The magic of Spielberg's early movies
“Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”
~ T E Lawrence
“I don’t dream at night, I dream at day, I dream all day. I’m dreaming for a living.”
~ Steven Spielberg
Everything recognisably “Spielbergian” about Spielberg is evident in the above quotation: he is optimistic, imaginative, in constant conversation with the past, bringing the old into the present again, revisiting and revitalising what came from those whose shoulders support his feet. The quote he was riffing on came from T E Lawrence, subject of the same classic movie that Spielberg credits with beginning his journey as a director. Spielberg is known as an innovator in cinema, but his great talent might have less to do with invention and more to do with re-invention.
This idea of the “Spielbergian” – a set of things that identify a movie as one of his, the images stamped with his directorial signature – is complicated. You could argue that the quintessentially elements that make a movie a “Spielberg movie” (the details of which we will get to) were established by the time of his fourth film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The subsequent four decades and some thirty movies have reiterated and reified those principles.
You could argue instead that the “Spielbergian” is in constant development, each movie building on what came before: The exploration of motherhood in The Sugarland Express was followed by a look at fatherhood in Jaws; the nightmares of shooting on location in Jaws preceded Spielberg’s use of a defunct military hangar to film outdoor sequences for Close Encounters; his deliberately anti-realistic vision of tomb raiding Nazis in the Indiana Jones movies eventually matured into the terrifying realism of Schindler’s List.
There are other ways of defining what defines a Spielberg movie (beyond his name in the credits). All ways of determining these qualities have validity, because when we talk about these qualities, we are really talking about what we love about Spielberg’s films.
I thought about this recently while watching his latest movie, The Post, looking for something to love in it. There were a few things to like and sentiments expressed (with little subtlety) that I can respect. But I don’t love the movie. I feel no passion for it or its flatly written though brilliantly acted characters. (Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep act the hell out of what they are given, but unfortunately they are given feeble character arcs and thin motivations.) So I liked parts of it but couldn’t love the whole. I have felt this way about each of Spielberg’s movies since 2002.
What happened? What changed? I think of Spielberg’s filmography as falling into two eras that I call his “early period” and his “later period”, which are not neatly divided but overlap. The early period ends with Catch Me If You Can (2002) and the later period begins with Schindler’s List (1993). Not everything from later is awful (though I don’t truly love any of his movies after Catch Me If You Can) and certainly not everything from before is great (this will be the only time I need reference 1941 in this essay).
Still, there is, for me, a marked difference in his filmmaking generally between those two parts of his career. Something made his early period shine, made those movies irreplaceable, hallmarks in both cinema and my own life. So I want to try to work out: What makes Spielberg’s earlier movies so great? And what are his later works lacking?
This is the future
Before we begin: Don’t think of this explorative essay as an objective critique of Spielberg’s filmography. Instead, this is one passionate fan thinking out loud to start a conversation. None of what follows is academic or intended to provide a tidy categorisation for cinephiles to dogmatically agree to. Spielberg makes huge blockbusters that millions of people watch and yet his movies simultaneously feel like they were made for each of us alone. His are deeply personal films that each of his fans hold as if they are the only person who has seen Jurassic Park or fallen in love with Jaws. This essay, then, is a necessarily personal response to those films.
So, throat-clearing out of the way, let’s start with the scene that has burrowed into my memory as the ugliest thing Spielberg has shot: the jungle chase from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in which the game is not to spot where CG special-effects are used but where they aren’t. Presumably the actors and parts of the objects they physically interact with are real, but little else seems to exist in reality outside of the digital effects department.
The unreality of such digital effects lies primarily in their crystal crisp look, with movements too smooth and a certain lack of weight to the computer creations, as if they are on top of reality rather than a part of it. Spielberg elegantly surmounted this problem in Jurassic Park, the first of his movies to make extensive use of digital effects, with the brilliantly simple idea of shooting his dinosaurs predominantly at night and in the rain. Essentially, Spielberg added the scuffs and dirt of reality to the otherwise too-smooth CGI, bringing his special effects down to earth, to the realism of the film.
