Perception and Reality in Blade Runner 2049

This article contains spoilers. Do not read it until you’ve seen Blade Runner 2049.

There’s a lot to unpack in Blade Runner 2049. At nearly three hours, it’s a dense, jam-packed film that says a lot about technology, masculinity and cinema itself (I’d love to read an essay about how it deconstructs film noir and even the first Blade Runner). I’m not going to attempt to cover all that here though. I don’t have the time, and having seen it just once, I’m going to struggle to comprehensively discuss the fragment of the film I want to here, never mind everything else I could mention. So instead, I’m going to focus on what the film has to say about perception and, in particular, the perception of women.

Blade Runner 2049 has already received some fascinating write-ups about its treatment of women. My personal view is that I lament the fact the film reduces women to stock, often sexualised roles, but would argue that it does so to make a point about misogyny and the treatment of women in society. The future of 2049 is, like that of the original film, one in which women are prostitutes or sexualised advertising hovering over cities for men to leer at. But while the original film pushed any critical thought about this to the sidelines, 2049 makes it its central thesis. It’s about the male gaze, the human gaze and the tragic effects they can have.

Arguably the film’s most controversial scene, and certainly the one that’s struck with me the most, is a sort-of threesome between our lead (replicant Blade Runner Agent K), his holographic girlfriend Joi and a replicant prostitute called Mariette, whom Joi projects herself into her in order to physically touch K for the first time. The scene never gets explicit and cuts before it moves into the bedroom, but it made me deeply uncomfortable throughout because it feels exploitative and voyeuristic. K is using these women to satisfy a need, and director Denis Villeneuve does everything he can to remind us of how unnatural the moment is by showing Joi and Mariette moving out of sync with each other as they caress K’s face and hands.

Here, and throughout the film, the two women seem to lack agency. They’re programmed to do what they’re doing: Mariette to elicit sex, Joi to show love towards K. K himself is no different. He’s also programmed to do a job and accept the orders he’s given without question. But just because these feelings are programmed are they any less real? K tells Joi that he doesn’t need to touch her to know his love for her is real, and isn’t that enough to show that he does love her, and in turn that her love for him is valid and real itself? After all, aren’t we as humans biologically programmed to some degree to love and desire love from others? What makes our desire to be loved different to K and Joi’s? And if we validate our sense of love, dictated it is by chemical impulses, why do we find it difficult to validate K and Joi’s, just because it’s dictated by code and circuits?

I’ve used a heck of a lot of question marks in that last paragraph because I simply don’t know the answers, and I don’t think I’m meant to. Villeneuve draws out the scene’s unease, but he also underlines its tenderness, intimacy and humanity. Even though I was creeped out, I couldn’t condemn the scene, or the characters. Neither K nor Joi are bad people. They’re lost, like so many of us are, and they feel like they’ve found a connection in each other. In a world of despair and degradation like the one Blade Runner 2049 depicts, who wouldn’t want to feel loved (emotionally or physically), even if that love is coming from circuits and code? Again, questions. Again, very few answers. Just a sense of ambiguity and unease driven by the perceptions of the characters and the audience.

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The closest the film gets to providing an answer to these issues is when it introduces Deckard, who’s hiding in a devastated Las Vegas (another area dominated by objectifying images of women). Deckard’s now haggard and alone, save for a dog. When K asks him whether the canine is human or replicant, Deckard replies that he doesn’t care; it doesn’t matter to him so it’s not a significant question. And why should it matter? Deckard sees the dog. He cares about the dog. And, as it obediently wanders around after him, we assume the dog cares about him. Whether either of them is biologically ‘real’ or not doesn’t matter. Deckard gives his dog a sense of reality by perceiving it to be real. The same could be said for K, Joi and Mariette. It all depends on your perception.

However, while perception in Blade Runner 2049 can imbue humanity, it can also remove it. One of the film’s other major female characters is Luv, the assistant of Joi creator Niander Wallace. He’s a terrible piece of work, and we come to view Luv as being just as repugnant as she essentially becomes the film’s proactive antagonist – doing his bidding for him. She’s kitted out with the power suits and perfectly dressed hair of any number of film noir femme fatales (again, a noir reading of Blade Runner 2049 would be fascinating) and looks every bit the villain. She’s not entirely evil though. There’s fierce intelligence in her and real compassion – she sheds tears as Wallace commits his various hideous acts. Through such moments, the film hints that she’s no less conflicted than K, but this is his film, not hers, so we don’t see much more of what’s going on beneath her fatale front. We’re just left with the brutal, vampy exterior that screams: villain!

