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

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

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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.

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