Citizen Spielberg, (Lester D. Friedman, University of Illinois Press, 2006)
Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg (Andrew M. Gordon, Rowman and Littlefield, 2007)
DAVID ST HUBBINS [Michael McKean]: It’s such a fine line between stupid, and…
DEREK SMALLS [Harry Shearer]: … and clever.
– This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)
Two familiar devices are used to frame the discussion of Steven Spielberg’s films in Lester D. Friedman’s Citizen Spielberg and Andrew M. Gordon’s Empire of Dreams. The first is the mandatory apology: the slightly defensive opening where the author justifies their interest in such a populist and ubiquitous filmmaker. One would hope such protestations are no longer needed, but I suspect Friedman has not exaggerated the snobbishly dismissive reactions of many colleagues when he told them the subject of his book. Dropping Spielberg’s name with any enthusiasm into a film-related discussion is still a faux pas worthy of the same sort of awkward silence that might follow a fart at a dinner party; we should not be harsh on authors for offering such an apologetic opening while these attitudes prevail.1 The second familiar introductory refrain is that the existing work on the subject is patchy or misguided, allowing the present author to sweep in and produce a definitive account. With regards to coverage, the case is hard to make; Spielberg’s work has been the subject of a number of book length studies already.2 While these, of course, have their own quirks and flaws, collectively they amount to a substantial body of critical work, and it is hard to sustain an argument that Spielberg’s work is under-discussed. Gordon’s approach is to differentiate his book by concentrating on a niche of Spielberg’s filmography (albeit a large niche that covers much of his output) – science fiction and fantasy films; while Friedman distinguishes his book from the others which he categorises as either biography, interviews, behind-the-scenes accounts or “general commentaries for fans” (p.1). However, I’m not sure that such categorical nit-picking can really sustain Friedman’s contention that scholars have “ignored” Spielberg (p.1). What is perhaps more accurate – and this brings us back to the point about snobbery – is that the vast amount of critical and academic work on Spielberg has failed to substantially shift opinions of his basic merits as a filmmaker. Peter Biskind’s Spielberg-and-Lucas-destroyed-Hollywood narrative is still all-too widespread.3, and there remains a tendency to fixate on certain aspects of his style (like characters gaping up at bright lights) that are perhaps more appropriate to a study of his work circa 1983. I have little doubt that Spielberg’s reputation will rise over time, as a generation of critics and theorists who have grown up with Spielberg and have an ingrained sympathy towards him come to the fore.4 For now, though, there is enough orthodoxy in the approach to Spielberg that Friedman and Gordon can cast themselves as iconoclasts for offering even a limited defence of him.
Friedman, for his part, sounds defensive even about his methodology, feeling the need to explain in his introduction why he would offer an account of Spielberg’s work that is based predominantly on genre and auteurist frameworks. The choice seems natural enough for the study of a filmmaker so noted for his genre filmmaking, but the fact that Friedman feels compelled to defend such a choice is the first hint of a problem that starts to beset academic studies of such an accessible and popular filmmaker as Spielberg. Both Friedman and Gordon are academics,5 and both studies would be categorised as academic works. Yet, of course, when dealing with a subject like Spielberg, there will be interest from a wider perspective, and both books have penetrated well beyond academic spheres into regular bookstores; inevitably, publishers will have an eye on that market. Which is a good thing, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that either book is dumbed down. On the contrary, the defensiveness of both authors about the subject suggests their eagerness to ensure that their academic credibility not be questioned due to their writing about a “dumb” filmmaker like Spielberg. This imperative flavours each book in its own way.