Again, it’s perception. We’ve cast Luv in a role, and that’s all she can ever be in this world – just as all Joi can ever be is the docile girlfriend. We convince ourselves that Luv is more free than Joi – she seems to have more agency and isn’t chained to a hard drive like Joi is. But it’s just perception. Just because Luv has a physical form (even if that physical form is mechanic) is she really more free than the holographic Joi? Is our perception of her not as influenced by her physical form as our perception of Joi is? Do we not condemn her because of her association with the villain Wallace in the same way we warm to Joi because of her association with the hero K? Is our view of what’s real and what’s not, who’s good and who’s bad, how we see one person against how we see another not entirely dictated by the boxes our perception puts them in? Questions, questions, questions…

The tragedy of this problem is captured in the finale, where K and Deckard find Deckard’s daughter, the first child born of a replicant. She’s a sweet, pure young woman who creates memories for replicants and iskept within a glass bubble because of her weakened immune system. When Deckard meets her, she’s creating a new memory – one involving snow. Dressed in white, surrounded by white and at the centre of a snow flurry, she’s the ultimate vision of feminine purity and the perfect daughter for her father, who stayed away from her fearing that association would lead to her being hunted and killed. It was a noble intention, but by casting her as the innocent and helpless victim, Deckard removed her humanity. He’s turned into an image, a thing; not necessarily a replicant, but certainly a replica of a human being.

In the film’s haunting final shot, Deckard puts his hand up to the glass screen, unable to touch his child as she talks about how beautiful the memory she’s creating is. A combination of horror and love play out on his face as he realises what his decision has done to her: she’s a fantasy vision creating other fantasy visions for fantasy creations. In Blade Runner 2049, there’s no escape, nowhere we can hide from the destructive perceptions we place on people and the roles they have to play as a result. “Too bad she won’t live. Then again, who does?”

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The Rebellion of Kindness

This blog’s name is a direct reference to E.T., but it also represents the films and TV shows that emerged out of the shadow of that movie. You know the kind: ones where kids go on adventures, show their resourcefulness and save the day. Those movies prominently featured kids on bikes, but they were about much more than just that. They were about where those bicycles took the kids – literally and emotionally.

Following my introduction through E.T., this kind of fiction remained a passion of mine during my teen years, when I’d lap up shows like Eerie, Indiana, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, Round the Twist, and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and it hasn’t gone away. Because of this fascination, I started watching the Amazon Original Series Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street, a sweet and charming show about three friends and the adventures they have in their early to mid-teens.

I tuned in out of mere interest because it seemed very much like a Kids Riding Bicycles kinda show. But as I finished the finale this week with tears in my eyes and a desperate yearning for the final episode to never end, I realised it had totally hooked me.

Gortimer is a delightful show. I could ramble on and on about its many incredible triumphs: the clever use of fantasy to heighten emotional crises, the bold and beautifully handled dramatic shift it takes at the end of the second season, the tough decisions and unfair problems it routinely hands its characters. I probably will return to those topics at some point, because there’s an awful lot to say about them, but for the here and now, I want to discuss something else: kindness.

Kindness seems unpopular at the moment. And that isn’t just a comment on the terrible times we live in. Even among seemingly level-headed, non-Trumpeteer people, being ‘nice’ or ‘kind’ is seen as something of an insult. Niceness is boring. Kindness is bland. Why would anyone want to be any of those things? Gortimer revels in niceness and kindness though. Indeed, towards the end of the third and final season, an entire episode is dedicated to characters talking about how good a person the lead is. (On paper, that sounds unbearable, but the show’s charm and the context surrounding it make it work.)

Every episode, Gortimer and his friends, Mel and Ranger, are presented with various emotional problems, which manifest themselves with fantastical dimensions. Ranger tries to help people too much and so ends up literally taking on the weight of the world, even developing his own gravitational pull. Mel is studying too hard for a test and crams her head so full of information that she forgets basic facts like what to call a pen. Gortimer helps out a shy student who dislikes the spotlight so much that literally nobody knows she exists.

None of these ideas are particularly new or revolutionary. Gortimer will not redefine TV or change any games, but that’s not a bad thing. We place such value on the concept that TV shows or films will completely alter the way we think about a story, medium or genre that we sometimes forget that a good story is a good story and that good characters are good characters. This will always remain, regardless of whether they have the seismic impact of a Game of Thrones or Mad Men.

