Notes from Rogue One

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WARNING: THIS REVIEW IS BUILT ON SPOILERS. MASSIVE ONES. DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM.

Rogue One was always something of an anomaly for me. It’s a Star Wars film, so I was excited to see it, but it was a very different kind of Star Wars film: a gritty war film rather than a mythical fairy tale. As someone who loves the fairy tale quality of the saga, I was unsure about this new direction, and so my anticipation for Rogue One never hit quite the same levels as it did for The Force Awakens last year.

Now I’ve seen the film, I remain a little unsure. I love parts of it, but as a whole, it never quite seems to gel. It’s a bold and ambitious film; arguably one of the most ambitious blockbusters I’ve ever seen. For that it deserves a huge amount of praise. But it also creates some of the film’s biggest problems. Here are a few very spoilery notes from the film.

  • Felicity Jones is incredible here. While I think the film struggles significantly with the depth it gives some of the characters, Jones manages to counter that with a performance of deeply affecting silence. Her eyes in particular are tremendously powerful: full of despair, hope, fire, and anger. Everything is done with the eyes. The moment when she breaks down while watching the hologram of her father is one of the film’s greatest moments.
  • Just as he did on Godzilla, Gareth Edwards demonstrate a great ability to ground the fantastical in a tangible sense of reality. From the moment Krennic and his Deathtroopers turn up to take Galen Erso from his family at the start of the movie, everything feels real and that has a particularly important effect on the stormtroopers, who here feel like an actual oppressive army – irrepressible, genuinely scary – rather than a bunch of useless underlings who need target practice.
  • The film’s core message is brilliantly prescient, and is likely to have particular resonance with late teens/20-somethings. Contrary to Bob Iger’s recent comments about the film’s lack of political message, Rogue One is not just deeply political, it’s about becoming politicised. Jyn is so beaten down by the cruelty of the galaxy and her lot in life that she feels she can’t achieve anything and so resorts to apathy. The film forces her to take up a cause so she can express her frustration more positively, and as the real world darkens, that’s a worthwhile message for the film to convey. Also: super-political, Bob. Come on, dude, grow a spine.
  • The last 20 minutes of Rogue One are genuinely remarkable. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything so thrilling at the cinema. Like all the great finales, it convinces you that anything can happen, that there are no guarantees, and that either good or evil could win. The very final few sequences, in which Rebel troops desperately flee Vader, Death Star plans in hand, while the Sith Lord cuts through them like a hot knife through butter is as terrifying, desperate and vital as blockbuster film-making gets. This is a prequel. We know how it ends. But somehow, in that final act, everything feels up for grabs.
  • (Sidenote: the moment when the destruction of Scarif creates a gigantic mushroom cloud style explosion that resembles a sun is one of the richest and most poignant uses of Star Wars iconography I’ve ever seen. If Luke looking out towards the twin suns on Tattooine was an expression of pure hope and potential, Jyn and Cassian framed against a sun-like mushroom cloud is an expression of that same hope tainted by tragedy. Rebellions are built on hope… but also desperation.)
  • And yet, for all that, the finale also exposes one of the film’s key flaws. It has big moments that never quite feel earned. As our heroes are picked off one by one, it feels like Rogue One‘s doing it for shock, a way to underline how dark it is and make the wider point about the sacrificial nature of political resistance. That’s a valid point and the deaths make it well, but I wanted to care more about these people than I did. As the deaths kept coming, I sorta expected it and they lost a little impact.
  • This is extended throughout, particularly with Jyn. A key moment for her is when she tries to encourage a rebellion stripped of morale to fight on. They want to give up, convinced that there’s no way they can possibly fight a weapon like the Death Star, but Jyn insists they keep going, stating the film’s signature line: “rebellions are built on hope”. But the film doesn’t feel like it earns her change of heart. Key relationships – with her father, with Cassian – feel too thin, key moments in her life –  her childhood, her abandonment by her father and Saw Gerrera – feel underdeveloped. I wanted to see all that, not simply be told it. Perhaps the prequel novel Catalyst expands this, perhaps there’ll be future media showing her as the 16-year-old tearaway we’re told about, but for Rogue One to function like it needs to, all that really needs to be here, in Rogue One.
  • (Sidenote: While I admire the braveness of the film killing its cast, I wish Jyn at least had survived. It feels like they could have done so much with her. Imagine, for example, her watching or taking part in the Battle of Yavin, finally seeing the fruits of her and her father’s endeavours. Hope is a part of the film’s make-up, and in many ways her surviving to see the Death Star’s destruction undermines that message: hope, by its nature, is about believing in something, not actually seeing it. But it’s still a shame (though an admirable one) that we won’t get any more Jyn stories.
  • Director Krennic’s another key character the film never quite gets right. In isolation, he’s a fascinating villain: a middle manager with arrogant ambition. He’s pretty normal really, and the moment where he realises he’s about to be destroyed by the monstrosity he’s created underlines how pathetically human he is. But the film needs a bigger sense of threat. It needs the murderous sneer of Tarkin (who appears here but isn’t the main threat) or the cold calculation of Grand Admiral Thrawn (who would have been perfect for this), but Krennic doesn’t have that stature. Rogue One is the beginning of an endgame: the set-up for a battle that will bring 20 years of conflict to a head. It just never quite feels like that’s on the line.
  • While Edwards largely helms the film very well, there are definite flaws, mostly with tone. At times, Rogue One feels at war with itself, fighting to be a different kind of Star Wars film, but still knowing that it needs to be a Star Wars film. So you get some moments, such as the scenes of the insurgency on Jedha, that are deliberately touching upon very real world concerns. Others, meanwhile, feel like classic Star Wars, such as the aerial attack on Scarif. It creates a film that, on first viewing at least, feels patchwork and inconsistent, unable to feel entirely like one thing or the other. I hope that feeling recedes on repeat viewings.
  • Despite all of this, I did very much enjoy the film – I just didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped, or as much as I loved The Force Awakens. Ultimately there’s a mix of issues, some that simply won’t go away (the thinly-written characters) and some that maybe will (the sense of clashing tones and styles). But whatever flaws there are, they’re created by Rogue One trying something that nobody really had any right to expect. It’s a brave film that tears up the Star Wars rule book and asks us to accept a different version of the franchise. I have a feeling it’ll reward repeat viewings, but even after just the one, for its boldness and ambition alone, Rogue One deserves the benefit of the doubt and a huge amount of praise. The Star Wars universe is a vast and diverse place. Rogue One shows us that Lucasfilm and Disney are brave enough to explore it.
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Mouse House Movie Club Goes Festive #2: Donald’s Snow Fight

