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Spielberg Revisits the Katzenberg Memo. Sorta.

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn January 12, 2009 at 9:08AM

Spielberg Revisits the Katzenberg Memo. Sorta.

Beyond Tracey Morgan's characteristic irreverence, my favorite moment from last night's Golden Globes was Steven Spielberg's acceptance speech for the Cecile B. DeMille Award. As a child, Spielberg's strategically designed spectacles first attracted me to the delights of cinema, and his creative intentions remain epic in scope. The last Indiana Jones movie had its issues, but even if "nuke the fridge" has become codeword for a stale franchise, at least the movie provoked a response to its ludicrous ambition. Rarely do Spielberg films remain invisible; more often than not, they loom larger life. For that reason alone, Spielberg truly fits the DeMille model for old school Hollywood filmmaking, and he remains one of the few bigwigs whose skills as a businessman never entirely threaten his artistic strengths. Spielberg's directorial specificity is a maddeningly mixed bag of candy-coated entertainment and old-fashioned didacticism, and either of those extremes usually improve when borrowing from the other: The intensity of the action in Saving Private Ryan bests the quiet dialogue that follows it; the sardonically humorous chemistry shared by Indy and Marion makes the action in Raiders of the Lost Ark feel more like slapstick, and so on. Still, growing up watching Spielberg movies, I've found that his Raiders mode sits better with me. Sentimentality in a Spielberg film often feels transparent, manipulative, and, well, fake. For Jurassic Park, Spielberg was able to pioneer highly believable special effects to reinforce the thrills. No such magic could prevent the final third of Schindler's List from dropping the morally ambiguity of the main character in favor of teary monologues and a soaring score that wouldn't quit. The movie was "a sentimental slap on the wrist," as I wrote in this week's New York Press.

But even Schindler's List was not a conventional product of the studio system, although it did pave the way for an overabundance of Holocaust movies with interchangeable characters and settings. The truth is that Spielberg's movies have always been highly distinct, considered projects — and it's this impressive continuity that helped solidify his legacy. Spielberg's movies made money from an early point in his career and rarely missed for a solid decade, but he wouldn't have become a household name if there wasn't an additional element of thematic intent uniting the work. "Sharks, dinosaurs, aliens [and] history," Spielberg said in his speech last night, outlining the highlights of his tapestry in five easy words. He could have squeezed Duel in there to get more of the whole package, but the point is that this particularity gives the Spielberg oeuvre its remarkable stamp of individuality. Because of that, Spielberg was justified in speaking out against the dangers of the blockbuster mentality, much as his colleague Jeffrey Katzenberg did seventeen years ago. "There's a feeling floating around during these hard economic times that the impulse in the future might be to make more movies for broader audiences," Spielberg said. "We can't ever forget that we are also an audience of individuals." In other words, if it sounds like crap, don't make it.

His observation applies to both the future of storytelling and the manner in which stories are delivered to audiences. Independent filmmakers are larger in numbers than ever before, which means new opportunities have started to become available even as the old ones grow elite and ineffective. As I wrote last week in a piece about digital advancements in 2008, "the formula hasn’t budged much, but those whose priorities don’t figure into it have discovered a new game." Spielberg's message to the industry was they shouldn't be afraid to play along.

This article is related to: Independent Cinema