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…

Essay: Empire of the Sun and Spielberg’s Death of Identity

empire-of_-the_-sun_-1987Empire Of The Sun has been called Steven Spielberg’s ‘death of innocence’ film, but that description doesn’t quite capture the true desolation of what remains the director’s bleakest, most hopeless work.

An adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s same-titled autobiographical novel, the film breaks the rules of biopics and historical epics by shrouding in mystery the very subject it should be illuminating. In doing so, it emerges as a complex and rewarding piece of drama that’s as much about the death of identity as the death of innocence. Beginning with the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1941 and concluding with the atomic attack on Nagasaki four years later, Empire Of The Sun focuses on the story of Jamie Graham (Christian Bale), a British boy brought up in China and living in a state of cultural confusion

The opening scene sees him singing Welsh hymn Suo Gân in a Chinese church decorated to resemble a British one, while later he strays from a costume party dressed flamboyantly as Sinbad and stumbles across a battalion of Japanese soldiers. These moments, with their stark visual contrasts and distant framing, serve to isolate Jamie from his surroundings, the audience and his own sense of self. As is typical of his film-making, Spielberg links Jamie’s fractured identity to his lack of a reliable father figure. John Graham (Rupert Frazer) is a negligent parent who seems more concerned with his golf swing than his son.

A rich businessman, he attends the costume party dressed as a pirate but his plunder stands for nothing when he and his wife are separated from Jamie during the occupation of Shanghai. When Jamie returns home hoping to find them, all he discovers in this once opulent abode is scattered talcum powder scarred by clinging finger prints and imposing boots marks – ghostly indicators of the violence that has poisoned his life. Such scenes inspired critic Andrew M. Gordon to refer to Empire Of The Sun as “a child’s dream of war” and this is evident in the writing as much as Spielberg’s imagery. Tom Stoppard’s masterful script is a typically postmodern effort from the author, playing with cinematic form and asking the audience to consider the film as a piece of fiction, born from Jamie’s imagination as much as his reality.

This sense of fantasy comforts the boy and when the film moves to its primary location, the Suzhou Creek Internment Camp, he conjures two flawed father figures to replace the one he’s lost. American ship steward Basie (John Malkovich) is the first and the most post-modern. Almost identical to a character on a comic book Jamie carries with him, Basie is literally a fantasy come to life and his survivalist, something-from-nothing spirit makes him an embodiment of the American Dream and an immediate hero to Jamie. But Basie is a dark twist on American endeavour who reduces life to dollars and cents.

Seeing the boy as an asset, he takes ownership by renaming him Jim (“a new name for a new life”) and tries to trade him to anyone who needs a labourer. “Buying and selling,” he says triumphantly, “you know: life!” British doctor Rawlins (Nigel Havers) is the second father figure. A refined British ideal of heroism, he nurtures Jim by maintaining his education and teaching him moral responsibility. He’s a good man and a better role model than Basie, but like Jim’s father, he’s clueless about the Eastern culture he lives in.

When the camp’s commanding officer, Sgt Nagata (Masatô Ibu), arrives to destroy Rawlins’ hospital in retaliation to American bombing, the doctor fights back, leading to further violence that only ceases when Jim bows to Nagata, showing him the proper cultural respect. The moment muddies Jim’s identity further, with Spielberg highlighting the positive elements of his cultural confusion. Unlike everyone else, Jim can connect with other nationalities and rejects the good/evil binary that war has forced upon him. He makes friends with a Japanese boy (Takatarô Kataoka) and repeatedly associates Japanese pilots with the sun, a key Spielbergian signifier of truth.

The Japanese are human beings, not ‘the enemy’, and the warmth Jim has towards them suggests he could grow up to become a better man than all the fathers he aspires to, one with more compassion than John and Basie, and more cultural understanding than Rawlins. It’s an identity that’s never allowed to take shape though. War catches up with Jim when American planes bomb Suzhou Creek in one of the film’s defining sequences. Amongst the madness, Spielberg focuses on one pilot as he swoops past. Shot in slow-motion, the pilot waves triumphantly to Jim, forcing him to identify with American heroism again. Unsure of who to idolise, which identity to try to become, Jim finally breaks down and reveals he can no longer remember what his parents look like.

