in children and fundamentally common and appealing characters. He recognises also how far the loyalist in Spielberg has helped other careers - for instance, that of Robert Zemeckis, who made Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? thanks to Spielberg's patronage.
So what, finally, is so unsettling in this description? It begins in the rigid youthfulness of Spielberg and the recurring adoption of fanciful stories, as opposed to events based in reality. It depicts a man who would sooner equip his houses with video games than libraries, someone whose curiosity extends to technology more than human nature. Baxter describes a grown-up adolescent who is often shallow, devious and self-aggrandising in the way of adolescents, a brilliant kid who is also vulnerable to charges of soullessness. Baxter is well aware of how far Spielberg has behaved like an opportunist, an empire-builder and a remorseless amasser of money (his fortune now exceeds $500 million), a rather cold paragon of performance who seeks respect and reputation, but who has hardly grasped the wearisome and wounding ways in which real artistic character is established.
That portrait is not conclusive or simply unlikeable, and Baxter appreciates the nature of the film business well enough to know how fully Spielberg has enacted Hollywood's dreams. What is so clever, I think, is Baxter's sense of a man too narrowly focused to amount to a villain. But there's the point: for Spielberg has not just guided the movie business in the last years, he has been the key definer of movies that are hardly fit for adult consumption and which defy adult experience. Certainly he has uncanny instincts about his audience, and a supreme mastery of showmanship, but, together, those instincts and that prowess are killing what might have been an art form.
But Schindler's List, you ask, isn't that different? Yes, it is. It is the most moving thing Spielberg has ever done, and it won the kingdom of Hollywood for him as at last he got his personal Oscars. At the same time, Baxter asks us to see the unnerving cuteness of that film: the way in which an "impossible" subject was cracked - or ET'd, made viable for entertainment tonight - by the providential existence of a hero we could identify with. Schindler's List, therefore, is both a great movie and unblinking proof that the movies are inadequate at describing our most profound experiences. So Steven Spielberg is our best showman; his own amazing story, but a model for a medium's decline.
The Spielberg that Baxter depicts is not unaware of such criticism; indeed, he's far too much the careerist to ignore his own reviews. It has been a part of his ladder-climbing that he has moved from movie-movie spectaculars - like Jaws, Close Encounters, ET and the Indiana Jones pictures (the kid as professor) - to a deliberate, if not studious, attempt upon "serious" literature and grave subjects - The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun and Schindler's List. And it was surely a gesture of adolescence that he could attempt, and manage, Jurassic Park and Schindler's List at the same time. Look Ma - I'm multitudes and opposites, and more than the sum of what I'm doing. That Spielberg may very soon provide an "authorised" life to offset Baxter's more sceptical approach. For in the end he is less an artist intent on his work than a corporation swaying in the audience's breath.
John Baxter has used the career of Spielberg to give a warning history of modern American film. Despite a few factual errors and an occasional flatness in the writing, Baxter's success is beyond question. To that extent, this Steven Spielberg is not just a delayed adolescent. He is the bland apple of the picture business's eye, and everything we deserve. So we must understand Steven Spielberg and ask the tough questions, even if Spielberg himself seems reluctant to take on those tasks.
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