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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Spielberg the Showman vs. Spielberg the Artist

MZS: Spielberg the showman and Spielberg the artist are inextricably intertwined, and sometimes they get tangled up, if you know what I mean. But I think he's doing consistently subtle work in an unsubtle mode. Compare Saving Private Ryan to, say, Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor—that's a film that I think is truly guilty of the sins you ascribe to Ryan, and has none of the residual ambivalence that makes Ryan fascinating even when it's irritating or problematic. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gets up out of a wheelchair in that one to chew out the joint chiefs of staff for being pussies!

TC:  Well, bringing Pearl Harbor in as a point of comparison could turn me into a shrieking Spielberg fan in one second flat. I may have my problems with Saving Private Ryan, but it's a serious movie that's worth arguing about and not a travesty. I almost stood up and started shouting obscenities in the theater when Bay did that cutesy bit with the two American fighter planes flipping vertical to avoid crashing. It's the "day of infamy" and he wants to make audiences laugh with a cool stunt.

MZS: The point is, I think there's value in a kind of national reckoning blockbuster of this sort, and that it's easy to lose sight of its utility when you're a critic. Hotel Terminus is a far more sophisticated film about moral inaction in the fact of Nazi corruption and cruelty than Schindler’s List. But it's a documentary, and done in a mode that is for a variety of reasons is simply incapable of reaching as large a number of people as a Spielberg blockbuster.

That's the rub, ultimately. When you work on the scale that Spielberg works on, you're basically making a story that consists of woodcuts. Every block has to be simple, pared down, graspable. You’re sort of working simultaneously with the reality and the myth that’s sprung up in its wake and that threatens to displace it. I think you can make popular art in that way and still be able to call it art – I think John Ford proved this quite a few times, though some may disagree – but the downside is, when you work this way, the movie’s complexities are more elusive, and more apt to be drowned out by the elements that are there to make it accessible. You may make something that, in terms of picture and sound, in terms of expression, is powerful, perhaps revelatory, but if it’s not scrupulously faithful to what happened, a lot of people are going to dismiss it anyway as being just a bunch of Hollywood bull.  A bunch of pretty pictures. They’ll say, “Who cares about the form, when there are so many problematic aspects with the content?”

There's always going to be that nagging question, "Can this even be done? Is it worth making this movie, in this mode, or are we kidding ourselves by even trying?"

TC: I wouldn't say either Schindler's List or SPR shouldn’t have been made, no.

But in both cases, I'm bothered by the perception that they're the definitive, ultimate depiction of the events in question—an idea, as I've said elsewhere, Spielberg doesn't exactly discourage—and that to watch either is the closest thing we'll ever have to an approximation of the reality (clearly one of Spielberg's artistic goals).

Even if it is, shouldn't we accept that some realities aren't available to us via cinematic mediation and we're better off not confusing the two? You're arguing that it's a good thing for people to have this sort of vicarious experience, and I think it's a slippery slope in terms of our historical understanding.

You should also feel free to call the next observation a double standard on my part. But I do think this kind of historical re-creation is a different story when the events are well outside anybody's living memory and we don't have newsreel records of them to complicate the aesthetic and ethical issues involved in our reaction to seeing them get the Spielberg treatment. I actually think more highly of Amistad than many people do, since we don't have documentary films of the Middle Passage—or, as a result, any real way of visualizing its horrors *except* via a filmmaker's version. I also like the underrated way in which the movie's interest in thorny talkiness—not just compelling action—prefigures Lincoln.

Even so, here's a counter-example: Spielberg has never tackled 9/11 head-on, and I hope he never will. But he has made two movies that were clearly responses to it—War of the Worlds, which is mostly terrific until the dumb plot starts taking over, and Munich, which is the single movie of his I admire most. Coming at the subject obliquely let him say so much without the quandary of challenging himself to make the World Trade Center’s fall even more vivid to audiences—and, therefore, more exciting, the inevitable downside of Spielbergization—than the TV footage we all watched over and over. So I prefer him in that indirect but eloquent mode to the "This is what it was really like" task he sets himself in SPR and Schindler’s List, which has a built-in fallacy, to my eyes.

For instance, as I hinted earlier, I do admire the treatment of Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. The way he's at once turned on by the chance to unleash his own sadism and a fairly pathetic (even creepily wistful, disgustingly self-pitying) mediocrity does tell us something about Nazism. There are interesting ways that the cutting keeps equating him with Schindler, not for a simple-minded censorious effect, but as if to imply that each man could have gone down the other man's path if only Goeth hadn't yielded to the worst in himself while Schindler was discovering the best.

But then the potential psychological complexity of that gives way to the large-scale depictions of the Final Solution's atrocities, which are ever so slightly marred by showmanship—showmanship in a grim and noble cause, but showmanship nonetheless—and ultimately teach us less than a close-in movie just about Schindler and Goeth (maybe one not even set during the literal Holocaust, who knows?) might have. Does that make sense?

MZS: Yes, it does. It seems sort of a strange corollary of Francois Truffaut's belief that there is no such thing as a truly anti-war film, since war is such an amazingly cinematic enterprise, always beautiful as spectacle, that to depict it is in some sense to glorify it. I don't agree with that formulation one hundred percent. I think there are great anti-war films. But he was onto something. And perhaps you are as well, in a different context.
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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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