Steven Spielberg, Hollywood Historian: A Debate Between Matt Zoller Seitz and Tom Carson

Blogs
by Tom Carson and Matt Zoller Seitz
March 19, 2013 8:30 AM
12 Comments
  • |



[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.
You might also like:
Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

12 Comments

  • Craig Simpson | March 23, 2013 2:04 PMReply

    Also wanted to say I really liked Matt's comparison to woodcuts. That's a beautiful analogy.

  • Craig Simpson | March 23, 2013 2:02 PMReply

    Chiming in, too. I'm with Matt on "Schinder's List" and Tom on "Private Ryan." The former strikes me as a much more personal film - Spielberg getting back in touch with his culture and roots - so that even the film's few flaws feel all of a piece with everything that works. (I don't find the shower scene too objectionable, although I understand why some do. The "I could have done more" scene sticks out more in my mind, on purely aesthetic grounds.)

    "Saving Private Ryan" is immeasurably more problematic. Director and writer, director and composer, director and director - I can't recall a film more at cross-purposes with itself. It's confused about its intentions, rather than illuminating the scenario's confusion.

    Finally, Jason helpfully underlines my sentiments about the debate over whether Spielberg is overly criticized or overpraised. Yes, there is no shortage of criticism out there. But Tom is right that by and large he is a venerated figure, especially among younger critics. And while there's an argument to be made about the popularity of a director overshadowing his artistic merits, there's also something about the way his fans at times play the victim card about the most successful filmmaker of all time that can get irksome.

    Thank you both for a terrific discussion. Reading mature, thoughtful people who are strong in their convictions without showing insecurity about the beliefs of others is always a relief.

  • Jason Bellamy | March 23, 2013 9:14 AMReply

    This was wonderful to read. Thank you. A few reactions ...

    * "Every problem I have with Spielberg starts with conceding his brilliance as a filmmaker."
    I think that sums up most anti-Spielberg sentiments, actually. Matt paints a picture of Spielberg constantly under attack by his critics, but while there's some truth to that, it's only because Spielberg has made so many movies worth talking about, and because he flashes greatness that most filmmakers cannot match even in his worst movies. Alas, Spielberg is at a point now in which some of his biggest fans feel bound and determined to win old arguments by insisting that his every move is brilliant, and vice versa. But we wouldn't be talking about this stuff if we didn't feel Spielberg always had greatness within his reach.

    * While I respect Tom's concerns about the "slippery slope in terms of our historical understanding," I'm with Matt that these movies do at least as much to enliven history as to distort it. They inspire interest and conversation, often driving folks to an interest in the real thing -- in that way, all those tiresome "what the movie got wrong" pieces actually have some value in the grand scheme of things. And, as Matt says, dramatized historical movies have the ability to create an emotional connection to an otherwise distant collection of facts and trivia.

    * The "coda scene" in SPR "is a pretty unmistakable benediction on that whole generation."
    Yep. That's a bingo.

    * I find it interesting you both seem to think that John Williams is often working against Spielberg's more sophisticated intentions. You'd think that if Uncle Stevey felt Williams was undermining the tone of his films that he'd have had a talk with Uncle Johnny by now to sort that out. We're talking about a filmmaker who double-underlines things visually, too -- hello, Spielberg Face, for example (thank you, Kevin B. Lee). To suggest that Williams just can't control himself and that Spielberg was actually going for a more subtle, subtexty approach doesn't compute for me.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful dialogue.

  • Last_American_Steel | March 22, 2013 1:55 PMReply

    I'm curious if either Tom or Matt as ever read Curtis White's 2003 book "The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves." ?

    In the first chapter, the author does a pretty interesting and thought-provoking take-down of SPR in a way that, while different in process, comes to a similar conclusion to Tom. Curtis White argues that, with a proper reading and interpretation of SPR, the true theme of the movie is that we should "choose death" -- choose killing. That the Upham storyline is the true theme of the movie.
    IF you start with that Normandy scene where two Germans surrender and the GI's shoot them anyway and joke about it. Then contrast that with the opposite outcome when Upham (the multi-lingual intellectual) convinces everyone that they should do the human thing and not murder the Nazi POW. This story line ends at the climax of the film, when who should kill the "hero" (Hanks) of this story? but of course, the Nazi that Upham saved. Then Upham shoots that Nazi and the audience cheers.
    That contrived return of the Nazi at the end,White argues, is the Rosetta stone for deciphering the movies (and therefore Spielberg's) meaning. He doesn't have to come back. And he does. And he kills the lead. And then Upham kills him. It's an interesting argument.
    Also, Matt -- Curtis White would say that the presence of those ample-breasted, blonde granddaughters in the background of the cemetery shots it the implicit answer to the "did I earn it" question.