By turning its attentions away from such things and focusing on a handful of kids on one street in a small suburban town, Gortimer gives its characters room to breathe and allows their decency to shine through. There are no battles between good and evil, no grand fantastical vistas or megalomaniacal supervillain plans. It’s just nice people doing nice things for other nice people. As in life, they fail, and stutter, and stumble. They’re frustrated by life and have life beat them down when least expected. But they always remain kind and there’s something strangely bold about that. There’s something rebellious about it.

I’d like to see more shows like Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street and much more coverage for them when they do arrive. We’ve become so accustomed to game-changing drama and shows driven by negativity that we’ve forgotten that good storytelling isn’t all about antagonism. Gortimer proves that kindness can generate great stories as well because kindness is something to aspire towards. Gortimer, Mel and Ranger are people to aspire towards. So if you haven’t seen Gortimer give it a go. It’ll charm you with its sincerity and leave you with the kind of warm glow that only kindness can generate.

 

My Jigsaw Months

We’re almost a year on from what I can only describe as My Jigsaw Months.

Around this time 12 months ago, I was not in the best of places. Things had gone wrong, I’d had my heart broken and I was at a loss for what to do in my life. So I started doing a jigsaw.

Because that’s an entirely normal thing to do, y’see. 

This wasn’t just any jigsaw though. It was a Star Wars jigsaw. And even better: a Star Wars jigsaw in the shape of Darth Vader.

I KNOW! RIGHT!

Thing is, as ridiculous as it may sound, that jigsaw became my guiding light. When things are starting to go wrong in life, you get scared – it’s all chaos and disharmony. There’s no clear picture, everything’s falling to pieces, nothing fits together…

Do you see where I’m going here?

Yes, I’m being a little silly, but putting together that jigsaw was genuinely therapeutic. It’s not so much the sense of adding order to chaos that worked for me, but the idea of a long-term, reliable project. Every night when I got back from work, there it was: my lovely jigsaw with bits of Han, Leia and Lando Calrissian scattered about everywhere.

It was a joy.

While putting it together, I got through the whole of Archer and most of the original series of Star Trek, and when I was done, I felt genuinely bereft. (And slightly annoyed because I didn’t really have anywhere to put it and what do you do with a 2ft Star Wars jigsaw that’s shaped like Darth Vader?)

People talk a lot about colouring books as counter balances for anxiety and upset, but that’s never really worked for me. The jigsaw genuinely did, and if you’re feeling the strain a bit yourself, maybe give one a go. It sounds daft, it’s time-consuming as hell, and yes you’ll find yourself screaming at tiny bits of mis-shapen card, but sometimes that’s just what we need.

Thanks Jiggy.

(Yes, I named the jigsaw.)

Why Disney sequels and remakes matter

It’s pretty good, y’know. You should check it out!

With Beauty and the Beast hitting cinemas earlier in the year, and footage from The Lion King being shown at D23, the focus for Disney fans at the moment is very much on the company’s repeated revisiting of its history. Opinion, of course, ranges from utter outrage to gleeful celebration, and as a fan of both Disney and creative remixing, I fall very much into the latter category. After all, what’s wrong with re-telling these ‘tales as old as time’ when they come from an oral tradition that enabled each storyteller to craft their version of the story in their own specific way. Surely that’s the point of (and one of the joys of) fairy tales.

Much of the criticism of Disney seems to revolve around a perceived lack of originality, and that’s a fair point. When you think of Disney’s output you probably don’t think much about sequels and remakes. That’s because out of the 56 films that constitute their core offering (their Animated Classics), only one is a sequel: The Rescuers Down Under. Wreck-It Ralph 2 and Frozen 2 will follow before this decade is out, and after their critical and commercial successes last year, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Zootopia and Moana get spin-offs as well. But until recently, sequels and remakes have been a well that Disney has rarely wished into.

Sort of.

Buried away in the Disney filmography is a string of sequels that the studio released during the 90s and early 00s. Spinning off everything from Mulan and Pocahontas to Peter Pan and Cinderella, these films are often dismissed by fans and critics alike and were quickly stopped once John Lasseter took control in the mid Noughties. They were released direct to video (later DVD) and were produced by Disney’s TV animation wing, DisneyToons Studio, which opened its doors in 1990 with Duck Tales: Treasure of the Lost Lamp and has also produced the Planes and (really rather brilliant) Tinkerbell series.

