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.

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.

 

Panic on the Fourth of July: Spielberg’s America

tom-hanks-in-bridge-of-spies

In this article, originally posted on From Director Steven Spielberg, I take a look at Spielberg’s complex portrait of America, which strives for hope but expresses a deep sense of anxiety at corruption, masculinity, and political process gone wrong. 

Steven Spielberg delivers one of his most damning indictments of the American psyche in his anarchic Second World War comedy 1941. The film, which depicts the chaos of an anticipated Japanese attack on Hollywood in the wake of Pearl Harbor, is a mess of wild set pieces, juvenile jokes, and teenage bawdiness that only occasionally rises its head of the parapet of brilliance. But when it does, it homes in on an anxiety around the American identity that Spielberg repeatedly returns to and which rings true as clearly today as it did at the end of a decade shattered by Watergate and Vietnam.

One such moment is, typically for a film of cartoonish insanity, a song and dance scene (1941, it should be noted, is not a musical). Taking place at a dance competition, the sequence finds our hero Wally attempting to dance with the girl of his dreams, Betty. He’s been practicising for weeks, aiming to impress Betty with his moves and win her heart. Trouble is, he has a rival. Military jerk Stretch also has his eye on Betty, and he and Wally come to blows in a balletic sequence that features some stunning choreography and beautifully fluid, energetic camerawork. It would go on to inspire the more famous Anything Goes sequence that opens Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and remains one of the most expressive scenes of Spielberg’s career.

But at the centre of this display of grace and beauty is a tale of American bullying, the betrayal of the little guy, and the destruction of the American Dream. Wally has pulled himself up by his bootlaces by learning to dance.. There’s creation there, a sense that he’s made something of himself through hard work and endeavour. With Stretch, however, there’s only destruction and a sense of entitlement. He’s strong and masculine. He’s in the army. He deserves Betty and should simply be given her heart, not have to win it. This attitude finally catches up with Wally by the sequence’s close where, having been thoroughly humiliated, Stretch traps Wally, winds up a punch and knocks him out. Underlining his political point, Spielberg uses a point of view shot from Wally’s perspective and frames Stretch against a neon-lit American flag as he delivers the blow.

Arrogance and brutality. This is the America of Spielberg’s early career: the little guy is crushed and authority figures bully their way to success. Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even E.T. follow suit. Think of authority figures in these films: the mayor in Jaws, the government officials of Close Encounters and Raiders, the hazmat suited goons trampling through Elliott’s home in E.T.. Spielberg either turns these characters into the bad guys, or depicts them as being as morally duplicitous as the bad guys. The “top men” we’re told about at the end of Raiders are unlikely to be as bad as Belloq and co., but can they truly be trusted with the Ark? Are they really going to keep that source of unspeakable power safe?

Spielberg’s uncertainty with figures of American authority stems (as much of his thematic make-up does) from childhood. As a kid, he grew up an isolated outsider: the victim of anti-Semitic abuse and general bullying. America was a land that promised much, a country his grandparents spoke of with reverence where, in the allegorical words of the Amblin-produced An American Tail, there were “no cats”. Yet the reality was very different. In his Spielberg biography, Joseph McBride writes:

“Spielberg has recalled that he was tormented in high school by a bully who ‘made anti-Semitic slurs’ and enjoyed pushing him around. The bully would shove his face into the drinking fountain between classes and bloody his nose during football games in physical education. The most frightening incident came with the boy tossed a cherry bomb at Steven while he was sitting on the toilet in the school lavatory; Steven barely escaped injury.” (McBride, 96).

If the films of the 70s and early 80s were essentially bully films, Spielberg’s range expanded as his career developed. We still get some American bullies (Donovan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), but as the 80s turned into the 90s, there’s something more complex about Spielberg’s authority figures. 1987’s Empire of the Sun and the 1993 duo of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List delivered compelling and ambiguous characters in the shape of Basie, John Hammond and Oskar Schindler. While only Basie is actually American, all three characters represent American values: Capitalism gone awry and the pursuit of money unchecked by responsibility. They’re all charismatic presences and they all commit great acts of evil as well as acts of good. Basie stands apart from Hammond and Schindler as he ends Empire of the Sun by killing a child, while Hammond and Schindler see the error of their ways. But neither can be described as heroic, neither truly escape the shadow of their dubious earlier actions.

This approach informs even those characters who Spielberg clearly marks as heroes. Saving Private Ryan’s Captain Miller, for example, is undoubtedly a good man, treating his troops with respect and going about his task with dignity and honour. He’s a classic Spielberg/Tom Hanks American Everyman, but the war brings him into conflict with his morality. He has to make tough calls and negotiate situations where there’s no ‘right answer’. Against this backdrop, Spielberg asks what we can do to stay good and maintain our morality. “Earn it,” Miller tells Ryan with his dying breath. By living good lives, the film says, we can honour the literal and moral sacrifice of those like Miller who ultimately couldn’t. But as the film closes on the sight of an American flag, fluttering in the breeze and faded against the light of a piercing white sun, Spielberg suggests we’re failing. America isn’t ‘earning it’.

