The most powerful moviemaker in Hollywood. Almost everything he touches turns to gold. He is currently in a position of such commercial power that the Hollywood needs him much more than he needs it. He is none other than Steven Spielberg – a name that provokes a residual resentment on the part of rivals and dependents.
The impression one has of Spielberg from his films is that he combines a disarming blend of innocence with precociousness. The sense of innocence comes from the childlike wonder with which he imbues such colossal hits as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T (1982). The sense of precociousness comes from the technique; the kind of sophisticated craftsmanship where camera placement seems instinctively right and the ability to tell a story through the camera comes as natural as breathing.
Spielberg rose to prominence with the extremely talented generation of movie brats (Coppola, Scorsese, de Palma and Lucas) who took over Hollywood in the early 1970s. However he was different from most of them in many respects. He tells stories rather than dissects characters or indulges his style. He believes in the filmmaker as entertainer more than in the director as ego. Quoting Spielberg “ Cinema is the place for eliciting of mass emotion, not the expression of private pain”.
Nevertheless, although he has been quite happy to be labeled a ‘popcorn entertainer’, he has deftly shuffled some subtlety and sophistication into that populist label. He has described his style and his film world as ‘heightened reality’ but it is a reality that is fun to live rather than depressing or intolerable. There are considerable tensions in Spielberg films, as anyone who jumped and shivered and sweated his way through Duel (1971), Jaws (1975), Jurassic Park (1993) and War of the Worlds (2005) knows. But the tensions in Spielberg correspond more to the frisson of the cartoon and the funfair than the permanent pains of real life. The basic pattern of a Spielberg movie is the situation of ordinary people being compelled to react to extra-ordinary events. The movies invariably begin with a world close enough to our own to forge some identification.
Escape is perhaps the most recurrent situation in a Spielberg film and a dominant theme. Whatever the implications of the theme, it is clear that audiences are drawn to Spielberg films for precisely the sense of escape that they offer – from the drabness of ordinary life, from the limitations of reality or from the boredom of television soaps.
It is interesting that there is no critical consensus about what is Spielberg’s best film to date. He himself would probably favor E.T for its quality of wonder, but one could make equally strong claims for the supreme theme of Saving Private Ryan or the emotional uplift of Schindler’s List. Some like us do believe that his ultimate masterpiece is yet to come, which is a mouth-watering prospect.
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