Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Pierre Berthomieu on Steven Spielberg

One of the gems of the Cinémathèque française video series is Pierre Berthomieu's Présentation du cycle Steven Spielberg. To accompany their Spielberg retrospective L'Intégrale Steven Spielberg, which ran from January 9th to March 3rd 2012, this was just another video lecture and is described as "Pierre Berthomieu présente l'œuvre du cinéaste américain à travers cinq de ses films majeurs," which translates to "Berthomieu presents the oeuvre of the American filmmaker by way of five major films." But Berthomieu, through this guise, is able to achieve something far greater. He probes preconceived notions of Spielberg's oeuvre, placing him in the context of neo-classicism and offering fascinating close readings of the director's most personal films.

Berthomieu's enthusiasm and speaking style is contagious, which explains why the video, at forty-eight minutes, runs longer than those usually posted by the Cinémathèque. Where other speakers are shy in front of the camera - reading their notes, looking away etc. - or deliver twice-told reiterations of the most commonly known director overviews, Berthomieu possesses personal charisma and originality of argument. He speaks really quickly and is rarely at a loss for words. He has a knack for changing topic mid-sentence, annotating what he is saying, and then smoothly returning to the original subject, which makes his argument even stronger and complex.

In a lot of these video lectures the speaker is either filmed in an office, against a wall or in an auditorium. But instead of this setting Berthomieu is filmed in a café. What does this add? It adds a cinematic dimension to the video as you can hear all of the background noises such as staff doing prep, conversations can be overheard, a phone rings, and cutlery falls. There is a shift in framing halfway through the video where instead of having his back to the wall, in a cut, Berthomieu changes positions to having his back against the windows of the café. This is significant as by the end of the lecture when Berthomieu is talking about the more serious and existential themes in Spielberg's films, nightfall slowly darkens the setting behind him - a visual compliment to the seriousness of the discussion.

The Berthomieu video also continues in a Positif tradition - in some ways it is similar to Michel Ciment in the great Billy Wilder documentary Portrait of a ‘60% Perfect’ Man - which blends film criticism with literary criticism in a setting where a sophisticated review is an end in itself.

Berthomieu has been a contributor to Positif since 1993. A general survey of his contributions would have to include: his reviews of Shakespeare adaptations; Classical Hollywood films (DeMille, Leissen, Welles, McCarey, Whales, Stahl, Ford); films by directors like Claude Lelouch, John Carpenter (Village of the Damned), Robert Lepage, Guy Maddin (Careful), Gus Van Sant (To Die For, Psycho), Paul Verhoeven (Showgirls), Michael Winterbottom, James Cameron (Titanic), Ridley Scott (G.I. Jane), Joe Dante (Small Soldiers), Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight), Brian de Palma, Stanley Kubrick, John McTiernan (Thirteenth Warrior, Thomas Crown Affair), and George Lucas (Star Wars: Episode I & III). Berthomieu's only official Spielberg reviews in Positif are for The Lost World (N.411), Minority Report (N.500) and War of the World (N.535) even though he does bring him up sporadically. Now Berthomieu mostly contributes to the magazine's dossier section though his two most recent reviews were for Oliver Stone's Savages and Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly.

Berthomieu is a film professor in France (some of his past students have even made him a fan page) where his official title is Maître de conférences en études cinématographiques à l'université Paris-Diderot (Paris Vll). He has also realized a medium-length feature, the action adventure Le Temps des Géants. Berthomieu's newest book, Hollywood moderne - le temps des voyants, builds upon his previous Hollywood classique - Le temps des géants, and will be part of a trilogy. Jean-Loup Bourget in reviewing Hollywood moderne - le temps des voyants in Positif  (N.604) writes,
"The reader who is familiar with Berthomieu will recognize his great and numerous merits: his encyclopedic knowledge of an immense corpus, which is rebellious for its risks of erasing hierarchies - Berthomieu doesn't worry about having a chapter on "Hollywood pornographique" - he excels at the art of reconciling macro- with micro-analysis, his is a global auteurism that nonetheless remains attentive to the roles of actors, collaborators, directors of photography, decorators and especially composers; there is a historic precision tied with a sensuality of description and a lyricism of writing; and a demonstration tied to illustrious pictures [...] The way I see it, Berthomieu's best quality is hisromanticism and his generosity."  
Berthomieu has also written books on the Star Wars series, Kenneth Branagh, Rouben Mamoulian, John Williams, and the role of music in films.