Such darkness continued into the first decade of the new Millennium. The focus remains on what good people can do in bad times, but the films that constitute Spielberg’s Noughties output represents some of the most ambiguous, and – in the opinion of this writer – best work of his career. The vision of America Spielberg projects in these films is riddled with anxiety as good men do terrible things, authority figures abuse their power and human life is discarded like trash. Dr Hobby of A.I. and John Anderton of Minority Report wilfully play God, Frank Dixon in The Terminal treats Viktor like an animal in order to win a promotion, and Ray Ferrier kills a man in order to protect his child in War of the Worlds. It’s telling that in this period, Spielberg cast Tom Cruise twice, and turned this icon of American manhood into a monster, once emotionally (in War of the Worlds), once literally by literally mutilating his face (in Minority Report).

His own American icon – Indiana Jones – didn’t get out of this dark decade unscathed either. In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indy’s out of touch with a world torn apart by paranoia. In one of the film’s most fascinating sequences he’s questioned by the FBI and openly accused of colluding with Soviet forces. His war record and the incredible heroism of his past are barely considered: the very concepts of heroism and goodness have lost their currency in a paranoid world where authority figures suspect everyone. The question that permeates the film is: how can one do the right thing when the right thing doesn’t seem to exist any more? By having the extradimensional beings – who the film builds as a metaphor for knowledge – depart at the end, Spielberg brings his decade of darkness to a close by lamenting the loss of wisdom and the virtue that brings.

Such moments lend a sense of sadness and regret to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that’s continued through to Spielberg’s most recent films. His first movie to deal directly with the machinery of politics, Lincoln finds Spielberg zeroing in on one of the greatest Americans to have ever lived, but shows him having to bend the system and essentially commit illegal acts to bring in laws that ensure fundamental human rights. Made in the middle of the Obama era, it’s aware of the unending need for progress and the things that stand in the way of it, and asks how morality can win when certain figures of authority stand in its way.

Bridge of Spies acts as a sister film to Lincoln and finds another great America, James Donovan, repeating the President’s actions: bending the law, going rogue, and employing “lawyers dodges” in order to secure basic human rights. Both films were criticised for being too idealistic; old-fashioned throwbacks that painted complex subject matter with broad strokes and a limited palette. Whether you agree with that or not, the ultimate moral of these films hardly waves the flag for justice in the States. American democracy is fundamentally broken, they tell us, and the only way to fix it is to work outside of its strictures and essentially break it all over again.

Is that morality? Does the end justify the means? Spielberg’s great success with Lincoln and Bridge of Spies is to show American justice as a living organism, always changing – both for good and bad.  And with one of the final shots of the latter, he shows just how delicate the balance is. Donovan rides home on the train, his job done after recovering Francis Gary Powers from the Soviets. He looks out of the window, seeing boys in their gardens climbing over the fences. It reminds him (and us) of East Berlin, where innocent people risked their lives trying to climb the Wall and secure their freedom. It’s a beautifully Spielbergian image – innocence and darkness combined to make an ambiguous and unsettling point: that America, like all democracies, is always just a breath away from falling into corruption.

Spielberg has evolved from an angry young man railing at the bullies of America to an introspective middle-aged father wondering about his place in the system and finally become an elder statesman, looking back and telling stories about the triumphs of America’s past. As he finds hope in history, he also expresses an anxiety about the future. What will happen when the Lincolns and the Donovans fade, he asks. What will happen when someone arrives to bend the law for his own good rather than the common good? We may be about to find out…

Spielberg at 70: A Tribute

As I’ve mentioned in the past, along with writing on Kids Riding Bicycles, I also run a Steven Spielberg website called, suitably enough, From Director Steven Spielberg. Check it out. It’s okish, I guess. A solid 6 out of 10.

I’ve written lotsa stuff over the five years From Director Steven Spielberg has been running, and over the last year, I’ve branched out by creating a few videos. They’re nothing fancy – just little Supercuts and mini video essays – but they work ok. You can watch them at the site’s YouTube channel.

With Spielberg celebrating his 70th birthday on Sunday 18th December, I wanted to create a new video that highlighted something we don’t often appreciate about Spielberg: the gentility of his films. More often than not, we think of the action and spectacle of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws and Jurassic Park, and so we miss the heartfelt, quiet moments of human connection. Hopefully ‘The Secret Whisperings’ as I’ve pretentiously called it, reminds us of those moments.

I’m still working out how to master the art of video editing and video essays, and will continue to develop my skills next year. I may even branch out into creating Disney-themed videos. Until then, I hope you enjoy this. Oh, and Happy Birthday, Stevie.

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.

Essay: The BFG (Steven Spielberg, 2016)

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For a director renowned for the wonders he puts on screen, Steven Spielberg’s greatest talent lies in what he doesn’t show us. Whether it’s the shark in Jaws, the Mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or the brachiosaur in Jurassic Park, Spielberg delights in teasing his audience – not showing, or at least making us wait for, the spectacular, the wondrous, the evil, or the terrifying. It’s why the so-called ‘Spielberg Face’ has become such a well-known visual trope, and why his films, regardless of subject matter and tone, find a mass audience time and time again. We love anticipating the amazing.

This sense of absence isn’t just expressed aesthetically; it’s a deep-rooted part of the director’s thematic concerns too. Spielberg characters are rarely complete wholes. They’re all bereft: looking for something, longing for something, needing something in order to be complete. Part of the joy of a Spielberg film is following them on that journey as they (and we) seek their missing part, a quest they often have to take alone or by conquering the resistance of those around them. The nerdy Jewish boy who grew up a bullied outsider in largely Gentile neighbourhoods has spent his adult life reliving and restructuring that sense of alienation.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, of course, expresses this sense of longing and loneliness in its purest form, and it’s fitting that Spielberg has re-teamed with that film’s writer, the late, great Melissa Mathison, for this take on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel The BFG, another two-hander about alienation and otherness. You wouldn’t think it from the effortless confidence shown here, but it’s been more than 30 years since the pair last worked together (and nearly 20 since Mathison’s last screenplay – for Martin Scorsese’s 1997 Dalai Lama biopic Kundun) and the passing years have helped create a film even more mellow and melancholic than their 1982 masterpiece.

