Spielberg the Propagandist

Posted: June 8, 2008 in Artistry, Cinema, Culture, Taste
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The first time I happened across an analysis excoriating Steven Spielberg’s films (or by proxy, the man himself), I thought it curious, even strange perhaps, that he was singled out for such invective. It’s indisputable that the fellow is an accomplished filmmaker, and his movies are almost always enjoyable and sometimes even good. If I bother to see a Spielberg movie in the theater, I usually expect to gobble my popcorn breathlessly and forget about the experience quickly after getting home, knowing it will be visually polished but narratively stunted. If the subject is more serious, I’ve learned to expect that I’ll be frustrated by the implications, not merely because the films open up uncomfortable questions on controversial subjects but because his treatments are usually found wanting after being filtered through his odd cinematic lens. (Cinema aspires to being art, but its feet are yet too firmly stuck in business, or money making; otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many formulaic films or constant criticism of cookie-cutter filmmaking.)

The second time I read how Spielberg is bad for film, I had to admit something is there, something more than idle enjoyment of a couple hours spent in the dark. It’s not just that the worldview presented in a Spielberg film is artificial — that’s true for almost all films — it’s that he has had a toxic effect on the whole enterprise. Consider this characterization, published in a review in the Chicago Reader:

It’s hard to remember what the world was like before Raiders of the Lost Ark. Back in 1981, when George Lucas and Steven Spielberg released their updated Saturday-afternoon cliffhanger, people were still capable of being surprised by a movie that was completely inauthentic. Raiders is a global adventure with no romance, a historical epic with no feeling for the past, a thriller with no trace of real danger. It means nothing, feels like nothing, and carries the implicit message that absolutely nothing matters. No wonder it was such a monster hit.

Raiders is no longer so startling because it’s become the basic template for Hollywood moviemaking. Jaws (1975) is often cited as the movie that created the Hollywood blockbuster mentality, but compared to Raiders, Jaws seems stately, patient, and lavishly atmospheric. Today’s average blockbuster is a Raiders-style mind-wipe. You know going in that there’ll be no culture, no intelligence, no wit (other than a corrosive adolescent jokiness), and no recognizable human emotion — just adrenaline. Because of Raiders, the average Hollywood movie has become indistinguishable from a panic attack.

The entire review is worth a read, and it gets at Spielberg’s failings, which may only become clear after some remove. Although the article is ostensible a review of an amateur remake of Raiders, the author’s criticisms of Raiders are just as applicable to the fourth, most recent Indiana Jones movie. One might expect the filmmaker and/or the character to have matured some in the years since their third outing even if the film genre in which they operate has become relatively fixed, but instead they’re basically up to their old tricks, which are a bit tiresome considering neither is an ingenue anymore.

For instance, one major narrative flaw was putting Indiana Jones through a nuclear test in the Nevada desert. I recall Harrison Ford giving up the successful Jack Ryan character in The Sum of All Fears, remarking that there was no way to recover from the depiction of a nuclear blast halfway in and continuing with the story. That event overwhelmed the rest of the story. It was a wise assessment, but it apparently doesn’t apply to Indiana Jones, who has more in common with a superhero — impossibly strong, able to take a pummeling without injury, and never needing sleep or even a breather — than an adventurer.

The other analysis is directed to much more serious stuff: Saving Private Ryan. Like Spielberg’s other treatment of World War II, Schindler’s List, the tone and intent couldn’t be more sobering, but it becomes clear with only a bit of consideration that these cinematic morality tales are heavily laden with propaganda. As memory serves, he avoids the awfulness of mentioning Hitler (which is usually so awful and divisive that to do so derails things in film just as in argument) in the serious films; that’s instead used for a joke in the third Indiana Jones film. This is some of what Curtis White has to say in his book The Middle Mind (2004):

At one level, as the film’s title announces, it is about the last surviving son of a family and the heroic efforts of a platoon of American soldiers to find him and return him safely to his mother. But at a second level, Private Ryan is about a command not to kill a German prisoner who then returns to kill Americans, most notably the heroic Captain Miller. Thus the movie’s frightening lesson (one that I’ve come to think of as archetypically North American) is [this]: always choose death, for if you do not, death will come anyway, later, multiplied.

White goes on to provide an eight-page reading of the film in an attempt to “abstract the integument of structure from a piece of narrative art in order to begin to talk about how the thing means (i.e., creates an ethical world).” The results are astonishing. One revealing thing is Spielberg’s knack for ham-fisted gestures and citation of archetypes, not unlike the narrative style I discussed in an earlier post on Soundbite TV. In the serious films, the citations are subtly jingoistic, whereas in the comic and adventure films, they tend to be jokes even when they raise issues such as atomic angst or Cold War paranoia. The misappropriated gestures are just as important, though, considering they are used wantonly for throw-away narrative effect.

Indeed, that’s the end result of viewing a Spielberg film: being goosed and prodded and egged on by a rapid-fire series of propagandist moves where one never has time to settle and sink in before the next comes along to destabilize the viewer. That’s why the first quote above correctly assesses a typical Hollywood film in the Spielberg era as being “indistinguishable from a panic attack.” Films are now nonstop visual, auditory, and emotional assaults, and the unacknowledged originator of this style is Spielberg.

  1. Leave it you, Brutus, to present a whole new way of considering what’s going on in Spielberg’s movies and how it affects us as a culture, even those of us who’ve seen only Schlindler’s List (that would be Manny and me.)
    Insight is one thing. But after reading so many Raider reviews, you’re offering a wholly original take.

  2. Brutus says:

    I can’t really take credit for a wholly new perspective on Spielberg’s films. What I’ve written is derivative of the reviews I have read, and my embellishment doesn’t quite rise to complete originality.

  3. FassbinderFan says:

    One of the most brutal and thought provoking take-downs of Spielberg I read on this site: http://kubrickfilms.tripod.com/id78.html (down the page). Good reading on Saving Private Ryan.

    • Brutus says:

      Yup, lots of interesting commentary at that link. I didn’t read all of it, but much of what I did read sounds like the work of academic and pundits skilled in the rhetoric of their fields. I used to aspire to that kind of writing, but no more.

      Probably the best idea I’ll add here (from what I read at that link) is that the so-called malaise of various Vietnam films of the 70s and 80s was reversed as filmmakers returned to WWII and the Revolutionary War — victorious wars for the U.S. — to rehabilitate the sense of just war and necessary sacrifice lost when we became the losers at war.

      • rg the lg says:

        It occurs to me that the US has actually won very few wars …
        The revolution wasn’t so much won, as Britain quit …
        The War of 1812 was a British victory in all but the post-war battle of new orleans …
        The civil war had, and still hasn’t, any winners …
        The alleged war with Spain hardly counts …
        WWI was essentially over by the time we entered as the combatants finally quite fighting …
        Had it not been for the Russians sacrificing themselves against Germany, I wonder how WWII would have ended …
        Then there is Korea … Vietnam … Iraq … Iran … Kuwait .. Somalia … Lebanon … even Grenada … wars in name only … or police actions … only our treatment of Haiti can be seen as a military victory …
        Does that make us losers?
        No … out of each alleged war we expanded our empire … and became … what (not who) we are today …

        I am sure someone will take this analysis … blathering bit of irritability … to task. Good … aside from the usual BS about the ‘good guy’ American … only Rambo wins … and he even kicks the shit out of the police and national guard … so who wins then … ?

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