Finally, Berthomieu's video lecture stands out because it is the summit of all of the great French language Spielbergien film criticism (something that is sorely lacking in English language criticism). Other great essays on Spielberg in French include those in Cahiers by Jean-Sébastien Chauvin (cf. Attrape une image (si tu peux), N.577) and Stéphane Delorme on A.I. (c.f. Stanley Kubrick, 1990-1995, N.666) or in Positif by Robert Benayoun (cf. Le retour du plaisir, N.246) or Christian Viviani on Lincoln (Les moyens de la fin, N.624). Berthomieu seems to have synthesized all of the latter's points to be able to seriously and joyfully speak about one of today's greatest filmmakers.

The following is an abridged translation of Berthomieu's Présentation du cycle Steven Spielberg. - D.D.


I don't think that I need to present Steven Spielberg too much but regardless there are some biographic and historical factors that would be useful to know. Some people say that Spielberg came about during the New Hollywood period, grosso modo, which was a period of renaissance in Hollywood during the end of 60s to the 70s, along with directors like Brian de Palma, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas. The people that associate Spielberg with the New Hollywood, which is already contestable, say that Spielberg ended the movement. The writers that say this, there are some of them who are talented and others without talent, and this depends on what side of the Atlantic they are on, and the talentless writers are in the United States. The argument is that Spielberg with Close Encounters and Lucas with Star Wars ended a decade of creativity, the adult years of Hollywood, that was brought towards an infantilization of films and the public.

These theories are nuanced. I would say that Spielberg is a lot more classic. Especially compared to Scorsese, Lucas, de Palma and William Friedkin. Spielberg's early career is different then these other directors because he started out in TV. He started working when he was really young directing TV for Universal, which is unlike the path of the other directors. Spielberg started out directing TV at the end of the 60s working on shows like The Name of the Game, Columbo, and Night Gallery for Rod Serling from the The Twilight Zone. His episode Eyes of Night Gallery starred Joan Crawford. At the time Spielberg was starting out in television it was the medium that was the heir of classic Hollywood cinema where you can find all of the older generation actors and technicians. This distinguishes Spielberg from the other filmmakers, who are discovering cinema at university, like Lucas or others, that are trying to work and pour their anguish into their films, like De Palma or Scorsese. This, I think, is a strong point and a big difference.

The fact that he is working in the television medium, with all these older generation technicians who have worked on Classic Hollywood films, will come to really define his sensibility. Spielberg even at the beginning of his career up until now has always been a profoundly classic filmmaker. He does not try to be innovative like a Scorsese or a Friedkin or a de Palma. Spielberg would joke with his peers at the time when he was only in his twenties while everyone else were in their sixties. Spielberg's relationship with his long-time collaborators like his editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams are guys who are now in their eighties. These collaborators are older than him and come from a different generation than him but this is what Spielberg identifies with. There is also Janusz Kamiński who Spielberg met in Poland filming Schindler's List.

Spielberg's taste in films, as he is often associated with, are those of a passionate cinephile, just like Scorsese. But this does not happen at an early age. It is not until the 70s that Spielberg starts talking about his primary admiration and influence. The person who Spielberg says he feels the closest to is John Frankenheimer. The director Frankenheimer, who also came from television, is most known for his 50s films that include big action films and political thrillers. Formally the debt is evident: the real, the visceral, the urgency, and the physicality, which is at the heart of genre action cinema. This is all there in Spielberg like in Close Encounters, which is further elaborated by Spielberg in Munich, whose sort-of model is Frankenheimer's Black Sunday. This is the first influence.

Spielberg's style, even though it would evolve, has kept some of its fundamental characteristics. It would in some respects be built upon the following: his affinity for Walt Disney, Cecil B. DeMille and The Ten Commandments (which is spotted on the TV in Close Encounters, and which influenced its story), and then finally the great Hollywood directors Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Howard Hawks. Spielberg would take the luxury to put this into his style, the irreconcilable mix of Ford and Hawks. From Ford there is the cinema of hierarchy and regimes, eulogy and tombs, and memory. From Hawks there is the direct characters who are falsely cynical and worried about doing a good job. Spielberg is able to bring the two of them together.

All of these examples demonstrate how Spielberg is a classic director, which presents a filmmaker who is different than people like Scorsese, De Palma, and Lucas. So when Spielberg made Close Encounters, which is a marriage between 70s filmmaking and Walt Disney, this might be seen as the end of New Hollywood, but instead it is just a heritage that is finally being completed and how his cinema is being transformed. So after Close Encounters, if you look at the first Indiana Jones ('81) by Spielberg and Lucas or E.T. ('82), this can be seen as a new beginning in the career of Spielberg: more openly expressive and flamboyant, more lyrical, and more detached from the realism and quotidian of the New Hollywood.

If you look at Spielberg's films from the 80s to the 00's from a broad perspective then they are impossible to characterize. Even though he returns to certain genres - science fiction films, action adventures - it is in no way systematic. He makes atypical films like Catch Me If You Can, films on sadly famous historical events like Schindler's List and little known historical events like Amistad - an uprising that would lead to the American Civil War - Spielberg would also make Empire of the Sun and continue his Indiana Jones series. So it is hard then to characterize Spielberg's fidelity to any one genre the way it is with, say, Hitchcock. Spielberg is loyal to his own sensibility, that of lyricism and flamboyancy. Those that don't like him would probably call these traits sentimental and naive, but for those that do, they call it lyrical and flamboyant and expressive. Though this isn't too important.

What I find to be important about Spielberg as a director is that he chooses strong projects from which he makes models and forms. To make E.T.. It is sad that it would probably be hard to make it today by a young filmmaker, but to have such a young filmmaker like Spielberg make it when he did, as well as Close Encounter, this was Spielberg throwing new forms into the science fiction genre. Indiana Jones was really influential and so was Saving Private Ryan. All of these inspired aesthetic changes in their respective genre. Saving Private Ryan specifically affected the war film genre with its slow motion and extremely detailed shots. This was started by Spielberg. A lot of contemporary TV, so shows like Spartacus, or Zack Snyder's 300 owe their dept to Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.

By being a creator of forms and by throwing these models out there on a regular basis, Spielberg slowly became indifferent to trends and other models, as it can be said of Sergei Eisenstein and Cecil B. DeMille. So now in the 2000 years Spielberg is making a performance capture film Tintin after James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis made theirs. And it isn't like that there is a high demand for the American public for a Tintin film as he is a comic book hero that is practically unknown there. Spielberg's world is disconnected with the contemporaneous one.

Because the post-production was taking so long for Tintin, I imagine Spielberg got bored, and because he likes to film with a certain reality, he decides to make another film. War Horse, the story between a young man and his horse during the First World War. Yes, he could make it, but it has nothing to do with contemporary times. Spielberg is a director who is indifferent to all trends and models. Just like a few years after Saving Private Ryan he made Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal, and then following in the pessimistic world cinema trend by making War of the Worlds and then to do something different again he makes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and then Tintin and then War Horse. So I would say that Spielberg is a cineaste that has remained loyal to his temperament and who remains at a royal position where he can be indifferent to trends.

