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Steven Spielberg On "Russian Ark" And "Intimate Movies"

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn December 12, 2011 at 1:07PM

If the great French critic André Bazin lived long enough to see a few Steven Spielberg movies, he probably would have loved them. A pioneering theorist in the field of realism, Bazin wrote adoringly of the long take as the ultimate realization of cinematic potential. Spielberg also loves the long take, and while in "Tintin" (opening later this month) he departs from the photographic reality at the root of Bazinian realism, the use of motion capture technology means he still has a camera at his disposal, and it does incredible things. A lengthy action sequence that finds Tintin on the lam from some henchman follows his journey across a variety of surfaces on a roadbike, at one point flipping it upside down and riding it along a clothesline before regaining his balance and barreling ahead. The camera never blinks.
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Steven Spielberg

If the great French critic André Bazin lived long enough to see a few Steven Spielberg movies, he probably would have loved them. A pioneering theorist in the field of realism, Bazin wrote adoringly of the long take as the ultimate realization of cinematic potential. Spielberg also loves the long take, and while in "Tintin" (opening later this month) he departs from the photographic reality at the root of Bazinian realism, the use of motion capture technology means he still has a camera at his disposal, and it does incredible things. A lengthy action sequence that finds Tintin on the lam from some henchman follows his journey across a variety of surfaces on a roadbike, at one point flipping it upside down and riding it along a clothesline before regaining his balance and barreling ahead. The camera never blinks.

Spielberg's name and mythology conjure images of supreme cinematic overstatement, not to mention Hallmark-ready odes to the power of imagination and nostalgia, but beneath these clichés Spielberg remains a masterful craftsman. As a result, it's always fascinating to hear him speak about his work, since he usually focus less on themes and characters than pure technique. On Sunday, I attended a press conference for "Tintin" where Spielberg held court over a roomful of journalists as if delivering a master class. Asked about the long take in "Tintin," Spielberg took the opportunity to advocate for none other than Alexader Sokoruv's 2002 feature "Russian Ark":

"Russian Ark" is one of my favorite films. It's a 95-minute movie all done in one shot. It was done in a museum in St. Petersberg. I don't know if you've all seen "Russian Ark," but you should all treat yourselves to it. It's one shot. He only did three takes; the first two stopped after 20 minutes because there were mistakes but the last take went right through to the end. The cameraman almost died using the steadicam; it was an extraordinary experience. I would not want to make a movie in one shot. Sometimes, like when I did that sequence [in "Tintin"], I relied on all of you to be the film editors and decide what to look at. My job was to frame the scene so we could direct you to where we thought you should be paying attention, but you were free to look anywhere, to make your own mental edits, which is so much fun and empowers the audience to be part of the ride.

"Russian Ark."
"Russian Ark."

Spielberg's command over film form has been evident for 40 years, ever since he made the first-rate telefilm "Duel" in 1971. (I wrote about it last year for a Spielberg blog-a-thon.) At the same time, Spielberg never again made a movie like "Duel" on the same minuscule scale. That movie had a cast of two principle characters (unless you count their cars) and not much else. Partly because no big flop ever put Spielberg in movie jail, he has always been able to make movies on his own terms, and so the free-roaming Spielbergian camera lives on. But that doesn't mean Spielberg couldn't tell an interesting story on a smaller scale. I asked him if that possibility even excites him anymore:

It does excite me. I've been doing some small scale work on television--but yes, if I found a story and felt empowered to want to direct it, and it was just a couple of characters in a room, I would do it. I like all kinds of stories. I don't just go for big, sweeping epics; it just so happens that some of these films align themselves with big productive possibilities, but they're also intimate stories. "War Horse" is one of the most intimate movies I've ever made, and yet it's set against a big mural of history and events. "Tintin" is just fun, just entertainment, a huge ride I wanted to go on and take everyone with me. But I'm also interested in really small, intimate stories. And by the way: They're so much easier to make.  

 
"Easier," of course, is relative, but that only goes to show how much emphasis Spielberg places on the logistics of production. It's possible that the ease of making a smaller movie may actually prove a disincentive during this supremely active stage of his career. He wants a challenge.

"The Adventures of Tintin."
"The Adventures of Tintin."

That much is evident in "The Adventures of Tintin," which I saw over the weekend and enjoyed enough that I will probably see it again. Spielberg has made a visually fascinating, lovably old school and supremely giddy action adventure romp that plays like a highlight reel from some of his best escapist works while joining their ranking at the same time. I haven't worked "Tintin" into my top 10 list (which I'll unveil soon enough) partly to avoid some of the clichés that Anne Thompson mocked last week, but also because it's somewhat impractical to consider "Tintin" alongside other movies released this year. It's certainly the best action movie of the last 12 months, but at any given moment it feels like the sort of movie that only Spielberg could make (not unlike "War Horse," an inferior Spielberg effort that nonetheless satisfies the checklist for Spielbergian indulgences, and will satisfy anyone looking for that result). That places it in a class of its own.

This article is related to: Steven Spielberg, Tintin, Duel, Russian Ark, Alexander Sokurov