Director Profile of the Month – Steven Spielberg

I’m starting a new feature here on Cinema Grand Canyonscope – the director profile of the month.  This month – Steven Spielberg

Ask yourself a question – how many Spielberg movies have you seen?  If you’re like me, the results may surprise you.  I was certain that I had seen more Bergman movies or Scorsese movies (I’ve seen 7 of each).  Maybe in my movie watching life I’d even more Michael Bay films (also 7, mercifully he’s only made 9 features).  I’ve seen twice as many Spielberg movies.

Spielberg’s films have an internal consistency to them, his vision is one of hope triumphing over despair.  I’ve heard people find his worldview too rosy, and it’s true that he can’t resist romanticism.  I don’t think this is always a bad thing, unless you think that every work of art needs to be as dark and gritty as possible.   Spielberg rarely delves that deeply into individual characters to penetrate the dark recesses of the soul like Ingmar Bergman or Stanley Kubrick.   But do we really need him to?

I used to think that Spielberg had such a mastery of the big picture narrative that he couldn’t really make a movie that was completely character driven.  Lincoln (2012) of course, changed my opinion.  While the historical implications of the film’s plot are unquestionably monumental, equally without question is the fact that nothing much happens in the film.  After all, it only takes place over the course of a couple of weeks for the most part.  Even Spielberg’s best film, Schindler’s List (1993) is heavily dependent on plot and a massive narrative arc.  Lincoln, his next best film if you asked me today, while dealing with an important historical figure and event, is almost Ozu-esque in its simplicity (almost being the key word – Spielberg can’t resist a bit of pomp and circumstance during the film’s bookends).

While many great directors struggles outside of a certain genre (Hitchcock after all made almost exclusively thrillers), Spielberg is a notable exception.  The other 8 of his best films include thrillers (Jaws (1975), Jurassic Park (1993), Munich (2005)), adventure stories (E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)), war movies (Saving Private Ryan (1999)), and comedies (Catch Me If You Can (2002)).   Certainly Jaws is as much horror as thriller and Catch Me if You Can is as much an police procedural as comedy, demonstrating that it’s hard to pin down his films into genres at all.

So what makes Spielberg a great director?  His films contain a unique over-arching vision, are incredibly diverse as to style and genre, and extremely well-made.  He is too contemporary to really judge his influence but if young directors such as J.J. Abrams are any indication, his career will cast a long shadow indeed.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe