Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Steven Spielberg

The better angels

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Tony Kushner

Almost exactly twenty years ago, on April 12, 1995, Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, was honored at an event at Northwestern University. While taking questions from the audience, he was asked whether he thought there was such a thing as nonpolitical theater. His response:

Well, I don’t think there’s anything that’s not political. As they say, the absence of an ideology is an ideology. It’s a conservative ideology. And a politics that seeks to efface its presence is part of the great mythmaking project of bourgeois, capital society…

I feel uncomfortable talking about theater artists. I will say that, for instance, Steven Spielberg is apparently a Democrat. He just gave a big party for Bill Clinton. I guess that means he’s probably idiotic. I feel I can trash people in the film industry and, of course, they read about these terrible things that I say about them and then I’m having a smaller and smaller market in Hollywood as a result. [Laughter.] Forrest Gump is bad reactionary art and 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.

This wasn’t the first time that Kushner had expressed this opinion: the previous year, in an interview with the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, he described Spielberg as a “front-runner for the Reagan counterrevolution.” What’s astonishing, of course, is that many years later, Kushner went on to become one of Spielberg’s most productive collaborators, writing the screenplays for Munich and Lincoln, with another historical drama in the works as we speak. As far as I know, Kushner—who is more likely to describe Spielberg these days as “one of the great filmmakers of all time”—has never directly addressed the sea change in his feelings, which leaves us free to speculate. It’s possible that Kushner simply mellowed a little with age; or that he was moved, like so many other moviegoers, by the transition in Spielberg’s career after Schindler’s List; or that he realized that working with the most successful director in history would allow him to write scripts that had a decent change of being made, which is something that even a Pulitzer winner can’t take for granted. Really, though, it’s likely that it was some combination of all the above, as well as a recognition that political art is much more effective when executed with peerless technical proficiency. Spielberg is simply the best there is; Kushner, when given the chance to work with him, seemed more than happy to acknowledge this.

Steven Spielberg on the set of Munich

Which gets at a tricky point about political art in general. Writers are often warned against trying to inject particular ideological or social concerns into their stories; we’re told that our themes should arise organically from an extended engagement with plot and character, rather than being imposed from above, and that audiences are haunted the most by works of art in which the conclusions seem to emerge almost against the author’s will. What deserves to be emphasized, though, is that political content in itself isn’t a kind of poison pill that makes for bad art; it simply allows bad art, the kind that ought to be revised into something better, to be tolerated and widely seen in what amounts to draft form. A mediocre play of no particular merit might lie in a drawer forever, but if it embraces a viewpoint that happens to resonate with how its audience already feels about a certain subject, it’s more likely to get a sympathetic reception. When the audience, to use David Mamet’s image, leaves the theater humming its own sense of virtue, it’s likely to forgive a lot of other things. Which means that it’s easier for political art to get away with things like flat characters, muddled storytelling, and stretches of outright boredom—which are the source of its bad reputation.

This doesn’t mean that artists have to avoid politics, but it does mean that they need to try just as hard to live up to their own standards of good storytelling as they would if they were writing a straight comedy or drama. (Even the most talented writers suffer from a streak of laziness, and political art’s one great liability is that it allows us to indulge in it. Politics is a little like pornography; it can be shoddy on every level but still find an audience.) And I suspect that’s why Kushner was ultimately drawn to Spielberg. He understood the difference between art that we politely applaud and the kind that grabs us and doesn’t let go, and he evidently came to see that Spielberg’s relentless focus on craft, which once struck him as reactionary, was a weapon in its own right. What makes a film like Munich so extraordinary—and I think it’s one of the great movies of the last decade—is that it uses all the conventions of the thriller, and every trick Spielberg has acquired in a lifetime of popular moviemaking, to tell a story that implicates all of us in frightening, complicated ways. And Kushner’s unstated acceptance of this is more revealing than any number of his more explicit pronouncements on the subject. There’s a place for politics in art, just as there’s a place for everything else, but only if it refuses to settle for anything less than a Spielberg.

