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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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Saving Private Ryan D-Day

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.

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


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