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

Press Play By Tom Carson and Matt Zoller Seitz | Press Play March 19, 2013 at 8:30AM

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.
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Red Coat Schindler's List


The Girl’s Red Coat and Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers


TC: If you compare my two pieces, it should be obvious that I think more highly of Schindler's List than I do of SPR. My problems with the former have to do with how the third act does, in my view, shunt aside the horror of mass death in favor of sentimentality about the handful of people Schindler saved. To my mind, there's an equation between that red coat and Dorothy's red ruby slippers—she's The One—and what about the thousands of children sent to the gas chambers who got stuck wearing gray that day? I'm as grateful as anyone that Anne Frank is famous because we have her testimony.  But at some level, to single out an individual victim of the Holocaust is to deny the horror of its anonymity. Like, if the kid hadn't been so noticeable—and sorry, but she's as cute and tough as Shirley Temple, guiding our responses somewhat—Schindler's conscience wouldn't have been stirred?

By and large—because I do admire how Goeth is characterized, and we'll get to that—I also don't agree with you that the movie is really all that informative about the nature of anti-Semitism or how the Holocaust came to be, since a viewer without prior awareness wouldn't find much that explains either. Its power comes from re-creating the Holocaust's atrocities so intensely that you feel you're watching—or, if you're susceptible, almost experiencing—the real thing. That bothers me. We have a lot of newsreel documentation of the actual camps, and the paradox is that Spielberg's very scrupulous and horrific facsimile ends up having more authority for the audience because it's superior as filmmaking. There's something disturbing about the fake version replacing the documentary one at that level.

MZS: I don't agree. Where Spielberg excels is where narrative cinema itself excels: at helping you understand the physical, visceral experience of going through something, whether it's a mundane contemporary moment or some grand historical turning point. Where Spielberg flounders, I think, is when his films are trying to hard to put things in perspective, to put a frame around it. The strongest section of Amistad for me is that flashback to the Middle Passage, which conveys the full physical as well as moral (immoral) reality of the slave trade better than any mainstream American film or TV production ever had. The lived experience of being under fire and seeing people blown up around you is the most valuable and memorable part of Saving Private Ryan, although that film's "men on a mission" template tends to turn a story with Apocalypse Now/Dr. Strangelove absurdist aspects into something that feels, or plays, much more conventionally. The guys argue about the logic or necessity of saving this one guy, but the movie makes it clear from the very beginning that they're risking soldiers' lives for a symbolic or PR gesture. And even at the end, the film has a deceptively complex/simple way of asking if it was all worth it: it's concluding, I think, "Yes, it was worth it, in that they saved this one guy's life, and that's what you can take out of it—and maybe it's the only unambiguously positive thing to come out of it all."

But you're still aware that almost everyone else in the platoon died, and they all had lives, too, lives that were just as valuable as Ryan's.

The film is bracketed with those cemetery scenes, which are admittedly very sentimental and perhaps unnecessary from a plot standpoint, but even those aren't as straightforward as they initially read. We start and end with an image of the American flag, but it's not a robust, pristine, poster-ready image of a flag. The flag is tattered, and the sun is behind it. You see the flag, but you also see through the flag, a multi-valent image that might be—as odd as this sounds!—too subtle for the intended audience. Visually Spielberg is incredibly subtle, even when he's being loud and spectacular, but those kinds of subtleties tend to get lost in the din.

The lived experience of those Schindler’s List atrocities are the most valuable aspect of the film—that and the practical response on the part of Schindler, which is to say "I need to do something about this." That we never know why he did it is one of the reasons I respect the film as popular art, that "One more life" scene notwithstanding, which I really wish the film had done without.

But that's the biggest problem for Spielberg, as far as this fan is concerned; that tendency—as a New York Times Magazine piece put it, back in 1999—to put ketchup on a perfectly good steak. Which might or might not be a whole other issue?

TC: Well, let's start with your line "The lived experience of being under fire and seeing people blown up around you is the most valuable and memorable part of Saving Private Ryan. . .", which is the heart of the problem for me. It isn't a lived experience; it's an illusion, brought off with great directorial flair and technological skill. To me, there's a danger in people watching SPR and thinking they now know what It Was Really Like—much less How It Really Felt. They don't and I don't either. It used to be that movies simply couldn't approximate -- and, indeed, heighten and hyperbolize—reality in this way, and I question whether that's a desirable goal.

Since I do know my D-Day history, I could also bore you with all the things SPR gets wrong or deliberately falsifies for excitement's sake, which would obviously be less troublesome if people weren't convinced that they were seeing D-Day exactly as it was. Beyond that, what I most dislike about SPR is its distasteful, bizarrely Wagnerian mysticism about sacrifice without reasoning why, which goes against the grain of everything I admire the GIs for and is the reason I never tire of saying that this is the kind of WWII movie the Germans would have made if they'd won it.

It doesn't seem to me that Spielberg treats the mission as absurdist or reminds us—satirically or otherwise—that in some ways it's PR. It treats saving Ryan as noble, with Hanks's valedictory "Earn it" compensating for any illogic in all these guys dying to save just one.

And yes, the ketchup-on-steak problem is an abiding one. I really dislike both Schindler's "And here are the real Schindler Jews!" epilogue and SPR's present-day frame story, though for somewhat different reasons. In one case, Spielberg is using the actual survivors to validate his movie, and in the other, the implication that Ryan—and by extension, America—has indeed "earned it" is both nonsensical and offensive to me. 

SPR Cemetery

MZS: Again, I don't think SPR ever comes out and says, "Yes, we 'earned it'", whatever that phrase means. Not in a political or historical sense. It's just one guy talking to another guy as he's dying, saying, "Don't let this personal sacrifice become meaningless." Whatever that means to Ryan is whatever that means to Ryan, and there's no indication that he became a senator or CEO or the head of a movie studio. He's just some old guy visiting the cemetery with his wife and family. I don't really see a "by extension, America" in that bracketing device, though John Williams' score confuses the issue, as it so often does.

TC: I've complained many times that Spielberg's reliance on Williams is an artistic flaw. Even when a scene is emotionally complex and ambiguous, he often (not always) lets Williams undermine that by spelling out the obvious, non-ironic reaction, which is a form of either artistic cowardice or pop-culture casuistry. I can't stand how little Spielberg trusts the audience most of the time.

As for the "We earned it" thing, I was unaware that the United States participated in WWII as a self-improvement project.  What moves me most about the real GIs—incidentally, a very disgruntled, reluctant draftee army, not nearly as thrilled by or expert at warfare as the Germans were under Hitler—is that they ended up dying to liberate all these strangers in foreign lands that they had no connection to and whose languages they didn't even speak. SPR makes it all about us, and I think the coda scene when the elderly Ryan asks, "Have I been a good man? Have I led a good life?" and wifey reassures him he's done great is a pretty unmistakable benediction on that whole generation.

This article is related to: Matt Zoller Seitz, Tom Carson, Steven Spielberg


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