Spielberg: Not A Fan

mashed potatoesFor the record: I am not a fan of Steven Spielberg‘s movies. I do not like them on DVD; I do not like them in theater three. I do not like them on VHS; I do not like them — I said that, yes! And let me be clear: sometimes when I say I don’t like something, it means I’m neutral; I neither like nor dislike. But in this case, I do mean I actively dislike his movies.

I will readily agree that this, almost universally beloved, director-writer-producer is brilliant at his craft. He’s clearly one of the most successful directors in modern movie history. But I stand with a (very!) small number of critics who find his movies morally shallow and blatantly emotional. Even worse, they are peppered with what I call “Spielbergisms.”

It all started with the damned mashed potatoes.

ET family

I guess ET phoned home.

You may remember that scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Richard Dreyfuss, as Ron Neary, at the dinner table sculpting Devils Tower in mashed potatoes. You may also recall Teri Garr, as his shrewish and unsupportive wife, “Ronnie” Neary. (Yeah, Ron and Ronnie. Ugh.)

Well, right there are two huge counts against the movie, plus a big one, plus a small one.

The huge ones are, firstly the idea that aliens have infected his mind with subliminal images so compelling he starts acting pretty crazy (a trick with no basis in the film), and secondly the idea that he starts acting pretty crazy (a trick I’ve never liked — no, make that, “always disliked”).

The thing is, had Ron not accidentally seen an image of Devil’s Tower, he presumably would have just gone slowly completely around the bend. When you really think about it, the idea that aliens could and would do this is… well, utterly preposterous.  So much so that it took me right out of the film. There’s just too much wrong with the idea!

Teri Garr

“… a nice roll in the hay?”

And I’ve never been happy with the common film trick of having a character so obsessed with something that they basically go around the bend trying to fulfill that obsession.  We generally lock people like that into nice softly padded rooms and find them a friendly therapist.

The big count is the shrewish wife who ends up taking the kids and leaving him. (A blatant plot device to free the character to explore his obsession.) Contrast this with the supportive and loving wife, played by Amy Madigan, in Field of Dreams (a movie that is a bazillion times better). One of the very cool things about that movie is the relationship between husband (Kevin Costner) and wife.

The small count is: Ron and Ronnie. Really? [sigh]

Amy Madigan

(Hopefully it goes without saying that being supportive and loving works both ways!)

Spielberg’s movies to me tend to be like Hallmark movies with the dial set to eleven. They are designed to tug at your heart-strings, and they often have some simplistic moral message. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if the story holds together sensibly, but I find Spielberg’s work to be heavy-handed and blatant.

You sometimes hear the expression “painting with a fine brush” in contrast with “painting with a course brush.” I find that most Spielberg movies were painted with a roller.

Let me put it this way: I think Spielberg is a cheat. He’s a really good cheat, but he’s a cheat. He takes short-hand paths to your emotions without really seeming to invest in the depths and textures of the story.

One critic, Peter Biskind, accused him of “infantilizing the audience, reconstituting the spectator as child, then overwhelming him and her with sound and spectacle, obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and critical reflection.” Jean-Luc Godard went so far as to hold him responsible for the lack of artistic merit in mainstream films!

Ark

Ha. … Ha.

I coined a term, “Spielbergism,” to describe a bit in a movie that is designed to get a definite reaction (be it a laugh or a tear), but which actually makes no sense if you think about it just a little. For example, the mashed potatoes. Or the glimpse of the Ark of the Covenant we see in the warehouse chase in the most recent Indiana Jones movie.

Speaking of Indiana Jones, that’s one exception to my dislike of Spielberg. I’ve always enjoyed those films, perhaps because they’re really not intended to make much sense — they take place in a comic book fantasy world. They’re fun rides, and they’ve always worked pretty well for me. (Except for the last one — that was just plain awful.)

You’d think, as a science fiction fan, that I’d like Close Encounters, but merely being a science fiction movie doesn’t cut it. Even in 1977, when SF movies were few and far between, it didn’t cut the mustard with me. (Star Wars came out that same year: totally different story — that was a classic that changed SF films forever!)

