[Publisher’s Note: I’ve been arguing with film and TV critic Tom Carson for over a decade, over all sorts of issues. One is the relative merit, or lack thereof, of the films of Steven Spielberg, about whom I’m quite enthusiastic; Tom, not so much. Tom’s recent, highly skeptical take on Schindler’s List in The American Prospect sparked a chain of emails between us. We talked about Spielberg, history, Hollywood, the relationship between showmanship and truth, and other thorny issues. Read on, and feel free to argue with either (or both) of us in the comments.—Matt Zoller Seitz]
Matt Zoller Seitz: It's fascinating to me that, after all these decades, and after so many Oscars and Oscar nominations and such a gigantic box-office take, Steven Spielberg is still considered an "issue."
Tom Carson: Then we must read very different stuff online, because one reason I get so contrary about him is the amount of uncritical reverence he attracts.
MZS: I don't get the "uncritical reverence" thing at all. The industry has canonized him for financial as well as "respectability" reasons—to Hollywood, he's like Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kramer, and maybe Cecil B. DeMille rolled into one, and they've certainly given him every award in existence at some point or another. But I wouldn't describe the critical or even popular reception as purely adulatory. The numerous takedowns of Lincoln this past year seem to me like proof of that.
TC: But even when people find fault with a particular movie of his, he's on a sort of hallowed plane I mistrust. Interestingly, in my experience, that's especially true among younger movie buffs -- who might be expected to think of Spielberg as an oldie and, you know, chafe a bit. Instead, he seems to be a hallowed figure to them, the guy who defines what movies can be.
MZS: Not a week goes by that I don't see somebody on social media linking to a think piece or an interview with some other filmmaker decrying Spielberg as a rank sentimentalist, a hack, a fascist with a smiley face, or some combination. You’ve had serious problems with him for quite some time, Tom, and since I’ve been arguing with you about him for years now, I thought it might be fun to argue about him here.
The spark for this is your recent piece for The American Prospect, keyed into the 20th anniversary of Schindler's List. It took the film to task for some of the same reasons that Stanley Kubrick disliked it—for, in essence, finding a triumphant story within a narrative of genocide.
This isn’t the first time you’ve been very skeptical about one of his historical films. I still remember your Esquire piece from 1999, after Saving Private Ryan came out and became a cultural phenomenon. It included a line so provocative that it made me write a whole rebuttal in New York Press: "Honestly, I can't see much that Hitler would have wanted changed in Saving Private Ryan, except the color of the uniforms." And this: “It's a weird reversal of the usual proportions of the selfless-gallantry genre, in which one man dies to save many. As a parable of this nation's World War II sacrifices, the story would be truer to what the GIs deserve being honored for if Ryan were a European. Then again, Saving Monsieur Renault might not have gripped the modern Stateside audience: Who cares about some damn snail eater? Instead, in a way that's both solipsistic and tautological, saving the world gets redefined as saving ourselves--which must mean we are the world.”
Is it possible to sum up what it is about Spielberg that irks you so? Is it his filmmaking, his choice of subjects, his world view, or some combination?
TC: Every problem I have with Spielberg starts with conceding his brilliance as a filmmaker. That's particularly true when he's giving us one of his 20th-century history lessons. With both SPR and Schindler’s List, there's a way that his depiction of the event gets conflated with, or even outright supercedes, the event itself. If you find fault with those movies, you're indifferent to the GIs' sacrifices or the Holocaust's evil. And since I care a lot about history, I care a lot about those movies' inadequacies in substituting for the real thing in people's minds.
If the comparison isn't too incongruous, it's a bit like the way the Disney versions of classic children's stories have become the quasi-official ones. I don't want Spielberg's idea of the Normandy invasion to be the authoritative one any more than I want the Disney version of The Jungle Book to replace Kipling. But my animus may have something to do with the fact that The Jungle Book and Cornelius Ryan's The Longest Day are two books I knew practically by heart at age 10.
MZS: Well, I think what Spielberg is doing in these historical films is a more sophisticated than he's being given credit for. He's working in that Stanley Kramer vein—which is to say, on the most basic level, at the level of glossy Hollywood entertainment—but I don't necessarily think the takeaway of his historical films is as simplistic as detractors say.
