It’s impossible to deny Steven Spielberg’s enormous gifts as a storyteller. From the tender-aged golden boy who inaugurated a new era of commercial filmmaking with Jaws to the reigning king of the blockbuster he remains today, the Spielberg brand has become synonymous with popcorn movies at their finest.
But could there possibly be a darker vein to this billionaire Eagle Scout with the magic camera? Is Spielberg perhaps angrier, more conflicted, and more complicated than he appears?
I grew up with his movies, and like everybody else I loved them like they were more or less part of my family. And so, again like most everybody else in my position, the release of a fourth Indiana Jones film was sort of like the homecoming of a long-lost sibling. I’m exaggerating, but not by as much as I'd like.
So it came as quite a shock to discover that long-admired sibling standing on my doorstep with greasy hair, a dirty poncho, a glazed look in his once-sharp eyes, one hand outstretched for my money and the other hand flipping me off.
I’m exaggerating, but not by as much as I'd like. Let’s consider the facts of the case. Over the course of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a nuclear bomb is dropped more or less on the hero’s head and he escapes unscathed - a scenario so insulting to the general cultural intelligence that the phrase "nuke the fridge" has now emerged as an English parody phrase. The sidekick is able to catch up to a racing car by swinging on vines; a flying saucer emerges from an archeological site. I would apologize for the spoilers, but it doesn’t need the help. The film is overwhelmingly, irrevocably, unbelievably bad.
The viewer, and in this case the loyal Spielberg fan, is compelled to ask: What gives? How could such a talented director, helming the sequel to a tried-and-true franchise, working with the best cast and crew in the business, fail so spectacularly?
The answer may not be as straightforward as it would appear - that Spielberg and his team simply dropped the ball. There is something larger simmering under the surface of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, something bigger and more surprising than failure. This may in fact be a definitive moment in Spielberg’s career, and an opportunity for his audience to view his work in a whole new light.
The argument can be summed up in the movie’s very first frames. As some Indy groupies may remember, all of the films begin with the same visual trope: the mountain of the Paramount logo dissolves into a mountain within the film. In the first, it’s a mountain near the cave where Indy finds the idol; in the second it’s pictured on a gong struck to announce the lavish Bugsy Berkeley-style number that opens the film; in the third it's the landscape of our hero's adventurous youth.
In Indiana Jones IV, the long-awaited final installment of the beloved series, the mountain dissolves into - wait for it - a molehill.
This is a moment of perfect clarity. I don’t think there’s any visual metaphor that would more succinctly express a filmmaker’s contempt for the film he is making, or for the audience that has followed the franchise with such enthusiasm. He is quite figuratively accusing his audience - and himself - of making far too much out of nothing.
Could it be that Spielberg is driven, at least in part, by contempt for his own work and frustration at its success?
Let’s consider the context. Like many hugely successful careers, Spielberg’s was well-timed. He was just ahead of the demographic curve, able to produce technologically sophisticated, family-friendly films at the dawn of the computer age, while the largest generation in American history was settling down with children. (For Spielberg, supply and demand have always been in perfect sync.)
And the Baby Boomers weren’t just having children who needed entertaining. They were also embarking on the most profitable campaign of capital concentration in history. The rise of the modern corporate economy and the multi-platform conglomerates they engendered redefined the way movies were financed and marketed. It wasn’t just about making people cry at Bogie and Bergman anymore; Hollywood filmmaking was becoming as much about selling lunchboxes, action figures and video games as it was about telling a story. The best of the directors enlisted for the job still told stories that held up on their own, but they couldn’t be totem poles; they had to be tent poles. They had to serve a practical purpose. His movies were bankrolled first at nine figures, then at ten, and there were strings attached.
How did this unique set of circumstances influence Spielberg’s self-perception? Let’s oversimplify for the sake of clarity, and for the moment let’s stick to a biographical version of history. Here at the dawn of his career were the Two New Hollywoods, as they are often called, each vying for dominance: he leading on the one side, Robert Altman leading on the other. Altman makes a string of the most densely layered and fascinating films in American history, each more personal and experimental than the last, culminating in the career-destroying 3 Women, a film inspired by a dream and relegated to drive-ins upon release. Spielberg makes a movie about a killer shark, and every man, woman, and child alive gets to cheer when it blows up.
When the dust cleared, Altman was exiled to a career in European television and Spielberg was an Oscar-winning billionaire. These are telling examples, if microcosmic.
Viewed from a macrocosmic, slightly more accurate perspective, the story went something like this: There were two kinds of filmmaking going on in Hollywood when Spielberg started out, two visions of what kind of movies the studio system should produce. There was the edgy, personal, engaged cinema of movies like Nashville, The Graduate, and Taxi Driver; and there was the fun, kinetic, effects-driven cinema of Jaws, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones.
It’s thirty years later, the war has been fought, and the children of the revolution just went to see Indiana Jones IV. Spielberg won.
How does he feel about winning so decisively? Clearly there’s nothing he can do about it: an artist can’t help his own success, and certainly welcomes it by degree. But does he objectively believe that the world that has treated him so well is the best of all possible worlds? Does he perhaps wish there was still room in Hollywood for the kind of filmmaking that has been relegated to the amorphous wilderness of the American independent film? Maybe, at some level, he thinks we’re watching the wrong Indie.
Which brings us back to the molehill. I had never noticed them before, but if we look a little closer, they start cropping up all over the sunny vista of Spielberg’s career.
