Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Spielberg, Spielberg, Spielberg

"The question isn't to know when Spielberg is the best, but instead to know when Spielberg is the most Spielberg. And there you might find your answer." - Stéphane Delorme

With the new, director-approved digital restoration of Steven Spielberg's 1975 Jaws playing at the Lightbox it's high time to discuss Spielberg over here at Toronto Film Review

Over the recent winter-time two of Spielberg's films were released in theaters in such close successions they might as well have been a double-bill: the B-picture, digital childhood fantasy The Adventures of Tintin and the A-picture, live-action War Horse. Along with J.J. Abrams's ode to Spielberg with Super 8 and Andrew Stanton reaching for the stars with John Carter – Spielberg seems to be now as relevant as ever.

Even the revered French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema recently dedicated an issue to him, Spielberg - Face A Face (N.675) – which includes ten articles* on Spielberg!

Alright, now returning to Jaws, which to discuss: it’s relevant to bring up Carl Gottlieb's book The Jaws Log (which is available by Newmarket Press in a Thirtieth Anniversary Edition). Yes, Jaws made movie history at the time as the highest grossing movie ever. Yes, it established a business model and release pattern for large scale summer movies, that persists to this day, where instead of the usual "platform" pattern in which a film would open in big cities and then roll out into lesser markets, Jaws would open wide, playing on over 500 screens – becoming the first "summer blockbuster." But it's a lot more than that.

During the making of the film, in the industry shift towards the post-studio system filmmaking era, Gottlieb's behind the scenes background information presents what was then a new model of filmmaking. Spielberg, and others, were shooting out on location, using non-professional actors, engaging with new technologies – all of this to create new experiences for the film-going audience. This capturing of the seventies era film industry makes it similar to Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. 

The Jaws Log brings up the difficulty the filming crew had with the islanders when they were filming in Martha's Vineyard. Gottlieb also highlights all of the different participants that worked on the film (and in the books new annotations, he writes what they're doing today), showing that it takes a whole community to make a film: from the actors Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss; to the technical crew like the director of photography Bill Butler, the shark designer Joe Alves, editor Verna Fields, music by John Williams et cetera. It's mentioned that even John Millius contributed a couple of lines to the final screenplay, when Quint says, "It'll find him for five, kill him for ten," that was Milius.

Gottlieb not only contributed to the Jaws screenplay, but he also acts in the film as the Aminity Newspaper publisher, Meadows - in the book, there's even some funny pictures of him being knocked off a boat. In The Jaws Log, Gottlieb provides a behind-the-scenes perspective: Jaws first started out as a book by Peter Benchley, which when published would be one of the New York Times best-sellers. Then the producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown purchased the film-rights to the book, which would go to Spielberg, who they have already worked with on The Sugarland Express – a characteristic New Hollywood film where a marginal women and/or couple drives off and hits the road to find a better life (e.g. The Rain People, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore).

As much as it has been said that at the time, the twenty-eight-year-old Spielberg was only interested in making “movies” and to “entertain”: the burden of the past as symbolized by the murderous truck in Duel, the Bonnie and Clyde-like social criticism of Sugarland Express, and in Jaws there is Police Chief Brody’s trouble with dealing with the complexities of the correlation between natural terror and the political and economic realities of Aminity. All of these examples exemplify traits of a director whose aims are more then to “entertain”.

It’s hard to pin-point exactly what directors are the forbearers for Spielberg: people have brought up Michel Curtiz, David Lean, Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney, Frank Capra, and Chuck Jones. Though I think it’s rewarding to bring up Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and John Ford.

There's the anecdote in Directed by John Ford, where Spielberg talks about visiting Ford at his office, and where they talked briefly, and where Ford pointed to a Western painting and tells him, "When you understand what makes a great Western painting, you'll be a great Western director," and that the horizon  should never be in the exact center of the shot. You can see this influence in how Spielberg has a painterly approach to the frame. You can see some of Hawks in Spielberg, like how in Spielberg's films there is sometimes a light-hearted and comic atmosphere like in the Indiana Jones films and in Always. Though Spielberg has discussed being influenced by Hitchcock on the making of Duel (“What I learned from Hitchcock, was don’t ever let the audience off the hook, be a whore about keeping the audience on the hook as long as possible, before giving them some clue or some kind of relief.”), I mean the Hitchcock parallel more in the way that just like Hitch had his iconographic silhouette, no director today best encapsulates Hollywood other then a cap-and-glasses-wearing Spielberg.

The French film critic Pierre Berthomieu** in a interesting video by the Cinematheque Francaise, argues that when Stanley Kubrick passed away the world-greatest-filmmaker batton was passed down to Spielberg, who would even finish Kubrick’s unrealized A.I.

Spielberg has evolved a lot over the years. Where his early work might be better described as being characterized by spectacle, humor, and adventure. For example, Robert Benayoun’s Positif review of Raiders of the Lost Ark was entitled, Le retour du plaisir [the return of fun] (N.246). There has been a maturation in Spielberg’s films since the eighties and nineties, and in his recent films there is a stronger grappling with what it's like living with the complexities of today, especially in an American context - he shows both fractured identities and fractured politics. Like how in War of the Worlds to discuss 9/11 the films imagery needs to reference WWII to impart a scale of reference, or how Munich is the reverse-shot of Schindler's List, Spielberg at his most interesting seems to reflect what Nicolas Azalbert, characterizes as the post-Daney visuel schizo (Cahiers N.679),
“If the visual (an image as a substitution for an other), obliges us, according to Daney, to search for the non-represented, for the purpose of including it in what we are being shown, the visual, this new realm of images that we are engulfed in (a space within another) forces us now to distinguish these two spaces, the represented and the non-represented, to be then able to show them together.”
* The issue includes: Jean Philippe Tessé on the ideologies in Spielberg’s films, Vincent Malausa on Amblin Entertainment, Florent Guézengar's on Spielberg fantastic visions, Delorme on Spielberg at his most personal in the commercial failures Empire of the Sun, Always and A.I.; Cyril Béghin on Spielberg and WWII, François Truffaut's letters to Marvel Berbert from when he was in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jean-Sébastien Chauvin on Spielberg 2000's work and a review of War Horse; and short-takes by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Jinshi Fugii.
** Berthomieu even made a Spielbergian film, Le Temps des Géants.


Unknown said...

"We are gonna need a bigger boat."

Unknown said...

Marion: You're not the man I knew ten years ago.
Indiana: It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage.