Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Meditations on Steven Spielberg
My personal favorite scene from all of Spielberg's movies. It
makes me like him, in spite of my reasons for not liking him.
ALWAYS PONDERING. Last night I watched a movie I'd never seen, Always, and then went to bed. This morning I woke with no memory of having dreamed, but the first thought in my head was a question: Why isn't Steven Spielberg a conservative Republican? He isn't, of course, as Wikipedia makes clear:
That's why this post. I don't have the answer as I write this. I don't even have the answer to the question of why the question should matter to me or anyone. But when I wake up with a stark question of this sort, as I sometimes do, I try to find an answer. The subconscious sometimes has something in mind (pun intended). Yet I can't promise that this is going anywhere. It might be a series of provocative non sequiturs without a conclusion. Still, thinking out loud or on paper (or on-screen) is its own kind of window. What you see through that window is up to you.
I'll start with the catalyst. Always is a decidedly odd choice for a big-time director, an updated remake of a not particularly distinguished Spencer Tracy WWII vehicle called A Guy Named Joe about a daredevil pilot who dies and comes back as a novice angel to help a novice pilot learn how to fly. Spielberg's version featured Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, Brad Johnson, John Goodman, and Audrey Hepburn in her final movie role as, ironically(?), the angel who guides Richard Dreyfuss from death to the afterlife. Audrey was beautiful but largely wasted in the part, which came across as a coy cameo. Holly Hunter was, as always, a force of nature, but this time stuffed into a character that never quite let her take flight (pun intend-- well,. let's get back to that later). John Goodman was great, Brad Johnson was unexpectedly charming, and Richard Dreyfuss was a fatal miscast. He's not Spencer Tracy, he's not a hero-type, and his constant acting was a constant reminder that this was a movie, one in which he was a method fish thrashing annoyingly in sentimental waters.
The puns do seem to be piling up. Spielberg did a movie about a daredevil angel trying to earn his wings by teaching his aviationally challenged girlfriend, and his own romantic successor, to fly. Isn't that too clever by half? And he destroys his own homage to one of the great actors of all time by choosing for the lead role a stand-in for himself, the hopelessly uncool, eponymous protagonist of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Who's really grappling with flight issues here? Not forgetting for a moment that in this context, flying is living.
Airplanes and helicopters, the mechanical manifestations of flight, are ubiquitous in Spielberg movies. It's plain to see that he just loves them (especially the silvery beauties of World War II vintage), which are important presences or backdrops in Empire of the Sun, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Band of Brothers, The Terminal, Always, and even the pilot episode of the doomed Amazing Stories TV series. Not to mention the meta-planes of Close Encounters and E.T. For Spielberg, flight is the departure point for adventure, excitement, drama, and romance.
He's criticized for being sentimental, although what he really is is a romantic fixated on the larger-than-life heroes of the World War II generation. It was Fitzgerald who defined the difference between a romantic and a sentimentalist: "The 'romantic,' as he distinguished him from the 'sentimentalist' in This Side of Paradise, had a 'desperate confidence' that things wouldn't last."
I'm thinking this is a key distinction in Spielberg's case. It may explain everything that seems contradictory about him. And there are plenty of contradictory things about him.
His movies are jam-packed with brats who never listen to or interact with their parents. One of the reasons I don't like a lot of his movies. I just want to smack the kids we're supposed to identify with. It's impossible to resist the impression that they're all stand-ins for Spielberg, the Kid who always knows better than what any adult is telling him. Spielberg is a good deal older than I am, but I've often felt I was brought up behind my time. My father was one of the last Victorians; when he told you what to do in that voice, you did it and you didn't answer back or, much worse, ignore him. Spielberg seems to have been brought up ahead of his time, merrily ignoring parental questions and edicts with the full confidence that there would be no consequences. Maybe that's what divorce does to you.
Yet in his movies that aren't expressly about bratty children, he seems to admire precisely the people who were brought up to do the hard thing, the dutiful thing, regardless of the danger. Saving Private Ryan is a monumental if flawed ode to a generation of men who absolutely could not have been brought up like all the self-absorbed jerky kids he insists on populating his more contemporary movies with. What gives with that?
