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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Are there some places movies shouldn't go?

MZS: The year 1998 was an important one for big-budget films about World War II. Besides SPR, which was an outwardly very straightforward re-imagining of combat in Europe—one that I'd argue complicated and subverted some of the same cliches that it restaged with such incredible vigor—you had The Thin Red Line, which treated combat in the Pacific theater as a sort of midnight movie theological psychodrama about the effect of war and human civilization on nature. And there were two other films that dealt with the Holocaust in genre terms: Life Is Beautiful, which I think is almost universally reviled now, and Apt Pupil, based on Stephen King's novella about an American suburban boy falling under the spell of an old ex-Nazi who's moved into his neighborhood. Both of those movies were accused of being insensitive to history, and with perhaps distorting or falsifying history in a cheap way.

At various points during that year I read pieces about some or all of those films worrying that films shouldn't even go there, that there's something morally dicey about it. Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman both made similar arguments about Schindler’s List, specifically the shower scene—that even depicting such a thing trivialized it. The argument seemed to be (in part at least) that maybe the best way to honor the horrors of history is not to depict certain aspects of it.

I think this is a counterproductive attitude—that one of the best ways to keep history alive is to let it breathe through popular culture, and take each representation of history as it comes, and judge it in terms of the piece itself, and not just in terms of how faithful it is to the actual record. Historical films aren't just about what happened, or about preserving some facsimile of what happened, or communicating the factual essence of what happened. They are also snapshots of how we the audience—the culture—feeling and think about what happened. I think what we're really seeing when we attend a film like SPR or Schindler’s List or Lincoln, or for that matter, Django Unchained or Apt Pupil, is a different kind of history, a record of how we felt about an earlier era at this particular point in time, somewhat removed.

TC: The "there are some places movies just shouldn't go" argument is one I'm not happy to find myself making, even if it means I'm allied for the nonce with Rosenbaum and Hoberman—two critics I consider Mozart compared to my feeble versions of "Chopsticks."  But Spielberg is the ultimate test case, I guess—and who knows if I'd be taking the opposite side if we were talking about Gillo Pontecorvo.  So I hope it's not weaseling to say that the issue isn't where movies should go so much as how they get there.

For instance, let's take that famous Schindler shower scene. It excruciatingly recreates every stage of death in the gas chambers except the outcome (including the fact that the women are—accurately—nude, a *very* paradoxical declaration of high moral seriousness). In a way, the historical cheat here is the reverse of Spielberg putting paratroopers behind Omaha Beach (there were none) so he can give us Bloody Omaha up top. Not to be a D-Day pedant, but any troop of Rangers sent to rescue Ryan would have started from the much less bloody and spectacular Utah Beach landing instead. So I kind of knew SPR was fibbing for effect from the start.

But Schindler's shower scene, to me, is far more morally questionable. The reason it's there is that, fuck it, Unka Steven was determined to show us Auschwitz—even if the fates of the women we care about turn out to be different than what happened to 99 per cent of the people who got shipped there. For me, Schindler becomes grotesque at the moment the women greet real water coming out of the showerheads with ululations of relief.

That's only partly because they likely wouldn't have known "the showers" were usually a lie.  The celebratory note here disgusts me, making Schindler's Jews "exceptional" in a way I think is vile.  I'd find that whole sequence infinitely more admirable if its ending had been the routine one at Auschwitz—a pile of obscenely dead bodies who had to be shoveled up, checked for gold teeth and carted off to the crematorium, as usual.

Overall, whenever a filmmaker tackles an obvious Harrowing Subject, my magniloquence detector goes on red alert. It's interesting to compare Spielberg's WW2 movies to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The War, because in the latter, the filmmakers aggrandize themselves via the opposite route, the Ken Burns route—by being mournful and stately, not exciting. They’re still putting their version of icing on the cake, but The War does benefit from using the real footage and images, even if it’s got Yo-Yo Ma sawing away on the soundtrack. 

Which is more valuable in instructing us about What It Was Really Like, which is more morally dubious? 

Tom Carson is the movie critic for GQ and the author of the novels Gilligan's Wake (2003) and Daisy Buchanan's Daughter (2011).

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.




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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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