It’s easy to be sniffy about these releases. The animation is often inferior to the Animated Classics, and the scripts are pretty tenuous because, in many cases, the stories don’t strictly need to be told. After all, is there really a need for Bambi 2, a midquel that focuses on the Great Prince of the Forest’s mentoring of his new charge? Do we absolutely have to have The Jungle Book 2, in which Baloo is suspected of having taken Mowgli back to the jungle? And who the heck asked for Cinderella III: A Twist in Time, which finds Cinders (I kid you not) travelling through time?

Some of these films (Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, Hunchback of Notre Dame II, Lion King 1 ½, (which – again, not joking here – riffs on ‘Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ in the way the original riffed on ‘Hamlet’) are pretty good and well worth checking out if you liked the first films. But vital necessities? Not really. At least not in terms of telling stories that have to be told. But maybe, when considering these films, we’re approaching them in the wrong way. Instead of thinking if we need them, we should instead think about whether they’re needed by their core audience: kids. And in that case, I’d argue the answer is an overwhelming yes.

When I was young, I watched my favourite films over and over again. The Goonies, Superman, various Disneys, and various Spielbergs all went through the cycle at my house as me, my sister, and my brother learned every bit of dialogue and memorised every beat. I suspect you were the same if you had a film, or films, that you were truly passionate about. When you really love a movie (or a TV show, or a book) as a child, you don’t want it to end, so when you do get to those closing credits, you rewind and rewatch, knowing deep down that everything will happen in exactly the same way at exactly the same time as the other 7,984 times you’ve watched it, but still watching it anyway.

Films are windows into lives that kids haven’t yet experienced. They help them understand emotions they could be struggling with and get to grips with empathy, associating so firmly with certain characters that they don’t want to let go of them. It’s why fan fiction and fan art have become so significant as mediums for self-exploration in recent years, and why the pressure is greater than ever for film-makers to be more inclusive. In a world that’s as divisive and fraught as ours is, the safety of fiction offers a comforting arena where anyone can be anything without fear of judgement or reprisal.

Giving kids further adventures with their fictional heroes is therefore not simply a money-making venture, but something of genuine worth. I know I wish I’d had further adventures with the likes of Elliott and Chunk to enjoy when I was a kid. And I suspect the kids of today are lapping up the wonderful Frozen comic books produced by Joe Books and are thrilled at the prospect of seeing weekly stories from the worlds of Tangled and Big Hero 6They represent a very real, very important map through the chaos of growing up and that, surely, is more significant than star ratings and rankings on Rotten Tomatoes.

So when we think of these sequels and remakes like Beauty and the Beast, it’s wise to remove ourselves from the equation, regardless of how artistically significant we see the original, or financially motivated we view the new stories. Art, in whatever medium it comes, is not static and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists, and needs to evolve, in order to illuminate, engage and inform, as well as simply to entertain and stand as great work. That illumination shines in different ways to different people and if illuminating the lives of younger audiences requires a few sequels or remakes of variable quality, I’d say that’s a fair trade.  

Kids Riding Bicycles: Steven Spielberg and the Empowerment of Children

First published on my Medium page, this article takes an in-depth look at how Steven Spielberg empowers children in his films. I love writing these analytical essays and hope you enjoy it too. (Yes, the name of the essay is the same as the website. What of it? SYNERGY!)

In Sweden in 1982, a seemingly unassuming movie raised the ire of the country’s censors. The film had been released widely elsewhere and found huge success, but Sweden believed its content to be so incendiary that it placed an 11 rating upon it, meaning nobody under that age could watch. The decision proved controversial and provoked protests; not from adults, but children, who took to the streets with placards reading “Away with the 11-year-limit” and “Children’s films are made for children.” The film in question wasn’t Blade Runner or John Carpenter’s The Thing, but Steven Spielberg’s heartwarming E.T., and the Swedish censors’ rationale for keeping it away from youngsters was that it portrayed adults as their enemies.

There’s something faintly ludicrous about this story and it’s gone on to become an urban legend (the legend, of course, making it seem like E.T. was outright banned rather than just restricted). It does, however, highlight something often overlooked about Spielberg’s films: they’re not all sweetness and light. Spielberg’s family-friendly reputation (perpetuated, in part, by E.T.) has glossed over the darker elements of his career, which recur in everything from the bloody horror of Jaws to the saccharine sentimentality of Hook. It’s meant that we tend remember the majesty of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but overlook just how violent and disturbing the T-Rex’s attack on Tim and Lex is. Such tonal complexity doesn’t sit well with culture’s desire to provide simplistic readings of the films we consume.

