Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Denby

The temple of doom

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Steven Spielberg on the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Note: I’m taking some time off for the holidays, so I’m republishing a few pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 27, 2017.

I think America is going through a paroxysm of rage…But I think there’s going to be a happy ending in November.

Steven Spielberg, to Sky News, July 17, 2016

Last week, in an interview with the New York Times about the twenty-fifth anniversary of Schindler’s List and the expansion of the mission of The Shoah Foundation, Steven Spielberg said of this historical moment:

I think there’s a measurable uptick in anti-Semitism, and certainly an uptick in xenophobia. The racial divide is bigger than I would ever imagine it could be in this modern era. People are voicing hate more now because there’s so many more outlets that give voice to reasonable and unreasonable opinions and demands. People in the highest places are allowing others who would never express their hatred to publicly express it. And that’s been a big change.

Spielberg, it’s fair to say, remains the most quintessentially American of all directors, despite a filmography that ranges freely between cultures and seems equally comfortable in the past and in the future. He’s often called a mythmaker, and if there’s a place where his glossy period pieces, suburban landscapes, and visionary adventures meet, it’s somewhere in the nation’s collective unconscious: its secret reveries of what it used to be, what it is, and what it might be again. Spielberg country, as Stranger Things was determined to remind us, is one of small towns and kids on bikes, but it also still vividly remembers how it beat the Nazis, and it can’t resist turning John Hammond from a calculating billionaire into a grandfatherly, harmless dreamer. No other artist of the last half century has done so much to shape how we all feel about ourselves. He took over where Walt Disney left off. But what has he really done?

To put it in the harshest possible terms, it’s worth asking whether Spielberg—whose personal politics are impeccably liberal—is responsible in part for our current predicament. He taught the New Hollywood how to make movies that force audiences to feel without asking them to think, to encourage an illusion of empathy instead of the real thing, and to create happy endings that confirm viewers in their complacency. You can’t appeal to all four quadrants, as Spielberg did to a greater extent than anyone who has ever lived, without consistently telling people exactly what they want to hear. I’ve spoken elsewhere of how film serves as an exercise ground for the emotions, bringing us closer on a regular basis to the terror, wonder, and despair that many of us would otherwise experience only rarely. It reminds the middle class of what it means to feel pain or awe. But I worry that when we discharge these feelings at the movies, it reduces our capacity to experience them in real life, or, even more insidiously, makes us think that we’re more empathetic and compassionate than we actually are. Few movies have made viewers cry as much as E.T., and few have presented a dilemma further removed than anything a real person is likely to face. (Turn E.T. into an illegal alien being sheltered from a government agency, maybe, and you’d be onto something.) Nearly every film from the first half of Spielberg’s career can be taken as a metaphor for something else. But great popular entertainment has a way of referring to nothing but itself, in a cognitive bridge to nowhere, and his images are so overwhelming that it can seem superfluous to give them any larger meaning.

Steven Spielberg on the set of Jaws

If Spielberg had been content to be nothing but a propagandist, he would have been the greatest one who ever lived. (Hence, perhaps, his queasy fascination with the films of Leni Riefenstahl, who has affinities with Spielberg that make nonsense out of political or religious labels.) Instead, he grew into something that is much harder to define. Jaws, his second film, became the most successful movie ever made, and when he followed it up with Close Encounters, it became obvious that he was in a position with few parallels in the history of art—he occupied a central place in the culture and was also one of its most advanced craftsmen, at a younger age than Damien Chazelle is now. If you’re talented enough to assume that role and smart enough to stay there, your work will inevitably be put to uses that you never could have anticipated. It’s possible to pull clips from Spielberg’s films that make him seem like the cuddliest, most repellent reactionary imaginable, of the sort that once prompted Tony Kushner to say:

Steven Spielberg is apparently a Democrat. He just gave a big party for Bill Clinton. I guess that means he’s probably idiotic…Jurassic Park is sublimely good, hideously reactionary art. E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are the flagship aesthetic statements of Reaganism. They’re fascinating for that reason, because Spielberg is somebody who has just an astonishing ear for the rumblings of reaction, and he just goes right for it and he knows exactly what to do with it.