If I had to be a historian of cinema and had to pick Spielberg's most important films... There is Duel because it is his first full-length feature and where a lot of his style is already there. Then Close Encounters because it is important as his themes and the masterful style is already there. And then there is Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan as examples of the important subjects that he tackles, where he looks to history for its lessons and their moral example. Spielberg looks towards these fraught moments in history for situations that can be seen as examples. In these moments of spiritual crisis and within so much darkness, for example during the Holocaust, Spielberg tries to find one moment of spiritual illumination. In Saving Private Ryan, there is the one mission of saving amongst all of the war and destruction. Do eight people need to die to only save one? There are no easy answers.

This is one official-like representative overview of his films, but there is a lot else to like and to discover in the films of Spielberg.

I think one of Spielberg's regrets might be that he never made a musical. I don't think that he regrets being a filmmaker but he is someone who has said if he wasn't a filmmaker he would be a chief of an orchestra or musician. This has never happened and the reasons might be because he never had the opportunity or perhaps it had to do with a lack of talent. Though Spielberg has always wanted to make a musical and perhaps the closest film to this is Hook, which he wanted to make into one with John Williams who had already made a score for it. He did it punctually in the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark with the Cole Porter song but he has never did it in a large scale.

I think that even if a filmmaker makes something different and outside of his comfort zone, you can still spot what makes him unique. So when Spielberg does not have the historical force of grand subjects and he can only film a person in an airport, like Tom Hanks in The Terminal or the woman who lost her partner in Always, he has never been as intimate.

Spielberg is firstly a scenographer. He is good at editing and mixing, but most importantly he is great at set design. The Terminal is a perfect example, which reflects the Bush era United States through an airport. The story is about a Eastern European immigrant stuck in an airport terminal, who discovers English from the television while watching footage of the American Civil War, and he can't return to his country or go into this new one. But I think that this is a film that reflects Spielberg's relationship with space: he takes a comedian who is a star, Tom Hanks, a nice guy, in the tradition of films from the 30s he will be playing a European immigrant, and it will be about his romance with, in a fairy tale style, a rich woman Catherine Zeta Jones. The set design of the film will then into a lyrical mode, a romantic register, and then towards the burlesque while the characters go back-and-forth in the airport.

The mise en scène is exemplary, it has a sort of perfection. I think that this is a film that Spielberg holds dearly. First off, because it is the only film where his signature, and that of his collaborators, arrives at the ending of the film. It was a small little film without a big subject and that wasn't commercially successful. So what is the Tom Hanks character's goal in the US? He has a little box, which he says is for his father, which is full of jazz memorabilia. The father is dead and Hanks as a good son is there to get one last signature from one of the greats, Benny Golson. Because a signature is the trace of something singular that once existed. Hanks gets the signature but doesn't stay in the US - this is a longer subject - he goes for the jazz and then he leaves. So there is a equilibrium in the film between the scenography and how important feelings arise from these moments of little forms.

The Terminal also shows Spielberg as a master of tonal variations. This does not mean the mixing of genre but instead the variation of tones. One example, Hanks invites Jones to dinner in a scene that blends the tones of a romantic comedy with those of a fairy tale and with the bitter overtones of discovering that Jones is having an affair with a married man. So they are at dinner together and Hanks is anxious about her cellphone maybe ringing. Now in the background there is the Indian cleaner who is now improvising as a server, and not a good one, and who is spinning plates and then drops them. So now in background there is some burlesque, and in the foreground there is romantic-comedy which is verging towards melodramatic cynicism.

We wouldn't expect this shifting of tones from the Spielberg of Close Encounters. We might have guessed it around Indiana Jones, where in an interview he says, "I want to mix the style of Michael Curtiz with that of Preston Sturges." And I think that in the 2000 years it is the most complete marriage of this tendency as we can see it in films that we wouldn't expect like Minority Report. It's a science fiction film. Tom Cruise with a new face goes to see the precogs and to get in he has his original eyes in a bag that he will need to scan - we are now in a scene of urgency, which was preceded by one of action - and he is scanning his eyes and then one falls down and rolls away and he now he has to chase it. We are now in the burlesque. This is an audacity that few filmmakers can let themselves have, because when they do this, they then need to reorient the public. Spielberg can do this in a way that is extraordinary. More so in The Terminal than in Minority Report.