The narrative has persisted though and it informs the way critics explore Spielberg’s treatment of children. One of only a handful of great directors to tackle the childhood experience in significant depth, Spielberg has nonetheless been criticised for ignoring the more troubling side of growing up in favour of a sentimental portrait of innocence and wonder. “It can prove challenging to throw one’s hat in the arena of Spielbergian delights without feeling a twinge of cinephilic guilt,” Eric Kohn wrote for IndieWire in 2011. “His movies not only frequently center around children but inhabit their perspective, tapping into a juvenile sense of imagination that explains the profound impact his work tends to have on younger viewers.”

Going further, some critics have suggested Spielberg’s focus on children corrodes the audience, giving us a view of the world that’s more comforting than the complex reality we need to live in. Spielberg is guilty of “infantilizing the audience,” writes Peter Biskind in his book ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ and “reconstituting the spectator as child, then overwhelming him and her with sound and spectacle, obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and critical reflection.” Focusing specifically on E.T., Ilsa J Blick adds: “Instead of simply invoking the memories and associations of childhood, Spielberg consistently aims to infantalise the viewer. Thus, if the viewer is not looking through the eyes of Elliot or ET, he/she is looking at Elliot or ET looking up, just as children look to their parents or wonder at the stars.”

Ingrid E. Castro is kinder in her assessment, accepting that in his earlier films, Spielberg’s depiction of childhood was richer and more empowering. However, she also notes in her essay ‘Children, Innocence, and Agency in the Films of Steven Spielberg’ (which is available in the compendium ‘Children in the Films of Steven Spielberg’) that as he’s got older his films have begun to portray children as more innocent and in need of protection. This, she argues, has robbed them of their sense of empowerment. “In Spielberg’s films,” she writes, “the preservation of children’s innocence, a characteristic which is integral to adult redemption and character development/affirmation, transforms childhood into a “protectionist experience” for adults.”

Spielberg undoubtedly sees childhood as a magical state worthy of protection; it’s why Elliott in E.T. and Barry Guiler in Close Encounters of the Third Kind are open to the transcendental alien visitations those films depict. But it’s a magic that needs to be fought for and earned. Elliott is chased by the FBI and has to suffer through the apparent death of his new friend, while Barry undergoes a traumatic kidnapping after opening the door to the aliens. Even in Hook, one of Spielberg’s most maligned and apparently sentimental films, Peter Banning’s children are told the ultimate nightmare by Captain Hook. “Before you were born your parents would stay up all night together just to see the sun rise,” he insists. “Before you were born, they were happier. They were free.” Judging by Banning’s actions during the film, such a damning assessment might just be right.

Even as he’s got older and associated less with the child and more with the adult, Spielberg’s tenacious kids remain. In The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm’s daughter Kelly gleefully battles Raptors using her talents in gymnastics. In A.I., David refuses to give up in pursuit of the Blue Fairy despite the odds being against him. In The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, the eponymous boy reporter is steadfast in his pursuit of the story. And in The BFG, Sophie refuses to be intimidated by the mean giants who make her friend’s life a misery. Spielberg’s children are all fighters and they have to be considering the odds against them. “I would not want to be a child in a Spielberg film,” James Kendrick, author of Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconsideration of the Films of Steven Spielberg, has noted. “They are constantly being abducted, enslaved and traumatized.”

Where does this come from? Like a lot of Spielberg’s cinema, it’s partly autobiographical. Spielberg was an anxious child who found fear everywhere and he’s hung on to that as he’s got older. “I use my childhood in all my pictures, and all the time,” he’s said. “I go back there to find ideas and stories. My childhood was the most fruitful part of my entire life. All those horrible, traumatic years I spent as a kid became what I do for a living today, or what I draw from creatively today.” Horrible? Traumatic? Surely not saccharine sweet Spielberg? But it’s true. “I was terrified by the tree. It was a huge tree,” Spielberg’s explained of a tree outside the window of his childhood bedroom (which almost certainly inspired the one that snatches Robbie in Poltergeist). “Every single night my imagination would find something else to fear. There was just something about bigness that scared me when I was a kid.