As the sadly mixed reviews have noted, The BFG is not an eventful film. It’s a slow, patient picture that takes its time and enjoys the opportunity to breathe. Nor is it a particularly rambunctious film, in the way we’ve come to expect from a Dahl adaptation. The author’s warmth often radiated through a mischievous grin, especially in the likes of ‘The Twits’, ‘Matilda’ and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. ‘The BFG’ has always been a gentler offering, but even the darkness he did include (such as The BFG’s discussions with Sophie about the taste of human beings) is mostly blunted or removed entirely by Spielberg and Mathison. Critics are correct when they say the film misses this sense of threat – even the mean giants don’t seem particularly fearsome – but that’s not the story Spielberg is looking to tell.

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“The secret whisperings of the world…”

Something seemed to shift in Spielberg’s approach during the making of Lincoln. The listlessness seen in parts of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn disappeared, and the next phase in his film-making career seemed to snap into focus. Long-gestating sci-fi blockbuster Robopocalypse slipped off the slate and was replaced by talk of dramas such as Bridge of Spies, Montezuma, and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (The BFG, of course, also joined those films). Spielberg has always been fascinated by character, dialogue, and the little grace notes that make those things come alive, but Lincolnpushed them to the forefront more than ever, and ushered in a new approach to tone and pacing.

Confident, stately, relaxed, Lincoln found its sister film in last year’s Bridge of Spies, which delighted in its slow-burn pace and the studied, deliberate turn of Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, and it again influences The BFG, in which the excellent Rylance exudes a similar silent nobility. This is very much a post-Lincoln Spielberg blockbuster, a film more concerned with words than explosions, eloquence than excitement. It’s arguably the first time Spielberg has seemed truly at ease at the helm of populist entertainment since 2002’s Minority Report (which he identified as “a gourmet popcorn movie”, suggesting he saw it, like The BFG, as no mere slice of summer escapism), and, though time will tell, that’s enabled him to craft a charming fantasy that can rival even E.T..

His ability to couch the fantastical effects and state of the art motion capture in a small story about a child gives Spielberg the confidence he’s perhaps lacked on similar films in recent years. With The BFG, he delights in turning Sophie into a typically Spielbergian child hero. She’s sprightly, inventive, heroic, and noble – played by Ruby Barnhill with a delightful spark and quiet vulnerability that’s not been heralded enough. Outraged by The BFG’s treatment at the hands of the other giants, she tries to inspire him to fight back. She concocts plans, demands rather than asks, and takes well-earned delight in describing herself as “an untrustworthy child”. True to the rebellious heart of Dahl’s book and their own work in depicting the necessity of childhood battles against adult conformity, Spielberg and Mathison have crafted a world where such descriptions are to be worn as badges of honour.

In some ways, Sophie is a stronger hero than her closest analogue Elliott, but she’s similarly lost. Wandering through the halls of her silent orphanage at the height of the Witching Hour, she casts a lonely figure – lost and so utterly anonymous that she can sneak through by without being spotted. The BFG’s entry into this world isn’t just an exciting and wondrous event (though the way Spielberg captures the giant’s snatching of the girl in a long held take is simple, dazzling, and beautifully nightmarish); it’s an utterly transformative one. Like E.T.’s arrival in Elliott’s world, The BFG offers Sophie a lifeline, an opportunity for more than just magic and mystery, but for companionship and camaraderie as well. Sophie essentially finds her soul mate.

Spielberg takes great joy in reflecting this visually. Released from the shackles of serious drama, he plays with imagery with an abandon we’ve not seen for a number of years. A standout moment finds The BFG and Sophie hiding on the streets of London by disguising themselves as trees, while in another The BFG’s dream orbs mimic Sophie’s excited jumping by bouncing up and down in their jars. Sophie describes herself as an insomniac who can’t fall asleep long enough to dream, but as the film progresses, it’s as if her inner life and imagination are so firmly awakened by her friendship with The BFG that she comes to have more of a connection with the dreams he catches than he himself does.

Moments such as these abound and they’re often played out in silence, or with minimal dialogue. Cutting back the chat, Spielberg lets his camerawork, John Williams’ playful score, Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg’s organic, tangible production design, and Janusz Kaminski’s radiant cinematography do the talking. One particularly impressive sequence comes when The BFG guides Sophie through his home, the camera lapping up each wonderful detail with every bit of the quiet grace we saw in Lincoln, while another comes during the Buckingham Palace sequences, where both our heroes are – perhaps for the first time – given luxurious feasts to devour for breakfast. Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn cut between The BFG and Sophie’s delighted faces in a scene that’s both humourous and heartening.

It’s a final seal on their friendship, a visual lock of a bond built not on words, but commonality and compassion. It should be little surprise then that it’s expressed not through narrative thrust but the secret whisperings of cinema: sound and visuals.

