Darren Slade

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There is more than a touch of sour grapes implicit in critical attitudes to the films of Steven Spielberg. The middlebrow film press have generally come to terms with his phenomenal success by acknowledging Spielberg as a skilful manipulator of the audience's emotions, but have denounced his films at the same time as being sentimental, calculated and devoid of ideas. The response to his films has highlighted a prevailing critical resentment of movies that work largely on a visceral or emotional level; that such films must necessarily be intellectually vacuous is taken for granted. But the most vitriolic and frequently hysterical, indictments of Spielberg’s output have come from elements of film criticism's intellectual left, who have seen his movies as insidious endorsements of prevalent ideologies and of Reaganite American values. The assumption underlying these critical attitudes is that th e enormous popular appeal of these films rules out the possibility of their being a) good, or b) ideologically challenging. We suggest that these are grossly over-simplified ways of looking at Spielberg's work, and that such approaches need to be re-assessed before they are irrevocably enshrined as an impregnable critical orthodoxy. 

The groundwork for a critical re-evaluation of Spielberg's films has, to some extent, been laid within the pages of Sight and Sound by the autuerist readings of Gilbert Adair and Chris Auty, but the arguments have not nearly been won yet. This discussion will deal exclusively with Spielberg the director, rather than the producer, and will focus on his films prior to 1985's The Color Purple, because the latter seems to fall into a category of its own, as does Empire of the Sun (1987). Both show their liberal sentiments on their sleeves, whilst it is the issues surrounding Spielberg's less self-consciously 'serious' films we wish to deal with here. 

Perhaps the most commonly asserted judgement of Spielberg's work is that he is the 'poet of suburbia', a director whose style glorifies and celebrates the culture of Middle American suburbia - the implication usually being that he does so in a fatuous and completely and uncritical way. This notion has been advanced so often that many critics now seem content to repeat it ad infinitum without ever stopping to questions its validity. It is true that Spielberg's narratives are frequently based around the intrusion of the supernormal or extra-rational into the safe existence of American suburbia (primarily Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., but the theme also runs through Duel, Jaws and 1941), but what seems to have eluded most critics is the fact that suburbia hardly comes off best from the contrast. 

Hence, whilst the first half of Close Encounters is profoundly disturbing because it details the invasion by an alien force of a familiar suburban environment, whose icons are clearly earmarked, the resolution sees the electrical engineer Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) escaping to new horizons from a world of domestic quarrels, TV commercials, middle American Walter Cronkite ideology, and troublesome children who prefer the crassness of Goofy Golf to the magic of Disney's Pinocchio. In E.T., suburbia's destructive qualities are elucidated even more clearly. Here, the human hero Elliot (Henry Thomas) is a young boy who has been so alienated from real familial affection by the pressures of suburban adolescence that he is, in Spielberg's words, "on the verge of becoming not a very nice kid." E.T. himself is literally choked by the suburban environment, and can only be revived by the arrival of his own race to take him back to a far-off world where love and nature have free reign. Significantly, it is only through the arrival of an alien creature into his suburban existence that Elliot can learn to give vent to real emotions; hence his line; 

"I know you must be dead, because I don't know how to feel anymore." 

Another criticism that has been made against Spielberg's vision of suburban America is that it is a sexist, male- dominated world in which women are marginalized as irrelevant and/or insensitive to cosmic issues. In fact, one can easily argue quite the reverse. The women in Spielberg's films are frequently presented as less emotionally repressed than the men, less obsessively rational, and consequently more receptive to the forces of the supernatural. Perhaps the first articulation of this theme occurs in his TV movie Something Evil, in which Marjorie Worden (Sandy Dennis) is aware of the operation of malevolent paranormal forces which her advertising executive husband Paul (Darren McGavin) cannot appreciate. As in Poltergeist, scripted and produced by Spielberg ten years later, it is only the mystical bond between mother and child which exists because of the woman's emotional non- repressiveness that enables the child to be rescued from the invading spirits. In E.T., the mother figure is again associated with children, not through any reactionary equation of womanhood with domesticity, but because both are receptive to the emotionality of the extra-terrestrial, since, unlike the scientists representing male adulthood, they are not straightjacketed by over-rationality. Hence the associative editing of the film's final scene, cutting from Elliot's face to the rainbow left behind by the alien spaceship, and then to the transformation of his mother's face into a child-like smile. 

It would be foolish to suggest that Spielberg uses his knowledge of suburban detail to posit a totally damning critique of middle America. One has only to look at, say, the scenes in E.T. in which the alien learns to talk by watching Sesame Street and thrills to a screening of The Quiet Man, to see that Spielberg does indeed revere certain aspects of suburban culture. The films' interest lies in their elaboration of the contradictions within suburban life - the co-existence of the exhilarating and the limiting, the inspiring and the alienating. This aspect of Spielberg s work has been usefully identified by Chris Auty (in his Monthly Film Bulletin review of Poltergeist, September 1982): 

Suburbia for Spielberg is like the libido - a lake of contradictory wishes and impulses which can be expressed in forms either beatific or horrific. 

Another prevalent criticism of Spielberg's films - and a much harder one to substantiate - has been that they show a fatuous faith in authority and in the ability of the dominant ideology to solve any possible intrusions into the structure of the status quo. 