He’s morphed so much, retreated so far into false notions of heroism, nationality and identity, that there is no real, true Jamie Graham any more. This is brought into literal truth in the film’s closing scene, which reunites Jim with his parents in a Shanghai orphanage. A grey-faced Jim stands in the middle of a crowd of children seeming disinterested and hopeless. Spielberg’s camera moves uncertainly across the children and when Jim enters the frame we struggle to recognise him, despite having spent two-and-a-half hours with him. His parents are the same and similarly he fails to acknowledge them.

When Mrs Graham finally realises this broken boy is her son, they embrace, but it’s a hardly a happy ending. Jim stares over his mother’s shoulder with glassy eyes that tremble with tears and confusion. Spielberg cuts to a shot of a celebrating Shanghai and then to one of Jim’s suitcase containing all his belongings, floating in a river.

The child Jamie is dead and the adult Jim never got a chance to live. What then will become of the shell that remains?

Essay: Indiana Jones and the Power of Film

coj9ommukaaj_laIt’s a common misconception that Steven Spielberg first confronted his Jewish heritage and the tragedy that goes with it in Schindler’s List (1993). The truth, however, is a little more complex. His Holocaust drama may be his most explicit depiction of his ancestry to date, but traces of its impact on Spielberg’s life can be seen in many of his early films, including the first Indiana Jones adventure, Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981).

Made at the start of a decade of tremendous personal and professional change for Spielberg (who became a father and a husband, and made his first drama during the 80s), Raiders is an ostensibly light-hearted romp inspired by the escapist adventures of its director’s youth. With its rousing theme tune, breathless set-pieces and charming lead performance from Harrison Ford, it deliverS what remains one of modern cinema’s most enduring blockbusters.

And yet, Raiders is a surprisingly violent yarn. Its heroic leads (Indy and Karen Allen’s Marion) kill 23 people between them and 63 are slain all in all. Indy shoots an Arab swordsman in cold blood, watches as a pilot is mangled by one of his plane’s propellers, and pummels and runs down a Nazi soldier as they battle for control of a runaway truck.

Such scenes are surprising coming from a man who’d found such success in suggesting threat rather than explicitly showing it in Jaws (1975) and who would go on to make E.T. (1982), and they drew stern criticism.

The film’s writer, Lawrence Kasdan, has described the swordsman sequence as “brutal”, while in his biography of Spielberg, writer Joseph McBride argues that the film’s violence is “exploited for purely visceral thrills…[and] presented in a winking tongue-in-cheek style to anesthetise the audience’s moral sense.”

While McBride goes too far in suggesting the film anesthetises the audience’s morality, the “winking tongue-in-cheek style” is certainly clear and it’s out in force in the climactic scene. Having failed to wrestle the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, Indy and Marion find themselves on a secret island hideout where Indy’s rival archaeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman), Nazi commander Dietrich (Wolf Kahler) and henchman Toht (Ronald Lacy) begin a ceremony that will open the artefact.

The scene ends, of course, with the three men suffering deaths so over-the-top that Looney Tunes legend Chuck Jones – who acted as visual consultant on Raiders‘ predecessor 1941 (1979) – would have taken pause. But dismissing the film for its cartoonish violence is somewhat missing the point. Raiders is a revenge movie and its director’s anger is generated from the passion of a man looking to exorcise the ghosts of a childhood spent at the mercy of bullies.

Growing up in five different towns, the young Spielberg found settling difficult and his awkwardness made him easy prey for other kids. Some of the resulting taunting took the form of anti-Semitism and he later described his experiences in Saratoga, California, where he finished his high school education, as “Hell on Earth”.

His mistreatment was by no means exclusive to Saratoga, though. Throughout his childhood, Spielberg had to endure repeated bullying. He was mocked because he didn’t celebrate Christmas and would hear kids coughing ‘Jew!’ as they walked past him. “I felt as alien as I have ever felt in my life,” he confessed during publicity for Schindler’s List. “It caused me great fear and an equal amount of shame.”