Spielberg is a scenographer, a mixer of forms and tonalities. So lets then look at his less known films and try to find what is essentially Spielbergian about them because they just might be the more representative of his personality. I'm thinking about a film like Always in particular.

Here is a contrast that I like to make: Always came out in 1989, a period that is seen as a low point for Spielberg, when he is searching for something else, and it comes right before the third Indiana Jones - a series that he is masterful at - and after Empire in the Sun and The Color Purple, which are films that are perceived to be his attempt to be a serious filmmaker, as perceived by Academy where he is nominated for Oscars. When Spielberg makes movies about giant sharks or dinosaurs he isn't being serious, but when he is dealing with racism or WWII he is being serious. And by the way, Spielberg has won Oscars for these serious films.

But I think that Empire in the Sun is an essential film for Spielberg's filmography. It is the film that inspired him to look at the 40s, the years of the war and the after-war, that best reflect his sensibility, for the moral and the existential problems that these times pose, as for the innocence that existed, which doesn't mean the same thing as a naïveté, but a way to balance the times of harmony with those chaos, which have a specific consequence. That is what works so well for him.

After these two films, Spielberg is trying to find his way. Always is perhaps his most unknown film, some people don't even know it exists.The French title of Always is Pour Toujours. Three years later Spielberg would make Jurassic Park which is one of his most famous films.The contrast here is between Jurassic Park, which if I would like to talk about, I would bring up the mastery of his technical and formal abilities. I remember seeing it when it came out with the sensation that I just saw something that was perfect, and how American cinema excels at telling certain stories, which might sound like an exaggeration, but here we are talking about Spielberg. I'm specifically referring to how effective information is disseminated in each frame, the rhythm, the themes of the film, the gaze, and the dinosaurs. And then there is Richard Attenborough, an adult-child, who is practically cradled by John Williams' score.

Always on the other hand might seem imperfect. I see it as attaching and poignant: you can see the variations of tones, there is the burlesque via John Goodman whose performance is reminiscent of silent films, and there are the aviators and the fire prevention pilots. Always is a remake of a film from the 40s by Victor Flemming, A Guy Named Joe. In Always Richard Dreyfuss is a pilot, and he has difficulty telling his girlfriend that he loves her, and the day that he does say it to her from the plane, the jets are so loud, that she can't hear him. He goes on a mission that would be his last. He dies. He goes to heaven where he is addressed to by Audrey Hepburn and is given the task to accompany his girlfriend as she is grieving, who will never be able to see him because he is a ghost. While he is doing this he discovers who she is now dating. This successor, some have said was a mistake of casting, which doesn't happen often with Spielberg as he knows what works and what doesn't. He knows what the public likes and because he takes risk in terms of mise en scène - which is why some people like him and others not - he does not risk with actors. He isn't like a Kubrick or a Scorsese that go for an extreme expressiveness when it comes to actors, Spielberg is more tame and he encourages them to be more natural, more in vein of Classical Hollywood. Some people say this successor character is mediocre, a fad or just ridiculous. But if we expect him to be a character that is just a fad or ridiculous, so there, it works now.

Always is a film that is about the after-life and bereavement. The structure forces Spielberg to be more intimate, and in it he is able to capture some great sequences. In one scene Holly is listening to their song, but Dreyfuss is right there, and she dances to it, and they dance together without touching. Spielberg is great at choreographing that they are dancing together, and that she doesn't know it, but the presence of the spirituality is there. Never has Spielberg done anything this intimate or strong before. There is another great sequence at the end, where Holly Hunter is in a cabin speaking to herself, but with the ghost of Dreyfuss also in the room.

Spielberg uses these tales to touch upon a spirituality. He uses tales, like WWII or the Holocaust, that show examples of saving and terror. He uses these tales to provide access to moments of spirituality, revelation, and a shaking up. A movie like Schindler's List is a story of a conversion, a conversion of a man who is an opportunist, but he is hit by the spectacle of the terror, and becomes a man. This might explain some of the more problematic aspects of the film but in this awfulness a spirituality can be found.

