[Editor's Note: Press Play is proud to present Chapter 3 of our first video essay series in direct partnership with IndieWire: Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg. This series examines facets of Spielberg's movie career, including his stylistic evolution as a director, his depiction of violence, his interest in communication and language, his portrayal of authority and evil, and the importance of father figures -- both present and absent -- throughout his work.
Magic and Light is produced by Press Play founder and Salon TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and coproduced and narrated by Ali Arikan, chief film critic of Dipknot TV, Press Play contributor, and one of Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents. The Spielberg series brings many of Press Play's writers and editors together on a single long-form project. Individual episodes were written by Seitz, Arikan, Simon Abrams and Aaron Aradillas, and cut by Steven Santos, Serena Bramble, Matt Zoller Seitz, Richard Seitz and Kevin B. Lee. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 1: Introduction, go here. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 2: Blood & Pulp, go here. To watch Magic and Light: The Films for Steven Spielberg Chapter 4: Evil and Authority, click here. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg, Chapter 5: Father Figures, click here. ]
Steven Spielberg's movies are often described as hopeful, optimistic, sweet -- or, pejoratively, as sentimental, naive, and "feel-good."
In some sense, all those adjectives are right. Many of his movies are transcendently cheerful. Even the bleakest offer a shred of hope for humanity, or else lament when it falls short of its potential. And all share an underlying belief: that misunderstandings could be fixed, problems solved, and disasters averted if we could all just learn to get along.
And before we can get along, we must communicate.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the first major Spielberg film to put this theme in the foreground. But nearly all his movies touch on it: 1941 and the Indiana Jones films treat it lightheartedly, Close Encounters, E.T. and The Terminal with poignant warmth. In many of the historical dramas, we see both successful and failed attempts at communication depicted in an array of moods and modes. Ironic, hopeful, despairing -- even coolly journalistic.
In scene after scene of film after film, Spielberg shows us characters struggling to speak unfamiliar languages in unfamiliar environments -- often spiraling into depression until they meet some caring person, some fellow being, who will listen to them, and honestly try to communicate with them, and take the trouble to learn what they need and want, and help them get it. The films present verbal and nonverbal communication -- and sometimes miscommunication -- in a staggering variety of ways.
A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for Salon.com and a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in criticism. He has worked as a movie critic for The New York Times, New York Press and New Times Newspapers and as a TV critic for The Star-Ledger of Newark. His video essays about Terrence Malick, Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow, Budd Boetticher, Wes Anderson, Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann and other directors can be viewed at the The Museum of the Moving Image web site. Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door, a website devoted to critical writing about popular culture. His book-length conversation with Wes Anderson about his films, titled The Wes Anderson Collection, will be published in fall, 2012 by Abrams Books.