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.

Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | IMDB

What Do You Believe?: War and Peace in Wonder Woman

WARNING: BIG SPOILERS

There’s a lot to discuss about Wonder Woman and, frankly, I’m not the right person to do it. The first cinematic depiction of this 76-year-old comic book hero (yes, you read that right – one film in 76 years) has been a hot topic on the internet for a little while now, sometimes for good reasons and sadly sometimes for bad reasons. Having already got very, very angry about those bad reasons, I don’t want to touch on them again, so instead I’m going to take a more positive route and point you in the direction of some incredibly talented women writers and their articles on the significance of this film (here, here, here, and here to name but a few). Read them because they’re much more important and interesting than anything I’m going to write here. But, for whatever it’s worth, I’m going to put some thoughts down anyway, just with a different angle.

Set during World War I, Wonder Woman is not just a rip-roaring comic book movie and thrilling summer blockbuster, it’s a moving and thought-provoking war film. Actually, scratch that: it’s not really a war film. At least not one like I’ve seen before. Most Hollywood war movies are, to some degree, anti-war, but they can never entirely be anti-war. The simple act of capturing conflict through a medium typically designed for light entertainment makes it difficult for even the most harrowing of war movies to totally remove themselves from the excitement and sensationalism cinema offers. So with Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins has taken a different approach: she’s made a peace movie.

Diana Prince’s battle through the film is one of idealism in the pursuit of peace, but in chasing it she must first navigate war. In early scenes, we see her as a child watching adult Amazons train. While doing this, she mimics their every movement, much to the distress of her mother, who’s desperate to keep her away from conflict. As she gets older, Diana does learn to fight and in her first major battle (a training session with her aunt, Themyscira’s general, Antiope) she discovers the true extent of her power, almost causing Antiope terrible harm. At this moment, Jenkins cuts to Diana’s reaction, which is one of fear, confusion and thrill. She has power, but how should she use it? How can power that can inflict such damage be a force for good and peace? And when, if ever, should it be used?

Moments such as this establish the film’s deep sense of humanism and there are many dotted throughout. Later, when Diana’s left Themyscira to participate in the war, she’s devastated when told of the millions of soldiers who’ve died, and furiously confronts a politician who callously dismisses the tragedy. Soldiers die, he reasons, and as unpleasant as he may be, there’s brutal truth in his words. War costs lives. People are killed. It’s a fact of conflict, and one that Wonder Woman‘s male lead, American spy Steve Trevor, accepts. He’s fought too long and seen too much to disagree. He knows that sometimes to win the wider war, you have to lose the battle. Sometimes to do the right thing in the long term, you have to do the wrong thing in the short term. Those, for him, are just the facts of life.

The conflict this philosophy creates between Diana and Steve is beautifully played thanks to Allan Heinberg’s delicate writing and two of the strongest performances you’ll see in a superhero film (from Gal Gadot and Chris Pine). Theirs is a relationship built on mutual trust and respect, so it’s genuinely satisfying, sweet, charming and romantic (there’s a bedroom scene that’s comfortably the most mature and loving I’ve seen in a modern blockbuster). That said, Heinberg and Jenkins never lose sight of their characters as individuals. Both make bad decisions, both do things wrong, but neither are vilified. Steve is never so pragmatic that he’s cold and Diana is never so idealistic that she’s naive. They love each other, and we love them, for their flaws as well as their strengths.

This compassion extends to all the characters. Etta Candy is comic relief who’s never bumbling or stupid, while the group Steve assembles to help he and Diana complete their task defy her initial negative judgements. Ewan Bremner’s PTSD-suffering sniper Charlie in particular speaks to this point. Upon first meeting him, Diana dismisses him as a cowardly killer who can’t even look those he murders in the eye. In moments of peace, however, he’s revealed to be a talented (if somewhat shambling) musician whose ability Diana appreciates and later encourages. He’s not defined by who he is in war. Only he can define who he is. (There’s an excellent Twitter thread by @vampexplosion on masculinity in Wonder Woman here).

Most impressively, the same is true of one of the film’s villains, the brilliant chemist Isabella Maru (nicknamed Doctor Poison and played with affecting vulnerability by Elena Anaya). Like so many comic book villains before her, Poison is pantomime for portions of the story, but in the final act Jenkins brings out her humanity. She lets her guard down during a conversation with Steve at a gala ball, and this draws genuine sympathy as we know Steve’s only talking to her as part of a wider plan to thwart her bosses. Later, she’s offered up to Diana as a victim in a final test for our hero: can she find the humanity in this villain or will she deliver the vengeance she ‘deserves’? Without ever forgiving her for her sins, Jenkins draws compassion for Poison by having her mask drop away to reveal a scarred, scared woman who’s more manipulated than malicious. Diana, of course, stands down. And so do we. War has forced an identity on her just as it has Charlie.

