Steven Spielberg Spielberg, Steven (Vol. 20) - Essay

Joseph McBride


Steven Spielberg 1947–

American director, screenwriter, and producer.

Spielberg is one of the most successful of the many young directors who emerged in the seventies. Spectacle is perhaps the most prominent element in his films: the shark in Jaws, the alien spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In these films, Spielberg creates the terror of the unknown to bring about a catharsis in his audience.

Spielberg began making short films while in high school. He spent three months at Universal Studios in 1967, sneaking past the guard each day to watch directors work in television. Spielberg's short film Amblin' won a number of awards and helped him become a television director. He directed episodes of six different programs, including Night Gallery, The Psychiatrists, and Columbo, and also directed three made-for-TV movies. The first of these movies, Duel, has been widely acclaimed as one of the best movies television has ever produced.

Spielberg's first feature, The Sugarland Express, contains a number of the best elements of Duel, including a choreographed car chase, but critics are divided as to the film's artistic merit. Spielberg himself has said, "If I had it to do all over again I'd make Sugarland Express in a completely different fashion." Spielberg was totally unprepared for the huge commercial success of his next film, Jaws. The movie combines humor, violence, contemporary problems, and horror, and the end result is an engrossing story that has received much critical acclaim. Close Encounters of the Third Kind received as much publicity for its special effects as for Spielberg's directorial prowess and screenwriting talents, and it is generally believed to be his best work to date.

Although Spielberg's directorial abilities seem to get lost among the special effects in his films, he still feels that his films are personal statements. As Spielberg has said: "A lot of my films are question-answer pictures leading up to an inevitable conclusion that the audience is waiting for, and hopefully they won't be disappointed." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Tom Milne

With almost insolent ease, Duel … displays the philosopher's stone which the Existentialists sought so persistently and often so portentously: the perfect acte gratuit, complete, unaccountable and self-sufficient. Steven Spielberg … sets the scene brilliantly from the outset….

The glory of Richard Matheson's script is that there are no motivations, no explanations, simply the archetypal rivalry of the road carried to reductio ad absurdum heights. At first there are moments of unease—the commercial traveller's name, after all, is Mann—in the telephone call to his wife which suggests a background of marital stress, in the rather coy insistence … with which his efforts to put a face to his rival are frustrated. But all these hints of allegory (man's inability to cope with machine-age pressures) are held firmly in check, giving just a touch of abstract meaning to the unseen lorrydriver, just a touch of social fallibility to the ineffectual salesman, and leaving the way free for a simple mortal combat between hunter and hunted in which one can, if one likes, see the huge, lumbering lorry as the dragon, and the glitteringly fragile Plymouth sedan as the prancing, pitifully vulnerable knight in armour.

Adhering strictly to these limits and only once leaving the road … Spielberg and Matheson screw the tension almost to breaking point with a series of cunningly contrived incidents which simultaneously reveal the full extent of the lorry-driver's murderous intent and turn the timid salesman into an animal fighting desperately for his life…. Like Clouzot's Wages of Fear, Duel may be a once-only film, an exercise in tension which never seems quite so rewarding the second time round; but like Wages of Fear and unlike Les Diaboliques, it is a film built on legitimate suspense rather than sham trickery.

Tom Milne, "'Duel'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1973 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 42, No. 1, Winter, 1972–73, p. 50.

Pauline Kael

"The Sugarland Express" is like some of the entertaining studio-factory films of the past (it's as commercial and shallow and impersonal), yet it has so much eagerness and flash and talent that it just about transforms its scrubby ingredients…. [Steven Spielberg] isn't saying anything special in "The Sugarland Express," but he has a knack for bringing out young actors, and a sense of composition and movement that almost any director might envy. Composition seems to come naturally to him …; Spielberg uses his gift in a very free-and-easy, American way—for humor, and for a physical response to action. He could be that rarity among directors, a born entertainer—perhaps a new generation's Howard Hawks. In terms of the pleasure that technical assurance gives an audience, this film is one of the most phenomenal début films in the history of movies. If there is such a thing as a movie sense—and I think there is …—Spielberg really has it. But he may be so full of it that he doesn't have much else. There's no sign of the emergence of a new film artist (such as Martin Scorsese) in "The Sugarland Express," but it marks the début of a new-style, new-generation Hollywood hand. (p. 300)

"The Sugarland Express" is mostly about cars; Spielberg is a choreographic virtuoso with cars. He patterns them; he makes them dance and crash and bounce back. He handles enormous configurations of vehicles; sometimes they move so sweetly you think he...

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Stephen Farber

"The Sugarland Express" is a prime example of the new-style factory movie: slick, cynical, mechanical, empty. Spielberg and his young writers, Hall Barwood and Matthew Robbins, have been weaned on old Hollywood movies, and they want to recreate the schlock that once mesmerized the masses. They have good memories, and a shrewd commercial instinct that the industry often confuses with talent.

Although "The Sugarland Express" is based on a real incident that happened in Texas in 1969, it seems perfectly synthetic—pure Hollywood—from first frame to last. (p. 203)

Everything is underlined; Spielberg sacrifices narrative logic and character consistency for quick thrills and easy laughs. He has a very crude sense of humor, indicated by his obsession with toilet jokes, and an irrepressible maudlin streak. Early on Spielberg lingers over a shot of the couple's baby playing with a dog, and after the final tragedy, he moves in for a close-up as a police car drives over a discarded teddy bear. It's depressing to see a young director who is already so shameless.

This kind of movie is like a shifty campaign speech designed to please every segment of the public. Young moviegoers can weep for Lou Jean and Clovis as rebels against the system, cut down by the authorities because they love their baby. At the same time, Spielberg cunningly softens his portrait of the police so as not to alienate the Law and Order...

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Tom Milne

After Duel, Steven Spielberg's dazzling way with the cars in The Sugarland Express was almost a foregone conclusion: stately processions snaking through the countryside in the wake of the fugitives, multi-coloured roof-lights forming intriguing patterns in the night, pursuers retarded by the telephoto lens looming menacingly out of the heat-haze at the crest of a hill. But where Duel was motivated by a strange inner compulsion, The Sugarland Express seems peculiarly contrived, with a script (albeit based on fact) so self-consciously tailored to the 'road film' formula that from the very outset the illusory Eldorado of Sugarland becomes a dismayingly obvious metaphor for the bitter-sweetness of the odyssey we are invited to watch…. All too early on … the whole thing is revealed to be a storm in a teacup, and one watches with mounting disbelief as both police and public go through their extraordinary gyrations: it may have happened this way in real life, but in the film the fugitives are so unequivocally presented as poor, harmless innocents that the veritable army of police cars absurdly queueing up to be in at the kill looks very much as though both they and the film were taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Paradoxically, therefore, the film is at its best not on the road (despite the striking car imagery) but in the lay-bys: the moments of repose when the forced relationship between the couple and their hostage begins to evolve into something more than mere friendship. In themselves, though observed with fresh, delicate humour, the episodes which mark the stages in the relationship are not particularly original…. [There is] a sense of deprivation, a feeling that the staid young patrolman has never before encountered such freedom and fantasy, while the young couple have never experienced such stability as he represents. Never overtly stated, the point reverberates through the film….

Tom Milne, "'The Sugarland Express'," in Monthy Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1974), Vol. 41, No. 486, July, 1974, p. 158.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

With a shark for a villain, Peter Benchley could hardly have missed making Jaws a best seller, nor is director Steven Spielberg likely to miss with his film adaptation. Benchley and Spielberg's only problem was that a shark is almost too good a villain. What way could they find to oppose such unadulterated power? Put up against the Muhammad Ali of sharkdom, the whole human race looks like a Joe Bugner.

The trouble is that where a shark is simple by nature, man is various. Where a shark is unmistakable and purposeful, man is ambiguous and self-contradictory. Accordingly, both the novel and the film try to cover the board by putting three very different men up against the shark, leaving us to...

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James Monaco

Jaws' singular financial performance is ultimately a matter of the craft of the film-makers involved. Not the art, the craft. Jaws is an extraordinarily well made entertainment…. There isn't an ounce of dead wood in it; it is the sum total of thousands of 'effects' (special and otherwise) tested and tuned to produce the desired response in the audience. Jaws is a landmark of modern cinematic engineering.

It is, therefore, something like the ultimate Hollywood movie. Not only does it represent the tradition of film as entertainment product (as opposed to film as personal statement), but it is also, like many memorable Hollywood entertainments of the past, an example of 'film as...

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Gordon Gow

The right things certainly happen in Jaws. At given moments, the images before us lead to frissons of dread anticipation. The pulses pound. Excitement escalates. And by climax time, when it is impossible to disbelieve that one of the leading actors, screaming and vomiting blood, is actually being swallowed alive by a gigantic shark in an unnerving series of gulps, we are watching movie magic of the highest order. Trickery has mastered the illusion of truth.

The film is a condensation of Peter Benchley's novel, which deals not only in the suspense value of abrupt lethal sorties by a great white shark among the swimmers at a Long Island resort, but also in the attempts of local...

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Pauline Kael

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the most innocent of all technological-marvel movies, and one of the most satisfying. This film has retained some of the wonder and bafflement we feel when we first go into a planetarium: we ooh and aah at the vastness, and at the beauty of the mystery. The film doesn't overawe us, though, because it has a child's playfulness and love of surprises…. [The intelligent creatures in the machines from outer space] are benevolent. They want to get to know us. This vision would be too warm and soul-satisfying if it weren't for the writer-director Steven Spielberg's skeptical, let's-try-it-on spirit. He's an entertainer—a magician in the age of movies. Is Spielberg an...

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Stanley Kauffmann

I was not aching to see Close Encounters, especially since I had disliked the previous work of its director, Steven Spielberg. His first feature, The Sugarland Express, had seemed facile, fake-honest naturalism. His second, Jaws, was made for one purpose, to scare, and flopped with me because it was so clumsily done. I was utterly unprepared for this third kind of close encounter with Spielberg. I was particularly unprepared for the last 40 minutes of this 135-minute film, in which two things happen. First, and less important, the SF film reaches its pinnacle to date. Second, the movement of SF as vicarious religion and the movement of (what I've called) the Film Generation meet, unify, and...

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John Simon

If there is such a thing as a zap-and-zowie school of filmmaking, Steven Spielberg is its prime example….

From the very beginning, Spielberg's speciality was shock. Sex not at all, violence to some extent, and plan shock above all…. While grandly orchestrating cars and helicopters, Spielberg left the human elements of [The Sugarland Express] on a level that was both primitive and factitious. About Jaws one can say at least that however worthless the scenes on land were, those on or in the water were gripping.

Close Encounters is science fiction, a genre that shows signs of becoming a favorite form of cinematic escapism for reasons that are not far to...

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Garrett Stewart

Without the steely perfection or visual profundity of [Stanley] Kubrick's 2001, Spielberg's rousing entertainment [Close Encounters of the Third Kind] is easily the next most impressive venture in the film art of science fiction. Kubrick was out for apocalypse, Spielberg only for epiphany. Yet more is revealed than the cosmic visitation, for even more obviously than in Kubrick's masterpiece, Close Encounters offers a multiple comment on the genre in which Spielberg is working, the gifts he brings to it and their imaginative nurture in other genres, other film and fictional outlets for the imagination. The most resolutely popular of the successful young directors has given us the apotheosis of his...

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Jane E. Caputi

[Jaws] is the ritual retelling of an essential patriarchal myth—male vanquishment of the female symbolized as a sea monster, dragon, serpent, vampire, etc.—administering a necessary fix to a society hooked on and by male control. The purpose of Jaws and other myths of its genre is to instill dread and loathing for the female and usually culminate in her annihilation. (p. 305)

The great white shark in Jaws,… actually represents the primordial female and her most dreaded aspects. (pp. 307-08)

When Jaws hit the international market the French translated its title as "Les Dents de la Mer," (The Teeth of the Sea), a fact which can easily lead us, not...

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B. H. Fairchild, Jr.

Almost everyone both in and out of [Close Encounters of the Third Kind] seems … to be waiting for some kind of miraculous salvation, an escape, an awakening, from the bad dream of social stagnation and middle-class malaise which the first half of Spielberg's movie so emphatically reminds us of. And we would probably all arise and go now … were it not for the film's sustained promise that soon, suspensefully soon, our questions will be answered, our emptiness will be filled, that Something Out There will take us away from all this. And what will it be? UFO's? No, Close Encounters seems to me to be about UFO's only in the way that King Kong is about apes. Religion, then? Ideology? Science? No,...

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Jerome Klinkowitz

Notice how [the film version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind] virtually stops once the giant mother ship arrives—half the shots are of people just standing there and staring. Their sense of wonder is what the movie is all about. The need, the anticipation, the whole sense of irresistible movement toward some goal is resolved when the mother ship looms into view. After that, the movie continues for another forty minutes, simply as a big clump of indulgence—like driving an hour to get a six-scoop ice cream sundae, then taking almost as much time to eat the thing. Little Barry Guiler first describes the spacecraft as "ice cream"; so does Roy Neary. Apparently audiences feel the same way.


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James Monaco

[Sugarland Express was meant to take advantage of Spielberg's] demonstrated strengths as a director of chase/road movies. It remains one of the most interesting of the genre…. Structurally, the chase is not only more exciting than most, but humorous as well. In all, quite an achievement. Since it leaves itself more time to deal with character, and since its people are complex, interesting, and rooted in reality, Sugarland Express is arguably a more interesting film than either of the two blockbusters that succeeded it. The chase draws us in, but it's the notoriety of the couple that is the real subject of the film, and that is a more interesting theme than either Jaws or Close Encounters...

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David Denby

[1941] is an overblown repetitive, cartoon-style satire that runs into the ground a good hour before it ends. Yet there are things to be prized in it…. Set in Los Angeles the week after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, 1941 jumps back and forth among a dozen or so parallel stories, all of them illustrating the confusion, incompetence, and nutty panic of a people expecting Japanese invasion at any moment. The movie is fun because Spielberg takes a fondly appreciative attitude toward the innocent righteousness of the time. He's made an homage to the gung-ho silliness of old war movies, a celebration of the Betty Grable-Betty Hutton period of American pop culture. In this movie, America is still a very...

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Robert Asahina

Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind having been very well received by critics and mass audiences, [Spielberg] decided his latest feature, 1941, would be something entirely different—a comedy (the previous films were only unintentionally funny). So, keeping Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in mind, he began with a script … about the pandemonium in Los Angeles during the week after Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, the director never asked himself whether the paranoid superpatriotism of that era actually was humorous. Was the xenophobia that led to the forced "relocation" and imprisonment of thousands of native Americans of Japanese descent really funny?


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Pauline Kael

I wish that Steven Spielberg had trusted his first instincts and left "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" as it was. In his new, reëdited version, "The Special Edition," he has made some trims, put in some outtakes, and shot a few new bits. But if you saw it before and loved it, you may be bothered all the way through—not just because you miss some of the scenes that he has taken out (you miss even what you didn't think was great) but because the slightly different outtakes that Spielberg has substituted for the shots you remember keep jarring you. You can see why most of these outtakes weren't used originally, and some of them have the wrong lighting for where they've been inserted. (pp. 80-1)


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Stanley Kauffmann

Steven Spielberg, the writer and director [of Close Encounters of the Third Kind] has re-edited some bits of the original, put in some footage that was omitted first time, and shot some new footage….

It's a mistake. The second encounter isn't as good as the first. One special power of Close Encounters, I thought … was that it exemplified a Dionysian attribute of film: the exaltation available through film's technology and, therefore, repeatable—at will, more or less. Spielberg has interfered with its "immutability," which was probably a mistake in any event and is doubly so because he hasn't improved the picture….

The worst alteration is that we now follow...

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David Denby

Synthesizing [Raiders of the Lost Ark] out of trashy pop elements—occult and religous mumbo jumbo, cursed tombs, buried temples, cardboard Nazis—[Spielberg] has produced a work that is like a thirties serial, only grander, funnier, and blessedly free of interruptions….

In pop filmmaking, neither death nor history ever matters. Only thrills matter, and, trying for bigger and bigger thrills, Spielberg has done something almost offensive. He's thrown in the kind of inspirational religioso stuff that used to be such an embarrassment in biblical spectaculars—sudden shafts of light and silvery specters flying about and forming themselves into death's heads. When Cecil B. DeMille produced...

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