Citizen Spielberg walks the line between popular and academic study particularly adroitly. Friedman’s writing style is admirable for its clarity, making the book accessible to a wide audience and particularly suitable as a structuring text for courses on Spielberg at undergraduate level (and Friedman makes it clear this was the exact role he intended the book to fulfill). Rather than the chronological structure that has been used by many previous studies of Spielberg, Friedman opts for a thematic study, grouping the director’s films into category-based chapters, and ordering the sections with a progression towards the “serious” end of Spielberg’s spectrum: science fiction and fantasy, covering Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Always (1989), Hook (1991), AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2001); action-adventure melodramas – The Sugarland Express (1974), Catch Me If You Can (2002), and the Indiana Jones films: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989); monster movies – Duel (1971), Jaws (1975), Jurassic Park (1993), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), and War of the Worlds (2005); World War II combat movies – 1941 (1979), Empire of the Sun (1987), and Saving Private Ryan (1998); social problem / ethnic minority films – The Color Purple (1985), Amistad (1997), The Terminal (2004); and a separate chapter purely for the difficult subject of Schindler’s List (1993). Such a taxonomy can always be picked at, since it will tend to emphasise some links between films while underplaying others, and I have my own inevitable quibbles: War of the Worlds seems to me best understood in opposition to Close Encounters; I don’t really feel the Indiana Jones films have much to do with The Sugarland Express and Catch Me If You Can; Spielberg’s three World War II movies are so different in approach that they too seem awkwardly grouped; and so on. However, given the plethora of chronological studies of Spielberg, it is reasonable for Friedman to take a different approach, and generally he is careful to draw links across chapters where appropriate.
In each chapter, Friedman makes some attempt to discuss previous theoretical approaches to the genre or category under discussion, and the merits of these discussions vary somewhat between chapters. Theory buffs might be troubled by two aspects of Friedman’s methodology. Firstly, Friedman’s anticipation that his choice of “retrograde” genre theories might be unpopular is probably well founded: his focus on such approaches will probably seem “soft” to those who like their theory dense, impenetrable, and more obviously theoretical. Secondly, Friedman’s discussion is never fully structured by the theories he draws on: in each chapter, he branches off onto numerous side issues in a manner that generally thwarts the emergence of any clearly formed, unifying “big idea”. Given that the book has also eschewed the inherent narrative structure afforded by a chronological discussion, this means at times the chapters lack a strong structure to tie them together. At the same time, however, in some chapters the theories Friedman does use don’t seem particularly helpful. For example, the chapter on Spielberg’s science fiction and fantasy films discusses various structuralist models of the genres, but Friedman is briefly summarising theories that cover a massive variety of texts, in the context of a chapter already overflowing with content (given that at least half a dozen of Spielberg’s other films could be considered as science fiction or fantasy).6 Even where the theory is apt and well-grounded, it is difficult to glean much from such a generalised gesture towards theory. In a few cases, it doesn’t even seem a good fit, as with the discussion of melodrama in relation to the Indiana Jones films and Catch Me If You Can. This section struck me as strained, as if Friedman was searching for a generic model that mopped up the films that hadn’t fit into his other chapters.
If the nods to genre analysis are perhaps somewhat perfunctory, there are also patches where Friedman’s use of an auteurist approach leads him astray. The auteurist angle on Spielberg is familiar; previous general-audience books such as Douglas Brode’s The Films of Steven Spielberg or Ian Freer’s The Complete Spielberg have already discussed many of the recurring themes in the director’s work. The problem with discussing Spielberg’s work this way is twofold. Firstly, Spielberg’s preoccupations are both so well covered by previous studies (and, in many cases, so front-and-centre in the films themselves) that it is difficult for Friedman to find anything new or startling to say about them. Secondly, there is the long-standing problem with auteurist analysis, in that the search for recurring preoccupations might not actually tell us anything terribly useful about the films. For example, there is an unmistakeable recurring motif of bad or flawed fathers throughout Spielberg’s films; it is probably the most striking recurring theme across his work. But is that helpful in understanding the success of Spielberg’s films, their cultural significance, or their formal and aesthetic properties? Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is arguably the most thematically representative of Spielberg’s films, but I don’t think it is a particularly good or significant work. Throughout the book, Friedman uses close analysis of Spielberg’s techniques to show how these illuminate the recurring themes in his work, but given the director’s proficiency as a director of action and suspense, I would have been more interested in an analysis of the techniques through which Spielberg achieves his hold on audiences.
Despite all these reservations, Citizen Spielberg remains an excellent book, and an important addition to the literature on Spielberg. What’s good about it are the diversions from the broader underpinning frameworks. Friedman has a very firm grasp of the body of work critiquing Spielberg over the years, and the most valuable passages of the book are his robust defences of Spielberg from some of the more simplistic or misguided attacks. Friedman discusses the critiques of Spielberg as a reactionary Reaganite filmmaker; the accusations of sentimentalism; the alleged racism and sexism (particularly in relation to the Indiana Jones films); and the complex ideological battles fought about The Color Purple and Schindler’s List. Friedman is not uncritical of Spielberg, but he is clearly a sympathetic viewer of his films and he argues for a more nuanced reading than the director’s work has usually received. He also frequently notes the unfairness of some of the criticism, suggesting that elements in Spielberg’s films are singled out for criticism that would be accepted without comment from other directors. His rebuttals draw extensively on close analysis of the films, and in many examples he is able to persuasively demonstrate his point that critics have often seen what they want to see, rather than what is in the film. For example, he speaks of the criticism that Schindler’s List paints the Jews as an undistinguished mass of generic types, to be saved by the more fully sketched Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson). Yet Friedman notes that Spielberg insistently worked with screenwriter Steven Zaillian to widen the film’s scope to focus more on the stories of Jewish survivors and victims, rather than simply Schindler. Friedman points out that the film simply does not bear out such a criticism, with two major Jewish characters – Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) and Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz) – brought to the fore and given major subplots, and Stern’s role, in particular, far from that of a passive victim. In addition, Friedman points out how much care Spielberg takes to pick individuals out of the crowds and let us follow their unfolding stories through the movie; the sense that the Jews in Schindler’s List are depicted as an undifferentiated mass can really only arise from inattention, or preconceived ideological objections. Here, as elsewhere in the book, there is an undertone of exasperation to Friedman’s defence, with the implicit question being: “What more does Spielberg have to do?”
This concluding chapter on Schindler’s List is the best section of the book. Friedman tackles the thorny questions that arise from such a project – including the overarching question of whether a fictional depiction of the Holocaust should be attempted at all – with both sensitivity and intellectual rigour. Friedman is candid about the way in which his Jewish identity has informed his responses, starting the chapter with a personal history of his own intellectual and emotional relationship to the Holocaust, which he places in the context of a wider cultural forgetting of the events in the immediate postwar years. Friedman’s approach is a model for others to follow when dealing with issues where personal identity colours responses to a film: he doesn’t make his own experience the framework for the whole discussion, but at the same time he is honest about his relationship to the subject and to the film so that the reader can contextualise his views. The discussion of Schindler’s List that follows is wide ranging, solidly researched, methodical, and written with impeccable clarity.
As I have said, it is when Friedman focuses on the political, ideological and artistic debates about Spielberg that the book is most interesting, and in which it makes its most helpful contribution to understanding Spielberg’s films. These are, primarily, critical rather than theoretical debates (to the extent that we can helpfully draw such a distinction). This is the real rebuttal to the scorn for his theoretical models Friedman anticipates in his introduction. Theory – be it generic, auteurist, or the more contemporary theory Friedman worries his “postmodern colleagues” will criticise him for not using – simply may not always be the most helpful approach to Spielberg. I don’t mean this as a global objection to theory; but certainly it is worth reinforcing the point that theory should not be a precondition in a scholarly work such as Friedman’s. The danger is that the cultural cringe associated with a discussion of such an accessible filmmaker as Spielberg might encourage academics to get a little too clever for their own good. I had that sense frequently when reading Andrew M. Gordon’s Empire of Dreams.
The basic framework of Gordon’s book is promising. Gordon takes as his subject not the entirety of Spielberg’s filmography, but instead those films that fit (loosely sometimes) into the categories of science fiction and fantasy. Given Spielberg’s undoubted contribution to these genres, having directed several of the genres’ key works, a study that explores the significance of his work specifically to these genres has a lot of appeal. There’s also the fact that the selection of films that Gordon limits himself to encompasses so much of what is best about Spielberg, and excludes many of his later dramas, about which many of Spielberg’s admirers would have highly ambivalent responses. There are all sorts of good things in, say, Saving Private Ryan, Empire of the Sun, and Munich (2005), but I always feel a need to accompany any expression of admiration for those films with complicated disclaimers, qualifications and explanations. Yet for the best of the films Gordon covers – films like Jaws, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark – that kind of apology isn’t needed. I’ll just keep on loving E.T., and if unkind scrooges want to consider themselves too clever for its sincerity and warmth, I don’t feel a need to explain myself to them. It is with these films that Spielberg has made his most profound cultural impact, and they are his most perfectly realised works. The prospect of a detailed film-by-film study of this portion of the director’s work is therefore enticing.