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Not from this cartoon, but this is indeed an actual GIF from an actual Donald short!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I love Donald Duck. He’s a dickhead. A terrible, terrible dickhead. And I think that’s worth celebrating, because unlike other famous Donalds, Donald Duck is a dickhead in a charming, ridiculous kinda way. (Rather than, y’know, the terrible, oppressive, gonna-blow-up-the-world kinda way.) He’s the kinda dickhed who, instead of helping his young nephews build a snowman like any normal anthropomorphic duck would, jumps on a sled and rides straight through the thing cackling like a maniac.

Somewhere, there’s an excellent Donald Duck/Frozen crossover waiting to happen.

Released in 1942, Donald’s Snow Fight is one of the very finest Donald Duck cartoons, and probably the finest Donald Duck Christmas cartoon. Like all Donald’s best efforts, the set-up is brilliantly simple. It’s Christmas, Donald goes out for a stroll in the snow, finds his nephews building a snowman, and decides to wage war on them. Y’know. Like you do.

Right from the off, Donald’s Snow Fight crams in gags at Gatling gun pace. In the first couple of minutes alone we get Donald’s absurdly huge snow jacket, the sight of his beak growing a little frost mustache, and the sound of him quacking half the words to Jingle Bells before finishing off by ringing himself like a bell. This may be the only recorded instance of a testicle joke in Disney history.

(Do ducks have testicles? What the hell else is ringing!?!)

Anyways, Donald’s out in the snow and suddenly spots his nephews having fun and building a snowman. This simply won’t do, of course, so Donald attacks, destroying the snowman and escalating the whole situation into all out war. He even wears a cute little Admiral’s hat to underline his battle-readiness. Because Donald Duck is both totally adorable and utterly psychotic. Also: massive dickhead.

Somehow though, he retains our sympathy. Both here and in other shorts. Fights between Donald and Huey, Dewey and Louie are a reoccurring trope in Donald cartoons, and while they get comically out of hand, there’s never any sense of viciousness. It’s a little like watching early episodes of The Simpsons where they’d fight and call each other names. There’s frustration there, sure, but there’s always love. Donald just shows that love the only way he can: with pointless anger.

It’s why Donald’s such an icon. In all his arrogance, obnoxiousness, and ultimate love for those around him, he’s the closest thing Disney has to a great everyman (don’t let anyone tell you it’s Mickey! Donald all the way). Like my favourite actor ever, Jack Lemmon, Donald is just an ordinary schmuck with no great sense of nobility simply going through life trying to make ends meet. And sometimes, everybody, that means you have to freak out and destroy some snowmens.