And, yes, he's Jewish by birth, but that's not an answer. It's just another set of contradictions. He goes out on a limb to make Schindler's List, easily the fourteenth or twentieth best movie about the Holocaust (first if you count production budget), and then he turns around and crucifies Israel with the blatantly inaccurate and libelous movie called Munich, which plays into a lot of the worst anti-Israeli propaganda of our time, at the worst possible time for the world's Jews. If he ever was, he's not really a Jew anymore. The answer lies elsewhere.
So here's what I'm thinking. It's a nerd-geek-romantic-post-civilization kind of syndrome. He belongs to the very first wave of Baby Boomers (born in 1946), and he knows in his heart of hearts that his parents' generation was just flat superior to what has come after. He's the romantic who knows with 'desperate confidence' that such greatness does not last. In his mind, it ended with the end of World War II. So he sees no contradiction in having one set of values for the World War II generation and a completely different set of values for the post WWII generations. Philosophically, he's in the business of arbitrating the decline. He's a diehard patriot, but he no longer believes in the American tradition of self-reliance, achievement, duty, morality, and courage which built the country. He's a liberal by default, because all the heroes are dead or dying. The people who are left need a great big nanny government to compensate for their weaknesses. He's bi-polar about America. He made it on his own, thanks to his assimilation of the values he detected in the previous generation. But he no longer believes anyone else can.
Maybe that's why Always planted the question. It's a remake. Of a World War II movie. But the planes the pilots are flying are B-24 Liberator bombers (or something like). And it takes some scrambling on the part of the viewer to determine when exactly the action is supposed to be taking place. Time cues are few and mostly musical. What seems clear is that in Spielberg's mind, the story is still occurring in 1944, back when people had this kind of character, but because he knows his audience, he has to pretend it's happening some decades later. Problem is, the movie feels like 1944. It would have worked better without the commercial timeslip.
Gosh. This post is actually getting somewhere. I'll close with a quote from an older IP post that explains the "post-civilization" reference. What's sad is that Spielberg has come to believe American greatness is only a story, an artifact, a movie. He's spent his whole life on the outside looking in, an antihero geek convinced that the heroic past is only a glorious movie remembrance, not even realizing that his own life is proof that his "liberal" perspective on the helplessness of his fellow citizens is wrong.
When it comes to how leaders in all ages act, I believe post-modernism has always been with us in one key respect. This is that the complexity of contemporary life has (habitually) reached a point which can no longer be dominated by human will, either in the singular power of human individuality or the united spirit of a single community. It must be compromised to keep the impending catastrophe from doing us all in. We must, at last, begin to embrace the status quo, settle for less than our boldest dreams, initiate a process of self repudiation in recompense for the grievances of others, or even deny (or doubt) our own human right to survive. We become so supremely civilized we forget that survival is always at risk and always worth fighting for.
It's contemporary bias which blinds us to the fact that this is a recurring phase in human affairs. Every civilization has fallen, after all. Notably, the fall of every civilization has also been stage managed by small men in the grip of the syndrome I choose to call Post-Civilization. The fall always begins at the point when the supposedly wisest and smartest decide that the best days are behind, and the future can only be negotiated successfully be aiming lower, accepting more of the demands of opponents and enemies, and accepting the possibility that their most deeply held traditions may be flawed or defective. If a civilization were a human body, this would be a period of bleeding out, the slow numbing of limbs, the dimming of self-consciousness, the fading of strength, resignation to a death only faintly anticipated.
Most small men are simply flawed and, well, undersized, readily accepted by the hordes of like-minded comrades who are also self-righteously fixated on doing what seems easy right now. Sometimes, small men can even be courageous, as when they they defend the broken barricades of bad ideas their egos can't live without. The dangerous small men are those who possess enormous talent but approach their challenges with a post-civilization mentality. They seek to shepherd us gently into that good night where all journeys end. Their only ideal is the zero-sum game, because they are realistic, pragmatic, and wise.
He'd do better to realize that there are still brave men who fly P-38s, P-47s, P-51s -- and A-10 Thunderbolts and FA-18s -- who yet believe in the potential for good of mankind and the power of individual Americans -- and Israelis -- to make fine and glorious dreams come true.
Pull out! Pull out!
Pull out, Steven. I think that's what I wanted to say. We ALL have more talent for flying than you think. Release yourself and believe again. If YOU can, maybe some of the deluded Obama faithful can too. Maybe that's how you earn your wings.