Indiana Jones

The good old days of Han Solo and the Temple of the Ewoks!

I’d liked The Sugarland Express okay. That was his third theatrical release film (first came Amblin’ and then Duel, neither of which I’ve seen).

His fourth film was Jaws (which I’ve also never seen — no real reason other than lack of interest). Close Encounters was his fifth movie, and it gave me such a bad taste I’ve been askance at his films ever since.

In particular I’ve adamantly refused to ever see E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and when a die-hard science fiction fan refuses to ever see a (supposed) science fiction movie, that says something.  It’s just that every hint and glimpse I’ve seen of E.T. has made me go, “Ewww!!”

I also refuse to ever see Schindler’s List, because (A) more roller-applied Spielberg emotionalism, and (B) I think Nazis are total dick-heads we should stop obsessing over and consign to the dusty pages of forgotten history (while vowing “never again”). To quote Indiana, “I hate those guys.”

And then there’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. (Why does he need to spell out the initials? He did that in E.T., too. (And, oh god, please let there never be an E.T. II.))

Dr Stangelove

The man who directed this…

A.I. was originally a property of Stanley Kubrick. Many say Kubrick would have loved what Spielberg did with it, but I’m not so sure.

It doesn’t seem to me that the man behind Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut would turn out the sentimental silliness that A.I. was.

For a movie with the central premise that robots don’t have human emotions, every robot in that film was pretty damned emotional!

AI

…would not have created this!

On the flip side, I really liked (and even bought) Minority Report. Which is almost odd considering I’m not that big on Tom Cruise, either. It may have to do with it being based on a story by the great Philip K. Dick (and you might be very surprised at how many movies are based on P.K. Dick stories).

And when Spielberg steps back and acts only as Executive Producer, that list has a lot of movies I’ve liked — even loved. He was behind (but not directing or writing!) the Back to the Future movies, the Men in Black movies, Deep Impact (the better asteroid-hits-Earth movie), Paul, Cowboys & Aliens, and Real Steel (all watchable SF films). He was also E.P. on two SF movies I really liked: Vanilla Sky (Tom Cruise again!) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

He’s also responsible for the Jurassic Park movies (which were pretty okay).

The thing about Spielberg is that he really loves movies, and he knows his craft. I can’t hate the guy. Actually, I have a lot of respect for the man and his overall body of work. It’s just that the movies he creates himself are — to me — like a cup of coffee with eight lumps of sugar: really hard to swallow.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

25 responses to “Spielberg: Not A Fan

  • Hariod Brawn

    Yes, manipulative of emotions in a rather crass way; just like modern advertising is. And you were right not to go and see Schindler’s List by the way; whilst it was considered sacrilege to critique negatively at the time of the films release, it was how I felt from about 30 minutes in.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, I know what you mean about it being sacrilege to disparage the film. It’s about the holocaust!! (Is that like the holodeck? :/ ) Godard accused him of “using his film Schindler’s List to make a profit off tragedy” and that is part of what bothers me (in addition to his manipulative storytelling).

      It’s very confusing, because there are aspects to the man I highly regard and respect, while at the same time I have to shake my head over other parts. (I have the same issue with Jerry Seinfeld; post upcoming.) On the other hand, there’s J.J.Abrams who I don’t respect or regard. At all. (He killed Star Trek, the bastard.)

  • E.D.

    smile. I hate most movies nowadays. They are all written like form letters. Read one and you have read them all. But nowadays the big bus. runs the studios and the movies are made only to make profits and big ones. There is nothing like the movies of years ago, hmmm. like, Gone With The Wind, or The good earth – movies such as those had heart, small budgets but great stories. well, i am tired – so will say g’nite. eve

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yep, movies have become a big money commodity, so they design them to appeal to as many people as possible. Which makes them as generally bland and boring as a frozen pizza. The trick — if you love movies — is to seek out the smaller gems. Movies with a small budget, and which are directed and written by the same person, and which are not made in Hollyweird, often turn out to be over-looked gems.