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“I catch dreams…”

Of course, Spielberg’s the serial storyteller, a man who as a child would summon scary stories based on the trees outside his window and cracks in his bedroom window. He couldn’t make a film that forgoes storytelling altogether, and indeed he hasn’t. While The BFG may take a relaxed approach to telling its story, it makes significant statements about the art of storytelling itself, and stands as one of Spielberg’s most eloquent films about the topic (he’s touched on it in parts of Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, while the whole of Catch Me If You Can focuses on fiction and fabrication). Dahl wrote ‘The BFG’ as a bedtime story for his grand-daughter Sophie (even writing her into it as the main character), and Spielberg expands that idea by turning The BFG into one of his most eloquent and engaging storytellers. (1)

A catcher, creator, and deliverer of dreams though he may be, Spielberg’s BFG cuts a sad and lonely figure. He exists in solitude, far away from humanity and is bullied by his brother giants. Yet he quietly yearns for ‘human beans’ and Spielberg again lets us know with subtle clues. His home is littered with artefacts from the human world – a broken plane wing, old telephone boxes, wrecked ships – and though he feels he can’t come into contact with humans for fear they’d chop him up and experiment, he clearly takes great delight in connecting with them through his pendulous ears, which allow him to hear “all the secret whisperings of the world”. He is both a part of and entirely separate from the world he admires, grasping towards it through the fragments of adventures past.

His role as a dreamweaver and storyteller gives him the opportunity to silently venture into the human world each night, experiencing new adventures and concocting new stories. Though Spielberg shows us fewer of The BFG’s dreams than Dahl did in the book, the one we do see captures the spirit of storytelling beautifully. We find a young boy whose father receives a telephone call from the President. But the President doesn’t want to speak to the man; he needs the boy, who’s the only person in the world who can help him out of his predicament. The dream is short, played out in shadow on the boy’s bedroom wall, and leaves the child with a small, satisfied smile on his face. Like the film as a whole and like Sophie’s moments of delight with her oversized friend, it’s a fleeting incident that will live on somewhere on the edge of memory and emotion.

This, the film suggests, is what stories deliver, but they can cut deep as well as soothe wounds. One Spielberg/Mathison addition to Dahl’s text is the story of a boy who The BFG snatched years before taking Sophie. The pair enjoyed their time together, but it ended tragically when the child was eaten by lead nasty giant The Flushlumpeater (Jermaine Clement on delightfully villainous form). Though not macabre in the way Dahl was, it’s a surprisingly dark addition, and one that paints The BFG’s entire character in a new light. His desire to catch dreams and tell stories comes off not just as a charming frippery, but an absolute necessity. He does it to both remember and forget the story of the boy, to both recover from it and redeem himself for it. If indeed he can be redeemed.

The issue of redemption looms large over The BFG, with Spielberg and Mathison turning the struggle for forgiveness into the source of the ultimate nightmare. Spielberg depicts Dahl’s ultimate bad dream (a Trogglehumper) as a fearsome red orb that buzzes through Dream Country like an angry hornet. But this dream contains not monsters or demons, but a simple message: “Look at what you has done. And there be no forgiveness.” For the stubbornly optimistic Spielberg, who found light even in the darkness of the Holocaust, it’s notable that the ultimate nightmare isn’t some monstrous external force, but the absence of something from within – forgiveness, redemption, happiness, the ability to change and move on. Stories are dreams, Spielberg suggests, and in those dreams, anything can happen. But nightmares… nightmares are a lack of story, a place where transformation is impossible, and forgiveness can never arrive. Lack, loneliness, longing for something that is desperately needed but will always remain just out of reach. It’s a very Spielbergian kind of horror.

The only cure for such emptiness, the film suggests, is to spread the joy of storytelling, and The BFG’s role in the movie is not just to deliver dreams, but to turn others into dream-makers and storytellers. When Sophie hides in the alcove where the little boy slept, she sees drawings detailing his and the giant’s time together. They embarked on numerous adventures and there’s even the suggestion that it was the boy who named his friend the Big Friendly Giant, a monicker the giant seems delighted to accept. Again, the concept of storytelling as a way to control memory, ease the pain of the things we’ve lost in the past, while simultaneously remembering them to shape our future, emerges. By continuing to use the name, The BFG reminds himself of his lost friend and pays tribute to him at the same time.

Sophie becomes a storyteller too, turning the Big Friendly Giant into the more manageable BFG, and helping him concoct the nightmare that will form a critical part of their plan to defeat the mean giants. Having conceived of the idea, then formed the story, Sophie subsequently becomes the teller, delivering the nightmare to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. In this moment, Spielberg does something unexpected and rather brilliant by not showing how the Queen responds to the dream (beyond a few off-screen upset cries). Instead, his camera stays focused on Sophie as she delightedly watches the Royal experience the story she’s created. Thus Sophie’s journey from consumer to creator is complete. Her joy in seeing the dream play out, and knowledge of the positive effects it will bring, underlines how potent such stories can be, and why the film cares so passionately about them.

They are one of the few dependable things that can complete us and fill up the emptiness.

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“Times’ll be hard, times’ll be soft. But she’ll remember the good deeds…“

And yet, it’s to absence that Spielberg returns as he and Mathison draw the story to a close. Two scenes stand out in the film’s finale, and both, fittingly for a film of moments rather than set pieces, are small grace notes.

The first comes as Sophie and The BFG are about to put their plan to beat the mean giants into action. They sit on the side of a mountain looking out across Giant Country and their sleeping foes. Having caught a dream earlier in the film, Sophie asks The BFG what it contains. He tells her that it’s her life – she grows up, finds love, finds fulfilment, and has kids of her own whose dreams she helps come true. However, he tells her, she can’t live that life in Giant Country. Just as Elliott needs to let E.T. go to mature, Sophie needs to wake up from her dream, rub her eyes, and join the real world again.