So celebrate the festive season with some classic Donald and go out and destroy some snowmen yourself. (Don’t do this. Please. It’s just mean.)

On Shyness

Regular readers will know I struggle with shyness. I mention it quite a lot on here, and that’s not because I’m looking for sympathy or anything like that: it’s because I’m shy about being shy and I want to try to break out of that by talking about it.

Shyness is a frustrating state to occupy. While introversion has (gladly) gained a measure of understanding recently thanks to the hard work of writers such as Susan Cain (there is sadly still plenty of work to do though), shyness remains a blind spot for many.

Just get over it. Talk to someone. Go on! It’s easy!

I appreciate that attitude, because it’s hard to understand shyness. Talking is one of the most natural things in the world, and people are generally good. Why should anyone be scared of talking to them?

Well, the truth is, I don’t know. I’m as confused as anyone. All I can do is articulate the emotion of being shy and hope that leads to some understanding of the why of shy. So here goes.

Shyness is feeling like you’re under the microscope in every single conversation you ever have. For the love of God, don’t screw this up.

Shyness is fearing that you’re boring the person you’re talking to, even if they seem absolutely enraptured by what you’re saying. How could anyone be interested in you.

Shyness is believing that every time you speak to a member of whatever gender you’re attracted to that you need to impress them as they represent your only shot at romance. You won’t be able to talk to anyone else.

Shyness is hoping that you’ll find someone who understands you, rather than seeing it as a certainty that someone will. You’re just… too weird.

Shyness is lacking the confidence to be assertive enough to put your point across. Yep, you’re gonna lose another meeting debate.

Shyness is hovering over the reply button on Twitter, wondering whether to tweet to someone and what to say. They weren’t really looking for a response anyway.

Shyness is knowing that no matter how much you try to unlearn everything you’ve learned, the fear will always be there, lingering in your mind. It doesn’t simply disappear.

Shyness is… loneliness.

Shyness is all those things, and many many more. But… it’s also not all bad.

Shyness is not just the inability to talk but the ability to listen.

Shyness is not just fearing that you’ll be alone but the ability to value the people who are close to you.

Shyness is not just being scared of what to say but understanding that what you do say has impact, so be careful.

Shyness is not just believing that your chances of love are slim but knowing that love is a truly powerful and significant thing that’s rare for a reason.

And shyness is not just not being assertive but knowing how to find compromise and seek diplomacy.

Shyness is… understanding loneliness and why it should be avoided at all costs.

Do those positives outweigh the negatives? Maybe. Maybe not. But hopefully they at least shine a light on what shyness is. Maybe even someone will read this and take a little heart from it. Hey there, shy person. You’re pretty darned cool and so is your shyness.

This isn’t the last post I’ll write about shyness, but it’ll tide me over for now. In the meantime, here’s a Paperman GIF. Because sometimes, even if you’re not looking for it, the world can still bring you into contact with people in weird and wonderful ways.

Also, I super-love this film.

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Mouse House Movie Club Goes Festive #1: Once Upon A Wintertime

Just as I did at Halloween, I figured I’d roll out a couple of Mouse House Movie Clubs for Christmas that focus – obviously – on Christmas-themed Disney. One will be a Donald Duck cartoon, because he’s Donald Duck and if you don’t think that’s a good enough reason to write a blog post then you obviously haven’t seen this GIF.

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The first is the rather wonderful Once Upon A Wintertime, which was originally released in 1948 as part of the package film Melody Time but is so damn good Disney put it out again as a standalone short in 1954. So why’s it so good, I hear you ask. Good question, I respond quite pleased you asked as it allows me to segue neatly into my next paragraph. Well done you.

Once Upon A Wintertime is an early example of Disney having a little fun with itself. It focuses on two lovers, Joe and Jenny, as they enjoy a romantic day out on the ice. They’re dressed up snuggly, ride around in a horse and carriage, make googly eyes at one another, and do it all to the lovely sounds of Frances Langford titular song. Rabbits and birds join them on their lovers’ jaunt and they prance around on the ice in such perfect harmony that the bird make a heart for them out of snow.

I would implore you to LOOK AT THE SICKENING ROMANCE OF IT ALL, but I really rather love this nonsense and have spent much of the last few days listening to the La La Land score, so, y’know, this short saw me coming. Even in 1948. Several decades before I was born.

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Screw you, reality

So far, so Disney, right? Well, halfway through Once Upon A Wintertime, Joe takes things a little too far in his bid to romance Jenny, shows off to her, and pisses her right off. She storms off in a huff and rebuffs Joe’s attempts at reconciliation. This, in turns, grinds his gears and the two fall out. As do the pair of comedy bunnies who are mimicking their human counterparts beat for beat.