      Some sparklers I’ve stumbled on recently: No Such Thing was delightful; The Sunset Limited was pretty interesting (no action, all talk, one set); Einstein and Eddington was quite good; Cosi was charming; Cockneys vs Zombies is the funniest zombie movie since Sean of the Dead; Extraterrestre is a cute SF film (with almost no actual SF); The Theory of Flight was excellent; and Hysteria was sexy and interesting.

      They’re out there, but it’s like dating: you have to be willing to experience a lot of clinkers to find the gems.

  • reocochran

    I am not a big fan of Spielberg either. You can find a ton of movie reviews or comments about movies on my blog, but I am pretty sure I don’t have one of his directorial movies mentioned. I am like you, enjoy his producing magic. I also liked Back to the Future movies, Men In Black (all of them) and the fun movie, with Bob Hoskins and the Rabbit, “Who Killed Roger Rabbit.” I know you loved Jessica Rabbit, too. Most men do…

    I liked Tom Cruise in “Valkyrie.” I also did not mind him recently in a less serious role. I will go look it up, then get back to here…

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, Jessica Rabbit was pretty sexy, but she wasn’t a character of great character. As her great line goes, “I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way.” If I had to pick a cartoon babe, I’ll take Turanga Leela over J.R. any day! One would just have to get used to looking deeply into her eye.

      BTW: Who Framed Roger Rabbit (a very good movie) is based on the even better Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf. If you liked the movie, you might see if the book is available at your local library.

      Valkyrie was okay, but, to again quote Indiana Jones, “Nazis! I hate those guys!!” (I have to admit that I did rather like Inglourious Basterds, but I’m a sucker for Quentin Tarantino movies.)

  • reocochran

    Jack Reacher, I have been giving this as an example that even my Mom, who ‘hates’ Tom Cruise found him good at being laid back and although he kissed a woman in this role, he did not choose to seduce her, nor did he seem self-serving. Anyway, you may try it, for $1 or like me, for free from the library. By the way, plenty of attractive, smart women go to the library and you won’t just find ‘housewives,’ place to check out women… hint, hint! Smiles,Robin

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’ve seen the previews for Jack Reacher, but it hasn’t come around on cable (which is where I watch a lot of movies). The funny thing is, I don’t dislike Tom Cruise as an actor — it’s his personality and weirdness that’s a distraction. There’s also that, once an actor becomes a “mega-star,” seeing them in a film role can be distracting unless they’re good enough to make you forget who you’re watching. De Niro and Pacino were brilliant that way (so was Robin Williams, for that matter).

      Cruise usually plays himself — Mr. Hero — but if you’ve seen him in Magnolia, you know he can act.

      And when I think about all the films he’s been in, there are quite a few I’ve really liked: Risky Business, Rain Man, A Few Good Men, The Firm, Interview with the Vampire, Magnolia, Vanilla Sky, Minority Report, Tropic Thunder and even Knight and Day.

      It’s more that he can be a distraction sometimes, but I’m still looking forward to Edge of Tomorrow.

  • Doobster418

    I’m mixed about Spielberg. I have enjoyed some of his movies (e.g., Saving Private Ryan, Jaws, Indiana Jones – the early ones, anyway) and wasn’t impressed at all by others. I saw E.T. because my kids were young and I enjoyed it. And I thought Close Encounters was okay, but whenever I see a SciFi movie, I pretty much check my credibility meter at the theater door.

    I always thought Duel, starring Dennis Weaver, was a made for TV movie and that was his first. But I could be wrong.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I did see Saving Private Ryan and didn’t hate it (didn’t love it, either). Mostly I’d heard that the opening battle sequence was pretty awesome. I didn’t find it to be all that awesome, but maybe on the big screen it was more so. Part of my problem is that Tom Hanks (like Tom Cruise) has become such a mega-star that it’s distracting to me. I see Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks, not their characters, and it takes me out of the movie.

      SF definitely has a dimension of “not real” to it, but that’s no excuse to throw logic and rationality out the window. It’s not a free pass! There’s usually some basic premise you have to just accept (FTL travel, aliens, whatever), but within the context of that framework, the rest has to hold together just as with any story.

