The Name of the Game
Population 11,000, living underground.
Sea scum on both coasts has reduced the citizenry to a fraction.
“In the whole world, how many people are there?”
“Nobody knows for sure.”
The design is that of Sleeper (dir. Woody Allen) or La città delle donne (dir. Federico Fellini), from the author of Don Siegel’s Night Unto Night and Rudolph Mate’s When Worlds Collide.
“A shareholders’ democracy, we call it,” says the “V.P. in charge of Los Angeles,” with “a corporate constitution”.
Spectacular acting is the forte of the cast.
Capital Detroit. War with England. Police psychiatrists. Computer God. “Thought control... police state,” says the sleeping magazine publisher, who’s called upon to revive his work “on a somewhat smaller scale...”
Eugenics for “college material”. A contemporary in a straitjacket, “if people knew how they were being exploited, manipulated, and I could tell them...” The “totalitarian state” is no place for a magazine publisher, he resolves not to join the “management team”, therefore he is given out as a member of the elusive “underground”. The beauty of the thing is an escape to the surface in that same rescue vehicle, back to the old office...
Asleep at the wheel, “memo to the President.”
by the Book
The book or film in question is An American Tragedy, filmed with vast amounts of technical accomplishment in notoriously difficult passages. The central source is Citizen Kane, specifically an adaptation of deep focus to the television close-up. Lighting is registered with gung ho in dusk shots (with a red lamp in the foreground), daylight interiors (with windows in the background), close-ups backlit to the point of obscurity, moonlight on the lake, etc. (in this sense, the registration of daylight in the office looks like an allusion to Hitchcock’s Rope).
The very striking effect achieved by editing with camera movement à la Welles has Russell Metty repeating his performance from The Stranger.
This is Spielberg’s early masterpiece, the only one of his compositions before Catch Me If You Can or The Terminal to merit unreserved admiration from every point of view.
It begins with an inspiration, the driver’s POV through downtown Los Angeles and up the Arroyo Seco Parkway to the desert. At the mid-point of the duel, Dennis Weaver totters into Chuck’s Café and a hand-held camera accompanies him from the front door to the men’s room where he splashes his face and steadies himself and back out through the café to the front window where he sees the tanker truck parked outside.
The subtlety of the image is such that only John Guillermin’s neglected King Kong gives it a name, PETROX. The sheer technical magnificence allied with Weaver’s magisterial rendition (among a great cast) and Richard Matheson’s acute script (with its echoes of Borges) make this a true work of art in the Spielberg canon, and as fresh as the days it was made.
All right, it’s hokey and boring and ultimately idiotic, but the central idea just keeps it afloat, a bigmouthed fish that devours everything (maybe even a car, it’s suggested).
You can have it, as Buck Benny would say, “just give me” the ferryboat shot, the sparse gags, and Murray Hamilton in his coat of many anchors.
It might be that a parody is intended of Moby Dick as directed by Irwin Allen. There is perhaps a reference to The Searchers (which is reportedly screened by Spielberg before starting any movie) in the Orca’s departure filmed through a set of shark jaws (cp. Ford’s opening or closing shot).
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
This is where it goes ineradicably wrong, in a fantastic attempt to depict the enormous fame descended upon him like an alien space platform or whatever, out of which emerge the ghosts of Christmas past, attended by François Truffaut himself.
Spielberg saw Day for Night and it occurred to him that hands are the director’s trademark. Truffaut’s presence in this spectacle is a rare bit of folly for him, but it was the annunciation of The New World Order, and who knew? The past comes from a spaceship now, and beauty is an alien form that speaks in sign language or a handful of tones.
You may have witnessed just such an encounter as must have provoked the film, on a misty night in the suburbs. A contraption of varicolored lights brightly descends the sloping driveway, frightening all those in the house, and presently it halts. Out pops a girl, returning from her date with a local co-religionist who has decked out his pickup with every accessory he can buy (cf. Preminger’s Danger—Love at Work).
E.T. the Extraterrestrial
The epochal success of Jaws was not something you could bear lightly, and so this parody was born, Jesus Christ in postmodern suburbia.
