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EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT from 'The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies': David Thomson on Steven Spielberg

Photo of David Thomson By David Thomson | Thompson on Hollywood October 23, 2012 at 1:06PM

San Francisco-based critic David Thomson, the brainy Brit behind the must-own "Biographical Dictionary of Film," has written an authoritative history of film with his distinctive flair: "The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies." Here's an exclusive look at his chapter on Steven Spielberg, "To Own the Summer."
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The Adventures of Tintin
Paramount The Adventures of Tintin

As I write, Spielberg is nearing sixty-five and coming up on one more of his busy seasons: in the same month, he will release The Adventures of Tintin (his first animated film) and War Horse—it reminds one of the even stranger concurrence, when he was doing Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in the same year. This is more than talent, prowess, energy, opportunity, and the clout that meant all those films would hang upon his decision. It’s more that his imagination has taken on the versatility of the movie screen: it can play anything, and follow it with anything else. It’s as if Beethoven were doing the Eroica Symphony and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” at the same time. Not that Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park are in those same classes. Am I old-fashioned in being so shaken by the contrast or the clash?

This turns on the possibility of creative character. If you look at the body of Alfred Hitchcock’s work, there are missteps, follies, sidebars, to be sure, but what drew attention and admiration for Hitch was the inability to shake off some motifs: suspense, voyeurism, guilt, fear. I have tried to describe those things at work and suggest that Hitchcock himself became distressed by them. He did not float in air alongside his films. They were business entertainments, but his mind emerged from them.

It would be going too far to say that Spielberg has none of that. He has his motifs: success, children, stylistic impersonality, and being exemplary. Long before the fascinating and often heartfelt adventure of DreamWorks, a new studio, made in partnership with Jeffrey Katzenberg, an executive from Disney, and David Geffen, an entrepreneur in music and recording, Spielberg had been a sustaining executive producer or godfather for so many people and ventures. That list is larger than the roll of films he directed, and it includes Back to the Future (1985) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988; both by Robert Zemeckis); TV series such as The Pacific and Band of Brothers; the two Clint Eastwood pictures Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006); and the recent True Grit (2010, by the Coen brothers) and J. J. Abrams’s Super 8 (2011), which is a gesture of tribute to Spielberg’s own beginnings in moviemaking.

With or without DreamWorks SKG, Spielberg has been a studio or a house. Can anyone conceive of American pictures since 1970 without him? You can describe that in terms of a net worth of $3 billion or in a list of all his awards. It could be offered as an example of wanting to be a huge entertainer and a prophet of our nature and our history— that’s the shift from Jurassic Park to Schindler’s List, or from E.T. to Poltergeist, credited to Tobe Hooper but guided by Spielberg and one of the most alarming visions of kids disappearing into a television set. He can do action at a level that seems matchless—the main story of Schindler’s List and the battles in Saving Private Ryan—but then he can spoil those pictures with the underlining that gives us the girl in the red dress in Kraków and that asks Ryan to earn the sacrifice made for him.

'Jurassic Park'
'Jurassic Park'

Is it youthfulness that cannot quite trust his own work or our response? Is it his fear of our stupidity? Is it even something like the lack of experience Peter Benchley noted as he looked at Jaws? The motif of childhood never goes away, and it is the core of his best film, Empire of the Sun (1987), in which the boy Christian Bale is the young J. G. Ballard captured in Shanghai as the war begins and struggling to endure in a Japanese prison camp. That is a film in which the balance of history and one boy’s life is eloquent and unforced. (Tom Stoppard did the script with uncredited work from Menno Meyjes.) In any measure, it is a film about life, loss, and the capacity to equate the two. There is nothing childish in the regard for the boy; it’s a film for grown-ups.

There is a similar gravity in other films— Munich (2005), A.I. (2001), and even The Terminal (2004), a fine, neglected comedy. And yet I cannot forget or see past the determined youthfulness in Spielberg himself, the urge to live up to the oldest models of movie entertainment and to play dazzling games in which nothing is more real or holding than it was in Jaws. Call it the drive to make great shows that are about nothing except letting the light play on the screen for a couple of hours and keeping the faces of the audience as open and exalted as the faces in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) whenever they face the light. W hen he made that film, Spielberg was asked if he believed in UFOs and he said no, but he believed in people who believed in them. So Close Encounters can be read as a film about the movies themselves and the wonder that light casts on a watching face. If ever you doubt the movies, look at the faces watching the screen.

Spielberg is what Cecilia, the narrator of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, calls “a marker in industry.” (Talking in 1940, she names Edison, Lumière, Griffith, and Chaplin, as well as Monroe Stahr, as the select group.) It is touching how old-fashioned Spielberg’s attitudes are in a medium of accelerating technological renewal (most of which he has embraced). But does his celebration of a few children and the childlike compensate for the way he represents a culture that has resolved to be childish? No matter the patronage he has offered to other filmmakers, I wonder what he thinks about the erosion of the mainstream entertainment movie. No one has done more to defend the standard of the “movie” as it was being made when he was born (in 1946). Is he Indiana Jones or Schindler? Well, he has tried to be both. Anyone aiming at the audience wants everyone. But his country and his culture have made the other choice, of going with the unattached, floating myth and adventurous élan of Indy. And surely the maker of Schindler’s List, who claimed that film was a turning point in his own education and his Jewishness, must know that some decisions lead to catastrophe.

In December 2012, if all goes according to schedule, Spielberg will release Lincoln. In making that film he has used the book Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin ,and a screenplay written first by John Logan and Paul Webb, and then by Tony Kushner. I am reminded of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, which opened in June 1939, on the eve of cataclysm, and I daresay at Christmas 2012 there will be uncommon need for a “Lincolnesque” film, fit to play at the White House and to chain gangs in remote parts of the country. I cannot believe that Spielberg will do anything but an accomplished and inspiring job. Still, if he is to dig into the heart of people and their society, I suspect the venture may depend more on Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. For somehow the great and saintly man has to speak to the harsh and insufferable competitiveness in Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007).

Excerpted from The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies by David Thomson, published in October 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2012 by David Thomson. All rights reserved.

This article is related to: Books, Steven Spielberg, Steven Spielberg, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Lincoln


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.