So in a dramatic divergence from the book, our heroes part. Whereas for Dahl, the BFG finished the story in England, living in a gigantic castle with Sophie next door in a small cottage, Spielberg puts Sophie in the care of Mary, the Queen’s maid, and suggests the beginnings of a family between her, Mary, and Rafe Spall’s Mr Tibbs. The BFG, meanwhile, remains in Giant Country. The mean giants have gone and much of the land is now taken up by fields filled with fruit and vegetables, but he’s still alone. It’s a surprising move – sentimental Spielberg providing a sadder ending than the mischievous, often dark Dahl – but it once again underlines Spielberg’s focus on longing and loneliness and what we can do to prevent them.

In the film’s final shots, Sophie leans out of the window of her new home after waking up from a dream in which she saw The BFG again, and quietly wishes her friend a good morning. Spielberg cuts to Giant Country, where The BFG’s huge ears twitch to pick up the sounds as he writes a book detailing his and Sophie’s adventures – the dream-maker literally becoming a storyteller. He smiles a smile that captures the film in one beautiful image – wistful, melancholic, but still undoubtedly happy. Like a promise made at a graveside, it’s the smile of a man who’s lost something but is perhaps happy to have had something to lose, the smile of a man who will look back on his time with Sophie with joy and fondness, even though the lack of contact with her aches. It’s a smile that captures Spielberg’s entire career, from David Mann’s alienation on those dusty roads in Duel to James Donovan’s persecution as he defends Abel, and would even act as the perfect fullstop for it.

Indeed, endings seem to weigh heavy on the film. Perhaps for Spielberg, former Movie Brat now turned one of cinema’s elder statesmen, and Mathison, who was ill while writing and shooting the film, The BFG, dreams, and stories are not just fantastical tales to help us escape the real world, but passages through to it (2), maybe even passages through to a form of immortality (3). Dreams remix past memories in creative ways, and stories do the same. The stories we tell keep our memories and emotions alive – bringing vivid reality to our fears, our joys, our hopes, and our longings. They’re the best way to keep the past strong in our minds, and the bonds between us firm – even when the physical distance is too great to be bridged. As long as we keep dreaming, keep telling stories and by doing those things, keep memory vital, then loneliness and longing somehow seem less painful.

It’s a beautiful idea. I hope it’s true.

FOOTNOTES

(1) Whether Quint regaling Brody and Hooper with the tale of the USS Indianapolis, Jim in Empire of the Sun basing his vision of Basie off a character in a comic book, or John Hammond looking to give audiences “something real, something they can touch” in Jurassic Park, storytellers have often appeared in Spielberg films. The theme has moved into overdrive recently though. Joey acted as a bridge between disparate narratives in War Horse, Tintin’s very medium drew attention to its artificiality, Lincoln would repeatedly offer stories to help prove his points, and even Donovan became a storyteller in Bridge of Spies, offering the truth of Abel’s humanity in the face of paranoid scaremongering. The BFG continues the prominence of storytelling and storytellers in Spielberg’s recent fare, and it’ll be interesting to see where Ready Player One, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and Indiana Jones 5 take the concept.

(2) “I don’t want audiences to escape from reality,” Spielberg once said. “I want them to escape with reality.”

(3) “Dreams are so quick,” Sophie says after witnessing the boy’s short dream. “Yeah, on the outside, but long on the inside,” replies The BFG.

Spielberg’s Standing Man: Bridge of Spies

screen_shot_2015-10-12_at_10-38-22_pm“We call it the Constitution,” says Tom Hanks’ determined lawyer James Donovan in Bridge of Spies. “It’s what makes us Americans.” Such lines (and there are a few like it) threaten to give Steven Spielberg’s 29th film as director a chest-thumping jingoistic feel, and it’s little surprise that some have accused it of beating the patriotic drum. But like so much of Spielberg’s work, there’s an uncertain heart at the centre of this Capra-esque Cold War drama. Bridge of Spies certainly is proud of America, but it’s an America that exists on the peripheries of reality, an impressionistic portrait of what America could be, rather than what it was then or is now.

Fittingly then, the film opens with a painterly flourish: a nod to one of the era’s foremost artists, Norman Rockwell. Referencing Rockwell’s famous ‘Triple Self-Portrait’, Spielberg kicks things off with the sight of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) painting in the cluttered Brooklyn apartment he calls home. He’s split across three images: his real self in the middle, the self-portrait he’s painting to his right, and the mirror he’s using as reference to his left. It’s a neat way to introduce the character, conveying a number of things in a single captivating image.

Firstly, there’s the multi-faceted nature of Abel himself, a balding, middle aged man trading in a world often depicted as alluring and exciting. Abel, whom Rylance portrays with the perennial sniffle of a man on the verge of a cold, is neither. Secondly, it reflects the complex and treacherous world of Cold War spycraft, something explored in more depth later in this sequence, which builds to Abel’s hunt for a hollowed out coin that conceals Soviet microfilm. Finally, and most significantly of all, it zeroes in on the American image. At the height of the Cold War, Spielberg introduces us to this dangerously entrenched Soviet through the work of one of America’s most beloved sons.