Indeed, such ‘bigness’ recurs in many of Spielberg’s most significant films. The truck in Duel, the shark in Jaws, the Mothership in Close Encounters, the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, the Tripods in War of the Worlds and the mean giants in The BFG are obvious examples, but others can be seen elsewhere, particularly in geographic locations. The wood the alien ship lands in E.T. is vast and intimidating, the temple in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is an endless labyrinth of hellish pits and broken tunnels, the sunken New York of A.I. is a vast and desolate ocean, the forests of Always are infernos that humble and challenge the characters, and the airport in The Terminal seems to engulf Viktor and make connection with others impossible. Bigness lurks over everyone and that bigness is always a source of awe and wonder, fear and danger. It’s the thing that Spielberg’s characters have to counter, and it’s even more significant for his child characters, whose smallness it’s sharply juxtaposed with.

Adults are undoubtedly one example of the “bigness” that Spielberg feared and to understand his depiction of childhood, it’s important to understand how he portrays adulthood. Though his attitude to his adult characters has softened over the years (think of the kind father figures played by Tom Hanks in Catch Me If You Can and Bridge of Spies, Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Mark Rylance in The BFG) he’s remained consistent in portraying adult characters with deep flaws and vulnerabilities. Spielbergian adults are weak (Martin Brody, David Mann), wild (Lou-Jean Poplin), morally dubious (Oskar Schindler, Keys), cowardly (Alan Grant), irresponsible (Roy Neary, Pete Sandich), ineffective (Jim Graham’s father), mercenary (Basie), destructive (John Anderton, Ray Ferrier) or selfish (Peter Banning). They’re rarely evil, but they do prove those Swedish censors right: they’re the enemies of children and throw down obstacles our youthful heroes must counter to get what they seek.

The subversion of social norms is how Spielberg’s children fight these monstrous adults. Think, for example, of Elliott breaking the formality of the dinner table by screaming obscenities (“penis breath!”) at his brother and friends in E.T, or Short Round showing disrespect for Indy by cheating in their card game during Temple of Doom. These are childish moments, and intentionally so. Spielberg isn’t interested in patronising his child characters by talking down to them, or elevating them to the point that they’re little more than miniature adults. That’d undermine the point. Instead he wants his child characters to revel in their childhood — their immaturity, their low status in society — and to show how those things make them more mature than the so-called mature grown-ups around them. When Sophie proudly describes herself as “an untrustworthy child” in The BFG, it’s a rallying cry for all Spielberg’s children. Being dismissed in such terms is a badge of honour.

Objects play a key role in this rebellion as well. Sometimes it’s just for mischief: the children in Jaws, for example, raise a false alarm on Amity’s beaches when they use a fake fin to convince beach-goers that a shark is lurking by the shore. At others, it’s more serious. In A.I., David’s toy Teddy helps guide him on his path to the Blue Fairy, offering the sort of comfort and acceptance he lacks from his parents. Meanwhile in Schindler’s List, The Girl in the Red Coat’s jacket helps her stand out in the chaos of the Holocaust and force Oskar Schindler into action. These are all childish items: toys or objects so small only a kid could own them. But Spielberg weaponises them by using them as tools of transformation and imagination. This is most apparent in Hook, where Peter Banning taps into his childhood by imagining an empty table is filled with colourful food that he and the Lost Boys use in a food fight. Another moment where the adult and childhood worlds clash. Another moment where social norms are undone by childish immaturity.

It’s telling that Spielberg owns two key objects himself. In 1982, after the success of E.T., he won the Rosebud sled from Citizen Kane at auction, while in his Amblin office at Universal, he’s hung Norman Rockwell’s famous ‘Boy on a High Dive’, which pictures a small child peering over the edge of a tall diving board with fear and excitement etched across his face. For Spielberg, these objects are sources of inspiration and in that way they’re similar to props in a film (literally in the case of the Rosebud sled): items that encourage him in his endeavours. He sees the objects he gives to his children in a similar way. They’re playthings designed to ignite the imagination, totems that are to be used to inspire a wider narrative that’s deeply childish in nature. After all, what else is the sight of E.T. and Elliott flying across the face of the moon on their bike but an updated version of the nursery rhymes of old. Just like the cow, the alien and his human friend jumped over the moon.

It’s another autobiographical trait of Spielberg’s film-making that connects him back to his own youth. A prankster always looking for attention, young Spielberg would use practical jokes (a form of comedic storytelling) and associated props to win power. In one incident, he applied tomato ketchup to his face to convince people he’d been brutally beaten in a fight with another child, while during another he concocted a terrible blend of foods to act as fake vomit that he dispatched at a cinema in an incident that would be immortalised through Chunk in The Goonies. Not even his family could escape his inventive wrath. At home, he once used a fishbowl to recreate a character from a science fiction film his sisters found scary, and later cut the head off a doll and presented it to his sister Anne on a silver platter surrounded by a bed of lettuce. A lone boy among three sisters who struggled to fit in at school, Spielberg found strength his ability to use imagination to reclaim strength.