The flipside to the quality of these films, however, is that they demand a slightly different kind of study. As I have suggested, Friedman’s book is at its strongest in recounting the debates surrounding the ideological implications of Spielberg’s films, and it is dramas such as Schindler’s List, The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan, and Munich that throw up the meatiest of such questions.7 I’m not suggesting that there isn’t room for ideological discussions of Spielberg’s blockbusters, but I do think that for these films there should be a stronger focus on the techniques Spielberg uses. Jaws, in particular, has already been the subject of some detailed works of close analysis that start to explore its wonderful technique,8 and Spielberg’s other genre films would benefit from more of these kind of analyses. What is it about Spielberg’s style and approach to the material that makes E.T. so beguiling? How does Spielberg’s choreography of action in the Indiana Jones films differ from other contemporary blockbusters? Such an approach will, I think, get closer to answering the questions of what people actually like about Spielberg’s films, and thus tell us more about the reasons for Spielberg’s success than other approaches. This is the kind of basic question that tends to be the focus of criticism, but which can fall by the wayside when writers turn to theory.
In Empire of Dreams, Gordon promisingly declares this issue – why these films have such wide appeal – as central to his project:
I deal with such questions as: how does Duel evoke paranoia in the audience? Why did the opening of Jaws so terrify me when I first saw it that I wanted to leave the theater? How does Spielberg make me identify with an extraterrestrial in E.T. and with a robot in A.I., so that E.T. makes me cry and A.I. makes me sad? And, by contrast, why do I find it so difficult to identify with the hero of Close Encounters, and why does the fantasy romance Always leave me cold? (p.2)
Yet Gordon’s focus is not so much on questions of technique or style. Instead, his answers to these questions predominantly lead him to various flavours of psychoanalytic theory. Those looking for a discussion of oedipal themes in Spielberg’s work, for example, will find this an invaluable study. The alien / supernatural phenomena in Close Encounters, E.T., and Poltergeist are explained as symbolising a return to a pre-oedipal stage; in E.T., Elliot (Henry Thomas) triumphs over the nightmare of castration anxiety “and finds a satisfactory resolution of the Oedipal crisis” (p.88); in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones’ (Harrison Ford) mission is “an oedipal quest which enacts ambivalent desires both to rebel against the father and to be reconciled with him” (and similar oedipal quests underlie the other films in the trilogy) (p.112); Always presents a “classic oedipal triangle” (p.156); in Hook, Wendy (Maggie Smith) has a “complicated, oedipal” relationship with Peter Banning (Robin Williams) (p.198); and John Anderton’s (Tom Cruise) relationship with his boss in Minority Report is “inherently oedipal” (p.247). Themes of oral and anal sadism make similar recurring appearances, and the discussion is book-ended by an invocation of the old Bertram Lewin / Jean-Louis Baudry chestnut of the “dream screen” to provide a psychoanalytic framework to the frequently cited regressive tendencies in the most populist of Spielberg’s films (pp.6, 274).9
There is obvious merit in looking at the psychological underpinnings of viewer responses to Spielberg’s films. Furthermore, I don’t think it a far-fetched proposition that we could undertake something of a psychological and symptomatic reading of Spielberg himself from his films: the recurring images of bad fathers in Spielberg’s films, for example, do seem to have some link to Spielberg’s sometimes rocky relationship with his own father, and Spielberg’s biographers have argued this point persuasively from the other direction.10 However, those positing deep-seated psychological explanations for the popularity of these films need to be careful that they are not overlooking more mundane explanations: that Jaws was successful because of its combination of impeccably staged adventure and suspense, a brilliant score, and appealing characters; or that we like Raiders of the Lost Ark because it combines immensely exciting action with a charismatic lead performance by Harrison Ford; or that we respond to E.T. because of its sensitive and realistic depiction of the lives of children. These thumbnails sketches of what is good about these films are not intended to dismiss psychology, but simply to note that when invoking psychological theories we need to be careful we don’t overreach. There is a need for clarity of methodology here: what aspects of our