Take Hook, the first reel of which looks like one big molehill. Before the lavish production design, flashy swordplay, and fanciful flying sequences take over - themselves marks of his earnest dedication to please his audience, especially children - this Peter Pan movie is really a Peter Banning movie. And Peter Banning is an unhappy man. Despite his material success, his strong sense of purpose, his usefulness to his many underlings, and his power, he is a man who has lost his way. He neglects his wife and children out of obligation to his business associates, all of whom rely on him to make vast sums of money. He used to play; now he works. He used to fight pirates; now, as his first love (Wendy) tells him, he’s become one.
It’s not that difficult to connect the dots. In an opening scene, he has to send someone else to make the personal film for him—not because he doesn’t want to, but because he’s worth too much to too many people. (It’s Banning’s son’s baseball game in the movie.) In a continuous scene, he even dons Spielberg’s trademark blue baseball cap. Peter Pan can no longer fly, indeed is afraid of it, but the corporate jet he uneasily rides in carries his namesake: Pan-Am. Another artist has become a brand.
Flying, metaphorically or otherwise, is about freedom, but it’s only for those who can hold on to their happy thought - their muse. Unfortunately for Peter Banning and Steven Spielberg alike, a muse and the freedom to follow it are the only things you can’t take with you on the corporate jet.
It’s a lesson he learned early and often. The movie that ended up getting him his first studio job, Amblin’, drew eager offers from advertisers eager to exploit his gift for sunny, sensual moviemaking. He turned them down, accepting an offer for television work that, he was told, might lead to features.
When he finally got a chance to make one, he fashioned a gutsy little drama about a Texan couple on the lam, pursued by the authorities but pursuant to a higher authority. It didn’t make any money. Then he made Jaws, and it did.
After this, once again, he turned down offers from eager, money-hungry financiers, who this time wanted him to make sure-fire hits like Jaws 2, a remake of King Kong, and Superman. Instead, he wrote his own script, a wacky alien encounter story he had always held close to his heart. It was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and it made so much money that you are likely to have contributed some yourself.
More success, more money, more strings. It would be his last sole-author screenplay. Henceforth his films would fall into two categories: blockbusters and prestige pictures—neither of which term is used here pejoratively. His movies have been wonderful, from E. T. to Saving Private Ryan. They’ve just never been totem poles.
A filmmaker of Spielberg’s clout, both financially and culturally, cannot afford to fail. His blockbusters must make money; his prestige pictures must win Oscars. But it takes a leap of faith to fly, and thanks to the studio system that has sustained and celebrated him so loyally, he is unable to take one.
His blockbusters are the coveted tent-pole productions of massive studios and their overarching conglomerates, and in any major creative way, they are not up for discussion. His prestige pictures, admirably frequent and earnestly made, are rarely hinged on controversial themes, just intense ones. These films explore - passionately, crucially, but cautiously - the horrors of the holocaust (Schindler’s List), the courageous sacrifice of our veterans (Saving Private Ryan), and the tragic legacy of slavery (Amistad and The Color Purple).
They are important films, important to the culture, but from a strictly cinematic point of view, the director could have been anyone - even if it had to be Spielberg. By that I mean they are defined far more by their subject matter, their marketing oomph, and their lavish production values than by any single authorial vision. They are more or less like public works projects, and such projects do not require or permit the director’s own voice to be audible, however prestigious that director may be.
So we are left with an artist who is not able to express himself, and who is rewarded all the more the less he does. Little wonder that his films are so often populated with protagonists considered important to those who surround them, but who feel unworthy of being invested with that importance. Oskar Schindler was haunted by the fact that he “could have done more”, Private Ryan is moved to try to “earn this”. His biopic of Abraham Lincoln chronicles the life of a man who was charged with the terrible public responsibility of preserving the union - a responsibility that killed him.
It would be too much to suggest that Spielberg has some sort of submerged, frustrated Robert Altman inside him who wants to come out. He is doing what he loves doing, telling unforgettable stories with a legion of glowing colleagues around him and admirers around the world. He probably doesn’t want to make his own 3 Women.
But maybe he's aware at some level that he isn’t who he looks like, that he’s not one of the immortals, that he’s propped up far above his actual height. He’s no midget, but he probably knows that he’s not a giant.
Maybe he doesn’t think that E. T. would wield as much influence as Wild Strawberries or Grand Illusion in a fair fight.
Maybe he suspects that if hundreds of millions of dollars were spent marketing a Bresson or a De Sica, we’d remember Balthazar instead of the T-Rex, and the bicycle thief would be the other member of our family instead of Indiana Jones. Maybe this was never really his idea of how studio filmmaking should be. Maybe he’s sorry he won.
In his deliriously entertaining film Catch Me if You Can, a young con artist rides on his charm and talent to deceive people out of their money and their respect. He writes bad checks and plays dress-up as an airline pilot - the kind of person who actually does something meaningful.
There’s a scene where he goes to brag to his estranged father about how well he’s doing, how he’s been stealing from the banks, outsmarting the cops, lying to the government, and getting away with it. His father is proud of his son, happy - he salutes him for his behavior and eggs him on for more. 'You got their number, son…Pow, for the moon.'
The camera angles in on the con man, still only a boy really, even if he is wearing an expensive suit. He taps the table with his fingers, rubs his forehead. He gets up to leave. 'Dad, it’s over,' he says. 'I’m gonna stop now.'
His father is incredulous. 'They’re never going to catch you,' he says, confused. He tells him to settle down. 'Sit with me, have a drink. I’m your father.'
The boy leans in, and so does the camera, a lens flare at the edge of the frame. 'Then ask me to stop,' he says, crestfallen. 'Ask me to stop.'