“We don’t have a rulebook here…”

Spielberg maintains the concept throughout, highlighting the contradictions of America’s own self-portrait both visually and narratively. In the scene prior to Donovan’s Constitution speech, he’s pursued through rainy streets by a shadowy man. The music, editing, and cinematography all suggest this man is a Soviet agent and a threat to Donovan. In fact, it’s Hoffman (Scott Shepherd), a CIA official trying to bend the rules and get some intel on Abel. There’s certainly a threat here, but it’s not from who we’d expect. Further issues are faced in the shape of Abel’s trial judge Byers (Dakin Matthews), who refuses to hear Donovan’s legitimate complaints about the illegal search of his client’s apartment, and a police officer, who demands to know why Donovan’s protecting an obvious spy. In Bridge of Spies, little duty is paid to the law by the men who are supposed to uphold it.

This idea is expanded, and some episodes indirectly paralleled, later in the film when the action moves to Berlin and the swap of Abel and captured US spy pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Donovan is robbed of his coat by a street gang, he’s fed false information by three people who claim (in one of the funniest scenes from what is a surprisingly humorous film) to be Abel’s family, and when he attempts to broker a deal to return American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) as well as Powers, he’s tricked by East German lawyer Vogel (Sebastian Koch) and arrested by Soviet guards. Spielberg isn’t so much asking us to view both sides as the same by showing equal levels of corruption, rather he’s inviting us to question whether America is slowly losing its Rockwellian identity.

This is why he draws a clear line between his depictions of American and Soviet incarceration. We see a handful of scenes in the US prison where Abel is held and the Soviet and East German ones where Powers and Pryor are held. Abel is kept in relative comfort: allowed to see Donovan on a regular basis and even given art supplies so he can indulge his talents. Powers, on the other hand, is denied sleep, interrogated under harsh spotlight, and bombarded with ice-cold water to force answers. It’s a depiction that came in for some low-level criticism when the film was released in the US in October, with Slash Film in particular noting that it “really strikes a sour note”. Surely this is American revisionism?

It’s certainly true that in 2015 such a large distinction can seem wide of the mark and politically incorrect, but Spielberg’s vision is not too far from the truth. According to ‘Strangers on a Bridge’, Donovan’s account of the events the film depicts, Abel really did have a level of comfort in the States. He was moved around from prison to prison and, much to his frustration, denied the ability to write to his family, but he had very few inconveniences other than those. Berlin and Moscow, meanwhile, were crumbling in the grip of an autocratic rule that placed no value in human rights. While Bridge of Spies does play with history (Abel’s capture was instigated when the hollow coin we see at the start of the film was accidently spent by a bumbling partner who isn’t featured here), to portray Soviet rule as anything other than nightmarish would be to deny basic facts.

More significantly, Spielberg’s eye isn’t simply on the Cold War. It’s no coincidence that the primary torment we see Powers suffer is water-based, or that he and Pryor are given a show trial or no trial at all before being detained. Spielberg wants us to be engaged in a Cold War drama, but at the same time keep modern events, and Guantanamo Bay in particular, in mind. We’re outraged for Powers and Pryor as they suffer these injustices and the terror of being held in a foreign land in horrifying conditions, because it’s unequivocally wrong and, certainly in the Powers sequences, deeply unsettling. But, isn’t that what the United States has done? Haven’t countless foreign nationals suffered similar injustices at American hands? How can we condemn it when it’s done to ‘our boys’ but cast a blind eye when it’s done to ‘them’?

“Standing Man… Standing Man…”

Among these questions and corruptions, Donovan stands as a paragon of virtue fighting for what’s right even as those who should be supporting him fall away. But while he may be good, he’s not perfect. Just as he did in Lincoln, Spielberg shows us just how difficult it is to do the right thing, and how sometimes, doing the wrong thing in pursuit of an upstanding goal may be the best, or only, course of action. As Abel’s sentencing day looms, Donovan essentially breaks the law by visiting Judge Byers’ home. He knows he’s doing wrong – even freely admits to it – but proceeds anyway, covertly suggesting to Byers that it may be in America’s best interest to save Abel from the electric chair. You never know when a spare Soviet spy may come in handy…

Is this what America is? Two wrongs making a right? Is it the dubious deal Donovan makes later in the film, promising Abel to both German and Soviet officials for two different people (Powers and Pryor), ensuring he gets both men for a bargain price? Is it his absolute refusal to only conclude the Powers/Abel swap if Pryor is included, no matter how much that risks the main mission, and therefore national security at large? Like Hanks’ Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, Donovan is purity lined with a necessary poison. Miller had to leave behind a child in need to do his job, Donovan must corrupt the legal system to do his. Right? Wrong? There are answers in Bridge of Spies, but few are as clear cut as we’d like.

Perhaps the most doubt is reserved for the film’s end, when Abel is finally swapped and Powers and Pryor brought home. Asked by Donovan if he’ll be safe when he returns to the Soviet Union, Abel replies that it’ll be clear by how he’s greeted: an embrace means he’s safe, but if he’s quietly ushered into the back of the car, there’s trouble afoot. The latter happens, and for all the euphoria at the success of Donovan’s daring gamble, the sequence (a bravura one teeming with menace, tension and a biting sense of cold that permeates all the Berlin scenes) ends on a low note. The spotlights go out, the people depart, and Donovan is left alone in the dark, a high angle shot taken through the frame of Gleniecke Bridge trapping our hero in doubt. He’s done his job, but potentially condemned a friend. What now?

“An old man at the end of his life for a young man at the beginning of his…”

If any question cuts through Bridge of Spies it’s just that: what now? Where do we go from here? This feeling of doubt and anxiety has been an unheralded ever-present in all Spielberg’s films (let’s not forget the nerve-jangling paranoia of Duel and Jaws, nor that even the wonders of Close Encounters and E.T. teem with a fear of uncontrollable powers), but since A.I. it’s taken on greater, wider meaning. If those early films were childhood fears manifested by an adult, and the late 80s/ 90s films the fears of an adult trying to find his place, then everything since A.I. has been a parent’s fear for the world they leave behind. What will it be? War torn (Munich, War of the Worlds)? Unjust (Lincoln)? Prejudiced (The Terminal)? A moral and technological nightmare (A.I., Minority Report)?

Spielberg the ageing father (now grandfather, in fact) is uneasily trying to navigate a world beyond his control while still feeling a moral obligation to do something to protect the rights he believes in. It’s in the actions of John Anderton, seeking to eradicate crime as a response to his failure to save his son; the guilt of Munich’s Avner as he struggles to connect with his wife and child on his return home; the plea from Monica to David that she’s “sorry I didn’t tell you about the world”; and Lincoln’s mix of sadness and pride as he takes the images of slaves from his son Tad, who’s been obsessively analysing them. For everything these characters achieve, there’s a sense that their missions are not complete and that the world is only slightly better for them being in it.

Bridge of Spies is no different. Returning home, Donovan travels to work on public transport. Echoing an earlier scene where his fellow commuters glared at him suspiciously, knowing he was defending the enemy, Donovan is now greeted with smiles from passengers proud of him for freeing an American. How easily public opinion shifts. He looks out the window as a beautiful Rockwell-esque Brooklyn passes by, peering into the backgardens to see America’s citizens go about their daily lives. Everything is perfect, except for one haunting, fleeting image of boys chasing each other through gardens and over fences.

A reference to an earlier scene that saw Berliners shot down as they tried to cross the Wall, the moment is a small pinprick of doubt, a seed that will grow as the audience file out of the cinema. How safe is the world? What, in the grand scheme of things, has Donovan really achieved? And do the Americans who now smile at him really understand why he’s worthy of those smiles, or are they just pleased to have got one over on the Commies?

Just prior to this closing segment, we see Powers enter the plane that will take him home. He looks for someone to thank, but all the officials ignore him. He’s the most hated man on the plane, the most hated man in America, despite not uttering a single American secret during his painful incarceration. He sits next to Donovan, and Spielberg frames the men in a two-shot as the lawyer insists that the opinions of others are irrelevant as long as you yourself know you’ve done right.

The shot lingers, the affirming thought lingers, but so too does the doubt. Donovan has already been hated at home, and that same hatred will soon be coming to Powers. For all Donovan’s stoic dedication to the right thing, for all his success, fear and uncertainty will still rule. Those such as Donovan and Powers who do the right but difficult and unpopular thing, will be hated, a hatred that will pass down to Brooklyn boys scaling fences and children watching Duck and Cover films in school. Donovan was a dying breed. Who’ll be around to remind us what makes an American when that breed has finally gone?

The stories we tell about the stories we’re told

“It’s a flippin’ big dinosaur!”
“It’s a flippin’ big dinosaur!”

The following post is three years old and was originally written in 2013 to mark the launch of my free e-book about Jurassic Park, From Director Steven Spielberg: Jurassic Park

It recounts my personal experiences with Jurassic Park: how it was one of the first films I saw at the cinema, and how it made me fall in love with film and, specifically, the films of Steven Spielberg. I’m republishing after a great Twitter conversation with three of Switch Sisters, whose superb blog you really should check out. It was all about films, music, books (any kind of art really) and how we all have stories to tell about how we’ve encountered the stories told to us.

Anyways, point is: this is an old blog I’m republishing due to a new conversation, and I’d love to hear about your personal experiences with films in the comment section.

I fell in love with cinema when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. The year was 1993, I was 10 years old, and Jurassic Park had just been released at the cinema. To say I was excited would be an understatement. I’d heard of the film through playground whispers and billboard posters bearing that iconic logo. A videotaped news report from the UK premiere gave me my first glimpse of the film itself and I became transfixed, watching, rewinding, and watching again the shot of the Tyrannosaurus Rex peering into the touring car window. It had mystery, it had atmosphere, it had…

A FLIPPIN’ BIG DINOSAUR!

This was The Most Important Thing In My Life. No mere film – oh, no, no – Jurassic Park was An Event. Not an event like everything is an event nowadays, but a genuine, never-before-seen, hold onto your butts kinda event. I mean, come on, somebody had actually resurrected dinosaurs, built a dinosaur theme park and then made a film about it. My addled 10 year old brain actually believed that for a brief time (films never lie… right?), but even when I learned The Terrible Truth, it didn’t change a thing. Jurassic Park still had A FLIPPIN’ BIG DINOSAUR and I wanted in.

Sadly, my sister got there first. She went off to see Jurassic Park with a friend on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and I was left to stew, looking forlornly at my Dad in a subtle bid to guilt him into taking me, before quickly getting bored and taking the more direct approach: nagging. It worked and soon I was on my way to the local cinema to watch what I was convinced would be the greatest film of all time. I wasn’t disappointed. Back then, Jurassic Park was my Citizen Kane. Just better because, y’know, it had a lawyer getting eaten on the toilet. Literal toilet humour and dinosaurs? What more could a boy ask for?

