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The Director's Craft

May 18, 2008|Peter Rainer | Special to The Times
  • Spielberg, being the most attuned of his generation to the mojo of Hollywood, was naturally the director who most wholeheartedly fell into the prestige trap.
Spielberg, being the most attuned of his generation to the mojo of Hollywood,… (DreamWorks )

Steven Spielberg, who at 22 was hired by Universal to a long-term contract, started out his career as the teacher's pet of the Movie Brat generation. With the unveiling of his first Indiana Jones escapade in 19 years today at Cannes, he's proffering yet another polished apple.

It's been something of a class reunion lately. Francis Coppola made his first film in 10 years, "Youth Without Youth," a muddled mood-memory fantasia that attempted to recapitulate the handmade approach of his "Rain People" days. Martin Scorsese brought out his Rolling Stones documentary "Shine a Light," which hearkened back to his apprenticeship as editor of rock documentaries such as "Woodstock." Brian De Palma made his Iraqi docu-thingamajig "Redacted," which, in its shape-shifty experimentalism, recalled his earliest, French New Wave-influenced movies such as "The Wedding Party" and "Hi, Mom."

And now Spielberg is set to deliver the biggest blast from the past yet. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is not exactly the movie you might expect to follow "Munich." But then again, he once shuttled between "Schindler's List" and "Jurassic Park." Of his contemporaries, Spielberg has probably undergone the greatest sea change throughout his career. The "Indiana Jones" franchise, like the "Jurassic Park" movies, are a palate cleanser for him -- a cackle in between epic kvells. For this teacher's pet, the class syllabus changed a long time ago.

The directors of Spielberg's generation who came up in the late '60s and early '70s, many of them film-school-trained, were the first in America to push their encyclopedic passion for movies right into the forefront of their work. Their rebellion against Old Hollywood was essentially a pose, since directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra were mainstays of their mindscapes. Old movies functioned for these filmmakers as primary experiences -- touchstones of inspiration -- in the same way that poetry or literature might have functioned for an earlier generation of artists.

Not all of the movie references were drawn from favorite Hollywood films. De Palma had his Godard phase before he entered his Hitchcock phase; Coppola drew heavily on Visconti's "The Leopard" (for "The Godfather") and Antonioni's "Blow-Up" (for "The Conversation"). Scorsese's "Mean Streets" is blood brother to Fellini's "I Vitelloni" and owes a debt to the scruffy, free-form spirit of the John Cassavetes indies. Even George Lucas, in his chilly debut feature, "THX 1138," piled on the art-house references to Jean Cocteau ("Blood of a Poet") and Carl Theodore Dreyer ("The Passion of Joan of Arc").

Spielberg, however, came from a somewhat different place. He never officially attended a major film school. His heroes were the big-picture guys like David Lean and Stanley Kubrick or versatile old studio hands like Michael Curtiz and Victor Fleming -- directors who could be counted on to deliver reliable commercial entertainment (and sometimes more than that). While many of his '70s confederates, who also were to include such directors as Terrence Malick, Jonathan Demme and Philip Kaufman, were attempting to work outside the industry, or subvert it from within through sheer force of artistry, Spielberg was directing episodes of "Night Gallery" and "Marcus Welby, M.D." and then moving on to sharks and flying saucers.

In the more "serious" film circles, his prodigious filmmaking skills were held against him as proof that he lacked substance. Even Pauline Kael, his most ardent critical champion early on, wrote of his uncommonly touching first feature "The Sugarland Express": "Maybe Spielberg loves action and comedy and speed so much that he really doesn't care if a movie has anything else in it. . . . I can't tell if he has any mind, or even a strong personality, but then a lot of good movie-makers have got by without being profound."

Resenting Mr. Blockbuster

And OF course, as Spielberg began to rake in the riches, this was held against him too. It has always been a truism of popular culture, no more so than in the '70s, that artistry and commercial success are mutually exclusive. And where exceptions to this rule were made, as in the case of "The Godfather" films, it was because they were recognized as gangster films in name only. They were really about the corruption of the American dream. Spielberg's early movies are rife with broken families and intimations of child abandonment, but they are glittery baubles when placed beside the dungeon-like Coppola and Scorsese pictures (especially "The Godfather" films, "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull") with their floridly Catholic sense of sin and redemption. Spielberg, by comparison, at least up through "The Color Purple," specialized in uplift, in the exaltation of the American dream. He himself became its personification.

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