The short then changes gear entirely and becomes something more akin to an action film. The ice cracks and Jenny is cut adrift on a small pane of ice that’s heading straight for a waterfall. Joe tries to come to her rescue, but it isn’t until he strikes upon the idea of using the horses and a rope to pull Jenny to safety that the day is saved. The pair return to their horse drawn carriage and enjoy the romance of the season once more. Awwww.

The satire of Once Upon A Wintertime may not be especially cutting, but it is remarkable considering it was made after the difficult war years. It shows that even when simply making money was the imperative, Disney still had a playful side and still sought to go against the grain and find something new to say. That it does all that while remaining a genuinely lovely and romantic piece of film-making simply speaks to the quality the studio had in-house at the time. It’s pretty much impossible not to be charmed by the sweetness of it all.

Check out Once Upon A Wintertime below. Sadly, YouTube doesn’t have an English language version, but here’s the French translation, and as French is the language of lurve, it seems pretty appropriate. Stop complaining. Jeez, it’s Christmas.

Portraits of America: Spielberg’s Norman Rockwell Influence

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Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies opens with an image borrowed from another great American artist. Spielberg’s camera winds through the rundown New York apartment of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). He’s sat in silence, painting a picture of himself to indulge his artistic hobby. He’s flanked by two items: on his left, a mirror where he can see himself reflected; on his right, the canvas, on which he paints what he sees. It’s a clear nod to Norman Rockwell and his famous painting ‘Triple Self-Portrait’, a humorous, gently self-effacing piece that also touches on themes of identity (note how different the illustration is to the mirror reflection) and nationality (spot the American eagle on top of the mirror).

By drawing on the image of one of America’s most beloved artists (indeed one of its foremost chroniclers of what it means to be American), Spielberg introduces these issues (as well as a pervasive sense of paranoia) for the rest of Bridge of Spies explores. Here we find a dangerous spy integrated into American culture so fundamentally that he’s assimilating its icons. He’s a Commie ripping off a Rockwell! It’s almost a dark joke. But at the same time, he’s split, his identity fragmented both literally and metaphorically. In the privacy of his apartment, he hardly seems like a threat at all: nothing more than an old man with a hobby, just as Rockwell made himself seem in ‘Triple Self-Portrait’.

It’s a perfect Spielbergian piece of film-making: a single image that speaks volumes. Rockwell was no different. With just the single frame of the canvas to work within, he had to create images that conveyed (often very complex) meaning and story quickly and with maximum efficiency. No brushstroke could be wasted, no centimetre of space squandered. “I love to do a picture which shows a progression of action, a sequence of ideas at a glance,” Rockwell said. It’s a point echoed by Spielberg, who told Laurent Bouzereau in an interview dedicated to Rockwell’s work: “He did his storytelling in a flash; he did it with a single image. And he invites you to explore that image. He draws you into that image, and he invites you, once it makes an impression on you, to question why, simply question why.”

It’s this passion and deep appreciation for Rockwell’s work that inspired the Smithsonian American Art Museum to set up Tellin’ Stories, a 2010 exhibition of Rockwell paintings comprised primarily of works owned by Spielberg and friend, collaborator and fellow Rockwell enthusiast George Lucas. Their fascination in the painter, show curator Virginia Mecklenburg told the LA Times, offered a fresh perspective on his work. “There’s a different lens for looking at Rockwell because of how George and Steven see their pictures,” Mecklenburg explained. “They are both drawn to Rockwell’s stories – the way an entire narrative unfolds because of how he crafts a single frame.”

Lucas’s interest in Rockwell only truly manifests itself in American Graffiti, his melancholic, 50s set chronicle of the twilight point between youth and adulthood. For Spielberg, however, there are clearer parallels. Not only does he reference Rockwell in Bridge of Spies, he reconstructs another of his pieces in 1987’s overlooked masterpiece Empire of the Sun. The film, which tells the story of a young boy called Jim who’s separated from his family when the Japanese invade Shanghai in 1941, depicts a tender moment between Jim and his parents in which the adults are putting their child to bed. Lighting, blocking and framing are constructed specifically to homage Rockwell’s famous ‘Freedom from Fear’, but it’s no empty reference.

The image follows Jim through the film as he’s captured by the Japanese and held in an internment camp. It becomes his talisman, a representation of the safety he yearns for but which remains just out of his reach. It’s one of a number of American symbols that populate the film, including Hershey bars, issues of LIFE magazine, and a comic book about a daring flying ace. Like his reference in Bridge of Spies, Spielberg’s nod in Empire of the Sun suggests an identity crisis and a desire for a simpler, more comforting world that may not even exist. Both are perfect encapsulations of the sense of darkness that lurks behind the seemingly cosy exterior so many attribute to Spielberg’s (and Rockwell’s) work.