Most significantly, this also stretched to his interest in film. A bully had been tormenting the young Spielberg for months, but when putting together his latest amateur effort, the budding director saw a chance to win the boy over. Noticing that he bore a striking resemblance to Clint Eastwood, Spielberg asked him to join the cast of a war movie he was making, and suddenly their dynamic changed.

“Even when he was in one of my movies I was afraid of him. But I was able to bring him over to a place where I felt safer: in front of my camera. I didn’t use words. I used a camera, and I discovered what a tool and a weapon, what an instrument of self-inspection and self- expression it is…I had learned that film was power.”

Now he’s older, Spielberg recognises the need to pass the gift of storytelling on to this generation of kids. Speaking to Tom Shone during promotion for The BFG, he discussed the stories he tells his grandchildren and how he aims to empower them:

“They’re all stories of empowerment, and being magical or able to read your mom and dad’s mind, or your best friend being a Tyrannosaurus Rex that only you know about and he lives in your backyard. Only one time, you got on his back and he took you to school, and he scared all the kids, but when you brought him in for show-and-tell, they realised that he was a nice T-Rex. They all sat around and listened to his stories. It’s all about making kids feel like they can do anything. That nothing’s impossible.”

By granting his young characters objects and a language that only they can understand, Spielberg imbues them with power. It’s a power that means they’re able to craft their own lives and forge their own identities: ultimately taking back control of who they are. So those Swedish censors back in 1982 only understood half of the equation. Yes, adults are an enemy, but what makes Spielberg’s films truly inspiring and truly empowering is that his children, and by extension the children watching, are quite capable of taking them on. They’re untrustworthy children, one and all, and they’re not scared.

Lonely Hearts: Spielberg, Loneliness and the Longing to Belong

Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill in The BFG

“Everything has to start with fear. Loss, loneliness, being challenged and pursued by big forces. [The BFG is] the loneliest story I think I’ve ever told. These two lonely people find a way to make a difference. Those are touchstones that attracted me to the book. I read it to my kids, and the bullying was one of the things that I painfully associated with my own childhood. And also being able to grow out of my fears and often, when I do, feeling taller than the tallest giant. Size doesn’t matter when loneliness is what our lives have meant to us.”
Steven Spielberg on The BFG

Why did you take me,” asks Sophie in The BFG. “Because I hears your lonely heart,” comes the eponymous giant’s response. It’s a line of huge significance that speaks not just to the orphaned Sophie, but also The BFG, who’s bullied by the meaner, bigger giants of Giant Country and confesses to being scared of them when Sophie tells him later in the film that she isn’t. But it’s also a line that echoes throughout Spielberg’s entire career. Sophie and The BFG aren’t the only lonely, isolated, confused, or broken characters Spielberg has made films about during his career. Indeed, they’re just the latest in a long line that feeds all the way back to the start of his career — and the start of his life.

As a child, Spielberg was unsettled and isolated. His father’s job as a computer engineer at a time when the technology was in its formative stages meant that the Spielberg family moved from home to home at a moment’s notice. “Just as I’d become accustomed to a school and a teacher and a best friend, the FOR SALE sign would dig into the front lawn,” he’s recalled. “And it would always be that inevitable goodbye scene, in the train station or at the carport parking up the car to drive somewhere, or at the airport. Where all my friends would be there and we’d say good-bye to each other and I would leave. This happened to me four major times in my life. And the older I got the harder it got.”

Even when he did settle, he still never quite felt like he fit in. “A wimp in a world of jocks,” is how he’s described himself, a reputation that meant his day-to-day life involved “just trying to make it through the year without getting [my face] pushed into the drinking fountain.” Indeed, things got so bad that Spielberg tried to remedy one of the most pressing discomforts: his appearance. “I used to take a big piece of duct tape and put one end on the top of my nose and the other end as high up on my forehead line as I could,” he’s remembered. “I had this big nose. My face grew into it, but when I was a child, I was very self-conscious about my schnozz. I thought if you kept your nose taped up that way, it would stay… like Silly Putty.” It never did.