Written by nevalalee

March 3, 2015 at 10:28 am

Indy movies

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On Saturday, my wife and I spent seven hours at the River East theater in Chicago, watching a marathon of the Indiana Jones movies, which I still insist on calling a trilogy, in advance of their release tomorrow on Blu-ray. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen all three films on the big screen—I spent a wonderful day watching them all at the sadly departed UC Theater in Berkeley over a decade ago—but it had been a long time since I’d seen them from start to finish. The experience, I’m happy to say, was close to perfect: the digital prints were gorgeous, the crowd was large and enthusiastic, and the movies were as satisfying as ever. And the fact that we left before Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t diminish my appreciation for what the original trilogy achieved. Like everyone else, I’m critical of George Lucas: he remains, as David Thomson notes, the saddest of moguls, and his career over the last twenty years has consisted of one long retreat. And yet with these three films, he shaped and enriched my inner life more than any other filmmaker, and for that, I’m forever grateful.

Of the three, Raiders is by far the most cinematically exciting: it was made when Steven Spielberg was still only thirty-four, with the greatest natural eye in movie history, and the result is dazzlingly assembled—it may be his most technically thrilling film of any kind. A great deal of this can be credited to the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, which pulls off the difficult job of moving between set pieces conceived by the director and producer while lavishing every scene with ingenious and delightful beats. (Even so modest a sequence as the “bad dates” scene is a small masterpiece of acting, writing, editing, and direction.) The script for Temple of Doom, by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, is far more problematic, and the connective material is considerably less graceful, but the big set pieces—the opening sequence in Shanghai, the spike room, the mine car chase—reach dizzying heights. By comparison, the action in Last Crusade is competent, inventive, but less divinely inspired, and there isn’t an action sequence here that really holds up with the best of the first two movies.

Yet Last Crusade has always been my favorite of the three, and one of my favorite movies of any kind, which gets at a very important point: these films aren’t about action or special effects, as fine as they may be, but about a certain spirit, a promise about the kinds of experiences and adventures that the movies can offer us, and Last Crusade captures that spirit perfectly. It’s both endearingly innocent and highly sophisticated, and it expresses, as Truffaut would have said, both an idea of life and an idea of cinema—and the fact that the ideas are straight out of a boy’s book of adventures doesn’t make them any less moving or less true. Looking back, I’ve begun to realize that it’s as responsible as any movie for the direction my own life has taken: I saw it when I was about ten years old, and it was arguably the first in a sequence of books, movies, and television shows that convinced me that I wanted to tell stories for a living. Other movies have since become more important to me, and I fully see its limitations, but few works of art have ever seized my imagination in quite the same way.

And its spirit is one that I’ve been trying to recapture in my own work ever since. One night after college, I was watching Temple of Doom with my family when I dozed off near the end and awoke as the closing credits began to roll. Somehow, in that moment between sleep and waking, I heard something in the score by John Williams—it’s the unbearably beautiful theme that appears in “Slave Children’s Crusade”—that I’d never heard before: it seemed to crystallize, in a few bars of music, everything that I hoped to accomplish as a storyteller. My first novel, a long adventure story set in India, may have been my subconscious effort to work out that one moment of dreamlike inspiration. And while that novel remains unpublished, one of the great challenges I now face as a writer is gradually nudging my work back to that theme, which has been reduced to a subtle, almost imperceptible note in my published novels and stories. I’m still trying to figure out what shape it will take. But it’s there. And I have a hunch that Indy will be the one to show me the way.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

September 10, 2012 at 7:30 am

Posted in Movies, Quote of the Day

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War Horse and the future of Spielberg

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It’s Oscar week, and in anticipation of writing up my list of the ten best movies of the year, which I’m hoping to post in two parts tomorrow and Friday, I’ve been catching up on some of the notable movies I’ve missed, although not all of them. In fact, this will be the first year in a while in which I won’t see all of the Best Picture nominees, not so much out of a lack of time than because there are two I have no interest in watching—and you’re free to guess which ones. But of the remaining films, War Horse is one that I really wanted to see: as a director, Steven Spielberg, who for all his shortcomings remains the major Hollywood filmmaker of the past forty years, has been rather less prolific over the past decade, as his attention has shifted increasingly to producing, so his latest movie is always something of an event. And War Horse is undoubtedly worth seeing, as much for its final limitations as for its considerable strengths.