Kushner, of course, later became Spielberg’s most devoted screenwriter. And the total transformation of the leading playwright of his generation is the greatest testament imaginable to this director’s uncanny power and importance.

In reality, Spielberg has always been more interesting than he had any right to be, and if his movies have been used to shake people up in the dark while numbing them in other ways, or to confirm the received notions of those who are nostalgic for an America that never existed, it’s hard to conceive of a director of his stature for whom this wouldn’t have been the case. To his credit, Spielberg clearly grasps the uniqueness of his position, and he has done what he could with it, in ways that can seem overly studied. For the last two decades, he has worked hard to challenge some of our assumptions, and at least one of his efforts, Munich, is a masterpiece. But if I’m honest, the film that I find myself thinking about the most is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It isn’t my favorite Indiana Jones movie—I’d rank it a distant third. For long stretches, it isn’t even all that good. It also trades in the kind of casual racial stereotyping that would be unthinkable today, and it isn’t any more excusable because it deliberately harks back to the conventions of an earlier era. (The fact that it’s even watchable now only indicates how much ground East and South Asians have yet to cover.) But its best scenes are so exciting, so wonderful, and so conductive to dreams that I’ve never gotten over it. Spielberg himself was never particularly pleased with the result, and if asked, he might express discomfort with some of the decisions he made. But there’s no greater tribute to his artistry, which executed that misguided project with such unthinking skill that he exhilarated us almost against his better judgment. It tells us how dangerous he might have been if he hadn’t been so deeply humane. And we should count ourselves lucky that he turned out to be as good of a man as he did, because we’d never have known if he hadn’t.

We lost it at the movies

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Over a decade ago, the New Yorker film critic David Denby published a memoir titled American Sucker. I read it when it first came out, and I honestly can’t remember much about it, but there’s one section that has stuck in my mind ever since. Denby is writing of his obsession with investing, which has caused him to lose much of what he once loved about life, and he concludes sadly:

Well, you can’t get back to that. Do your job, then. After much starting and stopping, and considerable shifting of clauses, all the while watching the Nasdaq run above 5,000 on the CNNfn website, I put together the following as the opening of a review.

It happens to be his piece on Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, which begins like this:

In Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts appears in scene after scene wearing halter tops with a bit of bra showing; there’s a good bit of leg showing, too, often while she’s holding an infant on one arm. This upbeat, inspirational melodrama, based on a true story and written by Susannah Grant and directed by Steven Soderbergh, has been bought to life by a movie star on a heavenly rampage. Roberts swings into rooms, ablaze with indignation, her breasts pushed up and bulging out of the skimpy tops, and she rants at the people gaping at her. She’s a mother and a moral heroine who dresses like trailer trash but then snaps at anyone who doesn’t take her seriously—a real babe in arms, who gets to protect the weak and tell off the powerful while never turning her back on what she is.

Denby stops to evaluate his work: “Nothing great, but not bad either. I was reasonably happy with it as a lead—it moves, it’s active, it conveys a little of my pleasure in the picture. I got up and walked around the outer perimeter of the twentieth floor, looking west, looking east.”

I’ve never forgotten this passage, in part because it represents one of the few instances in which a prominent film critic has pulled back the curtain on an obvious but rarely acknowledged fact—that criticism is a genre of writing in itself, and that the phrases with which a movie is praised, analyzed, or dismissed are subject to the same sort of tinkering, revision, and doubt that we associate with other forms of expression. Critics are only human, even if sometimes try to pretend that they aren’t, as they present their opinions as the product of an unruffled sensibility. I found myself thinking of this again as I followed the recent furor over David Edelstein’s review of Wonder Woman in New York magazine, which starts as follows:

The only grace note in the generally clunky Wonder Woman is its star, the five-foot-ten-inch Israeli actress and model Gal Gadot, who is somehow the perfect blend of superbabe-in-the-woods innocence and mouthiness. She plays Diana, the daughter of the Amazon queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and a trained warrior. But she’s also a militant peacenik. Diana lives with Amazon women on a mystically shrouded island but she’s not Amazonian herself. She was, we’re told, sculpted by her mother from clay and brought to life by Zeus. (I’d like to have seen that.)