      I took a deeper look at his filmography… Turns out that Amblin’ (1968) is a short film (26 minutes) that was released theatrically in limited venues (a theater in L.A. and various film festivals). And as you surely know, he named his production company (Amblin Entertainment) after it.

      Duel (1971) was made for TV, but was also released theatrically. It still doesn’t quite qualify as his first film, because that year he’d already directed an episode of Name of the Game (and those were all 90 minute TV movies). But those were never released theatrically, so Duel is his first feature-length theatrical release film.

      I’m really grateful you raised this issue. Had I not dug into this I wouldn’t have discovered that Duel was written by the great Richard Matheson (arguably the man who created zombies, and definitely the man behind many great SF stories, including I Am Legend — very possibly the original zombie story).

      And apparently Duel is considered Dennis Weaver’s best film, so I think I’m going to have to see this one after all!

      • Doobster418

        It’s been years since I saw Duel, but I do remember enjoying it and thinking it was very well done and suspenseful, especially for a TV movie. I didn’t realize that it had also been a theatrical release as well. If you do see it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Well, Richard Matheson + early Spielberg = good chance that I will!

  • Lady from Manila

    When the movie E.T. first dislodged Star Wars as the Numero Uno moneymaking film of all time, I was dismayed. I thought: No way could a massive-headed alien with big eyes and wrinkles be more lovable than my R2D2.

    I have an “I love him/I hate him” affair with Mr. Spielberg, Wyrd. He gave me sleepless nights with graphic scenes from some of his movies. Most notably where Robert Shaw slowly slid into the mouth of the shark and got devoured in Jaws. And where a soldier was being butchered and step-by-step killed by another soldier in the last segments of Saving Private Ryan. Eew.

    Yet I cried (which rarely happens while movie-watching) during the tender moments of mother and son in A.I.’s ending. And I also found the Indiana Jones movies delightful.

    😀 Very entertaining and funny post!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah,… you little ridiculous doll — Go Home! Sadly, E.T. still beats Star Wars in box office income in direct dollars: nearly $793 million (ranking 46th) compared to just over $775 million (ranking 50th). However, I’d bet that Star Wars toys and games and novels and etc. have knocked E.T. out of the park.

      Even better, in an adjusted-for-inflation list, Star Wars comes in at #3 ($2.7 billion) compared to E.T.‘s #6 ($2.2 billion). And Star Wars is #5 in franchise films ($4.3 billion), a list that E.T. isn’t even on!

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_highest-grossing_films

      We can totally agree on the Indiana Jones movies, but with A.I. I was hating the movie so much by the ending that Spielberg’s attempts at sentimentality left me stone cold (I can imagine it had more impact on an actual mother with an actual son, though). Speaking as a science fiction fan, the film was total rubbish to me, and an even deeper offense considering it should have been done by Stanley Kubrick. It may well be my most hated Spielberg film (that I’ve actually seen).

      Glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

  • Kheleya Fahrmann

    What do you think of _Duel_, which is the 1971 Spielberg film that got his foot in the door?

    And incidentally, people no longer get locked in padded rooms. That ceased to happen in the early 1980s, when nearly all “mental hospitals” were closed and mental patients were released into “the community” (translation: into homelessness). Today there are acute care faciliites and other facilities for those who have been found not guilty of crimes for mental health reasons and are essentially prisoners, but there are no “padded rooms.” As someone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia it’s in my interest to inform you of that.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I haven’t seen Duel — it never really sounded like my cup of tea (people being terrorized by other people), but another reader mentioned it raising a question whether it was his first movie or not. Turns out, it’s his first feature-length theatrical release, but not his first theatrical release or his first feature-length (TV) movie (see comments with Doobster above). But in digging deeper, I discovered the script for Duel was written by Richard Matheson, and that piques my interest.

      Point taken about padded rooms — good to know (and apparently yet another myth Hollywood perpetuates). It does remain as a metaphor in the public consciousness, but perhaps it’s time to retire this (along with the name of that Washington NFL team). Thanks for taking a moment to make me more educated!!