That’s the power of Wonder Woman. It asks something of its audience. Yes, come to see the film because it’s an entertaining comic book flick, but please prepare to think, have some preconceptions challenged and be genuinely moved in ways you may not be prepared for. I certainly was in the film’s finale, when we see Steve and Diana separated: Diana racing off to thwart the villainous God Ares, Steve needing to take care of a payload of poisonous gas. They’ve recently fallen out, and Hollywood structure has taught us to expect the final act to resolve this before presenting us with a happy ending. Well, Wonder Woman does and does not do that because Steve dies while nullifying the gas threat. Before this happens, however, he has an emotional goodbye scene with Diana, and here Jenkins does something truly remarkable.

The first time we see the scene, we don’t hear the dialogue. Diana’s been deafened by a bomb blast, so all we hear is mumbles from Steve’s mouth. However, as Ares is tempting Diana to exact vengeance on Doctor Poison, we cut back. This time, we do hear the dialogue: Steve’s explaining his plan and telling Diana that he loves her. Diana hears his words too, but whether this is literal reality is unclear. Is Diana, now recovered from the shock of the bomb blast, thinking clearly again and can therefore remember what Steve said? Or is she conjuring an imagined version of what she believes Steve said, what her affection for him tells her he said?

The film never seems to offer a clear answer, and for me that’s very much the point. “It’s not about ‘deserve’,” Diana tells Ares as he insists that humanity has done nothing to earn her help. “It’s about what you believe.” By remembering the best of Steve, by believing that his final words to her were ones of sacrifice and love, she not only asserts her strength independent of him, but proves that idealism, love, compassion and unwavering belief in those things can have a place in a practical world. In fact, they must. If they don’t then the value of peace is lost, even if the war is won.

Peace is not some intangible concept that’s simply the absence of conflict, Wonder Woman tells us. It’s something that exists every second of every day in every interaction we have. By exploding gender roles, by demanding its audience question what they see, by collapsing the comic book binary of good and evil, Wonder Woman brilliantly restructures both the superhero genre and the war film, and asks us all to believe. Believe in each other, believe in love, believe in goodness. Because in a world of war where we’re told loudly and violently that things are one way and always will be, sometimes believing is our only and best weapon.

Can you all stop being dicks, please

A woman, pictured here oppressing men by existing.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I went on a little moan about fan culture this week.  The thread can be viewed in its full, erm, magnificence here, but if you fancy a sneak peek, here’s the first one.

A good, solid set-up, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The way fans treat each other has long been a bugbear of mine, but it’s got much much worse in recent years. The influx of new fans – younger fans, people of colour, even (oh God!) the wimmins – has set the alarm bells ringing among some (not all, it must be noted) older fans, who seem to view them as a threat to their particular property. Star Trek fans got in on the action this week by moaning about ‘Discovery’ foregrounding two women of colour, while women-only showings of Wonder Woman at the Alamo Drafthouse in the States riled the cinema’s male patrons.

Before attacking this attitude I’m first going to try to understand it, because there is some part of me that can stand back, scientifically judge it, and try to work out objectively where it comes from. As far as I can tell, it’s the erosion of the element of fantasy that people look for in things like Star Trek and Star Wars. If people watch a film set in a galaxy far, far away, they want to be transported there and the greater push for diversity and inclusion draws them out of it. Suddenly, they’re watching a film that reminds them of the world they live in rather than helping them escape it.

As I say, I get that, but, well, y’know what…

Tough shit.

When I was a kid, I loved Spider-Man. He was shy like me, a wallflower who couldn’t articulate himself and didn’t have the confidence to make friends. I needed Spider-Man because I saw myself in him. As I’ve grown up, I’ve seen myself in many more characters. Some of them – like me – are white and male and straight, others are not. I loved Sophie in Spielberg’s The BFG for her determination. I loved Finn in The Force Awakens for his redemptive goodness. I loved Willow from Buffy for her smarts and power. These are great characters and I often think ‘what would they do’ in my every day life because I relate to them so strongly.