response demand a psychological explanation? And that then depends on the approach we take to explaining the psychology of the audience. In the broadest sense, any discussion of a film’s impact must be psychological (since no response would occur without some sort of mental process by the viewer), and in that sense, the case for discussing audience psychology is, I think, self-evident. For Gordon, however, his perfectly valid psychological emphasis frequently slides, without clear demarcation or justification, into a psychoanalytic analysis, and that is a different ballgame entirely. I tend to agree with Noël Carroll’s basic objection to psychoanalytic explanations of film theory, which is that the proper field of play for psychonalysis is explanation of the irrational, and where rational explanations exist for viewer responses, there is no work for psychonalysis to do.11
I am skirting around one of film theory’s Big Arguments here, between proponents of psychoanalytic, structural and post-structural film theory, and alternative approaches such as cognitivism outlined by theorists such as Carroll and David Bordwell. I don’t wish to get distracted by that wider debate or castigate Gordon simply for not following my favourite theoretical approaches.12 However, in the context of Empire of Dreams, the critical question is how plausibly this particular discussion unfolds, and repeatedly I found Gordon slipping from credible, generally well-written and firmly grounded discussion into much less convincing psychoanalytic explanations. For example, writing on Duel, Gordon undertakes a close analysis of the film that emphasises the undermining of David Mann’s (Dennis Weaver) masculinity, and the way he reasserts himself in his battle with the killer truck; few would question the basic validity of such a view of the film. Yet Gordon then goes further, arguing that in his paranoid state, Mann associates the truck with his mother, and then in turn, his own bodily waste:
I have suggested that the truck may symbolize for the hero the persecuting parents. But it also seems to embody the hero’s own hostile impulses against love objects turned against himself; that is one way to preserve the objects and disavow one’s aggressive or ambivalent feelings toward them. There are yet more possible levels of meaning associated with the persecuting force in paranoia. Some psychoanalysts claim that the symbolism of the persecuting object is strongly colored by the “anal sadistic” phase of development. Because the persecuting object represents whatever the person disavows or rejects in himself – such as homosexual or aggressive impulses – unconsciously it becomes associated with waste products… When the truck topples over a cliff at the end, the revenge is psychologically appropriate; one might say that Mann has eliminated the persecuting object by excreting it. (p.25)
Well, of course one might say such a thing, but should we? There is little about the actions at the climax of Duel that particularly suggests the act of excreting bodily waste – short of an object dropping from a height – and Gordon’s chief basis for associating the truck with waste is simply that it is dirty. Yet the dirtiness of the truck can be attributed to all sorts of other explanations: making it more ugly and threatening; obscuring the driver to increase the mystery around him or her; maximising the contrast with Mann’s shiny red car; and so on. If the evidence in the film creates only a vague analogy between the truck and human waste; and if the analogous points can be explained in some other way; and if that analogy then becomes the chief justification for invoking a psychoanalytic theory; then surely we must ask if that theoretical approach is the right one?
The reader’s confidence in the approaches being suggested isn’t helped by the indecisive language evident in the above quote, which recurs throughout the book, as in: “If E.T. is Elliott’s budding manhood, then the latter part of the film could be interpreted as a nightmare of castration anxiety” (p.88, my emphasis). These equivocations suggest even Gordon is hesitating at claiming the readings he suggests. I’m not suggesting an analysis should make some absolute claim to truth, but I would like to see a more emphatic assertion that the author believes their hypothesis is plausible, followed by a clear argument in favour of their contention. (“This is what I think is the most plausible explanation of the movie’s effect on audiences, and here is why I believe this.”) In the absence of such confidence, or a clear justification for the invocation of particular theories, there is often a sense in Empire of Dreams that the theory is being constructed for its own sake, and without any clear idea of what it is being asked to explain about the film or its audience.
