The Saturday Profile: Steven Spielberg, Film Director: Patron saint of entertainment
A useful antidote to the volumes about orgasms and g-spots would be `The Bad Sex Guide'
Saturday 12 September 1998
Only one person in a thousand, 10 thousand, maybe 100 thousand could get that big a picture done, finished near enough on time and on budget - never mind how good it is - just finish it, without disaster. Making a movie is one of the most gruelling ordeals in the world.
But in Poland with him, Spielberg had his wife, Kate Capshaw, and five children (one Spielberg's son by his first wife, Amy Irving; one Capshaw's child by an earlier marriage; two of their own; and one adopted). Thank God for that, he said, they kept me sane. Which, again, you understand; but think of your own life and think how much time you need for a spouse and children (let alone five with these rivalries). But at the very same time, in the evenings, so to speak, Steven Spielberg went to the hotel, switched on a satellite dish, specially installed, and worked on editing Jurassic Park, which he had finished shooting just before he left for Poland.
Now he has two more children: one adopted, one acquired the slow way.
And here he is again, with Saving Private Ryan. There are things wrong with the film. But, for myself, after two viewings, I've given up on what's wrong because I'm so moved that it doesn't seem to matter.
And this fellow Spielberg will be 52 on 18 December, and along with the wife and seven children, and Saving Private Ryan (which is only D-day plus, and the last time that was attempted, in The Longest Day, it nearly destroyed a studio) he is also one of the three partners trying to make DreamWorks SKG the best new enterprise in Hollywood, despite horrendous problems (over whether they can ever build a studio where they want to, on land north of Los Angeles airport), and striving to get two innovative animated films - Antz and The Prince of Egypt - ready for this Christmas to show the sceptics that DreamWorks is for real, and here to stay.
All this while nurturing the inner life, as artists are supposed to do, aren't they?
There are also things right with Saving Private Ryan that come from the inner life and the extraordinary ability to tame and guide resistant reality so that it becomes a story, an arc, an entertainment. You see combat shot and cut in such ways that you realise how tidy it has been in other films. Spielberg gives you blast and its deafness, the craziness, the surrealism, There's even a moment, finally, when Ryan is going to be saved and the Captain tells him: "Earn it" - deserve the sacrifices of those who died to bring him back - when you feel and understand the noble metaphor of the "good war", and that unsentimental and still unbombastic American faith that it had come to Europe to save the world.
That's the moment to sketch in Spielberg's life story. Born in Cincinnati, one of the famously dull and conservative places in America; the son of an electrical engineer and a mother who played the piano; a quiet, shy kid with an inner life who wrote illustrated stories and quickly turned to home movies (at the age of 16, he had made a 140-minute home movie called Firelight, cost $600); how he had moved to New Jersey and then to Phoenix - another of the worst places in America; how he went to California State College, not much of a school; how he got work in TV.
Then, at the age of 25, for TV originally, he made Duel, a spectacular fable about an ordinary driver who begins to be pursued by a rogue truck. Well, that's not so much, you say, because at 25, Orson Welles had made Citizen Kane - but Duel was more successful.
Maybe we're close to the secret hero, for, truly, Kane was a failure in 1941 - audiences didn't understand it, couldn't follow it. Duel worked like clockwork. As time went by, Spielberg became known for astonishing, rapturous cinematic flights that worked like perfect engines. For example, a sweet teenage girl goes skinny-dipping off the Massachusetts shore one warm night. She's having a perfect holiday until the John Williams music comes surging out of the deep and - Gotcha! The truck was a shark now, and in the summer of 1975, kids in America went from the beach to the movie house, and back again, working themselves into a comic frenzy of fact and fiction. Jaws, it was called, and it changed the business: here was the new summer blockbuster, the sort of tricked-up film you open on 500 screens - 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 on Friday, and by Monday you're a millionaire.
Spielberg was established as an American genius - the kind that delivers immediately, on the spot. Orson Welles was the other kind, I suppose; the old-fashioned European kind. But Kane is less a lever than a miracle; it simply is up there on the screen. But everyone who ever saw Jaws can tell you what it means and how it works. Indeed, it's a sort of student film, full of glee about its own medium.
But Steven Spielberg never rested or relaxed, just because he'd made it. In the years after Jaws, his sense of the popular pulse was borne out in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (a landmark in American popular culture in the way it opened up the subject of extraterrestrialism); Raiders of the Lost Ark (a partnership with George Lucas, the redemption of Saturday morning serial heroics, and a further mining of the young audiences); and ET (in which the shark became a marketable toy and an ancient, wise softie).