First, the good news. Spielberg’s eye, which I’ve written about at length before, is on full display, and it does marvelous things: the cinematography is gorgeous but only occasionally showy, and Spielberg’s longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski offers up small wonders of subtle reveals in the visual play between foreground and background. A cavalry charge through a wheatfield is one of the most beautiful things Spielberg has ever done, and throughout the movie, we’re treated to the work of a director equally at home with intimate detail and epic scope. The occasional nods to David Lean and John Ford aren’t merely homage, but a nod from one legendary filmmaker to his peers. And for most of its first hour, aided by fluent editing from the great Michael Kahn, the film convinces us that we’re about to see something truly special.

Around the halfway point, however, doubts start to creep in, and by the end, although War Horse is never anything less than watchable, it starts to seem sentimental, contrived, and—most unforgivably—confused about its own intentions. Is this movie about a brave, beautiful horse, or is the horse simply a narrative device to introduce us to a series of human vignettes? If it’s the former, it just doesn’t work: the horse never emerges as a real personality, and it even disappears from the action for long stretches at a time. The clincher is the movie’s decision to have all characters, regardless of nationality, speak in accented English: I can understand the reasoning—otherwise, nearly half of the movie would be in subtitles—but it still strikes me as misguided. If the movie is really about this horse, it doesn’t matter if we can understand what the humans are saying, and perhaps even better if we can’t.

Instead, we’re implicitly told that our attention belongs on the human characters, even though none of them ever really repays our interest: for the most part, they’re symbolic figures, although a few—notably a French farmer played by Niels Arestrup—are given sporadic life by the actors involved. Spielberg remains our great visual storyteller, but here, as elsewhere, he displays an odd streak of timidity when it comes to constructing focused narratives. On his greatest achievement, the Indiana Jones trilogy, he evidently deferred to George Lucas, and many of his recent films, even ones I admire—Saving Private Ryan, A.I., Minority Report, War of the Worlds, Munich—suffer from a kind of ambivalence in the second half, as if he can’t decide what they’re about, even as individual scenes remain ravishing. Spielberg’s future depends, more than ever, on his choice of material and the quality of his scripts. And War Horse, for all its flaws, is only a reminder of how much is at stake.

Written by nevalalee

February 22, 2012 at 9:54 am

Tintin and the secret of the MacGuffin

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For the second time this week, I find myself reviewing a movie based on a beloved work of art about which I know practically nothing. Yesterday, it was the novels of John le Carré; today, it’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. And while I’ve always found le Carré dauntingly formidable, if anything, Hergé has the opposite problem—there’s almost too much good stuff here, and it’s all very enticing. (The A.V. Club has a nice Gateways to Geekery on the subject that seems like a good place to start.) Steven Spielberg’s earnest adaptation, while far from perfect, is enough to make me want to take the leap into the comics at last: as a character, Tintin is paper-thin, but winning, and I probably would have been obsessed by the movie that surrounds him if I’d seen it at the age of eight. As it stands, for all its energy, wit, and visual invention, it never takes hold in the way it constantly seems on the point of doing, and the problem, I think, lies in the secret of the Unicorn itself. In short, it lies in the MacGuffin.

A MacGuffin, of course, is the object or plot element that drives a work of fiction. The term was coined by Hitchcock, but Spielberg knows it as well as anyone, having structured the Indiana Jones series around three unforgettable objects: the Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara stones, and the Holy Grail. (We’ll just pretend that the crystal skull never happened, as Spielberg himself seems increasingly inclined to do.) Tintin takes its cues from Indy in more ways than one—although this may simply be a case of inspiration returning at last to its original source—so obviously the story is structured around a similar quest: three parchments, hidden within three model ships, leading to a legendary treasure. And what is the treasure, you ask? Well, it’s…treasure. Four hundredweight of pirate gold, as we’re repeatedly reminded, sunk at the bottom of the sea. That’s a lot of gold. Yet even as the movie worked its sometimes exhausting magic, I felt a bit of a sinking feeling myself, once I realized that the object of Tintin’s quest was going to be nothing but a convenient haul of pirate booty.