The argument so often goes that good stories don’t depend on the race, gender or sexuality of a character, just the story that’s being told, but this is often put over by straight, white, male fans and it’s missing the point. I find it easier to relate to people who aren’t like me because there are so many characters who are like me. I’ve had my fill. If you’re gay, where’s your shining hero? If you’re black or Hispanic or Asian, where are the characters you can look up to and aspire to be. They’re there, for sure, but they’re hard to find and they really shouldn’t be; they should only be the flick of a remote control button away.

Slowly but surely, we’re getting there, but sadly that slowness is far too slow and it’s because of fans, which is something I simply can’t comprehend. It’s completely against what I think is common decency and – more to the point – against what so many of our heroes stand for: the goodness, humanity, and empathy we claim to love about them. There are kids out there of all creeds and colours, sexualities and genders who are desperately in need of the same hero I found in Spider-Man, or Indiana Jones, or Luke Skywalker when I was a kid. They need them and they deserve them. They’ll not only entertain those kids, but help them in times of despair, giving them the strength to say ‘what would they do’ when they’re being bullied, or coming out, or being told that they’re not good enough because they ‘throw like a girl’.

Why on earth would you want to take away the strength you found in your heroes yesterday from those who need them today? That’s not what Spider-Man would do? That’s some straight up Green Goblin shit.

Even if you ignore that, even if you throw your hands up and dismiss that as ‘social justice warrior crap’, fine, but you’re killing the thing you love. Nothing lasts forever. People get old, they stop having disposable incomes and so the money they plough into their favourite things, the money that allows those favourite things to stay alive, diminishes. It happened with Star Wars in the late 80s and early 90s, when the franchise’s core base had grown into teenagers and moved on from such childish things as lightsabers and The Force. It needed the release of the Special Editions to bring people back into the fold and show new audiences what that glorious galaxy far far away is all about.

It could have happened again after the release of Revenge of the Sith. The films were done, the story of the Skywalkers over. The poor critical reception of those movies had tarnished the series as a whole and there really was the threat  – as hard as it is to believe now – that it could all fade away. Then, along came ‘The Clone Wars’ with a new hero, a female hero. Ahsoka Tano was roundly criticised when she first hit the screen, but now she’s gone on to become a lynchpin of the saga, appearing in ‘Star Wars Rebels’ and a wide range of ancillary media. Why? Simple: new, and often female, fans. Young girls could relate to Ahsoka and – thanks to Ashley Eckstein, who voices her – felt welcomed into the community. Female fans have always been there, of course, but there were more now and they all felt empowered because they were represented.

I’m not suggesting Star Wars would have died without Ahsoka and ‘The Clone Wars’, but history could have played out very differently. Without those female fans, without that new audience, would Star Wars and Lucasfilm have been as enticing a proposition to Disney as it was? Would George Lucas have sold to someone else? Would that company have been as careful with the property as Disney has been? Impossible to say, but I doubt we’d be in this spot: witnessing an increasing, and increasingly diverse, following that’s demanding  – and often getting – brilliant films, TV series, books and comics from a company that knows it can’t deliver anything but the best.

From a personal point of view, I look to the diversity and size of the Star Wars franchise with envy. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a big Steven Spielberg fan, and wish there was a thriving community for his films. Sure you get fan followings for Jurassic Park, Jaws and Indiana Jones, but there are few people who love Bridge of Spies, The Terminal and Empire of the Sun as much as they love that aforementioned trio. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it makes me wistful. I wish there was a community who I could engage with, who would love to discuss why Catch Me If You Can is a semi-sequel to E.T. as much as they love discussing Short Round’s back story, but there isn’t and that kinda sucks. Other fans should be grateful that they’re not ploughing their furrow on their own.

It’s not always easy seeing other people enjoying ‘your thing’. They come in and they shake it up, offering new and sometimes critical opinions that you’d prefer not to hear. It’s important to hear them though, not just from a social and political view, but also a creative one (I’m the least stylish person on the planet but love the interest in fashion that female fans have brought to Star Wars). Doing so won’t nudge anyone out of the way or shift the focus onto something else; quite the opposite, it’ll only make the community and therefore the property richer and stronger. Isn’t that, y’know, a good thing?

So please, older fans, stop. Stop getting angry, stop reacting to new and diverse fans like they’re thieves stealing your favourite things, and please, please, please stop being dicks. Just stop. Star Wars is great, Star Trek is great, Wonder Woman is great, Spider-Man is great. These things we love are fucking great, and it’s why we love them. So let people love them. As many people, and as many different people, as you possibly can. Because they need them. Because it’s what your heroes would do. And if that doesn’t persuade you, because there’s nothing worse than debating why Empire of the Sun is Steven Spielberg’s best film with yourself.

