Monday, December 10, 2012

The Cinema of Steven Spielberg (2): Behind the Images

If the first part of Steven Spielberg’s career can be summarize by a general movement toward the lights in the sky, like Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, from the 90’s and forward his cinema is exemplified by characters trying to flee artifices that have become dangerous: now, they have to get out of Jurassic Park’s island.

I wouldn't follow those lights...

This change of course came gradually: it was clearly in effect in Jurassic Park (1993), the second major stepping stone in Spielberg’s cinema after CEot3K, but it was first introduced at the end of Always (1989), where Richard Dreyfuss (Pete) has to learn the responsibilities he eschewed as Roy Neary. Dorinda (Holy Hunter) is constantly trying to keep her aviator lover (Dreyfuss) on the ground, or at least to stop his dangerous behavior. “You’re not a movie hero” she says to him at one point, “you’re not saving any life here”, so no need to seek these narcissistic adrenaline thrills because you got some responsibilities, here with me. Or, if you will, no need for this pure entertainment, or to revel in your own technical virtuosity: cinema has a duty towards reality, and images should not be used to escape from or to hide the real world (as Jaws already implied). In the last sequence of Always, Dorinda’s plane crashes in a lake where she lets herself drown, hoping to leave a reality she doesn’t want to participate in anymore. This time, Dreyfuss (remember he’s Spielberg’s alter ego) takes her hand and brings her back on the ground, back to her earthly responsibilities, thus correcting his own decision at the end of CEot3K. This time, we need to stay with our two feet on the ground, not in the sky or at the bottom of a lake. And if it wasn’t clear enough, when Pete and Dorinda are walking together in one of the last shot, we distinctly hear in the music the characteristic notes used in CEot3K to communicate with the aliens.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Cinema of Steven Spielberg (1): Toward the Lights

A quick note about my last post: it wasn’t made clear that the author theory is an interpretative angle amongst others, one I particularly like, but it’s certainly not exclusive. So, for my analysis of Steven Spielberg’s cinema that follows, which will be divided in two or three parts, I’m only using scenes, motives or images that are most relevant for him as an author, but it’s not to say that it’s all there is. His cinema is a tapestry with multiple intertwining threads, like it was once said about Hitchcock, and the closer we look, the better we see the subtleties and the complexity of his work. I’m trying to describe the main picture as I see it, following with my words his leading thread, but whole other subtexts are just waiting to be revealed underneath. Here’s part one:

Steven Spielberg lost the respect he once had: at first, he was celebrated as a young genius, a virtuoso with an undeniable cinematic flair, but now we talk of him with a whiff of suspicion, mainly because he’s often depicted as the prime architect of the blockbusters, this so-called plague of modern cinema. For his detractors, Jaws’ massive box-office success in 1975 signaled the end of a New Hollywood apparently bursting with creativity, this haven of artistic freedom slowly disappearing under the pressure of a newfound interest for monetary gain, until soulless teenage flicks reigned over the patently commercial Hollywood of today. This, maybe, we could forgive, after all Spielberg didn’t intend to make the first blockbuster in cinema history; however, he also shaped our conception of escapist entertainment by popularizing a form of grandiloquent and boisterous spectacle, movies so obsessed with their own artifices that they get lost inside their technological prowess, without a thought about a reality they try to evacuate – at least, that’s what we say about him, but do these reproaches hold up? Well, they do sometimes for certain scenes in some of his movies, but that would be quite a superficial outlook on an exceptional author trying to introduce the notion of responsibility in these infantile blockbusters he supposedly gave birth to.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

A Thoughtful Love

The author theory seems to be greatly misunderstood nowadays. Or maybe it’s not new, I don’t know, but for sure, now, the idea of defending all movies made by a single filmmaker is seen as poor criticism, or as blindness to the possible (unavoidable) faults of an artist; apparently it’s far more relevant to judge every movie on its own basis, and to forget who made it because this knowledge can cloud our judgment. I’m slightly exaggerating, but how many times to we read things like “if you didn’t know this movie was made by X, you would not be so lenient”; well, that’s the point, it is made by X, so why pretend it is not?

