The early results indicate that Steven Spielberg will have the last laugh on his critics.
His film of Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" has opened to mixed reviews (ecstatic at one extreme, severely disappointed at the other) and to mixed audience responses. Generally, those who had not read the novel have been unrestrained in their enthusiasm for the film; those who read and loved the book have found the film's changes in tone and substance not to their liking.
But the movie in its first week outperformed the other Christmas openings on a per-screen basis. The word-of-mouth I hear has been far more often positive than negative. "The Color Purple" has a best picture award from the National Board of Review, which generally is in close touch with popular taste.
The film seems a certain bet for several Academy Award nominations--for its star, Whoopi Goldberg, and perhaps other performers, probably as best picture and possibly for Spielberg himself.
What has been evident from his earliest work is that Spielberg was a precociously mature storyteller with a sure command of the medium, and of the emotional responses of a mass audience.
From the improbable suspense of the conflict between a murderous anonymous truck and an imperiled automobile in his telefilm "Duel," through the stomach-tightening games of lethal tag in "Jaws," to the slam-bang pleasures of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Spielberg has shown he knows how to use the resources of the medium to manipulate the feelings out there in the darkness.
Yet with "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" it seemed clear that the adventure lode was running thin for him, and that more, more, more action was in real danger of becoming less. No surprise that Spielberg wanted to shift his ground and try his skills on so different a piece of material as "The Color Purple."
The intriguing realization, and very probably the chief source of disappointment for those who don't embrace "The Color Purple," is that Spielberg has in fact not shifted his ground all that much.
He remains very much the mass-audience director. Like the Hollywood film makers of an earlier day, from Griffith to Ford to Capra, he knows how to evoke the tears as well as the gasps. He knows that the screen is vast and that the images upon it have to be larger and brighter than life. For him, there must be primary emotions, and primary colors, fields of flowers and floods of tears. "The Color Purple" is a money's-worth movie in that sense.
Spielberg and George Lucas have both said that they grew up on the movies of Saturday afternoon and have wanted to recapture the particular dash and excitement of them.
What can be said of Spielberg with "The Color Purple" is that he has gone from Saturday afternoon to Sunday night, the day when, in non-metropolitan America, the bill used to change and the melodramas and the musicals replaced the Friday-Saturday Westerns and other adventures.
It is not, certainly, that "The Color Purple" could have been made in Hollywood before the late '60s. The mainspring of its action is, after all, sexuality, including forcible incest and sexual enslavement. None of it is handled exploitively, and all of it is used as counterpoint to the book's message of the enduring possibility of real and gentle love.
But the hallmarks are of traditional Hollywood, never more than in the almost continuous musical underscoring which, except for a couple of interludes, owes more to Dimitri Tiomkin than to Billie Holiday or W. C. Handy, and reflects, it is clear, Spielberg's perception that "The Color Purple" is a ballad, not a ragtime visitation.
The influence of the Hollywood past is detectable in a slapstick car sequence with a detested white woman at the wheel, and in a vast, goin' to glory production number that is far from the text or the realistic spirit of the originating novel. The calculations are evident, but they are consistent with Spielberg's populist intentions.
"Raiders of the Lost Ark," like "Star Wars," arrived as an antidote to a tradition of cynical films in which the good guys, if you could identify them, were likelier to lose than win.
Despite its updated materials--its visions of the harshness and isolation of black life in the South of only yesterday, its glimpses of African colonialism--"The Color Purple" arrives bearing messages of triumphant love and happy endings. It is in that regard a daringly old-fashioned film.
If "The Color Purple" continues its successful ways, it will be a useful lesson to be observed, which is, not for the first time, that the more things change, the more they may not have changed.
The movies have won limitless freedom of expression and have used it to impressive good advantage (as well as in outpourings of schlock). In their candor and realism, films have the capability of being truer and better than ever critically and also, if not necessarily, grimmer.
But the widest audiences still seek reassurance, encouragement and diversion from the lives of characters they can sympathize with. The trick is to provide that kind of engrossment without surrendering all truth to an empty apple-pie optimism.