Spielberg was also made aware of his heritage through the Holocaust stories he’d hear from relatives and the elderly students in his grandmother’s English classes. One showed him the numbers that had been tattooed onto his arm at Auschwitz, while his mother Leah told him about a woman who was so panicked by a Nazi soldier’s threat to chop of her finger so he could claim the ring stuck on it that the ring eventually slipped off.

“It just freaked me out, I’m sure it affected Steven,” Leah has explained. “Some of the stories were so horrible that there was almost a movie-like quality to them.”

It’s fitting then, that Spielberg would learn to master his feelings of persecution through a movie. Made in 1961 while the director was still at school, Escape To Nowhere is a war film that starred one of Spielberg’s bullies in a primary role. After a rocky start, their relationship began to shift and suddenly wimpy Spielberg was transformed in Director Spielberg and in that position he could boss his actor around.

“Even when he was in one of my movies I was afraid of him,” Spielberg would later say. “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.”

It’s a lesson Spielberg has exercised throughout his career. Whether it’s the theatricality of Hook (1991), the blockbuster meta-textuality of the Jurassic Park films (1993 and 1997) or the self-aware artifice of Catch Me If You Can (2003), Spielberg films are, as Empire Of The Sun (1987) screenwriter Tom Stoppard noted, “’about’ cinema before they are about anything else”. Even his more serious efforts feature movie references, most recently War Horse (2011), which finishes with a prolonged nod to Gone With The Wind (1939).

The climactic scene of Raiders Of The Lost Ark is no different. The island that Indy and Marion are taken to is littered with cameras and lights, and an army of soldiers are on hand to operate them. With Belloq, Toht and Dietrich standing at the head of the stage, the scene is like a movie set, the three men the actors, the soldiers the behind-the-scenes crew. Tied up, Indy and Marion can only watch and so represent the audience. All that’s needed is the star attraction.

When it finally does arrive, it manifests itself through technology. A generator explodes; setting off a chain reaction that sends sparks across the lights and all the soldiers’ guns. The scene falls dark and quiet. John Williams’s mysterious Ark theme begins on the soundtrack and slowly white-blue light emerges.

The spirits of the Ark seem benevolent at first, celestial streams of light dancing around the men in a display of typically Spielbergian wonder. It’s the end of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) and the audience is primed for life-affirming spectacle.

But the mood soon changes. One of the spirits flies up to the three men, craning its neck to look directly at them. Spielberg shoots this moment from the men’s point of view, the spirit looking at the camera, through to the audience. Slowly, the benign face turns into a malevolent skull that screams piercingly. Vengeance is at hand.

An orange light pours from the Ark, smothering Belloq’s head and projecting out across the soldiers. It impales all the soldiers, including – significantly – the one operating the camera, and finally returns to Belloq, Toht and Dietrich, the latter two’s faces melting, the former’s head exploding. A great purging fire covers the base, incinerating any Nazis left standing.

Indy and Marion have survived, but their place as the audience has changed. Realising the threat, the pair had closed their eyes before the spirits appeared, thus saving themselves from the Nazis’ fate. The Ark, like film, is power and those who look upon it must do so with the proper reverence – or suffer the consequences.

Spielberg would return to Indiana Jones in Temple Of Doom (1984), removing the Nazis’ disrespect and replacing it with Indy’s own arrogant search for “fortune and glory”, and again in The Last Crusade (1989), which brought the Nazis back and punished a Belloq substitute (Julian Glover’s egotistical Donovan) with a similarly nasty fate for his pursuit of the Holy Grail.

The films are often dismissed as Spielberg’s most impersonal efforts and, co-created as they are with George Lucas, perhaps that’s true. But regardless of authorship, the Indiana Jones franchise provided Spielberg with an important bridge between the popcorn entertainment he excelled at in the 70s and the serious-minded drama he’d produce in the 90s.

Film was power, Raiders had helped him prove. Now it was time to turn its might onto reality.

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.