Edelstein was roundly attacked for what was perceived as the sexist tone of his review, which also includes such observations as “Israeli women are a breed unto themselves, which I say with both admiration and trepidation,” and “Fans might be disappointed that there’s no trace of the comic’s well-documented S&M kinkiness.” He responded with a private Facebook post, widely circulated, in which he wrote: “Right now I think the problem is that some people can’t read.” And he has since written a longer, more apologetic piece in which he tries to explain his choice of words.

I haven’t seen Wonder Woman, although I’m looking forward to it, so I won’t wade too far into the controversy itself. But when I look at these two reviews—which, significantly, are about films focusing on different sorts of heroines—I see some striking parallels. It isn’t just the echo of “a real babe in arms” with “superbabe-in-the-woods,” or how Brockovich “gets to protect the weak and tell off the powerful” while Diana is praised for her “mouthiness.” It’s something in the rhythm of their openings, which start at a full sprint with a consideration of a movie star’s appearance. As Denby says, “it moves, it’s active,” almost to a fault. Here are three additional examples, taken at random from the first paragraphs of reviews published in The New Yorker:

Gene Wilder stares at the world with nearsighted, pale-blue-eyed wonder; he was born with a comic’s flyblown wig and the look of a reddish creature from outer space. His features aren’t distinct; his personality lacks definition. His whole appearance is so fuzzy and weak he’s like mist on the lens.

There is a thick, raw sensuality that some adolescents have which seems almost preconscious. In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta has this rawness to such a degree that he seems naturally exaggerated: an Expressionist painter’s view of a young role. As Tony, a nineteen-year-old Italian Catholic who works selling paint in a hardware store in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge, he wears his heavy black hair brushed up in a blower-dried pompadour. His large, wide mouth stretches across his narrow face, and his eyes—small slits, close together—are, unexpectedly, glintingly blue and panicky.

As Jake La Motta, the former middleweight boxing champ, in Raging Bull, Robert De Niro wears scar tissue and a big, bent nose that deform his face. It’s a miracle that he didn’t grow them—he grew everything else. He developed a thick-muscled neck and a fighter’s body, and for the scenes of the broken, drunken La Motta he put on so much weight that he seems to have sunk in the fat with hardly a trace of himself left.

All of these reviews were written, of course, by Pauline Kael, who remains the movie critic who has inspired the greatest degree of imitation among her followers. And when you go back and read Denby and Edelstein’s openings, they feel like Kael impersonations, which is the mode on which a critic tends to fall back when he or she wants to start a review so that “it moves, it’s active.” Beginning with a description of the star, delivered in her trademark hyperaware, slightly hyperbolic style, was one of Kael’s stock devices, as if she were observing an animal seen in the wild and frantically jotting down her impressions before they faded. It’s a technical trick, but it’s a good one, and it isn’t surprising that Kael’s followers like to employ it, consciously or otherwise. It’s when a male critic uses it to describe the appearance of a woman that we run into trouble. (The real offender here isn’t Denby or Edelstein, but Anthony Lane, Kael’s successor at The New Yorker, whose reviews have the curious habit of panning a movie for a page and a half, and then pausing a third of the way from the end to rhapsodize about the appearance of a starlet in a supporting role, which is presented as its only saving grace. He often seems to be leering at her a little, which is possibly an inadvertent consequence of his literary debt to Kael. When Lane says of Scarlett Johansson, “She seemed to be made from champagne,” he’s echoing the Kael who wrote of Madeline Kahn: “When you look at her, you see a water bed at just the right temperature.”) Kael was a sensualist, and to the critics who came after her, who are overwhelmingly male, she bequeathed a toolbox that is both powerful and susceptible to misuse when utilized reflexively or unthinkingly. I don’t think that Edelstein is necessarily sexist, but he was certainly careless, and in his routine ventriloquism of Kael, which to a professional critic comes as easily as breathing, he temporarily forgot who he was and what movie he was reviewing. Kael was the Wonder Woman of film critics. But when we try to channel her voice, and we can hardly help it, it’s worth remembering—as another superhero famously learned—that with great power comes great responsibility.

The temple of doom

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Steven Spielberg on the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

I think America is going through a paroxysm of rage…But I think there’s going to be a happy ending in November.