It’s very easy to be cynical about Jurassic Park as an adult; it’s a film made for kids by a director who felt it “was important to be a kid” while shooting the film. It’s sense of wonder is entirely sincere, lacking entirely the cynicism that seems so popular nowadays, and anyone who was my age around the time it was released will understand exactly what it was like to watch it for the first time. It really was more than just a film, more even than an event. It was (and I know how horribly pretentious this sounds) an experience.

When the film was over and I stumbled out of the cinema, the world looked different. Actually, properly different. Me head was spinning, my eyes couldn’t focus, everything was blurry and weird. I asked my Dad what was wrong, he just said it’ll pass, like I’d caught a slight chill. Had he not seen it? Had he not seen the FLIPPIN’ BIG DINOSAUR!?

Whatever ‘it’ was, it didn’t pass. It hung around and grew. I became obsessed with Jurassic Park, humming the theme tune, replaying key scenes in my head, reading and re-reading the Junior Novelisation (into which I drew, with reverential care, the iconic JP logo). With no transport or money of my own, a repeat trip to the pictures was out, so I shot my own version. Alas, uncooperative action figure actors and rapidly deteriorating papier mache sets put paid to my Jurassic Park dream, but my passion couldn’t be diminished.

I bought every action figure, every trading card, every magazine I could lay my hands on if it had something to do with Jurassic Park. Even if it didn’t, I’d find a link. We had a Super Nintendo game called Tiny Tunes Adventures: Buster Breaks Loose, and I began playing that obsessively. Sure it didn’t include dinosaurs (although there was a pretty cool Star Wars-esque last level), but it was based on a cartoon series produced by the man who brought the dinosaurs back to life. So I played it. Just because it was, in some way, related to Spielberg.

“Where are your dinosaurs?”
“Where are your dinosaurs?”

I suppose that’s the key here. Before the film I was all about the dinosaurs, but after it, I wanted to know about Spielberg. Who was this guy? How did he do it? And why did it have such a profound effect on me?

I needed answers, but none were forthcoming. Spielberg’s next film was a black and white film called Schindler’s List. Today, it’s one of my favourite Spielberg films, a towering masterpiece that underlines just what a distinct and brilliant film-maker he is. Back then though, all I could think was: where’s the Triceratops? It took four years, FOUR LONG YEARS, for Spielberg and his dinosaurs to return, and sadly by that point, I was at the age where having a Velociraptor pencil case made me a laughing stock. (Not that it stopped me buying one – come on, it’s a Velociraptor pencil case!)

Ironically though, it’s Schindler’s List, rather than Jurassic Park, that lead me on the path to From Director Steven Spielberg: Jurassic Park. Well, Schindler’s List and some zombies. Back in 2004, I had just finished my second semester at university – minus, alas, Velociraptor stationary. The academic year was winding down and I was considering topics for my third year dissertation. Though my degree was a joint English and History degree, rather than a full Film Studies degree, I’d taken a course in Cinema and Psychoanalysis earlier in the year, and was keen to write at length about cinema. As I was studying a joint English and History degree, something that blended the two, and worked in Film Studies as well, seemed a good idea, so I got to work on researching a paper about the influence of social and political incidents during the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s on American horror films of that period.

The dissertation went down well, and I had such a good time writing it that I couldn’t resist the chance to write about film again when asked to pick a subject for an extended essay in my third years Representing the Holocaust class. Schindler’s List was an obvious choice, and I took to studying it with the same excited glee I took to Jurassic Park all those years earlier. The lack of dinosaurs still bugged me, but studying Schindler’s List had very much the same effect on me as watching Jurassic Park did. My head span, my vision got blurry. I discovered so much about Spielberg during the weeks I spent writing that essay, and every day since then, I’ve wished I could go back to the days of research.

From Director Steven Spielberg: Jurassic Park is, in part, an attempt to do that. I wanted to delve deep into one of Spielberg’s films, and really find out what makes it tick. Jurassic Park seemed like a great choice not only because of the nostalgic resonance it holds over me, but because it’s one of Spielberg’s most popular, but most dismissed films. As I mention in the essay, we all marvel at the film’s wondrous special effects, but discard everything else. From Director Steven Spielberg: Jurassic Park is an attempt to redress the balance, and explore what I believe are the hidden thematic depths of what I think is one of Spielberg’s most interesting films.

“Your book makes no sense.”
“Your book makes no sense.”

What it’s not though, is the work of a professional. I can’t stress this enough. FDSS:JP took a long time to write (probably about a year and a half taking research and development into account), but it was nonetheless written in evenings, during lunch hours and across weekends – in other words, around a full time day job. It’s a work of dedication and passion, but still the work of an amateur. I am sure there are typos and other such errors, and I’m sure you’ll read some sections with a bewildered WTF expression etched over your face – much like Mr. DNA up there!

However, I also think there are some interesting points, so hopefully you’ll forgive the WTF moments and enjoy the illuminating parts. Most of all though, I hope reading From Director Steven Spielberg: Jurassic Park can help spark a love of the film as deep as the one I experienced when I first watched it, and a love of studying film as deep as the one I experienced when writing about Schindler’s List.

And if it doesn’t, then hey, here’s a picture of a FLIPPIN’ BIG DINOSAUR!

FLIPPIN’ BIG DINOSAUR!!!!
FLIPPIN’ BIG DINOSAUR!!!!