It certainly looks as if Spielberg had a wager with George Lucas to the effect that it were possible to make more money than (gulp!) Star Wars with a sack of crap cuter than R2-D2.
Just to make it interesting, Spielberg started with Kubrick’s “Star Child” from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The rest wrote itself, as they say. Any resemblance to one of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum oddities ain’t no coincidence, neither.
The priapic dream of flying with your E.T. on your handlebars, home to your mother dolled up like Dolores del Rio in Orson Welles’ (or Norman Foster’s) Journey Into Fear, after passing another trick-or-treater dressed as Yoda (the little booger), is Spielbergian hokey-pokey at its most time-serving. When Elliott is screaming in your ear, it pays to have something on the side. The consequences for Borgesian wonder are, in the Spielberg mindset, simply incalculable.
Night of the Living Dead comes into the scene for an Imperial jest. “Elliott feels his [E.T.’s] feelings.” The actors, except for Drew Barrymore, do too. They even genuflect. “It seems to clear all the bad thoughts out of your head,” Pauline Kael told her many, many readers.
The final Ascension summons all the director’s emotional powers for a most veritable bloodbath of feeling over his puppet returning to the astral spaces from whence he came, someday to return and tricycle past the moon again for you and me, brother!
Empire of the Sun
This should have been the project that would get Spielberg out of his unfortunate position, that of being dragged across the scrubland by the horse of his own success. But his nerves appear to have been so frazzled by the failure of E.T. to do so that he is not able to bear his own story, so it comes to naught.
It’s a spiritual experience to watch this film, without a doubt, and the result is enlightenment as to the real abilities of Steven Spielberg, filmmaker, at this stage of his reflexive saga. Given his own production company and a script by Tom Stoppard, he is unable to do anything at all, indeed, the very quality of the script seems to have raised his hackles.
Two shots show what Spielberg is really made of, the firemen leaving the blaze toward the end, and clouds parting on a starry sky. What follows and precedes is hardly worth mentioning.
This rather cruelly puts Richard Dreyfuss in the role played by Spencer Tracy, but Spielberg is no Fleming, not that Dreyfuss couldn’t acquit himself.
The relative mercy of boredom permeates it like a tranquilizer, and the marginal technical competence tells the tale. Spielberg is nodding off, his own shenanigans are an easy trick, and by the time he gets to The Lost World: Jurassic Park, he’s walking in his sleep.
Certainly it’s imbecilical, but it’s no more than the critics deserved who used such terms on A Guy Named Joe as can only apply to this, giving them a second chance that by and large they made use of.
Calling it meretricious would give poor working girls a bad name, and any counterfeiter would turn one-cent red to hear it described as false and phony. But of which Spielberg film in his middle or faux period can that not be said?
For the benefit of Spielberg adepts, who do one the honor now and again of writing to complain, it may be pointed out that there is a middle level of analysis akin to Saving Private Ryan, depicting Spielberg wrestling with his fame. You can see this in Holly Hunter’s entrance wearing a white evening dress, a scene so terribly overdone even the New York Times couldn’t miss it. Shortly, she rides a bicycle onto the airfield, and she’s wearing precisely the garb of the kids in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, as she sees her doomed husband off. This gives a meaning of the film as Spielberg embracing A Guy Named Joe to escape his dilemma, but probably this is unsupportable and factitious, and the real meaning is simply revealed in the two shots already mentioned, toward which Spielberg may be discerned gearing up out of his torpor, beginning with adroit camerawork on Hunter at the controls of the plane.
Again, the middle level accounts for angelical Audrey Hepburn in much the same way, and to no purpose except to string along the middling conceit with such a device as the long tracking shot across an endless field of wheat. Films before Spielberg were boring, his adepts say, and what a storyteller! Lang in Liliom went through those clouds beyond the stars and planets and spheres to a crook’s paradise, and left all this nonsense behind him.
Gentle moviegoer, you have just seen this, perhaps, and are sadly shaking your head in despair or grinning with cynical abandon as if you were preparing its downfall by the weight of your capitulation.