Even when that coziness is entirely absent, Spielberg’s references to Rockwell are still very clear. One of the defining images from Schindler’s List is that of the girl in the red coat, who wanders through the streets as the Kraków ghetto is being liquidating by Nazi troops. It’s another key Spielbergian visual: a blend of darkness and innocence, the like of which he’d touched on many times prior to Schindler’s List and has tapped into many times since. But it also owes a debt to Rockwell’s famous 1964 painting ‘The Problem We All Live With’, which depicts young Ruby Bridges on her way to her all-white school, a racial slur daubed on a wall behind her.

Similar in composition and meaning, both images capture hatred in a single frame, and both act as an indictment of a society that’s failing to stop it. Indeed, with Rockwell putting the viewer in the same position as a crowd that hurls tomatoes and abuse at Bridges, his painting makes us complicit in this prejudice. Spielberg is no different, putting the viewer in the position of Oskar Schindler, riding on horseback and looking down at the streets below. The girl acts as a damning criticism of Schindler’s apathy, and also that of the audience. Just as he ignored the plight of the persecuted, so too had the American public who, by 1993, Spielberg believed were rapidly forgetting the lessons learned from the Holocaust.

Beyond the specifics of direct film/painting comparisons, Spielberg shares a common bond with Rockwell in the way they both use the human face to convey the emotion of a scene. The concept of ‘The Spielberg Face’ has become well-known now, with Kevin B. Lee’s 2011 video essay noting in detail how Spielberg uses off-screen space and awestruck reactions to build a sense of wonder, anticipation, or fear within the audience. Think of Alan Grant reacting to the brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park, and consider how immediately anxious you became to actually see the dinosaur. That’s The Spielberg Face, and its effect, in action.

To ensure his paintings made maximum impact in minimum time, Rockwell employed similar tactics. In his 1956 work ‘Happy Birthday Miss Jones’, the artist depicts a spinster school teacher receiving a birthday treat from her pupils. Rockwell’s ‘camera’ is placed within the desks and looks towards Miss Jones, who stands by the blackboard. A few students can be seen, along with a collection of presents left on her desk and the words ‘Happy Birthday’ scrawled on her blackboard. It’s a touching image that relies heavily on Rockwell’s portrayal of Miss Jones herself. Standing at the head of class, she’s stiff and unmoving, trying to maintain her professional decorum. But her bowed head and warm smile speak of a deep affection and gratitude that captures how dearly she loves her class.

1947’s ‘Boy On High Dive’ is another expression of Rockwell’s fascination with the human face. Here, we find a young boy crouched on the end of a high diving board, daring to peek over its precipice. The image is dominated by three things: the sky, the high dive, and the boy’s terrified face as he looks at the drop before him. Spielberg owns the painting and it hangs in his Amblin office as a reminder of the film-making process. “For me, that painting represents every motion picture just before I commit to directing it,” he has said of the piece. “That painting spoke to me the second I saw it… I said not only is that going in my collection, but it’s going in my office so I can look at it every day of my life.”

There’s more than simple affection for the piece, and the work of Rockwell as a whole, at play here though. Whether it’s young Barry opening the doors to the alien visitors in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Elliott looking up at his friend’s departing ship at the end of E.T., or David peering through the eye holes of a mask of his own face in A.I., Spielberg’s infatuation with facial expressions and single image stories is as significant and enduring as Rockwell’s. It’s what’s made both men such indelible chroniclers of the American (and indeed human) experience, and why they’ll always maintain that position. Movies can fade over time, the plot blurring from our memories. But moments, scenes, images – they’re the residue that sticks. And when they’re as strong as Spielberg’s and Rockwell’s are, that’s little surprise.

This article first appeared on The Bearded Trio.

Mr Everyday Regular Fella: Spielberg’s Leading Men

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I like Steven Spielberg. I like writing. I like writing about Steven Spielberg. 

I like dogs too, but that’s beside the point. Here’s another of the posts I’ve written for my other site From Director Steven Spielberg, probably, like, the third fourth best Spielberg site on the internet.

If I were to ask you to list the defining elements of Steven Spielberg’s film-making, the chances are you’d home in on his technical craft first. The shot selection, the thrilling set pieces, the beautiful cinematography, the use of music… All of these are likely to come to mind before anything else and understandably so: Spielberg excels in these areas. But we spend so long marvelling at the technical aspects of his cinema that his ability with actors, his talent for casting smartly and drawing out the very best from his players, often goes unheralded – by critics, by filmgoers, and by the Academy, who have only given two acting Oscars to Spielberg films (Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln and Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies).

