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VIDEO ESSAY: MAGIC AND LIGHT: THE FILMS OF STEVEN SPIELBERG, Chapter 4: Evil and Authority

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by Matt Zoller Seitz, Ali Arikan & Kevin B. Lee
December 21, 2011 3:18 PM
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[Editor's Note: Press Play is proud to present Chapter 4 of our first video essay series in direct partnership with IndieWire: Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg

.  This series examines facets of Spielberg's movie career, including his stylistic evolution as a director, his depiction of violence, his interest in communication and language, his portrayal of authority and evil, and the importance of father figures -- both present and absent -- throughout his work.

Magic and Light is produced by Press Play founder and Salon TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and coproduced and narrated by Ali Arikan, chief film critic of Dipknot TV, Press Play contributor, and one of Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents. The Spielberg series brings many of Press Play's writers and editors together on a single long-form project. Individual episodes were written by Seitz, Arikan, Simon Abrams and Aaron Aradillas, and cut by Steven Santos, Serena Bramble, Matt Zoller Seitz, Richard Seitz and Kevin B. Lee. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 1: Introduction, go here. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 2: Blood & Pulp, go here.  To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg, Chapter 3: Communication, click here. To watch Chapter 5, Father Figures, click here. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 6: Indiana Jones and the Story of Life, go here]

Narration:

The antagonist, in Steven Spielberg’s films, has many faces.  It can be government scientists involved in seemingly shady plots.

It can be unstoppable behemoths such as the shark in Jaws or the tanker truck in Duel. Warped ideologies, as in Schindler’s List.  Or the tangled and self-defeating allure of vengeance, as in Munich.

What’s essential is that none of these could truly be considered “evil” in the classical -- or theological -- mould. You can’t blame the T-Rex for being a T-Rex in Jurassic Park. You can’t blame a Martian for being a Martian in War of the Worlds. They are what they are. And even in the most menacing moments, even the most outwardly inhuman antagonists display qualities that could even be described as, well, almost human.
 
Evil, in Spielberg’s movies, is almost purely elemental. As strange as it might sound, it seems almost value-neutral -- a menacing force that is simply there, like the terrifying, almost Biblical storms that gather in the skies of many of his films.

The human version of this element is authority. In Spielberg’s movies, evil, such as it is, always comes back to the use or abuse of power. The relative good or evil of people in a Spielberg film can be discerned by looking at how they use whatever authority they have in a given situation – how they tap into, and apply, power.  This is how morality is measured. It is how good or evil is measured. In the words of WH Auden, “Evil is unspectacular and always human; And shares our bed and eats at our own table.”

Individual villains in Spielberg’s films are, if not totally guiltless, then definitely warped.  Indiana Jones’ French nemesis Belloq, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is an overly-ambitious careerist, his reason for shacking up with the Nazis.  

The American billionaire Walter Donovan does the same in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for greed and glory: he is a cartoon villain in the mould of Montgomery Burns.

Even in The Color Purple or Schindler’s List, central villains have a certain complexity.  

Amon Goeth, hideous as he might be, is a deranged, damaged person, and clearly not wired right – a pathetic alcoholic with a bloated beer belly.  

Albert Johnson, a drunk and violent letch who goes by the nickname Mister, transfers his resentment of the old south and Jim Crow on his household. The casual viciousness of the system is an unseen force that seems to amplify his worst qualities, and Celie bears the brunt of his self-loathing.

Both Goeth and Mister are monsters and emotionally twisted; and, evil does manifest itself -- but only through characters that are morally and psychologically defeated.  They’re in with the power structure set out by society; even though they’re just individuals, in another sense they ARE authority.  

It is often society’s authority that is the true enemy in the Spielberg canon.  Many of Spielberg’s antagonists are but human extensions of it. The true evil in Munich is that the state of Israel feels entitled to do anything it feels is necessary to avenge the murder of its athletes by Palestinian terrorists. As the story unfolds, it turns into a classic case of what soldiers call “mission creep.” A mission with a clearly defined, and perhaps morally defensible objective keeps getting new and more questionable duties tacked onto it.

Over time it becomes harder and harder for the heroes to tell who they’re killing -- and what (if anything) the targets had to do with the original Olympic massacre. And yet they’re expected to do what they’re told without question or doubt, because the government’s representatives tell them it has to be done, and to question authority would be an offense against the motherland.  It’s yet another example in Spielberg’s films of authority slowly clenching its iron fist around the individual. Nobody in Munich is evil – not the assassins, not their handlers, not the PLO targets they’re hunting. But they all are collectively responsible for evil acts.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Belloq is not Satan: Like Vichy France itself, he’s cowardly, weak, and opportunistic. And he has willingly let himself be corrupted by the system.  

Goeth is a sadistic son of a bitch, but he’s been given total power by the system -- and, as such, by Nazi Germany itself.

Spielberg’s slave-era drama Amistad pointedly avoids giving us a single, cartoonish, Mandingo slave master that we can direct our righteous ire against. The villain is a corrupt, debased and complacent system that everyone has grown used to, and that treats humans as property – a system that must be recognized as such, and resisted.  Here, as in Schindler’s List, the representatives of corrupt authority are rather bland, even borderline faceless people. They embody Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil.

Even the hero’s fellow Africans are implicated in this. Without their greedy viciousness, the noble Cinque would never have ended up in chains.

We see the government operatives clandestinely eavesdropping on the little suburb in E.T.: The Extraterrestrial -- a vision of terrors to come.  

Saving Private Ryan offers a different riff. Every single GI in the group searching for the titular soldier -- including the leader of the outfit, Captain Miller -- gets killed because of a PR exercise. They are literally dying for a symbol.

In Jaws, it is the mayor’s decision not to shut down the beaches after the first shark attack that leads to more tragedy.  Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel is like a high seas adventure version of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People – a play in which the citizens of a small resort town discover that the runoff from a tannery is polluting the waters of the local baths, and collectively decide not to hurt their bottom line by doing something about it. There is one authority figure in the Spielberg canon who is particularly fascinating in this respect: John Hammond, the industrialist who created Jurassic Park.

Hammond is outwardly pleasant, but ultimately very dangerous.  The character comes across as a benevolent Santa Claus or old Walt Disney figure, but is actually a genial Dr. Frankenstein. And he is ultimately responsible for every maiming and killing that happens on his tropical islands.  

This sympathy for Hammond – unique to the film since the character is a right bastard in the original novel – seems to betray something of Spielberg.  Despite the filmmaker’s inherent distaste for authority, it is undeniable that he is one of the most powerful men in the film industry.  

Frankly, Steven Spielberg IS Hollywood.  Could it be that he sees himself not only his everyman heroes, but also as the figures of authority, even the seemingly malevolent or destructive ones? The ambiguity would be very much in character for Spielberg.

John Hammond, the creator of Jurassic Park, at first seems a charming old man who just wants to dazzle people and make them happy. But if you total up the body count of all the films in the series, he seems infinitely less adorable. Hammond is a cross between Dr. Frankenstein and Walt Disney, purveying spectacular wildlife attractions that end up killing the customers.

Yet the man behind this film series, director-producer Steven Spielberg, never condemns him outright. We get the sense that he understands him and even sympathizes with him – that he sees him as a kindred spirit.

Steven Spielberg is, of course, an authority figure himself, so it should not surprise anyone that he’d have sympathy for this particular devil. He is the most financially successful filmmaker in the history of motion pictures. Many of the top-grossing movies are ones he directed or produced. He is co-owner of his own studio, and has licensed his characters and situations to theme parks and toy manufacturers. He is not just a filmmaker but a mogul … a brand .. and a cultural force. As such, his portrait of authority figures always contains a certain amount of empathy and understanding, whether the character is kindly but destructively clueless impresario like John Hammond, or a more overtly repulsive and menacing character, like some of the ones presented in the first part of this essay. Even the mayor of Amity in Jaws seems more pathetic than purely evil – a man whose moral sense was suffocated by the almighty dollar.

Spielberg’s knowing and often mordantly funny depictions of commercialization and branding flow into this as well. The filmmaker consistently manages to have it both ways -- imaginatively presenting some of the comical or oppressive aspects of commercialism, while showcasing actual products and corporate logos within his films. The richest and most contradictory example of this is the slow pan across the merchandise in the original Jurassic Park.

The logos are identical to those of the Jurassic Park franchise itself. The movie is advertising itself and critiquing itself at the same time. It is a pat on the back that doubles as a warning: Let the buyer beware.

Over time, Spielberg has maintained the mentality of an independent filmmaker -- an auteur director standing apart from the very system that he of course embodies as a producer, a studio boss, a multiple Oscar winner, and all-around purveyor of stuff.

This manifests itself onscreen in Spielberg’s complex and often conflicted portrait of the individual’s relationship to authority: be it the government of a small town in Jaws; the Jim Crow south in The Color Purple; the blandly menacing futureworld societies of Minority Report and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence; and military and law enforcement agents in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me If You Can, which impede, manipulate, control or pursue the film’s heroes.

Spielberg’s heroes survive, and sometimes triumph, by being tough, smart, and lucky.  Most of all lucky.  

But for the sympathetic characters to survive – for their narratives to have a personal tipping point – they also require the help of a sympathetic person in authority.  

This type of character is the flip side of the more menacing or corrupt authority figures we talked about earlier. He is a regular fixture in Spielberg’s films – a reliable type. He’s inside the power structure, such as it is. He draws a paycheck from the establishment and does its bidding. And yet he maintains an outsider’s mentality and responds -- perhaps nostalgically, perhaps even a touch guiltily -- to true victims, rebels, and heroes.  

This type of character cannot help but admire the pluck of a resourceful hero, fugitive or troublemaker – and feel sympathy for the beleaguered, the exploited, and the dispossessed.  

We can feel his empathy and understanding even when he’s acting in concert with the forces that make life hell for the good guys. And when the chips are down, when it really and truly matters, he does the right thing.

The UFOlogist Lacombe in Close Encounters might be the first major character in a Spielberg film that fits this description – the ally within the establishment. It is Lacombe who spies the escaped UFO obsessives heading for the Devil’s Tower but refrains from tipping off the army.  It is because of Lacombe that Roy is able to don a red jumpsuit and join the other extraterrestrial pilgrims. It is because of Lacombe, a government agent, that Roy ultimately gets his wish, and walks up that ramp into the mothership.

In both Close Encounters and in E.T., the military and the government scientists initially seem sinister – and inasmuch as they impede the progress of our heroes, they are definitely forces to root against. But their faceless, threatening appearance early on eventually gives way to a more nuanced portrait. Once we’ve gotten a closer look at them, we can see that they’re just people -- and that they’re as curious as anybody.

The fifth column, the inside man, is often critically important to the Spielberg hero’s success. During the finale of E.T., all that Keys needs to do to bring down the alien ship is to get on his walkie-talkie. He doesn’t. Instead, he watches the ship land and the alien depart. He is happy – privileged – just to be there. He’s a cleaned up, respectable version of Roy Neary – what Roy would have turned into if he’d stayed on earth and joined the government.

Indiana Jones should have been caught and killed on that steamship in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He survived only because the owner of an African freighter intervened -- supposedly a no-good scoundrel who’s only in it for the money.

The mutineers in Amistad only get a shot at freedom because one of the most influential men in America -- former president John Quincy Adams no less -- decides to take up their cause.  

In Catch Me if You Can, the FBI agent Carl Hanratty offers a lifeline to Frank Abagnale JR, who seizes on the opportunity, thus saving himself from life-long imprisonment.

And in Minority Report, Spielberg turns the tables on an essential wheel in the machine, the supercop John Anderton -- who realizes that a conspiracy is afoot, kidnaps the precog Agatha, and becomes a hounded fugitive, and an enemy of the state.

Oskar Schindler deserves a special mention as the ultimate Fifth Column. He is a subversive infiltrator deep in the heart of the Nazi apparatus, fueled by the moral impetus to do the right thing, even though he is almost completely inscrutable, and justifies his goodness on mercenary grounds. Initially, Schindler is a cad and a dandy; an incorrigible womaniser; an exploiter of slave labour; a boorish bully; and a member of the Nazi party.  

Earlier in the film, Schindler is an opportunist, in cahoots with the National Socialists not out of ideological sympathy, but merely because they happen to be the ones in power.  He is a cut-throat capitalist, and his first act of rescue is for blood-curdlingly self-serving, business reasons.

Later, in 1942, Schindler witnesses the initial stages of Operation Reinhard in Krakow, the annihilation of the city's Jewish ghetto.  These visceral scenes of liquidation, degradation, and execution are haunting; and leave an indelible mark in Schindler.  This moment of truth is not met with angst-ridden introspection: Schindler proves himself, and changes, through his deeds.  Through bribery, collusion, and deception, he sabotages the Nazi war effort while saving 1100 Jews from the savagery of the Holocaust.

Of course, this sort of miracle could only be achieved by someone who was in with the overall authority of the powers-that-be.  That Schindler is a member of the Nazi party, that he is an insider, is necessary to the success of his plans.   Schindler mitigates the machine from the inside by using his own connections.  He is a businessman of fine-standing with the National Socialists, who hardly bat an eyelid as Schindler pulls the run under them in order to save his Jewish workers.  In the grand scheme of things, only a wanton, libidinous, money-grubbing and wholly-inscrutable industrialist – and dyed-in-the-wool authority figure -- could have flown under the radar of the Nazi machine and pulled off that sort of a miracle.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the publisher of Press Play, the staff TV columnist for Salon.com and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Ali Arikan is the chief film critic of Dipnot TV, a Turkish new portal and iPad magazine, and one of Roger Ebert's Far-Flung Correspondents. Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of Fandor.

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2 Comments

  • Steven Boone | December 24, 2011 6:38 PMReply

    Loving this whole series.

    This chapter digs out what I like about Schindler's List, which is also the best thing about Goodfellas: the protagonist's determination to live in the dead center of a world that goes against his moral instincts. Scorsese's Henry Hill didn't have the courage, standing or resourcefulness of Spielberg's Oskar Schindler, so he couldn't save anybody but himself. It's not so much that movie-Schindler has a change of heart during the Krakow raid as it is that he sees how far the Nazis are willing to go, to a level of ruthlessness that takes away his poker face.

    Folks dis Schindler's List as a Disneyfied Holocaust, but they miss the fact that it describes the dilemma of anybody in the "free world" who benefits from other people's suffering and exploitation.

    Videos like these make me suspect that Spielberg has been more directly engaged with the world and its problems than such Spielberg scolds as Jean-Luc Godard and Terry Gilliam ever were.

  • Adam Zanzie | December 22, 2011 7:12 PMReply

    Hey guys, terrific job. I'll be linking to this for sure.

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