Now go and see the Brenon Peter Pan, and see what genius is made of. The little towsers, on a real ship out at sea, do stern battle in close-ups with the wicked pirates, who are seen in cutaways diving overboard, one by one. “Who are you, Pan?”, asks Hook. “I’m youth—eternal youth! I’m a little bird that has broken its egg. I’m joy—joy—JOY!”, says Peter Pan. The American flag is raised, Wendy compares Pan to Napoleon, and the sprite strikes the classic pose of madness. Oh, it’s a grand flick, unutterable and quite completely silent.
The final attempt to reconcile his incredible fame with the relative position of, say, a Truffaut. Even the undercurrent of supplication fails, and he rightly abandons the whole thing as hopeless.
At first glance,
there are two good scenes. A prostrate prisoner is executed with a pistol and
his body bounces and the stuffing of his cap flies up like snow (doubtless this
technical acumen prefigures Saving Private Ryan), and a roundup scene
involving screams and flying suitcases attains a realistic hysteria.
For the rest, the director is reduced to amateur theatrics and colorization to carry his drama to its world-winning conclusion. The Spielberg Shoah, from Amblin Entertainment.
It gets sillier every time you look at it.
Spielberg introduced Oskar Schindler to the television–watching public by calling him a “womanizer” and a “war profiteer,” but adding he had saved many Jews. 2,000,000 students saw his movie in theaters for free, with the cooperation of “the nation’s governors.” It is, he points out, an educational film.
To watch a director film the wartime career of Oskar Schindler (a funambulist on barbed wire), and the military exploits of Amon Goeth (a homicidal maniac whom even Holocaust “revisionists” condemn), and the daily operations of a concentration camp, to watch a bit of this ill done, and see that none of it is done well, means simply watching the helpless squandering of directorial advantages, leaving actors without acting, special effects without dramatic interest, cinematography without allure, and filmmaking with no grasp of material that can’t fail to be excoriating.
A Nazi soldier sits down to a piano to play Bach during a pogrom. The zesty fugue goes on amid the machine-gun fire and screams, as two other soldiers stand in the doorway and ask if it’s Bach or Mozart.
Cut to Goeth’s morning exercise, shooting children in the yard from his balcony with a high-powered rifle. This fails of its effect, and becomes one more inanimate display of the armourer’s art. His mistress is still in bed, semi-nude, and it’s a moment of ease to the eyes, like being in an art class, ready to begin a study. Goeth crosses to the bathroom and urinates, to show he is a vile fellow, and the wrong note is adduced from Auguste Renoir, who once said to his son Jean, “Mozart had to compose. It was like having to pee.”
And so on and on through hours of silly ineptitudes. How much better simply to hear the account of a survivor (recorded on videotape for Spielberg’s own Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation) tell how machine guns were set up around the prisoners one day, and they thought the end was near, and hours went by as they stood waiting, then music began playing, and it was all to subdue them while, at last, trucks came to take the children away.
There’s the mind of the thing.
The Lost World
Strictly an accommodation, therefore an acknowledgment at least of the initial problem. “It seems to me that you want me to work for the art houses,” Hitchcock told Truffaut.
On the other hand, “it takes money to make money,” they do say. Nevertheless, and with that one undisputed gift still very much in evidence, at around this point must be situated the absolute nadir of the œuvre, its imperishable enshrinement in the realm of awful dullness.
“If he had only used his genius for good, instead of evil,” Maxwell Smart used to say, or was it “niceness”?
Saving Private Ryan
The doddering old vet pensively hieing through the graveyard followed by an adoring retinue is Spielberg himself, and so is the fallen soldier before whose cross he tumbles to his hands and knees in supplication like Nebuchadnezzar—the Spielberg who started off with such a great deal of promise, so that now these scenes resemble the harried director in Fellini’s 8½.
The idea of course is to get himself home like E.T., to whatever it was that decided him to become a director in the first place. In this sense the best commentary on it is Flags of Our Fathers, unless it’s Letters from Iwo Jima.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
I, Robot for You, Retards. Mom reaches into a teddy bear’s ass to turn it on. The Spielberg hand.
The computerized animatronics are like Davey and Goliath, but for the grace of God. Spielberg has thoughtfully wiped the fingerprints of genius clean off the project (part of the plan, one should think), though the set retains a cautious reminiscence of the orbiting space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, adorned with cartoons. Minority Report is about something, and Catch Me If You Can something like human, but this still resembles the mental impairment of E.T. the Extraterrestrial without having in itself much hope of improvement. Haley Joel Osment plays the android with the hopeful look of a child actor who has an agent taking the long view.