With that in mind, I wanted to look at Spielberg’s leading men, and explore what they bring to the films they’re in. But not just any leading men. We all know Spielberg’s has a particular kind of hero – the “Mr. Everyday Regular Fella” who struggles to get by in life and has to overcome a great emotional crisis to succeed. We see this in Martin Brody of Jaws (who has to conquer his fear of water to save Amity), Elliot from E.T. (who has to mature enough to let his alien friend go home), and Alan Grant from Jurassic Park (who has to grow up enough to become a defender of Lex and Tim). Even when the stakes are raised to historical levels, the likes of Oskar Schindler and War Horse’s Albert remain everymen struggling to find the courage to do what’s right against the odds.

As compelling as these characters are, the actors playing them have never returned to work with Spielberg for a second time. This is a privilege reserved for only a handful of the biggest names: Tom Hanks (four films), Harrison Ford (four films), Richard Dreyfuss (three films), and Tom Cruise (two films). Mark Rylance, star of Bridge of Spies and The BFG, will join Ford and Hanks on four films when he adds The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara and Ready Player One to his Spielberg slate. However, as his Spielberg identity is still under construction, I won’t touch on his work much in this article.

Each actor plays a variation on the Spielberg leading man, but Spielberg uses their persona in different ways. Sometimes he plays it straight, tapping into their public image to heighten certain elements of their characters; sometimes, he subverts their reputations, going against the grain of what audiences expect of them to make the character more ambiguous, and the themes of the film they’re in richer. Speaking broadly, Spielberg’s core four can be broken down into these categories: The Everyman (Richard Dreyfuss), The American (Tom Hanks), The Action Hero (Tom Cruise), and The Adventurer (Harrison Ford). In this article, I’ll explore each one.

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The Everyman (Richard Dreyfuss): Dreyfuss is essentially the young Spielberg’s cinematic avatar, and you can see that in the three films they’ve made together. The bullying Hooper faces at the hands of Quint in Jaws reflects the bullying Spielberg endured growing up; the childish wonder Neary has in Close Encounters of the Third Kind reflects Spielberg’s own sense of wonder; and Pete in Always echoes the drive for maturity Spielberg was undergoing at the end of the 80s.

There’s little subversion in the first two films, but as Spielberg’s career developed so too did his vision of himself. When that process began exactly is difficult to tell. You can see self-criticism in the ‘fortune and glory’ depiction of Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom, and there’s certainly a lot of Spielberg in Empire of the Sun’s Jim, whose journey from ignorance to enlightenment anticipates those of Peter Banning, Alan Grant, and Oskar Schindler. However, I’d say it began in earnest with Always, and that’s for two reasons: 1) the casting of Dreyfuss in the lead role and 2) Spielberg’s childhood affection for the film it remakes: 1943 melodrama A Guy Named Joe.

Always is something of a fork in the road for Spielberg. By casting an elder Dreyfuss in a film he held dear as a child, he’s essentially subverting the the Peter Pan image that had been constructed around him. When we watch Always, we see a man-child refusing responsibility and fleeing into the world of airborne fantasies that eventually cause his death. It’s a light film, and at times a very silly and sentimental one, but the ultimate message is surprisingly dark: mature or die. After Always, Spielberg emphatically chose the former.

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The American (Tom Hanks): Hanks is Spielberg’s embodiment of America, his Jimmy Stewart, and he uses him to question American values. It’s easy to look at Saving Private Ryan and Bridge of Spies and see only flag-waving patriotism, but both project not a single image, but a split one: what America is and what America should be.

In Saving Private Ryan, Hanks represents the purity of the American everyman, but his morality is fractured. Miller’s job is to make impossible life-and-death decisions, be that sending his troops out on a mission to save just one man or leaving a little girl behind because his team can’t afford the responsibility of taking her with them. His dying remark that Ryan should “earn” his death asks a question: can we and have we? The pale American flag fluttering in the film’s final shot suggests there’s no clear answer, underlining Spielberg’s anxiety over where America is headed.

Bridge of Spies is no less incisive when it comes to American morality; in fact, it’s probably more brutal. James Donovan acts as an Atticus Finch figure, noble in his pursuit of justice. Yet to achieve that justice, he has to bend the rules a little, employ lawyers’ dodges to ensure his client is getting the rights he deserves. Though that doesn’t tarnish Donovan’s image (he is, after all, doing it for good reasons), it shows how crooked the American system has become, and one of the film’s closing images – the boys vaulting fences like East Berliners tried to vault the Wall – underlines how little it takes for a crooked system to become a totally corrupt one.