Young Spielberg’s heritage didn’t help his sense of difference. Growing up in mostly Gentile neighbourhoods, the Jewish Spielberg felt a disconnect from all the other kids. It made him ashamed of who he was, even at one point ignoring his grandfather when he called for him using his Jewish name, Shmuel. Christmas was, of course, a particularly challenging period. As all the neighbourhood decorations would go up, the Spielberg house would stay bare and stand out because of it. One year, according to a neighbour, Steven set up coloured lights on the front porch, dressed himself in a white sheet, and posed like Jesus on the cross. It was his was of trying to fit in, but it left his parents mortified and they quickly put an end to the act.

Spielberg’s longing to belong manifested itself in his films early on. Duel and Jaws are both tales of bullied characters who need to muster the strength (both physical and emotional) to vanquish their foes; only once they’ve built up the emotional strength can they find the physical strength to win through. Raiders of the Lost Ark, and indeed the Indiana Jones series as a whole, expands this ideafurther. Indy may be much more powerful than David Mann and Martin Brody, but his plight is always a deeply emotional one: he isn’t heroic because he beats Belloq, Mola Ram, or Donovan. He’s heroic because he masters an emotion and becomes a better human being.

Look, for example, at Raiders, in which he learns the value of respect by shutting his eyes to the power of the Ark to stay alive. Temple finds him learning that the Sankara Stones mean something to the village, not just “fortune and glory” to him. Meanwhile in Last Crusade, he learns the importance of heritage, reconnecting with his father and realising that history isn’t just about hidden tombs and dusty books, but a real, tangible thing that shapes who he is. In each film, he connects with someone during his adventure: relighting his flame with Marion, seeing past the vapid screeching of Willie, and most significantly, understanding his father.

Henry Thomas in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

This desire to understand, to belong, is what fuels Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.. These are films of disconnect and tragedy, films about characters who feel lost in the world, unable to find a place for themselves within it. Roy Neary can’t connect with his family and seems to have little interest in his job. He’s daydreaming through life, and when the aliens implant visions of Devil’s Tower in his head, he finds purpose but can’t work out how to act upon it. “What is it!? WHAT IS IT?! Tell me…” he screams after another unsuccessful bid to craft a physical version of what’s in his mind. He’s not just trying to understand what the shape he’s seeing is; he’s trying to understand what he is and how he fits into the world.

Elliott and E.T. are no different. Both are lonely, both are without a centre. E.T.’s lost his people, Elliott has lost his father and is picked on by his friends. They find each other because they need each other. Deeply, fundamentally, there’s a connection between them, one built on loneliness. They find solace in their friendship, but it’s what their friendship leads to that truly transforms them. Half way through the film, they fly through, and above, a deserted forest, living a fantasy that’s totally disconnected from the world. They’re happy, but still lonely. It’s the second flight that marks their progress. Escaping their FBI pursuers, the pair again fly, but this time with Elliott’s friends. And instead of flying against a moon they fly towards a warm, inviting sun, a repeated symbol of truth and togetherness for Spielberg. They’ve connected not just with each other, but with other people too: Elliott’s brother and his friends. Only by doing this can they truly progress in their lives.

This idea repeats time and time again. Peter Banning needs the Lost Boys to become Peter Pan; Oskar Schindler needs the Girl in the Red Coat to take action against Göth; Alan Grant needs Lex and Tim to awaken his paternal feelings; the company need Captain Miller to guide them through their mission to save Private Ryan; David needs Gigolo Joe to help him find the Blue Fairy; Frank Abagnale needs Hanratty to stop his life of crime isolating him entirely; Albert needs Joey to help him survive the madness of war, Haddock needs Tintin to rediscover his heritage; Lincoln needs Tad to keep him centered during his fight to end slavery; Abel needs Donovan to defend him against Red Scare hysteria and the BFG and Sophie need each other to survive the bullying and isolation they suffer in their respective lives.

When we think of Spielberg films, we think of fantastical creatures and daring adventures. We think of sharks, aliens, and lost temples in ancient jungles. Too rarely do we think of the single most important thing in all Spielberg films: people. It’s people that propel Spielberg films, people that face up to the terrifying foes and emotional turmoil, and people that transcend them all. What these films teach us is that nobody is alone and no matter how bad the world seems, no matter how lost you feel, no matter how dark the night gets, there’s always good, there’s always light, and there’s always someone out there you can reach out to.

Short Film: Cycle Lane

One of the wonderful things about Twitter is that it puts you in contact with a wealth of smart, funny, talented people. One such person is Harry Orsborn, a writer who’s penned the above short film, Cycle Lane.

It’s a great watch and worth checking out. Once you’ve done so, visit the social channels and IMDB page by clicking the links below.

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