Too often, Gordon simply takes his theoretical underpinning as a given. For example, I don’t doubt that Jaws is a psychologically suggestive movie – it clearly plays on its audience’s primal fears – but Gordon blithely invokes Melanie Klein’s psychoanalytic theory to interpret it:
It is also possible to interpret the opening sequence of Jaws in Kleinian terms. According to Melanie Klein, very young children have sadistic fantasies about copulation between the parents as a mutual oral devouring. The child imagines the mother as somehow devouring the penis and retaining it inside her, where it persists as a destructive force. This destroyer is as much a projection of the child’s aggression as it is a representation of the phallus. The child wants to see for itself what is happening inside the mother. In a male, oedipal scenario, he penetrates inside her to rescue her and slay the destroyer. This fantastic scenario is one possible way to read Jaws, seeing the shark as a floating, destructive penis, an oral devourer within the body of the mother (the ocean). (p.37)
Such a “possible” reading raises all sorts of problems if we go beyond simply constructing it as an arbitrary intellectual exercise, and attempt to make the case that it deserves application to the film. For starters, Klein’s account of what children fantasise about their parents is startling enough it demands further examination. I doubt many readers of Empire of Dreams will recall or relate to any such fantasy; and while I understand Klein suggested that this is a developmental and subconscious mental process, that simply exacerbates the problem of empirically verifying that children actually do form such a mental construction. Perhaps we could argue that it should not be for Gordon to interrogate an empirical psychoanalytic study – although I would counter that this depends on how outlandish a proposition we are being asked to accept13 – but even if we make this allowance, it surely remains his job to establish some basis for believing this purported mental process informs the response of viewers to Jaws. The shark in Jaws strikes me as only incidentally phallic, resembling and signifying not a penis, but the real-world predatory sea creature. Yet Gordon justifies his shark / devouring phallus analogy only in the most general way, acknowledging that “there is bound to be a great deal of variation in individual responses to Jaws.” (p.37) This begs the question of whether the analogy to Klein’s theory should be made at all.
Without the founding premises of the underlying theory being examined in detail, or a clear indication being provided of the work that the theory is being asked to do, such strained analogies recur throughout the book. For example, E.T., too, is a phallus:
… as a childlike, asexual alien, E.T. is an unthreatening authority figure, a patriarch who needs fathering, the father without the phallus.
Paradoxically, E.T. does not need the phallus because his entire body is a phallic symbol. The asexual, childlike qualities of E.T. defend against the sexuality he unconsciously represents. The imaginary companion, after all, has been considered as an idealized phallic self-representation, a way of overcoming fears of emasculation. In [Bruno] Bettelheim’s interpretation, the frog king (a kind of imaginary animal companion to a girl) expresses the child’s changing attitudes towards sexuality: at first the frog (the phallus) looks repugnant, but then it is transformed into a handsome prince… Like a frog, E.T. is small, wrinkled and ugly. But when he is excited, his neck extends into a kind of erection. (pp.87-88)
This passage raises the alarming (although childishly amusing) possibility that it is now not just cylindrical, large, upright, and firm objects that will connote phallic overtones: so too will “small, wrinkled and ugly” objects or characters. Of course, it isn’t just that he’s small and wrinkled: the key to this connection is that E.T. goes from a small and wrinkled (though hardly flaccid) state to a somewhat taller and more vertical form when he extends his neck. But this then hangs the whole phallic analogy on that single feature of the creature’s physiology, and the handful of shots in the film where E.T.’s extendable neck is featured. This aspect of E.T.’s design strikes me simply as a neat way to allow E.T. to appear variously tiny and helpless, or taller and more dignified, as the needs of the story demand. But if it is key to the representation of E.T. as a phallic figure, and if this is psychologically significant, does this mean our response to the film would be fundamentally different if E.T.’s design did not feature the extending neck? A similar problem with hazy analogising occurs with Gordon’s frequent allusions to the Oedipal myth, where the mythical narrative becomes sufficiently generalised that it can plug into many of Spielberg’s narratives. In that instance, that the Oedipal myth can be invoked to explain so many things suggests instead that it actually explains nothing.