Hanks’s other two Spielberg collaborations are lighter, with his role in Catch Me If You Can being particularly frothy: a parody of the government agent that he and Spielberg clearly enjoy sending up. There’s substance and subversion there, but much of it revolves around Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale, so instead it’s Hanks’s turn in The Terminal that’s the more interesting of the two.

By casting the great American everyman as an immigrant, Spielberg not only makes us question our attitude to migrants, but twists the view of America as a land of opportunity. As he makes a life for himself in the airport, Viktor shows more grace, sincerity, hard work, and ambition than many of the Americans in the film. While he has embraced the American Dream, they’ve abandoned it, and there’s a sense of bitter melancholy in the final shot of a wintery Times Square, which Spielberg lingers on as Viktor asks to be taken home. Home may be a fractured country in the throes of revolution, but at least it’s better than modern America.

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The Action Hero (Tom Cruise): When Spielberg and Tom Cruise first worked together on Minority Report, much was made of the time it took for Hollywood’s biggest director and its biggest action hero to join forces. There’d been some near misses (most notably Rain Man, which Spielberg had to drop out of to fulfil his Indiana Jones commitments), but 2002 marked their first of only two collaborations. Why so long and why so few? It’s not really surprising because Spielberg simply doesn’t do action heroes.

A Spielbergian action film tends to involve an everyman (like Brody), an intellect (like Alan Grant or Tintin) or Indiana Jones (who I’ll return to shortly). So why cast Cruise in Minority Report and War of the Worlds? Simple: these are two of the darker blockbusters of Spielberg’s career – indeed two of the darkest films he’s ever made beyond the likes of Schindler’s List and Munich –  and Spielberg casts Cruise to muddy him up, undermine his image, and ultimately subvert what he (and what a modern action hero) is.

Look, for example, at War of the Worlds, where Ray Ferrier starts the film as a thoroughly loathsome human being. Hateful towards his children to the point where he hurls a baseball at one of them after an argument, he slowly comes to be a better father during the course of the film, but only after undertaking some morally dubious actions (including murder). The finale finds him reuniting his family, but he remains physically apart from them, Spielberg showing that even blockbuster heroics can’t heal a broken home.

Minority Report takes the concept even further, not only undermining Cruise’s action hero integrity but also physically mutating him. Spielberg has John Anderton replace his eyeballs and painfully distort his face in order to evade capture, and even then, he still ends gets locked away. The film ends on a superficially happy note as Anderton and his wife are reunited and the Pre-Cogs are set free, but as in War of the Worlds, ambiguity lingers. Crime is now a reality again and the fate of Andertons’ son is still a mystery. For Spielberg, the Cruise model of action hero doesn’t succeed, not totally. He simply survives.

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The Adventurer (Harrison Ford): This approach also informs the way Spielberg tackled Indiana Jones. While George Lucas has spoken of how he’d pick Indy if he could choose to be any of his characters, Spielberg seems more distant. At points in all four of the Indiana Jones films, but especially in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom, Spielberg portrays Indy as a dark, morally ambiguous figure who, in the words of Belloq, would turn to darker ways with nothing more than a nudge. Indeed, during Temple of Doom, he does fall, becoming completely consumed by the Black Sleep of the Kalli while captured by the Thugee cult.

Indy’s a fascinating hero for American cinema because along with that sense of darkness, he’s actually a pretty inactive. The Big Bang Theory has made Indy’s lack of consequence to Raiders of the Lost Ark’s finale common knowledge, but while the show criticises him for that, it’s actually the film’s (and the series’) point. Indy either loses or destroys the MacGuffin every time and instead learns the value of respect: for higher powers in Raiders, for community in Temple of Doom, for his father in Last Crusade, and for knowledge in Crystal Skull. Indy’s a good person, but a pretty rotten action man.

Indeed, while the hardbody heroes of 80s American cinema were seizing power, shooting villains, showing authority to be wholly ineffective and ultimately espousing the individualism of the Reagan era, Spielberg was interested in showing a character who was fundamentally human. Indy’s flawed and out of his depth, having to use his intellect – not just a weapon – to negotiate his way out of danger. He may have been created by Lucas, but he’s a key Spielberg character because he blends elements of all the director’s leading men into one: the everyman humour of Dreyfuss, the American nobility of Hanks, and the darker heroics of Cruise.