Conventional wisdom holds that the MacGuffin itself doesn’t matter; the important thing, we’re told, is the desire and conflict it arouses in the characters. Every few years, then, someone has the fashionable idea to construct a MacGuffin around nothing at all: the “government secrets” of North by Northwest, the mysterious briefcases of Ronin and Pulp Fiction, the Rabbit’s Foot of Mission: Impossible III. To a point, the conventional wisdom is right: we aren’t going to care about any object, no matter how shrouded in importance, if we don’t care about the characters, too. Yet part of me insists that a storyteller should at least pretend to find the MacGuffin interesting, and worth taking seriously, especially if the characters will be wholly defined by their quest. It would be one thing if Tintin had an emotional stake in the chase, or even, like Indy, an inner life, but he’s characterized solely by his pluck in pursuit of that pirate treasure. And I’m past the point where I’m intrigued by pirate treasure for its own sake.

And that’s the real problem. An interesting MacGuffin doesn’t guarantee interesting characters, but a boring one will make the characters boring, too, if the MacGuffin is all they want. A director with great stars and superb confidence in his craft, like Hitchcock or the John Huston of The Maltese Falcon, can get away with a MacGuffin spun out of thin air, but for most works of art, it’s probably safer to go with something less arbitrary. This lesson is lost, unfortunately, on writers and directors who have been told that MacGuffins don’t matter, but still haven’t figured out why. Tintin is the third movie in less than two months built around a MacGuffin that the movie barely bothers to develop, after the nuclear codes of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol and the unspoken secrets of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Both films get away with it because of the level of skill involved, as does Tintin, to a point. But then I think of Indy at the Well of Souls, and I’m reminded that a MacGuffin can be far more. It can be something that gets in your dreams.

Written by nevalalee

January 10, 2012 at 10:00 am

Frank Darabont and the screenplay of doom

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Writers are hired and fired from movies all the time, but few departures were more widely reported than Frank Darabont’s exit from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Darabont himself has expressed amazement that the media cared so much: “Where were you guys when that other script four years ago went in the shitter? You weren’t paying attention because it wasn’t Spielberg, and it wasn’t Lucas, and it wasn’t Indiana Jones.” But it was hard not to care, especially when the movie itself turned out to be such a disappointment. For all its other problems, the story was especially weak, and it was common knowledge that Darabont had written a draft that Spielberg loved, but Lucas rejected. (As I’ve said before, Hollywood is the kind of place where the man who wrote The Shawshank Redemption is getting script notes from the guy who wrote Attack of the Clones.)

So it became almost an article of faith that the Darabont version would have resulted in a much better movie. And yet Darabont’s Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods, which I finally read over the weekend, isn’t all that great either. It’s incrementally more interesting than the final version, with some nice action scenes and a much better understanding of the relationship between Indy and Marion. There’s a pleasant air of intrigue and a few inspired double-crosses (which makes the insipid “triple agent” of the final version all the more infuriating). But the machinery of the plot takes a long time to get going, the central adventure never quite takes hold, and I missed Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko, if not Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt. If I had been Lucas, I probably would have asked for a rewrite as well. But the real takeaway is that no rewrite could have made up for the shakiness of the underlying conception.

The trouble is that in any version, the crystal skull simply isn’t an interesting artifact. Darabont himself seems slightly bored by it, and doesn’t bother explaining what it does or why it matters until the script is halfway over. Even in the last act, when we finally enter the City of the Gods, we aren’t quite sure what the big deal is. Compared to a movie like Last Crusade, which had a wonderful screenplay by Jeffrey Boam that made the emotional stakes exceptionally clear, it’s hard to forgive this kind of narrative confusion, especially when the payoff is so underwhelming. (Its treatment in the final version of the script, as written by David Koepp, is even less satisfying: instead of searching for the skull, most of the movie is devoted to putting it back where it came from, which isn’t the best way to build narrative momentum.)