—Steven Spielberg, to Sky News, July 17, 2016

Last month, Steven Spielberg celebrated his seventieth birthday. Just a few weeks later, Yale University Press released Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films by the critic Molly Haskell, which has received a surprising amount of attention for a relatively slender book from an academic publisher, including a long consideration by David Denby in The New Yorker. I haven’t read Haskell’s book, but it seems likely that its reception is partially a question of good timing. We’re in the mood to talk about Spielberg, and not just because of his merits as a filmmaker or the fact that he’s entering the final phase of his career. Spielberg, it’s fair to say, is the most quintessentially American of all directors, despite a filmography that ranges freely between cultures and seems equally comfortable in the past and in the future. He’s often called a mythmaker, and if there’s a place where his glossy period pieces, suburban landscapes, and visionary adventures meet, it’s somewhere in the nation’s collective unconscious: its secret reveries of what it used to be, what it is, and what it might be again. Spielberg country, as Stranger Things was determined to remind us, is one of small towns and kids on bikes, but it also still vividly remembers how it beat the Nazis, and it can’t keep from turning John Hammond from a calculating billionaire into a grandfatherly, harmless dreamer. No other artist of the last half century has done so much to shape how we feel about ourselves. He took over where Walt Disney left off. But what has he really done?

To put it in the harshest possible terms, it’s worth asking whether Spielberg—whose personal politics are impeccably liberal—is responsible in part for our current predicament. He taught the New Hollywood how to make movies that force audiences to feel without asking them to think, to encourage an illusion of empathy instead of the real thing, and to create happy endings that confirm viewers in their complacency. You can’t appeal to all four quadrants, as Spielberg did to a greater extent than anyone who has ever lived, without consistently telling people exactly what they want to hear. I’ve spoken elsewhere of how film serves as an exercise ground for the emotions, bringing us closer on a regular basis to the terror, wonder, and despair that many of us would otherwise experience only rarely. It reminds the middle class of what it means to feel pain or awe. But I worry that when we discharge these feelings at the movies, it reduces our capacity to experience them in real life, or, even more insidiously, makes us think that we’re more empathetic and compassionate than we actually are. Few movies have made viewers cry as much as E.T., and few have presented a dilemma further removed than anything a real person is likely to face. (Turn E.T. into an illegal alien being sheltered from a government agency, maybe, and you’d be onto something.) Nearly every film from the first half of Spielberg’s career can be taken as a metaphor for something else. But great popular entertainment has a way of referring to nothing but itself, in a cognitive bridge to nowhere, and his images are so overwhelming that it can seem superfluous to give them any larger meaning.

Steven Spielberg on the set of Jaws

If Spielberg had been content to be nothing but a propagandist, he would have been the greatest one who ever lived. (Hence, perhaps, his queasy fascination with the films of Leni Riefenstahl, who has affinities with Spielberg that make nonsense out of political or religious labels.) Instead, he grew into something that is much harder to define. Jaws, his second film, became the most successful movie ever made, and when he followed it up with Close Encounters, it became obvious that he was in a position with few parallels in the history of art—he occupied a central place in the culture and was also one of its most advanced craftsmen, at a younger age than Damien Chazelle is now. If you’re talented enough to assume that role and smart enough to stay there, your work will inevitably be put to uses that you never could have anticipated. It’s possible to pull clips from Spielberg’s films that make him seem like the cuddliest, most repellent reactionary imaginable, of the sort that once prompted Tony Kushner to say:

Steven Spielberg is apparently a Democrat. He just gave a big party for Bill Clinton. I guess that means he’s probably idiotic…Jurassic Park is sublimely good, hideously reactionary art. E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are the flagship aesthetic statements of Reaganism. They’re fascinating for that reason, because Spielberg is somebody who has just an astonishing ear for the rumblings of reaction, and he just goes right for it and he knows exactly what to do with it.

Kushner, of course, later became Spielberg’s most devoted screenwriter. And the total transformation of the leading playwright of his generation is the greatest testament imaginable to this director’s uncanny power and importance.