It’s interesting then that Spielberg closed Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in a similar way to Minority Report and War of the Worlds. Like Anderton and Ferrier, Indy is reunited with his family at the film’s close, but melancholy lingers. The interdimensional beings have departed, taking with them the wisdom and knowledge they’re symbolic of. Linking the close of the film to its beginning at Doom Town, Spielberg rhymes two shots – those of Indy framed against the nuke’s mushroom cloud and Indy framed against the departing flying saucer – to make a devastating point about Indy’s importance – or rather lack thereof – in a world consumed with paranoia and war. Is there room anymore for a human hero?

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Conclusion…
Spielberg’s leading men have evolved as the director himself has, and it’s perhaps no surprise that he’s now turning to a gentle elder statesman like Mark Rylance as he approaches his 70th birthday. During the last decade, Spielberg’s films have expressed a weariness at the way the world is going, a desire to change things mixed with an anxiety over how to actually do that.

In both Bridge of Spies and The BFG, Rylance has captured that sadness perfectly, continuing his director’s fascinating, ambiguous use of his leading men. Spielbergian heroes are not blood and thunder winners; they’re flawed dreamers, displaced patriots, and dark heroes, Most of all, just as Spielberg himself was as a child, they’re lost boys all struggling to find their place in a world they don’t quite feel a part of.

Being Part of Your World

Let’s face it, 2016 sucked. It was a bad year. A very very bad year. Even Frank Sinatra can’t persuade me otherwise. I’ve scientifically analysed each one of the 12 months of this accursed period of time and tried to find some positives. The only thing I could think of is this idiot chicken.

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2016 in chicken form

But! The thing about bad things is they only really last if you let them last. Which is to say, you should learn from all the bad things that have happened and either try to set them right or ensure they don’t happen again. It’s not the mistakes we make and the bad things that happen that define us; it’s how we react to them.

My bad thing this year has been a feeling of isolation. It’s something I’ve felt for a little while, but this year it really sunk its teeth in, not because of any specific event, just because my years of ignoring it finally caught up with me. So for a long time this year, I’ve felt adrift from the rest of the world: lonely, frustrated, uninterested in the things I normally take pleasure from.

I’ve not fully recovered from it yet, and I suspect it’ll take a little while to do so. I’m shy and introverted, so even at the times where my introversion allows me to mingle with others, my shyness makes it difficult. I’ve improved in some ways this year, and my way of setting things right is to continue that progress. That’s my core goal for 2017.

The missing piece of the puzzle that’s really helped me get on the right track in the last couple of months is embracing communities more. I’m a huge Steven Spielberg fan and run the site From Director Steven Spielberg, which has allowed me to sort of create a community over the last five years. But it’s not easy. Spielberg isn’t a director who really drives a community because his career is so diverse. It’s not easy finding people who love, say, Schindler’s List or Bridge of Spies as much as they do Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jurassic Park.

This year, however, I’ve really embraced my Disney fandom, and that’s worked wonderfully. I’ve always loved Disney, but I’ve never really felt a part of the Disney community. I’ve never really opened myself out to it. I always felt a bit awkward: maybe people would laugh at me? Maybe people would think I’m childish? Maybe they’d think I’m weird for liking Princesses.

Well, maybe they do, but plenty of others don’t and they’re the people I need to concern myself with.

Since talking about Disney more (both here and on Twitter), I’ve had the joy of chatting with some really wonderful people. I consider them friends. It’s a big word to use because it’s difficult to really get to know someone without meeting them face-to-face and, of course, friendship is a two-way street; I’d hate to say I’m friends with someone if they don’t feel that friendship too. But whatever word used to classify it, I certainly hold the people I’ve spoken to about Disney in the same high esteem I do friends, and always look forward to chatting with them about Disney films.

The same is true of Star Wars. Again, I’ve always been a fan, but I’ve never really felt a part of a community: what if I don’t know as much about certain details of the series as others? Would they reject me? Think I’m not a ‘real fan’? Well, hey, if they do, let them. I’ve sought out new people, chatted with them, and found a hell of a lot of joy doing so. Because, despite years and years of my brain telling me the opposite, people don’t find it some great chore talking to me; hey, maybe they even enjoy it.

Across the last six months, I’ve forced myself out of the house more and I’ve gone to a handful of conventions. Even managed to talk to some people face-to-face. It still scares me to my core, but I’ve proven I can do it, and that I need to do it. I’ll be aiming to keep it going in 2017.

So there you go. 2016 hasn’t been very good, but maybe it’s not been all bad. There are bright spots in everything and I’m determined to draw them out. Even if they’re only in the form of a stupid animated chicken.

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Sidenote: it’s worth noting that Hei Hei isn’t screaming in the instant after Moana takes the coconut half off his head. So, brilliantly, while she had it on him, Hei Hei forgot where he was, only realising again when he looked around. He’s an idiot. A magnificent idiot.