Trust me on that one. I know.

How Spielberg builds tension in Jurassic Park

I’ve been making video essays for a little while now, but recently I bought a new piece of video editing software, which has helped me experiment a little more and improve my offering.

My most recent video is part of my Spielberg Shorts series, which takes a two-minute look at a certain element of Spielberg’s film-making. This one looks at how he uses light and glass to convey tension and vulnerability in Jurassic Park.

I’m always looking to do more videos like this, and am weighing up how to approach one from a Disney standpoint. So stay tuned for that. In the meantime, check out more videos on YouTube.

 

The Strange Case of Ballerina/Leap

A few months ago, I saw a trailer for a charming-looking animation called Ballerina. It seemed to be about a young French girl called Felicie who dreamed of being a dancer and went through all the trials and tribulations you’d expect an aspiring young member of that profession to go through. I decided I wanted to see the film, either at the cinema or on DVD and went about the rest of my day.

A little while after that, I saw a poster for a film that looked almost exactly the same as Ballerina but had a different title. This one was called Leap! and the focus no longer seemed to be on Felicie, but the male lead, who, despite his small cameo in the trailer I saw, was front and centre on this poster, sweeping across frame with a pair of wooden wings on his back and the young girl in his arms. This is, in fairness, the same as the French poster (or one of them, here’s a more ballerina-y alternative), but the change of title shifts the entire dynamic. No longer does Felicie seem in control – it seems like she’s being saved as part of some superheroic act on the part of the boy.

As I often do, I had a little moan about this on social media, and did the same today when I spotted an EW story announcing that Kate McKinnon (who, sidenote, is obviously brilliant) had been cast as one of the stars. This in itself is a bizarre situation, as the film (a French Canadian production but in the English language) has already been released in the UK with one set of actors and now seems to be being re-cast for its US release. An odd situation likely driven by a confusion on the part of The Weinstein Company (distributors in the US) as to how to sell the film.

As this is a thorny issue, I want to point out a few things before I get to the main point. I’m not saying that boys can’t or won’t watch a film about a dancer or that boys and men can’t be dancers. As someone who loves musicals and knows every word of every Disney Princess song ever written, I’d positively encourage it. Nor am I saying that a girl can’t or won’t watch a film about a boy with wings saving a girl. The huge female fanbase the Marvel films have proves that the barriers between what we consider ‘a boys’ film’ and what we consider ‘a girls’ film’ are blurring more and more with each year. And that is a very good thing indeed.

However, what I am saying is that it’s important for young girls to see themselves reflected on screen and that a film about a young girl should be marketed as such. Ballerina is a small animation from a little-known foreign studio. Few people are going to actively seek it out, so it relies on the marketing more than many other animations. If a girl goes to the cinema one day and wants to see a film that will speak to her, she’d likely be more won over by Ballerina than Leap!. By skewing so much at young boys, the marketing is creating a barrier between the film and its intended audience – and that’s a real shame for a film that looks like it has the potential to inspire and empower.

What’s more, it sends out an appalling message. “Sorry girls,” the poster for Leap! seems to say. “You and your interests aren’t good enough. Girls and dancing don’t make money. Boys and heroic antics do.” This is a very important issue and one that struck me when I went to a Women in Film panel at a local film festival a few weeks ago. On this panel was director Bronwen Hughes, whose movies include 1996’s Harriet the Spy. She recounted the story of a marketing meeting for the film, where she was told that Harriet would receive a lower marketing budget than a similarly themed film featuring a boy. The reason? Films with boys do better at the box office.

Of course, as Hughes pointed out, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Give a film about a girl less marketing clout and it’ll obviously fare less well at the box office. How can it possibly do anything else? If the boy film is shouting about its existence while the girl film is having to make do with a broken whisper, then it’s perfectly obvious that the boy film will make more money.

By turning Ballerina into Leap!, the film’s marketing brains are playing into that wrong-headed thinking and making it harder for films about young girls for young girls to find their audience and make money. So ultimately we’re going to see less of those films and young girls will struggle to find films that speak to them and their experiences directly. In an age where Rey and Jyn Erso are taking on Empires that’s – gladly – slightly less of an issue than it’s been in the past, but by the same token, it makes the Ballerina/Leap! switch more baffling.

Girls shouldn’t have to seek films like Ballerina out, and films like Ballerina shouldn’t have to morph into something entirely different to reach those girls. The world is changing, and movie marketing needs to replace its outmoded thinking and move with it. Otherwise it won’t be Felicie who needs someone to swoop in and save her; it’ll be the marketers.