Recently, amongst the many articles written about Paul Thomas Anderson latest movie, The Master, we got another good example of this attitude, in a text by Stephanie Zacharek published by the A.V. Club, where she wrote “The idea that certain filmmakers reach a point where respect is their due, rather than something they earn film by film, defies one of the most immediate and visceral pleasures of movie going: the pleasure of seeing for yourself. Plus, isn’t it a lot more boring to march around on a filmmaker’s behalf, trumpeting the significance of intentions and reputations, than it is to wrangle with the actual movies?” But doesn’t wrangling with the movies also imply to consider who actually made them? When Steven Spielberg shows a rising moon giving chase to robots in A.I., are we supposed to forget it’s the same man who gave us the iconic image from E.T., this gentle and heartwarming moon, which also happens to be the logo of his company, Amblin? I haven’t seen Lincoln yet, which will come out in a few days, but I know already that I will love it, as I did with War Horse even though it was Spielberg at its worst. This is not blindness: I can see what’s wrong with the movie, but these flaws are far less interesting than my encounter with the moving thoughts of a true author. Sure, he can faltered from time to time, but being able to follow someone else’s train of thoughts is a fascinating and deeply intimate experience, much more rare and precious than the experience of a good but impersonal movie, so why should we deny ourselves this pleasure? In my mind, some filmmakers undoubtedly have earned their respect: we can’t easily dismiss any movie made by Terrence Malick, to take an example used by Zacharek, because even if To the Wonder is a piece of shit (I don’t know, but I doubt it), it will still be the outcome of a great mind struggling with itself, and there’s nothing boring, or simple, in trying to understand the thought process of an author thinking through images. At worse, it’s infuriating, “how can he fall so low?”, but never boring.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Citizen Kane and Me (2): Citizen Kane

I haven’t really answered these questions yet: what is Citizen Kane, and what does it represent?

The first time I saw Citizen Kane I remained blind to its munificence, I didn’t understand Welles’ genius. I saw only a good story told in an innovative way with a surprise ending implying a simple moral about “wealth doesn’t provide happiness”. Sure, I appreciated how Welles uses deep focus, ellipsis or a fragmented chronology, but for me these techniques were simple narrative tools, not a way to shape the world, as they really are. If, as I was arguing last time, an artwork is more than a material object, then a description of this object can’t stand as a valid critic. When I write “in the suicide scene, Welles uses a deep focus that economically tells the story by condensing all the necessary information in the same shot”, I’m merely describing the film. It’s not like I’m wrong, but it’s trivial. What do these images tell us, why did Welles use deep focus instead of rapid editing? An artwork presents a singular perspective on the world, and the critic’s job is to illuminate this perspective through a retelling of his experience with this oeuvre.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Citizen Kane and Me (1): Me

What is Citizen Kane? Obviously it’s a movie, but what does Citizen Kane represent, or what do we mean when we say “this is the Citizen Kane of videogames”, or “there is no Citizen Kane in videogames”?

Orson Welles’ masterpiece is usually recognized as the “best movie of all time”, it’s a symbol, it's the pinnacle of what cinema is capable of. If cinema is an art, then Citizen Kane is the truest artistic expression of this medium; it represents the idea of perfection of an artistic idiom. So when we say “this is the Citizen Kane of videogame”, we’re really saying “cinema became an art with Citizen Kane, or at least this movie helped cinema to be officially acknowledged as an art form, or Citizen Kane is the undeniable proof that cinema is art, so the game X accomplishes the same operation of artistic validation for the videogame industry”. But Citizen Kane didn’t become Citizen Kane (this symbol of absolute perfection) until the 60’s, when cinema was already largely considered as an art, and anyway cinema, at first a simple parlor trick shown in fun fairs, did not become an art because of one movie. Art didn’t suddenly appear during a projection for the benefit of unwary spectators: cinema became an art form because it was conceived and discussed as such by critics, theoreticians and the audience. I could describe Citizen Kane as a simple product created by several individuals working in an industrial fashion, mass produced and distributed in many copies that were more or less the same. I could write about Citizen Kane without even mentioning that it’s a work of art, the same way I would do about some can coming out of an ordinary factory. Would I be wrong? I don’t think so, cinema is by essence an industry, my description of Citizen Kane would be incomplete, but it would still express some undeniable aspects of this object.