Wednesday April 15, 2020
Movie Review: Spielberg (2017)
Has anyone ever disparaged something as “So-and-So ’s Folly” and been right? The infamous historical example is the 1867 purchase of Alaska by Secretary of State William H. Seward, dubbed “Seward’s Folly,” when, in terms of cost (2 cents an acre), resources (oil, etc.), and global strategy (imagine the Cold War with Russia owning Alaska), it was anything but. It was the best thing Seward did. It was a better thing than his detractors ever did.
Then there's “Hammond's Folly.” In 1960, legendary Colubmbia Records talent scout John Hammond agreed to record a young folksinger, whose first album sold only 5,000 copies. The folksinger was dubbed “Hammond's Folly.” The folksinger was Bob Dylan.
“Sheinberg’s Folly“ is similar. Sid Sheinberg was the head of Universal Television in the late 1960s when he saw a short film called “Amblin” and thought the 20-year-old director had talent. He signed him to a 7-year contract and put him to work, directing episodes of “Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law,” “Marcus Welby,” “Columbo,” “Savage,” etc. At 20, he even directed movie legend Joan Crawford in an episode of “Night Gallery.” But many in the industry thought he was a novelty. They dubbed him “Sheinberg’s Folly.”
You already know the punchline. “Sheinberg’s Folly” was Steven Spielberg, the most successful director in movie history.
Sheinberg, by the way, seems like a mensch. “If you come with us,” he told young Steven, “I will support you as strongly in failure as in success.” Spielberg adds: “And he was true to his word.” (Although how much failure did Steven have?) He’s also the guy who sent the 1982 book “Schindler’s Ark,” along with its glowing New York Times review, to Spielberg, telling him he should make it into a movie. Me, watching: Was Sheinberg ever wrong? Maybe we should get a documentary on him.
The main lesson here is you should probably think twice before dubbing anything anyone's folly.
I don’t think Susan Lacy’s documentary calls Spielberg the most successful director in movie history, as I just did, but it’s not even a contest. If you adjust for inflation—meaning asses in seats—no one compares. He has two movies in the all-time top 10 (“E.T.” and “Jaws”) and no one else has more than one. He has three movies in the top 20 (add “Jurassic Park”) and no one else has more than two. He has four movies in the top 25 (add “Raiders”) and no one still has more than two. He tapped into us. He knew what we wanted.
Maybe because we were what he wanted?
Spielberg was a Jewish kid in gentile Phoenix, Arizona, who just wanted to fit in. “Steve did not want to be Jewish,” his sister Anne says, “because it made us too different from everybody. And the ‘Father Knows Best’ family is an assimilated family. And I think he really yearned for that.”
Did he yearn for it so much he wound up creating it on film? Or creating what he thought we might like? As the outsider, he’d studied us more than we’d studied ourselves. Maybe that’s why he nailed it almost every time.
He was a nerd, uninterested in sports, and bullied, but he found respite in filmmaking. Key quote:
The second I finished a movie, I wanted to start a new one. Because I felt good about myself when I was making a film. But when I had too much time to think, all those scary whispers would start up.
What’s your follow-up to that? I have half a dozen. Spielberg says this at 70, so I’m curious if it was still true. If not, when did it stop being true? What were the scary whispers and did they change over the years? But no follow-ups here. Or maybe the follow-ups went nowhere and were cut? You never know. That happens a lot.
That said, I kept wanting the doc to dig deeper or connect dots. His scientist father was often absent, his free-spirit mother was more like a sibling, and his siblings were all girls. So what effect did the absence of men or authority figures have?
How old was he when his parents divorced? No idea. They split because his mother fell in love with the father’s best friend, but for years the father took the blame. Steven didn’t know the full story until he was an adult. Compare his early strong single moms—Melinda Dillon in “Close Encounters,” Dee Wallace in “E.T.”—with the single father saving his kids from an alien attack in “War of the Worlds” or the father pining for his wayward wife in “Catch Me If You Can.” It’s an old story: sensitive boys sympathizing with their mothers and as adults identifying with their fathers.