There have been relative commercial failures along the way: 1941, an ambitious farce about America in the paranoia of possible Japanese invasion, fell flat; Hook proved to be an inflated and overly sentimental reworking of the Peter Pan story; Amistad was an awkward mix of court-room cliche and an anguished portrait of the slave trade. There are also lesser known pictures that seem to me among the most interesting things Spielberg has done. Poltergeist, credited to Tobe Hooper, but apparently driven along by Spielberg himself, a dark modern fairy-story in which the truck-shark has become the television set in the corner of the room; and Empire of the Sun. The latter, an uncommonly grown-up story about a child, gave Spielberg the best source material he has ever had - JC Ballard's autobiographical novel - and the result proved too disturbing for large audiences. But it remains a work of true mystery.
Not that commercial immediacy has been a problem with Spielberg. He has made more of the picture business's greatest hits than anyone else dead or alive. He has made box-office successes out of projects that seemed perilous at first, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, for example. More than that, he has been producer or executive producer on the Back to the Future series, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Twister and Men in Black. By 1996, according to his biographer, Joseph McBride, Spielberg's personal fortune was more than pounds 1bn. Just as important to him, with Schindler's List he broke down the Academy's long-time resistance and won best picture and best director. If ever the kid seemed arrogant, the middle-aged man was welcomed home.
Today, he is regarded by the film business as a titan, a saint and a lucky charm. He is just "Steven". People seek his tough imprimatur; they fear his disapproval. The society of Hollywood follows his lead and wears jeans, sneakers, T-shirts or windbreakers and baseball caps. Everyone admires the way Spielberg seems so youthful and so earnest at the same time. And for nearly 25 years now he has kept his ability to read the audience's mind, and then offer it something a little more challenging than it expected.
He defines the entertainment movie as few have done before. In his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, F Scott Fitzgerald wrote: "Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their head." That was 1940, or so, when you could have pointed to DW Griffith, Chaplin, De Mille, Lubitsch, Capra, Selznick and Disney as possible candidates. Those were men who could think, talk and deal in art and money, slipping from one to the other while hardly faltering.
Since 1940? Hitchcock, Lucas and Spielberg. But among all those other names there's no one who's remained at the top as long as Spielberg. And he's still just in his early fifties. There's no one who's made as much money, or who has so steadily taken on big and "important subjects".
Then I'm reminded of Schindler's List. Never doubt the daring or the "trick" of that venture. For decades, Hollywood had known that the Holocaust was one of the great subjects. But how do you make it uplifting? How do you tell the truth and let the audience feel good? With the help of Thomas Keneally's book, Spielberg found a hero and a "positive" picture. Does that diminish the art and the truth? Yes, I think so, just as it shows a little too much zeal for taste's good. That's why it felt compelled to colourise the red coat of the child lost in the ghetto. For there is no decent way in which Auschwitz can be made into a show. It is sacred - even if the opposite of holiness; it cannot be given a purpose or a point, without seeming vulgar.
Then recollect the superhuman way in which Spielberg worked on Schindler's List and Jurassic Park at the same time. The first may have its limits, but it is a remarkable achievement and the way to tears. The second is a piece of nonsense, rather more than casually made, in fact, that embodies a kind of movie-making (computer-generated) that enables the medium to move beyond real light, or real things and a debt to reality. Of course, that small child's red coat was computer-generated, too.
Ask yourself, could Tolstoy have written War and Peace and a James Bond novel at the same time? Is such versatility proper, decent or human? Or does it suggest an uncommon weakness for trick effects and ostentatious genius? Is it even possible that, since he's so interested in aliens, Spielberg's personality transcends the human? Or is he so successful that it leaves critics determined not to honour his art? Can the American movie ever be as profound as we want? Or is it always a show and a marvel, so furiously effective and useful that it always misses the sacred? No career knocks against that question more steadily than that of Spielberg.
Born: Cincinnati, Ohio, 18 December 1947.
Vital statistics: Age 51; twice married - Amy Irving in 1985 (divorced), two children; second wife, the actress Kate Capshaw, three children, plus two adopted.
Background: Father an electrical engineer who moved the family to New Jersey and Arizona before settling in California. Mother, a housewife and keen pianist
Education: California State College.
First work: Filming a toy train collision at 12. Won film contest with 40-minute war movie Escape to Nowhere at age 13.
First Position: TV director at Universal Pictures at age 20.
Films as director: 22
Success rate: Six of the top dozen highest earning films of all time. And, at last, some Oscars.
Influences: A passionate anglophile, he describes David Lean as his greatest influence.
His critics say: He is "infantilising film culture". (Pauline Kael, critic).
He says of himself: "I hope I'm never accused of making `adult' movies."
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