For instance, Schindler’s List, to me, doesn't feel like a triumph-of-the-human-spirit movie at all, because it constantly makes us aware that this is an anomalous story; a lot of innocent people die onscreen in the film, and it's portrayed with an almost Kubrickian level of cold absurdity, such as that scene where the young Jewish woman architect tells the Nazi officers that their architecture plans are subpar, and they take her advice to heart, then shoot her anyway.
I can't think of another mainstream American film that explores the sick intricacies and self-justifying anti-logic of fascism and antisemitism as thoroughly as Schindler’s List does. I think the question, "How could a thing like this happen?" is asked and answered in the movie in a no-fuss, very pragmatic way: It happened, and the explanation is less important than the fact of all that moral inaction/complicity/corruption happening in every corner of the film.
The moment where Schindler observes the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto from afar, and suddenly sees this one little girl with a red coat, is a brilliant moment, one that challenges the audience in a clever, almost subliminal way. Schindler doesn't personally know any of the people he's watching suffer, but that splash of red indicates that he individualized this one abstraction, this one child, for whatever inscrutable personal reason. Suddenly the abstraction isn't abstract anymore, and that launches him into this secret, very risky mission to save as many people as he can, at great risk to himself. That’s all it takes. And the implication is, that’s all it should take for anyone. I don't think Schindler’s List devalues the magnitude of the Holocaust at all. I think it refuses to stop at the horror, refuses to put it in the past and declare it a mysterious, unanswerable horror, something sacred that you can never even depict for fear of trivializing it. I think it's taking a much more common sense approach, a present tense, “What does this mean now?” approach, and saying something like, "It is possible to just make up your mind to give a damn about people you think have no connection to you—to just decide to care, and then to take action."
We're all Schindler, standing on that hillside watching horrors happen far away; we all could decide to add a splash of color to one person's distant grey coat, and suddenly we're invested, and it's not as inscrutably difficult as we might make the process out to be. Maybe we intellectualize the basic issues too much.
That's what I get out of Schindler’s List, and I think it's hugely valuable. Is it naïve or corny to respond to a message like that? Or is refusing to respond to a message like than an indication of the sort of moral paralysis that enables atrocities to happen in the first place? There’s an anger, a furious present-tense anger, in Spielberg’s depiction of Nazi violence against Jews that caught me by surprise back in 1993, that still feels fresh, and that I believe is of great value and purpose.
Most Holocaust movies, whether dramas or documentaries, are a lament for something that happened a long time ago, and that has been sort of entombed by history, or by history books. When we say that a movie makes history “come alive,” it’s always a veiled admission that for most of us, anything that happened before we were born is a dead thing, dead to us, in the past, irrelevant except in terms of academic study or maybe political comparison. The history in Spielberg’s movies is not that way. Once you get past the bracketing devices, which I mostly don’t care for, and you’re in the thick of it, it’s happening now. You’re right in the middle of things. Suddenly what’s past has become present tense.
Schindler’s List might be Spielberg’s best example of this sort of approach to history. It’s got a dramatic-personal arc for the main character, and humor, and pathos/sentiment. But mostly it’s angry. It’s angry that these events happened in the first place. I mean, truly angry. Incredulously angry. Some of the more blackly humorous, Strangelove-ian depictions of German illogic are scathing. You can feel the filmmaker going, “You’ve got to be kidding me . . . How insane is this? How ridiculous is this? And what kind of spineless, ass-covering cowards would stand around letting something like this happen, for fear of losing their property or their social station?” It’s a primal response that is at times closer to what you’d expect from somebody like Oliver Stone than from Steven Spielberg, who is not know for his anger.
I love that sense of revulsion, the sense that the whole movie is shuddering in recoil. This movie holds the audience to a higher moral standard than most movies about the Holocaust, by not keeping the horror safely in the past, by making the violence present tense and battering you with it. And it’s really important to point out, again, that this movie is aimed at a general audience, at the widest possible viewership, and that most of the people seeing this have perhaps not imagined themselves into the situation as extensively as a history buff might have already done, or as a documentary buff might have already done. Job number one for a film of this type is to immerse the viewer and make the situations feel immediate, to spark an emotional understanding. And on that score, large parts of this film—and parts of Spielberg’s other historical dramas—are very successful. I don’t see how one could look at the movie and not think, “What would I do in this situation? If I were part of the ruling class, or one of the so-called ‘good Germans,’ would I risk everything the way Schindler did?”
For all the awards the film has won, I don’t think it has ever really been given proper credit for that.