Of course, you could argue that the artifact is less important than the man pursuing it: Temple of Doom, after all, is essentially about the recovery of some sacred rocks. But City of the Gods is an uncomfortable reminder that we aren’t interested in the things Indy does because we like Indiana Jones; we like Indiana Jones because he does interesting things. Without a decent plot, he becomes the Harrison Ford of the past decade, the man David Thomson accurately saw as a “limited, anxious actor” with little interest in charming the audience. Given the right material, Ford can be wonderful, but he was never an actor who could elevate a film simply with his own presence. He needed Indy as much as Indy needed him. And neither Darabont nor his successors, alas, could ever quite figure out how to bring Indy back.

Super 8 and the problem of secrecy

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A few years ago, Robert Zemeckis created a bit of a stir when he defended the trailers of Cast Away and What Lies Beneath, both of which revealed crucial plot points, by saying that audiences really want to be told everything that happens in a movie. Moviegoers, he said, don’t like to be surprised; before they buy a ticket, they want to know exactly what to expect. And as depressing as it sounds, he was probably right. The fact is that trailers have always given away too much information—like the classic trailer for Casablanca, for instance, which shows Bogart shooting Major Strasser. It’s refreshing, then, when a director like J.J. Abrams refuses to disclose basic information about a movie like Super 8, out of a desire to protect its secrets. But it’s also a little disappointing to see Super 8 at last, only to discover that Abrams really had no secrets to protect.

I should preface all this by acknowledging that Super 8 is a film of considerable merits. It’s beautifully directed and photographed. The score by Michael Giacchino, who is rapidly becoming the most versatile composer in Hollywood, hits all the right notes. The cast, especially of younger kids, is uniformly appealing, and the script deserves a lot of credit for grounding the story in a detailed suburban canvas, even if most of the characters are affable stereotypes. For most of the movie, Abrams is emulating Spielberg in all the right ways—not simply his visual style and tone, but his interest in children and the lives of small towns. It isn’t clear how much of this reflects Abrams’s own sensibility and how much is just a skilled pastiche, but either way, it results in a movie that feels a lot more textured and humane than your average summer blockbuster. As a result, for most of its length, it’s a pleasure to watch, and it’s obviously the product of a lot of thoughtfulness and care.

Which is why it’s all the more underwhelming, at the end, to realize that all that atmosphere and ingenuity and mastery of tone was in service of a story that, frankly, could have been predicted in detail by anyone who had seen the marketing materials. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this—there can be something quite satisfying about seeing a familiar story cleverly told—but it makes the hype about the movie’s “secrets” seem more than a little silly. And after Cloverfield, which was infinitely more interesting as a trailer than as a movie, and Lost, which essentially abdicated its responsibility to resolve most of its mysteries, it raises serious questions about Abrams’s seriousness as a storyteller. Abrams has emerged as one of the most likable popular directors in a long time, but it’s hard to shake the sense, as I’ve said before, that his approach remains that of a gifted television writer and producer—and, I hate to say it, a shrewd marketer.

It might seem shortsighted to judge Super 8 by the standards of its marketing campaign. Ten years from now, I expect that it will still be watched and enjoyed—especially by kids—long after its teaser trailer has been forgotten. But the emphasis on secrecy has implications for Abrams’s future as a director that can’t be easily dismissed. Much as some researchers have recently argued that reason evolved, not as a means to the truth, but as a way to win arguments, it’s become increasingly clear that Abrams regards mystery, not as a means of protecting genuine secrets, but as a marketing strategy—which implies that he doesn’t understand how powerful a movie’s real secrets can be. A great director, like Spielberg, can tell us very clearly, before we’ve even entered the theater, what kind of movie we’re about to see, and then proceed to surprise us with revelations of plot and character. Abrams, for all his talents, hasn’t managed to do that yet. One day, perhaps, he will. But only if he gets past secrecy for its own sake.

Written by nevalalee

June 15, 2011 at 9:23 am


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