Eventually, of course, the Jewish kid who escaped into fantasy fled to the fantasyland that other Jews created in Hollywood. The legend is he took a Universal tour bus, left to go to the bathroom, waited until the bus left, then wandered around the lot. How did he stay? How did he not get tossed?
The first time he felt like an insider, he says, is when he became friends with the other, eventual, most-respected directors of the era—Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Brian DePalma—but even here he was kind of the outsider in the group. It sounds like George hung more with Francis, Marty with Brian. The Zoetrope boys were long-haired rebels, taking on the system. Not Steven. “Steven was always a creature of the studio,” Francis says. “And his thinking and his methodology went that direction. And he became a master of it.”
Has a doc been made about these five? That’s an insanely talented group. I get a little Lennon-McCartney vibe here. They relied on each other, yes, but also one-upped each other. In the early ’70s it was all Francis: “Godfather,” “The Conversation,” “Godfather II,” Marty made “Mean Streets” (critically acclaimed) while George did “American Graffiti” (critically acclaimed and hugely popular). In’75, Steven changed Hollywood entirely with “Jaws (popular/critical) and two years later George one-upped him with “Star Wars.” It was never the same after that. By the end of the decade, the center couldn’t hold. Francis and Marty were making serious art (“Apocalypse Now” and “Raging Bull”) while George and Steven were busy updating another genre of Saturday afternoon kids serials: “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Was George more kid than Steven? Spielberg’s first two huge hits—“Jaws” and “Close Encounters”—are actually fairly adult films. There’s a complexity in each. We get politics (beyond imperial senates) and family strife (beyond wanting to go into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters). Then Steven bombed with “1941” and was depressed for a year until George pulled him out of it by asking him to direct “Raiders.”
I like the talking heads on Spielberg’s gifts as a director.
- David Edelstein: Right off the bat, it was clear that no one moved the camera like Steven Spielberg. … Who knows where that came from?
- Martin Scorsese I: Steven’s able to walk into a room, look for a second or two, say, “Here. Move that here. Give me a 25mm here. Put it this way. Face forward. Move it. Silhouette here. Two takes, three takes, that’s enough, thanks.”
- Martin Scorsese II: His strength is really the ability to be able to tell a story, in pictures, instinctively. I sometimes watch his pictures on TV without the sound. Just to see pictures.
Not for nothing, but I could listen to Martin Scorsese talk about movies forever.
Maybe the most prescient take was Pauline Kael’s in her review of “Sugarland Express.” She said it was one of the most phenomenal debuts in the history of film, and compared his feel for the medium to Howard Hawks. She also wondered whether there was great depth to go with it.
And is there? The’80s is when his output became split between summer popcorn flicks (the three Indiana Jones movies) and adult-themed films (“The Color Purple,” “Empire of the Sun,” “Always”). He even divided his DPs accordingly: Douglas Slocombe for Indy, Allen Daviau for “E.T.,” “Color,” and “Empire.” But even his adult-themed movies weren’t that deep. Here’s Tom Stoppard, who wrote “Empire”:
For me, it ultimately shaded into an unnecessary softness or sentimentality. I don’t know where it comes from, but he likes and enjoys sentiment. It’s part of him.
Six times during his career—most successfully in 1993—Spielberg released two movies in the same calendar year: a popcorn flick in the summer and an adult-themed movie in the winter. It’s like a look into a bifurcated soul:
|1989||Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade||Always|
|1993||Jurassic Park||Schindler's List|
|1997||The Lost World: Jurassic Park||Amistad|
|2002||Minority Report||Catch Me If You Can|
|2005||War of the Worlds||Munich|
|2011||The Adventures of Tintin||War Horse|
Oddly, when he tried to combine them in “Hook,” he bombed. If there’s a movie that seems tailor-made for Spielberg, it’s the tale of the adult who forgot he was Peter Pan and then tapped into that boyish magic again. Instead, it’s a mess of a movie and garnered the lowest Rotten Tomatoes scores of any of his films. For the curious:
- lowest RT score: “Hook” (28%)
- lowest IMDb score: “1941” (5.8)
- lowest domestic box-office after he became big: “Empire of the Sun” ($22 million)
- lowest annual box-office ranking: “Munich” (62nd)
That last stat is both sad and amazing. It’s sad because “Munich” is so good—to me, his best this century. It’s amazing because, while it's his low point, most filmmakers would give their left one to have the 62nd-biggest movie of the year.