That such a view has become accepted as fact seems particularly unaccountable, since virtually all of Spielberg's films seem to present a rather paranoid view of inhuman, conspiratorial authority. A glance at their narratives at even the most superficial of levels seems to bear this out; Jaws displays a post-Watergate view of the powers that be, embodied by the figure of Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), who orders the public beaches to be kept open whilst the marauding shark lurks in the water; in Close Encounters the military concoct an elaborate ruse to terrify the public into fleeing from the area where high-level government research into UFOs is taking place; in Raiders, the U.S. government's intelligence experts have the awesomely powerful Lost Ark packaged among thousands of obscure secret artefacts; in E.T., the authorities pursue the alien for their own ends and callously allow him to die in their hands. The most explicit delineation of Spielberg's paranoia around authority figures is 1941, in which a cross-section of the American military from the dangerously incompetent to the mentally deranged prove themselves to be more lethal than the enemy forces. In The Sugarland Express, a harmless young pair of fugitives are pursued and destroyed by the forces of law and order. In this case, Spielberg's attitude towards the individual lawmen is generally one of compassion and humanism - Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) is depicted as being forced into the wrong moral choices by the pressures brought to bear upon him, and the narrative's tragic resolution is presented as the result of inexorable social forces. Whether lampooning it, or holding it responsible for life's injustices and tragedies, Spielberg's films articulate a profound distrust of anonymous, yet powerful, authority. 

A slightly different set of critical issues have surrounded Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which, for want of a less lofty term, can be categorised as Spielberg's most explicitly post-modernist films. The two movies play none too seriously upon the generic conventions of the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s. They offer no greatly disapproving view of these serials, because above all Spielberg likes the movies he alludes to. But to argue, as a number of theorists have, that the films simply offer the audience a set of fantasies around male domination, anti-feminism, jingoism and anti-Third World racism, is not only to completely overlook the sense of irony which Spielberg casts across the whole project, but to conveniently ignore a whole set of meanings which militate against such interpretations. 

To tackle the issue of the Raiders films' gender attitudes first, the most obvious aspect of the films which certain critics (e.g. Patricia Zimmermann, 'Soldiers of Fortune' in Wide Angle Vol. 6 No. 2) have overlooked is the succession of incidents whose humour derives from the demolition of conventional notions of the assertive male hero. Certainly, Indiana Jones expresses a range of characteristics handed down from the likes of John Wayne or Buster Crabbe - but there is much within the films to problematise the whole myth of the, male superhero. Indy's snake phobia is a key case in point - one could hardly imagine Crabbe or Johnny Weismuller squirming at the sight of the reptile pit; neither could one visualise James Bond being so badly bruised and exhausted from his adventures as to fall asleep when required to enact the obligatory romantic scene. Importantly, Indy's daring-do seems frequently to arise from desperation rather than from coolness and calculation. In Indiana Jones, the progression of cliffhangers depends largely on a sense of Indy's vaguely deranged clutching at straws in the face of adversity. As a result, he is seen groping across a crowded dance floor for an antidote to a poison he has just drunk; left screaming for help in a dungeon whose spiked roof is moving down upon him; forced to stop a speeding mine car by using his foot as a brake; and left devoid of inspiration when surrounded by marauding swordsmen on a narrow rope bridge. 

The charge of racism is even more unwarranted. Granted, Spielberg's intentions may have backfired somewhat in that a genuine desire to express a fascination with the civilization and folkloric traditions of other cultures has been interpreted as a rendering of those cultures as exotic and/or marginal. But, as far as these Third World cultures are seen to be in conflict with the West, it is the rationality of the western point of view which comes off worst. In Raiders, Indy's pursuit of the Ark of the Covenant is based on a rational, university- educated scientific curiosity, and on a mercenary thirst for glory, but the film's climax affirms the status of the Ark as a source of phenomenal holy power with which the over-rational approach of the West cannot deal. In Indiana Jones, the starving Indian villagers' apparently superstitious belief in the mystical Sankara stones is validated by the film's closure, and the centre of villainy is seen to be the Prime Minister Chattar Lal - the one character who has assimilated rational, 'civilised' Western values. The final exchange between Indy and the village Chieftain (who says "Now you see the magic of the stone you return to us"; Indy replies, "Yes, I understand its power now.") hardly bears out accusations made against the film that the superiority of white civilisation is seen to save the day. (Also see: A Fear of Foreigners (As Well As Snakes): Xenophobic Undercurrents in Raiders of the Lost Ark by Jeff Jarot.)

It is not our contention that Spielberg is an overtly radical director (in fact, it would be easier to situate the implicit political standpoint of his work in terms of the liberal humanist tradition in American cinema). But he is an intelligent, if not (perhaps thankfully) an intellectual filmmaker whose films display the operation of a host of recurrent thematic ideas. To argue that his films are mindless reactionary entertainments for right-wing audiences is not only to display an offensively elitist attitude to the mass audience, but also to ignore the somewhat anti-establishment concerns which Spielberg's films have consistently elaborated. Having attempted to answer these criticisms, discussion around Spielberg can move on to the question of a study of the films' aesthetic virtues in their own right. 



This unofficial site contains up-to-date news about Spielberg's films and productions. Contains essays and information about most of his output and aims to be a complete database.






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