So Always is in this territory, it broaches at these moments of spirituality, grief, and the intuition of thinking that the deceased person is still there, and it is about this ability to connect with a past loved one. It also has Williams' first minimalist score. Always was made in a period of metamorphoses in the cinema of Spielberg. It is a shame that too few people went to go see it, perhaps the variation of tone was too much.

Some people have said that the death of Stanley Kubrick did a lot of good for Steven Spielberg as it got rid of a parent figure that was intrusive. Though Spielberg admired him, he never tried to be a clone or take too much influence. You can say the one film by Kubrick that most inspired Spielberg is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which also influenced many other science fiction films. And the one Kubrick film that Spielberg says that he prefers is Paths of Glory. But when I say that it was a good thing for Spielberg is that when Kubrick died the rank of the world's best filmmaker was now empty, according to the press and the critics. And simultaneously Spielberg's films, perhaps because of their more serious subjects, has been getting more favorable reviews, and were getting further analyzed. This takes place in the early 2000s. So for the critics after seeing Saving Private Ryan, A.I., Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can, Spielberg has become a more serious and adult filmmaker who isn't scared to go towards the darker areas of his imagination.

I partly agree with this new approach to Spielberg that takes into account his darker outlook towards America and politics. But in reality the somber and misanthropic aspect of his work has always been there since the beginning. Spielberg was always inspired by war, chaos, and monsters. He was never too luminary or bright. He is a utopian and an idealist but this is compatible with his misanthropy. Spielberg paints the worst in people and also the capabilities of people to do the best thing, which is to save a life. But this does not counter-balance their worst tendencies. I don't know if the 2000 years have necessarily changed that, but it might be that more of the critics started noticing this, in the wake of the September 11th attacks.

If you look at a film like A.I. which is one of Spielberg's most impressive and important films. The films of Spielberg's that I like the most are those with a virtuosity of mise en scène like Always, The Terminal and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But A.I. is one of the rare Spielberg films that I went into with some doubt. The other one was The Lost World, which I asked myself why is he making a sequel? Hasn't he already said everything there was to say about this subject? As a matter of fact, no, as he takes it into another direction. But with A.I. I worried that since Spielberg inherited this project from the master that he might be just fall under this syndrome, as if Spielberg would be directing with the ghost of Kubrick looking over him. As a matter of fact, no, it is not that.  

A.I. is a film of three voices: we can't ignore the Kubrick themes, which Spielberg would build upon, it is also very Spielbergian - with Close Encounters, this is Spielberg's only other original screenplay - but there is also Chris Baker who created the film's concept art and story boards. The sets in A.I. are just as precise and detailed as anything in Fangorn. Now I think that its first half is quite cold which is Kubrickien and that the second half with its fairy tale is quite Spielbergien. And then there is its last sequence that confuses a lot of people. This is one of Spielberg's most complex structures. Here Spielberg is inspired by the ideas of Kubrick which brings him to explore the dark territory of misery and metaphysical anguish. The boy's plight poses a lot of questions pertaining childhood and family troubles, which Spielberg holds dear.

A.I. asks serious questions about what it means to be a human. What is the difference between a a man and a robot? And the film does this complex thing where by the end we are identifying with the robot. A.I. asks questions about what is man and spirituality. This has been a question that has been asked in philosophy for a long time. John Williams in describing the film puts it quite nicely, which is how does one end this story? David has to end in a suicide. The fairy tale ends in a tragedy. So A.I. asks these essential metaphysical questions. The Ben Kingsley voice-over is actually that of a robot who is alive after all of the humans are now dead and gone. The android David is being viewed as one of its last human artifacts. The distinctions between what is a human and a robot have been blurred. Where does spirituality fit into all of this? These are some of the metaphysical enigmas that make A.I. such a rich film.

Pierre Berthomieu

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Pierre, Just saw this post. It was fabulous. Would love to hear from you, Eve