It opens rather badly, the usual science-fiction menace of Spielberg exposition, Nyby’s The Thing drained of its wit, only rapid-fire parrotings of jargon and postures now widely-imitated on television as requiring no skill whatsoever in the execution. This takes no time at all to reach unendurability, particularly as it’s the tiresomeness of Jurassic Park tricked up with gritty blue-stained cinematography for the suckers (this too is a trend).
Nonetheless, the last forty-five minutes present another use of the material, turned against the protagonist as outcast, and suddenly it all makes abundant good sense. If the overall effect is like watching Dr. Strangelove throttled by his own gloved hand, the thing cannot be dismissed as easily as the initial treatment would suggest in imperative terms.
Minority Report is therefore in all ways a complicated film, beginning with the film stock, which is terribly degraded and washed-out to achieve an expression of the way cities look nowadays, combined with the satire of high-tech grunge and the grayish world of Orwell’s 1984. This manner of working comes from Godard, who also figures in the hotel-room number joke (from Détective). One of Keaton’s best jokes is reflected in John Anderton’s incarceration by suspended animation, as his tube is lowered into the hole, his name lights up on top above other names, and this is Keaton’s damnation attended by a devil adjusting a signboard to read KEATON: IN.
Max von Sydow’s office has a side view in one shot of a sitting-room area which startlingly resembles Mary Astor’s hotel room in The Maltese Falcon. Much of the work subsumes error into useful applications. The cinematography puts the shoddy work of Saving Private Ryan and the careless stylization of Schindler’s List to immediate use. The very poor gag of the Nazi playing Bach becomes the very good one of the “warden” playing Sheep May Safely Graze. The tricksy-fubsy pullout at the end from a cozy interior, stitched onto a helicopter shot, is finally held and held during the end credits to take the mickey out of it. The creepiness and gesticulation are satirized into the detective defining virtual reality spaces with his fingers, and a hundred other points easily confirm a conscious application of Spielberg’s experience and study to a major film.
One shot worthy of Hitchcock (at the pool) shows what he is capable of, but beyond all this, he has put his best efforts into attaining, at the last, the profound harmony which has heretofore been a publicist’s dream.
If the success of Jaws capsized him, and the brilliance of Day for Night blinded him, this was probably in the cards from the beginning, and he has profited from it finally beyond the box office receipts. Doubtless Kubrick cured him with the saving mirror of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.
And the whole thing is beautifully built as a joke against misunderstandings of the meaning of “predestination”.
“Pre-cogs” are kept in flotation tanks to record visual impressions of murders about to be committed, “pre-cons” are put away as described, Washington, D.C. is the safest city in America, but the deviser of all this has a way of defeating it. This takes place fifty years from now, in a world that looks like Eisner’s Tomorrowland, promised by stacking the FCC with industry people so as to liquidate television. Newsweek comes with a CG cover, and the political satire goes well beyond the symptom to the cause, “pre-emptive war” being (like all the rest of the apparatus) just a bit previous. The implications of all this are so well worked out that I know several very good thinkers on the subject who can’t do much more than confirm the results, and yet they’re founded on a classic frame job worthy of the best films noirs, which is how these things are always done, in certain circles.
Catch Me If You Can
John Williams’ overture announces a great film. Spielberg has placed all of his resources in front of the camera, and this results in a handful of performances that are quite brilliant and unexpected. Furthermore, there is a necessary monumental effort expended on scenic construction, which is successfully treated in a naturalistic manner, and on top of that is dealt out modestly as the basis on which the con man purveys his sham. A whip pan follows Abagnale’s Aston Martin DB-5 through a busy Manhattan intersection and around the corner, a shot lasting a second or two, showing the technical resources and the resolve, as well as the labor.
The political satire is transcended in a universal rejection of officials and authorities who know nothing but how to “manage.” The only politician is played by Martin Sheen in one of the inventions which demonstrate in Spielberg an ability not seen for many a decade, and the character is part of the characteristically subtle fabric of humor throughout, he’s a prosecutor taken in on his own ground (Abagnale’s dinner blessing is taken directly or indirectly from Losey’s Secret Ceremony).