The amen corner
The documentary credits his second marriage to Kate Capshaw with his growth as an artist and his acceptance of his Jewishness. Again, not enough is done with this. It took a shiksa to help him embrace his heritage? Because she was embracing his? Assimilating into it? “Wait, I want to be you, but—oh, you want to be me? OK.”
Question: Did he grow as an artist? He keeps going historical anyway. He’s become like your dad watching the History Channel. He’s given us World War II from the perspective of: a kid in the Japanese camps; Jews in a Polish ghetto/concentration camp; Americans on D-Day. He’s delved into the U.S. Civil War (“Lincoln”), World War I (“War Horse”), the Cold War (“Bridge of Spies”), the War on Terror (“Munich”), the war against the press (“The Post”). His popcorn movies, meanwhile, have gotten darker and more dystopian: “A.I.,” “Minority Report,” “War of the Worlds,” “Ready Player One.” But there’s still a love of sentiment in all of this. Even in the best of his 21st-century output, “Munich,” he lingers on the World Trade Center in a way he didn’t need to; he still thinks he needs to hold our hand.
How many movies set in the future has Spielberg made? Probably fewer than you think. At the least, it’s fewer than I thought—just three: “A.I.,” “Minority Report,” and “Ready Player One.” None are very good. All are dystopian. I don’t think he’s made for dystopias.
You know what he’s made for? Movies set in contemporary times in which ordinary people confront the extraordinary. Sometimes that extraordinary is benevolent (“Close Encounters,” “E.T.”); sometimes not (“Jaws,” “Jurassic Park”). But the ordinary people need to be amazed by what they see. As we are. We are them.
I enjoyed this doc. I’ve seen it twice now. It’s in his corner a little too much but how can you blame them? It’s a helluva corner.
|YEAR||MOVIE||IMDb||RT%||Dom BO||Ann Rnk|
|1974||The Sugarland Express||6.8||n/a||$7||n/a|
|1977||Close Encounters of the Third Kind||7.6||95%||$135||3|
|1981||Raiders of the Lost Ark||8.4||95%||$248||1|
|1982||E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial||7.8*||98%||$435||1|
|1984||Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom||7.6||85%||$180||3|
|1985||The Color Purple||7.8||81%||$98||4|
|1987||Empire of the Sun||7.8||76%||$22||53|
|1989||Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade||8.2||88%||$197||2|
|1997||The Lost World: Jurassic Park||6.6||52%||$229||3|
|1998||Saving Private Ryan||8.6||93%||$217||1 **|
|2001||A.I. Artificial Intelligence||7.2||74%||$79||28|
|2002||Catch Me If You Can||8.1||96%||$165||11|
|2005||War of the Worlds||6.5||75%||$234||4|
|2008||Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull||6.1||78%||$317||3 ***|
|2011||The Adventures of Tintin||7.3||74%||$78||44|
|2015||Bridge of Spies||7.6||91%||$72||42|
|2018||Ready Player One||7.5||72%||$138||24|
* I don't get the IMDb rating for ”E.T.“ IMDb users rank it eighth among Spielberg's feature films. It's way behind ”Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,“ for example. I thought it was more beloved than that? Interestingly, if you drill down, the lowest rating comes from 18-29 year-old females (7.6) and the highest comes from 45+ females (8.3).
** ”Saving Private Ryan“ is the fifth and last Spielberg movie to be the biggest box-office hit of the year. The others: ”Jaws,“ ”Raiders,“ ”E.T.“ and ”Jurassic Park.“ Has any other director come close to this? Cameron's got three, Lucas three.
*** Spielberg has had 14 movies rank among the 10 biggest box-office hits of the year, and his last ”Indiana Jones" movie was the last time that happened. If you break it down by decade, it goes: two in the 1970s, five in the 1980s, five in the 1990s, and two in the 2000s. The 2010s is the first decade where this never happened.