In reality, Spielberg has always been more interesting than he had any right to be, and if his movies have been used to shake people up in the dark while numbing them in other ways, or to confirm the received notions of those who are nostalgic for an America that never existed, it’s hard to conceive of a director of his stature for whom this wouldn’t have been the case. To his credit, Spielberg clearly grasps the uniqueness of his position, and he has done what he could with it, in ways that can seem overly studied. For the last two decades, he has worked hard to challenge some of our assumptions, and at least one of his efforts, Munich, is a masterpiece. But if I’m honest, the film that I find myself thinking about the most is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It isn’t my favorite Indiana Jones movie—I’d rank it a distant third. For long stretches, it isn’t even all that good. It also trades in the kind of casual racial stereotyping that would be unthinkable today, and it isn’t any more excusable because it deliberately harks back to the conventions of an earlier era. (The fact that it’s even watchable now only indicates how much ground East and South Asians have yet to cover.) But its best scenes are so exciting, so wonderful, and so conductive to dreams that I’ve never gotten over it. Spielberg himself was never particularly pleased with the result, and if asked, he might express discomfort with some of the decisions he made. But there’s no greater tribute to his artistry, which executed that misguided project with such unthinking skill that he exhilarated us almost against his better judgment. It tells us how dangerous he might have been if he hadn’t been so deeply humane. And we should count ourselves lucky that he turned out to be as good of a man as he did, because we’d never have known if he hadn’t.

Certified Copy and the pleasures of ambiguity

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On Tuesday, my wife and I went with a few friends to see Certified Copy at the Siskel Center in Chicago. It was my first trip to the Siskel Center since my marathon ten-hour viewing of Shoah earlier this year, and while this was a far less daunting outing, the prospect was still somewhat intimidating. Certified Copy is the latest film by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, whose Taste of Cherry—the only other film of his I’ve seen—is impressive but famously difficult. As a result, I was expecting a challenging night at the movies, which I got. What I wasn’t expecting was that Certified Copy turned out to be perhaps the best movie I’ve seen all year, and an early contender for one of the top films of the decade, with its many surface pleasures layered over a deeper level of tantalizing ambiguity.

Let’s begin with those surface pleasures, which are considerable. At first glance, the story seems simple enough: a French single mother (Juliette Binoche) meets a British author and academic (William Shimell) at a reading in Italy, and after hitting it off, the two of them spend the day visiting a nearby village, deep in conversation. What we have, then, initially seems like a more mature version of Before Sunrise, and it gives us plenty of time to reflect on the delights of Tuscany, expert cinematography, and movie star charisma. Binoche has always been a resourceful and lovely actress, and here she switches between English, French, and Italian—as well as between petulance and charm—with Christoph Waltz levels of versatility. Shimell, an opera singer making his movie debut, looks and sounds great, and perfectly personifies the older, charming, but cynical European male, who, along with Danish director Jørgen Leth, embodies the kind of aging man of the world I’ve always wanted to become, but probably never will.

And yet there are deeper currents here. Halfway through the film—and this is a considerable spoiler—there’s a curious shift in mood: after pausing at a coffee shop, Binoche and Shimell abruptly begin to talk as if they’ve been married for years, with a young son, and have just had their fifteenth wedding anniversary. Their dialogue also switches from predominantly English to French. No explanation is given for this change, which persists until the end of the film, leaving us with a number of unsatisfying possibilities. Either Binoche and Shimell are, in fact, married but estranged—Binoche’s son doesn’t seem to recognize Shimell as his father—and were playacting their earlier encounter; they have, in fact, just met, and have mutually decided to pretend to be married for the rest of the day; or, and perhaps most likely, something else entirely is going on.

The inescapable conclusion, to quote David Denby, is that “In the end, neither possible ‘reading’ of their relationship…can be maintained with any consistency.” This isn’t a movie like Inception, which, despite its ambiguous ending, allowed viewers to construct reasonably consistent arguments for their own interpretations. Here, whatever reading you adopt, there are always a few pieces that don’t fit. Certified Copy is designed to frustrate, but there’s also something strangely satisfying in its ambiguity, as long as you’re willing to accept it for what it is. You can think of it as an essay or allegory clothed in realistic trappings, or as a sort of playful game; you can analyze it deeply or leave it alone, content to dwell on its beautiful surfaces and performances. Whatever your response, though, to reduce it to a single reading would take away its peculiar magic, which lures the viewer into an ongoing process of engagement with the story itself. It’s a remarkably seductive film. And, by the end, you feel as if you’re married to it.

Written by nevalalee

July 22, 2011 at 9:54 am

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