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