  • Mac | March 24, 2013 2:03 PM

    Curtis White is correct in that the Upham storyline is the true theme of the movie. However, he completely misinterprets or misunderstands the point of Upham's character. What Upham does isn't supposed to be cheered, even if a couple of red-neck yahoos in the audience might end up doing precisely that (but then they probably cheered at Full Metal Jacket too).

    Upham is the character most representative of the audience (Spielberg has confirmed that he is also most representative of himself). It is Upham who becomes the focal character in the second act of the film; we literally see his point-of-view during the attack on the radar tower. He is an intelligent, morally conscious, civilised individual, somewhat out of kilter with the rest of the squad (again reflecting the 'modern' audience sat in the theatre). Upham begins the film with a nostalgic, romanticised view of warfare; he quotes Henry V and Tennyson and extols the virtues of brotherhood in battle (reflecting both the audiences and probably Spielberg's previous understanding of the 'Good War'). Yet by the end of the film Upham has realised what the rest of the squad already knew; that this war is illogical, random, horrific; that those in it act not out of patriotism or to 'sacrifice themselves on the altars of freedom' but out of self-preservation and the preservation of those standing next to them. That this war is merely a hindrance to their return home; something terrible and terrifying to be endured; something that is truly f—ked up beyond all recognition. It is this change in Upham's view of the war that Spielberg hopes to also instil in the audience.

    If Upham had ended the film with his nostalgic, romanticised view of warfare then SPR's critics would have a point (i.e. that Spielberg's purpose was to retain the status quo in terms of our view of soldiery and the 'Good War'). But he doesn't. In the final battle in Ramelle, Upham shirks his duties and acts out of cowardice, resulting in the deaths of several members of his squad. In a fit of anger and guilt, Upham then kills Steamboat Willie in cold blood in revenge for the death of Captain Miller. But this isn’t a moment of redemption (the disapproval on the face of Miller when he witnesses other Americans shooting prisoners makes this clear) but a sign of how the war has corrupted Upham’s moral decency and civility. The self-knowledge that Upham strives for throughout the film ends up being something far darker and more disturbing than either he or perhaps the audience expected. Spielberg’s message is clear - even a justifiable war can be morally and ethically abhorrent and even the most civilised and innocent of people can be corrupted by it.

    The damaging nature of revenge is a theme Spielberg would further examine in Munich. If SPR had flashed forward to Upham instead of Old Man Ryan then he would probably appear as emotionally unravelled as Avner. Even for Old Man Ryan, it's not pride or patriotism that he feels at the end of the film, it's guilt for having survived. Who knows if he earned it or not. It's not really a question that was aimed at him anyway.

  • lazarus | March 20, 2013 9:21 PMReply

    It seems odd to debate the authenticity of Saving Private Ryan and fail to mention Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One, considering it was written and directed by a guy who was actually present at Omaha Beach. And makes it pretty clear that your average infantry grunt was primarily concerned with survival, not heroics or "earning it". It's a much more honest (and well-rounded) film about the experience, especially in the reconstructed cut.

    Also odd that Schindler's wasn't contrasted with The Pianist, again from a filmmaker who actually experienced some of the atrocities Spielberg was stylizing.

    Needless to say, I'm on Tom's side here. I think the bookends of SPR are reprehensible (not only for the shameless jingoism on display, but the dishonest switch between the POVs of Hanks and Damon's characters). And the epilogue of Schindler's is nauseating, much like how Spielberg used Bill Clinton this year to shill for Lincoln.