My dissatisfaction with this aspect of Gordon’s book is not so much that these weakly established theoretical underpinnings bring his whole argument undone; instead, it is frustrating that so much of the book would be better without them. While it will be obvious from the preceding discussion that there are extensive passages of the book that I feel are simply untenable, there is also much that could stand as a sound analysis without the appeal to theory. As already mentioned, most chapters start with a perfectly reasonable analysis of the film before going astray; even more tellingly, Gordon wraps up many of his chapters with a much less theoretical summation of the film’s merits. For example, Always fails because “most of the audience cannot bond with the characters… and so remain insufficiently moved” (pp.164-165); in The Lost World, “the self-mocking humor also undermines any serious themes the film attempts to present” (p.222); in War of the Worlds, “Spielberg too may be possessed by the images of 9/11, compelled to replay but not yet able to master them” (p.264); and so on. This is the language of conventional criticism, rather than theory, and these passages of the book generally tell us more than the theoretical sojourns about why some of Spielberg’s films “work” better than others. Some of these discussions are valuable: I particularly enjoyed Gordon’s straightforward thematic analysis of the under-discussed (although not very good) “Kick the Can” segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). Similarly, his opening discussion of the “neo-puritanism” (the sense that there must be something suspect about a film that is “easy” and enjoyable) that often flavours responses to Spielberg is a good point well made. In other cases, there were arguments that I found interesting but which Gordon did not take far enough: for example, he refers to Close Encounters as a potentially “cultist or occultist movie” (p.72). This is a really interesting point, but given the seriousness of the charge, Gordon does not devote enough effort to justifying this argument. Friedman’s defence in Citizen Spielberg against the related accusation that Close Encounters is a fascist work (and the director a fascist filmmaker) is much more thorough.
That Gordon’s ultimate summations of the merits of Spielberg’s films so often stand without the need for theory suggests a great deal about the merits of that theory. This brings me back to the suggestion of a cultural cringe when dealing with such a popular filmmaker and, in many cases, such lowbrow films. I suspect there is a lingering sense that an extended critical study of such a filmmaker is not a worthy exercise for an academic writer. While both Friedman and Gordon refer to the condescension shown towards Spielberg’s work, they respond differently. In Citizen Spielberg, Friedman makes some gestures towards theory, but for the most part asserts the legitimacy of his exercise through extensive research (evidenced by the wide range of critical responses that he engages with) and methodical, logically presented argument. In Empire of Dreams, however, Gordon’s approach is more to “dumb up” the material: grafting a theoretical framework onto an otherwise straightforward discussion to re-invest the shallow subject matter with difficulty. It’s a shame, because the end result is actually to throw less illumination on the subject than a less self-consciously clever study would have.
Originally published on Senses of Cinema in May 2008.
Citizen Spielberg, by Lester D. Friedman, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2006.
Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg, by Andrew M. Gordon, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, 2007.
1. I should note that I have done this myself, in the opening of my essay on Spielberg for the Senses of Cinema Great Directors database: Stephen Rowley, “Steven Spielberg”, Senses of Cinema, 2006.
2. For example, Douglas Brode, The Films of Steven Spielberg, revised and updated edition, Citadel Press, New York, 2000; Warren Buckland, Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster, Continuum International Publishing Group, New York, 2006; Ian Freer, The Complete Spielberg, Virgin, London, 2001; Lester D. Friedman and Brent Notbohm (eds), Steven Spielberg: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2000; Charles L.P. Silet (ed.), The Films of Steven Spielberg, The Scarecrow Press, Lanham, 2002.
5. Friedman is scholar-in-residence at Hobart and William Smith Colleges; Gordon is associate professor of English at the University of Florida and director of the Institute for the Psychological Study of the Arts.
6. Gordon’s study, which is purely devoted to Spielberg’s contribution to these genres, adds Duel, Jaws, the Spielberg-scripted and produced Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982), the Indiana Jones trilogy, both Jurassic Park films, and War of the Worlds to the list.
9. Oddly, Gordon cites neither Baudry or Lewin directly, referring to the work of Robert T. Eberwein instead: Robert T. Eberwein, Film and the Dream Screen: A Sleep and a Forgetting, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1984.
12.For those wishing to understand my own biases and preconceptions, a brief, informal discussion of my outsider’s perspective on these debates can be found here.
13.I am thinking once again of Noël Carroll’s arguments here, such as his observation that film theorists tend to accept Lacan’s account of the mirror stage without questioning its evidentiary basis (Carroll, pp.64-65).