Where to begin. Perhaps with the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry: "Steven Allan Spielberg KBE (Hons.) (born December 18, 1946) is an American film director, screenwriter, producer, video game designer, and studio entrepreneur." And this year, as he turns 65, he's Father Christmas, too — at least at the box office. After a mightily successful run in Europe, The Adventures of Tintin opens in the US on Wednesday, followed by War Horse on Christmas Day.
"Every time a new Steven Spielberg film opens, a divisive critical discourse emerges," wrote Michael Koresky and Jeff Reichert in 2003, introducing a symposium at Reverse Shot. "Are Saving Private Ryan and Amistad heavily critical of American history, or are they glowing tributes to democracy? Is The Color Purple a progressive portrayal of a region mostly ignored by Hollywood, or a sugarcoated bastardization of Alice Walker's far grittier novel? Is A.I. sentimentalized Kubrick or cynical Spielberg? Does Schindler's List's high-contrast aesthetic provide a clear-eyed document of the horrors of the Holocaust, or does it overly stylize and even trivialize the genocidal atrocities? And is the film more fixated on life or death? And does one make it more valid than the other?… Is there any other studio director that seems to so often summarize film history itself? Within Spielberg's oeuvre, we can intermittently get Kubrick's visual grandeur, Hitchcock's audience penetration, Ozu's moral capacity, Renoir's social critique, and Ford's classical formalism, yet all of it arrives with Spielberg's own ethical baggage, a specific set of values and themes that pop up in whatever genre he's playing with…. Hell, even if it was filtered through a succession of flat slapstick gags, 1941 now seems infinitely more politically advanced than any film that has since dealt with Pearl Harbor."
On the one hand, presidents have been known to call him up for advice. On the other, Godard has used the term "Spielberg" to stand for more than the director and his work, or even for all of "Hollywood"; instead, the term refers to what he sees as a systemic threat to cinema itself. (For what it's worth, addressing Godard's "Spielberg" problem in his 2003 book Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70, Colin Macabe argued that "if the threat of Hollywood cinema is as great as Godard claims, he has now become incapable of seeing anything other than this threat.")
Press Play is in the midst of rolling out a series of video essays, Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg. In the Introduction, Matt Zoller Seitz, Ari Arikan and Serena Bramble argue that "a closer look at the Spielberg canon betrays a remarkable depth of feeling and consistency of vision; a recurring set of interests, expressed with increasing subtlety and dexterity over time; a distinctive moral sense; a philosophy of life…. The fact that Spielberg is perfectly attuned to the commercial aspects of cinema does not preclude the idea that he is a master artist, who's worthy of appreciation and study. JG Ballard, whose memoir-novel Empire of the Sun was adapted by Spielberg back in 1987, once wrote:
The qualities that the cineastes see as weaknesses, I see as Spielberg's strengths, and as the reason why he is one of today's most important filmmakers — the producer-director who single-handedly saved the Hollywood film when it threatened to founder in the Seventies. Besides, sentimentality and spectacle have a valuable place in the arts, as in the operas of Puccini — though there are puritans who feel slightly queasy at the thought of Tosca and Madama Butterfly. In many ways Spielberg is the Puccini of cinema, one of the highest compliments I can pay. He may be a little too sweet for some tastes, but what melodies, what orchestrations, what cathedrals of emotion."
In the second video of the series, Simon Abrams and Richard Seitz address Spielberg's handling of violence. So far, the series has also been accompanied by an essay from Aaron Aradillas: "It is often said that Steven Spielberg's Jaws… ushered in what we now know as the modern blockbuster…. Look closely and you'll see it is actually the last old-fashioned adventure, a kind of farewell to a rickety yet sturdy style of Hollywood filmmaking — and values."
Fandor's Kevin B Lee opens another video essay, embedded above: "If there is one recurring image that defines the cinema of Steven Spielberg, it is The Spielberg Face. Eyes open, staring in wordless wonder in a moment where time stands still. But above all, a child-like surrender in the act of watching, both theirs and ours. It’s as if their total submission to what they are seeing mirrors our own."
Update, 12/19: The third video in Press Play's series is up: Matt Zoller Seitz on communication in Spielberg's work.
Update, 12/20: "When Spielberg accepted the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award in 1995, he singled out two of his longtime collaborators. Audiences watching the special at home that night would probably have seen the first one — John Williams — coming a mile away. But the second name Spielberg mentioned would be unfamiliar to many. 'And, wherever you are, my lifelong editor, Michael Kahn, I wouldn't be standing up here without you,' Spielberg said." At Press Play, Peter Tonguette talks with Kahn about that working relationship and about editing War Horse and Tintin.
Update, 12/21: Today's Press Play video essay: Matt Zoller Seitz, Ali Arikan and Kevin B Lee on "Evil and Authority" in Spielberg's work.
Updates, 12/23: In Press Play's fifth video essay, Matt Zoller Seitz, Aaron Aradillas and Steven Santos consider Spielberg's father figures.
The Playlist revisits Spielberg's spectacles and his more serious side.
Update, 1/1: Press Play's Chapter 6, from Aaron Aradillas and Matt Zoller Seitz: "Indiana Jones and the Story of Life."