  • lazarus | March 20, 2013 9:20 PMReply

    It seems odd to debate the authenticity of Saving Private Ryan and fail to mention Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One, considering it was written and directed by a guy who was actually present at Omaha Beach. And makes it pretty clear that your average infantry grunt was primarily concerned with survival, not heroics or "earning it". It's a much more honest (and well-rounded) film about the experience, especially in the reconstructed cut.

    Also odd that Schindler's wasn't contrasted with The Pianist, again from a filmmaker who actually experienced some of the atrocities Spielberg was stylizing.

    Needless to say, I'm on Tom's side here. I think the bookends of SPR are reprehensible (not only for the shameless jingoism on display, but the dishonest switch between the POVs of Hanks and Damon's characters). And the epilogue of Schindler's is nauseating, much like how Spielberg used Bill Clinton this year to shill for Lincoln.

  • lazarus | March 20, 2013 9:19 PMReply

    It seems odd to debate the authenticity of Saving Private Ryan and fail to mention Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One, considering it was written and directed by a guy who was actually present at Omaha Beach. And makes it pretty clear that your average infantry grunt was primarily concerned with survival, not heroics or "earning it". It's a much more honest (and well-rounded) film about the experience, especially in the reconstructed cut.

    Also odd that Schindler's wasn't contrasted with The Pianist, again from a filmmaker who actually experienced some of the atrocities Spielberg was stylizing.

    Needless to say, I'm on Tom's side here. I think the bookends of SPR are reprehensible (not only for the shameless jingoism on display, but the dishonest switch between the POVs of Hanks and Damon's characters). And the epilogue of Schindler's is nauseating, much like how Spielberg used Bill Clinton this year to shill for Lincoln.

  • David Ehrenstein | March 20, 2013 4:45 PMReply

    Nice discussion guys, but in some ways beside the point. Schindler's List, Saving Private Rayan and Munich are made to IMPRESS. They're about "important subjects" and therfore an aura of reverence washs over everything before the opening credits. He's "making his parents proud" with films like these. The REAL Speilberg can be seen in such "unimportant" fare as Duel, A.I. and above all 1941 -- a film madit of infinitely more consequence than Heaven's Gate.

  • IT UP | March 20, 2013 4:20 AMReply

    BTW -----are we the ONLY ones noticing? franchise slum
    Hollywood has 'mysteriously overlooked' some 6 decades
    of milestone anniversaries for the awesomely relevant,
    RED China, Globalism and EUGENICS 'unfriendly'

    ---------------------KOREAN WAR------------------------.

    And ALL this as the last of our economy is packed off to
    RED China and capstone 'things' ---unfold. . .

  • David Conrad | March 19, 2013 4:56 PMReply

    I found Seitz's comment about Spielberg working in the "Stanley Kramer vein" of "glossy Hollywood entertainment" a bit difficult to understand. Kramer's Holocaust movie, "Judgment at Nuremberg," is a strikingly unglossy film that includes several minutes of actual concentration camp footage. Those images cause the mostly-theatrical violence in "Schindler's List" to fade from memory. But in Kramer's movie the Holocaust footage, however powerfully disturbing, is not essential to the story. It could have been excised without sacrificing any of the script's quality, but what would "Schindler's List" be without the Red Dress girl and the shower scene?

    Both films explore issues of collective guilt and individual responsibility, but "Judgment" has the wider, more challenging sample size. The German cast includes uneducated housekeepers, jurists conversant in American legal theory, and an aristocratic widow in addition to unrepentant Nazis. Contrast Marlene Dietrich or Max Schell's characters in "Judgment" with the almost cartoonish depiction of Goeth in "Schindler's List." "Judgment" knows full well the horrors the Nazis committed, and presents them to us in unvarnished fashion, but it also asks us to think about blame. The farthest "Schindler" goes down this road, I think, is to prompt us to wonder what we would have done in the title character's place. How much more true that is of "Judgment," which asks us to imagine ourselves in a variety of different social positions, and as both accused and accuser. Kramer aims for and hits a much higher mark than does Spielberg.

  • Ken Cancelosi | March 19, 2013 11:54 AMReply

    A terrific piece, guys. Thanks for taking the time to reveal your long-standing disagreement on this issue.

Follow Us

Latest Tweets

Follow us

Most "Liked"

  • Stuck in the Middle: 30 Great Films ...
  • Days Like Lost Dogs: In Support of Loose ...