  • moi

    Interesting take, especially on Close Encounters, I didn’t really consider the points that you made on them, I even thought the last Indianna was ok (ish) but a well put together case nonetheless. I hope you see Jaws and Duel one day, I think that they are both superb and would be interested in your opinion on them.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Duel is definitely on my “see” list now (per the comments above regarding it). As a former film student who still loves movies, I really should see Jaws… no real reason I haven’t other than a vague lack of interest in “monster” movies. If it ever comes around on cable, I’ll likely give it a try. There’s no question that Spielberg is very good at his craft and always has been!

      Thanks for dropping by, reading and commenting. New visitors are always welcome!

  • charmarie221

    so what’s your final count here? you haven’t seen them all, obviously by choice. You said you liked some, including all 37 Raiders movies, some were okay and you were indifferent to a few others. So really I only count two you hated (Close Encounters and AI–I won’t spell it out for you)…? That’s not so rousing for an anti Spielberg blog.

    I rarely watch movies. I don’t know why. I did see Schindler’s List and I remember it less as a “Nazis are bad, mmkay” movie as much as a “Schindler was a good guy at a time it was dangerous to be one”… that there were decent people during that horrific time and their stories are good to know.

    I saw Jaws in middle school and it scared the sea water out of me for quite awhile. The gruesome way one of the characters is killed is probably weak sauce by today’s blood and gore movie scale score, but it stayed in my 12 year old brain forEVER. It’s actually a pretty good movie, once you suspend the belief that a shark would ever be deliberately predatory wrt that particular boat. And of course I can only imagine how unrealistic the actual shark might look by today’s cgi standards.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      A final count depends a little on whether we’re talking movies he directed versus wrote and directed versus being Executive Producer. (As I mentioned, he does much better with me on films where he is only the E.P.) Another complicating factor is that it’s possible to disparage the way a story is told by the storyteller while at the same time not disparaging the entire film. What I find with Spielberg is that I frequently dislike the way he tells stories (for the reasons cited in my post). Always, 1941 and Saving Private Ryan would all be on that list, for instance.

      Your count of two misses some I mentioned: E.T., Schindler’s List and the last of the 37 Raiders movies (which I thought was god-awful). And you touched on a problem with Jaws — a problem I have with many of his films: the required suspension of disbelief is beyond me (and, frankly, even at the time the shark looked pretty cheesy).

      It’s probably easier to count the movies of his I’ve liked without qualifying them with “for a Spielberg movie.” My basic thesis involves my dislike of his heavy-handed emotionalism and simplistic moralizing, and I absolutely stand by that perception.

      So. Focusing just on films he directed (and/or wrote), the score is: Minority Report (which I think is good because the story is by the great Philip K. Dick), the Indiana Jones movies (with increasing qualification as the series progresses and definitely excepting the last), and… that’s it. There are no other films he directed (and/or wrote) that I regard as stories I enjoy (and I say that with his Filmography in front of me, so I am considering his entire body of work).

      And that, perhaps, is the real bottom line. For a director held in such high regard and so universally loved, my being “meh” on his work seems to be an odd exception. As I explained, it’s not in any way the quality of his work, it’s the way he tells stories that leaves me cold when he’s actually going for exactly the opposite effect.

      • charmarie221

        I thought you said you hadn’t seen ET or Schindler’s List? How can you dislike movies you haven’t seen?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Keep in mind I was a film student in college, a dedicated film aficionado ever since and that we live in an era of film clips, reviews and descriptions. I don’t need to see an entire film if what I have seen gives me a good sense of what the film is about and how it’s told. (And I’ve come to trust that sense — it’s rarely turned out to be wrong in those cases where I do end up seeing the entire thing.) Plus, I’ve seen enough of Spielberg’s work (and read analysis by others of his work) to have a pretty good sense of how he goes about his business.

        And suffice to say nothing I’ve ever seen in that body of work has changed my view of him even a little. (Another thing I’ve learned about myself is that new data does have the ability to change my opinion if that data is contrary and compelling.)

  • ~ Sadie ~

    I like some of his movies, & some I don’t. Couldn’t bring myself to see Schindler’s List, but I have seen Duel – actually when it first came out on TV – & for its time, it was frightening as hell!! I think I was about 12, but I never forgot it.

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