James Brolin, like Sheen, invents another persona. Tom Hanks is persuaded to act, and though (like Spielberg in Minority Report) he finds himself perhaps the least bit rusty (in some rough patches early on), he takes the bull by the horns and shows what he is made of, as Spielberg does here. Leonardo DiCaprio is a very clever fellow, but also quite capable in certain technical passages, delivering a piece of irony or a punchline, which requires great skill. Christopher Walken has been adequately praised elsewhere, his performance is typical of the film, finding the correct line to adhere to and playing it correctly.
If there are flaws in the telling, they are turned to account. Corny, stale or overdone shots nakedly emphasize this or that aspect of the theme from a purely external viewpoint. The naïveté of the con artist is in his presumption on the surface of things. Spielberg gives him plenty of surface, and an FBI agent with an insightful mind.
And so, it’s entirely antithetical to Mulligan’s The Great Impostor but in a strange way like Ritchie’s The Candidate, somehow. In all the hurly-burly, one thing simply leads to another with a flash of realization, eked out by tedium in aperçus of a worn typewriter ribbon used to pound out a forged check, for example.
The measure of the artistic success is not only the many evidences of superb technique and Spielberg’s transcendence of it in service to his theme, but also a rare ability to juggle his cop and robber with an equal, free hand, as it were. They are treated in the round, as far as possible, with foibles and vicissitudes or victories that are enjoyable in themselves. And then, it’s just purely a pleasure to hear a good joke from Spielberg, along with a lot of very funny material.
The tragic side of all this is implicit in the entire film, kept that way, subsumed by a happy ending, and registered as such in a few end titles stating a fact or two. The crude psychology is that of the characters, Spielberg’s view reveals quite something else, the beauty of Saarinen’s JFK, a pure structural evocation of flight in terms of which the agent and the con man (dressed as a co-pilot) figure as absolution and absurdity, respectively.
It opens with a flight from Beijing, and ends with a man wielding a mop to face down a jet on the tarmac.
The stateless hero is confined to the International Transport Lounge, a shopping mall. He has brought with him a can of jazz. All of this occurs under the aegis of Homeland Security. He gets Benny Golson’s autograph and goes home.
Billy Wilder’s The Apartment figures in the romance of a stewardess or something like it, with the variation first that she is “rooting for the home team”, second that she stays that way.
The war in Krakozhia ends, resuming conditions of travel. The dramatic crux and a great deal of the structure lazily underground seep up visibly from Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe.
The filming is at ease with busyness, like Murnau at the rainy hotel in The Last Laugh.
Spielberg knows especially well what is involved here because it is almost entirely contingent on the finale of Catch Me If You Can. There is a situation that must be faced, having done that there are terms to be defined. Spielberg has taken Saarinen’s JFK as a symbol of expression, now he is obliged to express it.
Someone from the old country looking for New York, debarred under the circumstances described. Spielberg knows exactly what he is doing, and does it with an unusual refinement. Stanley Tucci’s characterization of the security chief is the clear example, he is a New York type but also a man of the new regime, and replaces a man who resembles Jackie Gleason.
Paul Mazursky’s Scenes from a Mall has something to do with the objectivity of Spielberg’s view, it’s “the mercantile Gehenna” we all know taken at face value, Fellini’s Ginger and Fred is suitably invoked with the same refinement, not a direct commentary but piecemeal as a welter of cumulative impressions.
The capacity for work is typical of early Spielberg, Tom Hanks exactly matches it with a brutally sustained tour de force in the English and Russian of a fictional Krakozhian. John Williams is unusually restrained and modest throughout, complementing it. Catherine Zeta-Jones is the stewardess, a part that might have been given to Jean Arthur.
Any criticism that can have been directed at Catch Me If You Can has been met with thoroughgoing attention, which is to say that Spielberg has simply caught up with himself and made a film that is modern rather than postmodern. The difference is between the artist and the critic.
There’s even a bit of Skolimowski (Moonlighting) in all this clear sparkle of comedy.