It has to be conceded that, as pointed out in a well-argued video-essay called Why CG Sucks (Except It Doesn’t), “the reason we think CG looks bad is because we only see bad CG”. No one notices a clean window, as the old saying goes, they only notice when it’s dirty. This is, of course, why Spielberg was right to augment his special effects by making them appear a little less special by hiding them in the dirt and darkness of the real world. But he did use CGI. The trick is that he used them in tandem with practical effects, to support the real-world creations of animatronic dinosaurs, and he played to the strengths and accounted for the weaknesses of the digital wizardry.
Staying with Jurassic Park, it is interesting to remember that at the time of its release, the big sell and the thing that had so many people excited was the film’s use of computer-generated effects. Spielberg reportedly commented, on seeing the herd of Gallimimus racing across an open plain, that “this [CGI] is the future”. While he was not wrong, it is fascinating to note that popular opinion now has it that what makes his movie so great is the practical effects over the digital. And I can’t help but notice that his early movies made use of impressive practical effects (of necessity, of course) while his later movies are increasingly lifeless displays of computer technology.
Spielberg, after all, is a director who shot on the ocean rather than in a tank for Jaws. For the unforgettable scene of melting heads in Raiders of the Lost Ark used plaster cast heads packed with blood bags and melted with heaters, captured in time lapse photography. 20 amputees were fitted with exploding squibs and prosthetic limbs for the Omaha beach landing in Saving Private Ryan. These and many other practical effects make awed audiences wonder, How did they do that? This is a question new generations of filmgoers are asking less and less often, with the answer most often being “computers”. This is something like the majesty of intricate scientific theories for the wonders of the cosmos against the uninspiring response of “magic did it”.
I suddenly find myself forced to break the fourth wall of essay writing: I am sitting here looking over the previous paragraph and I don’t like the analogy I have just used. It works very well to make the point, but it posits magic as the negative, and as I think about it more, it is magic that is precisely what elevates Spielberg’s best movies. It is magic, I now realise, that encapsulates everything I have been circling in my thinking and heading towards in this exploration of my thoughts on these movies. I am led to a new analogy, this time picturing myself at a magic show as a child, watching the moustachioed man on stage collapsing his top hat and making it vanish between the palms of his hands.
I don’t recall now whether my child’s mind allowed in any meaningful way for the real possibility of actual magic; from my adult vantage point it seems that I somehow always knew that there was more trick than magic to magic tricks, but that never dispelled any of the magic of awe – I always gasped – and wonder – in the sense that I continually puzzled over the logistics of this amazing feat. This is, incidentally, the only kind of magic that I believe truly matters. It is the same kind of magic Spielberg invokes in his earlier movies. In an important sense, answering the question of how something is done is less important than asking the question itself. Cinema is one of the finest, most readily accessible methods of getting us to ask, How?
The Spielberg face
“The name of the book I will never write is Steven, Have They Figured Out Yet What I'm Looking Up In Awe At?” This was Richard Dreyfuss, referring to his work in the lead role of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where he and other actors were directed to stare in amazement at coloured lights acting as stand-ins for the alien spaceship viewers would eventually see. His staring in awe would prove, through the test of time, as important as that which caused the awe. Spielberg’s movies and his magic are wrapped up in a deep sense of wonder.
This is why we have what is commonly called the “Spielberg face”, the reaction shot that lingers rather than showing what the character is reacting to. Some critics have disparaged the shot as attempting to artlessly telegraph to the viewer, Here’s what you should be feeling in this moment. I have always disagreed with this. The Spielberg face is about showing us what matters, which is the effect this amazing thing is having on the character. The truth is that, while the majestically looming Brachiosaurus is as inspiring as it is intended to be, I have always been most moved (even as a child) by the wonderful reactions to the dinosaur by Grant, Ellie, and Malcolm. When Grant falls to his knees and Ellie staggers towards him as they gasp in joy and rapture, I am drawn to them and forget for a moment the massive creature in the background. I am not being strong-armed into feeling awe vicariously through them; I am in awe at the wonder other people feel, at the way we are impacted as humans by the sublime and the magical.
Spielberg’s early movies all focused on the intrusion of the strange, the dangerous, or the bizarre into ordinary life, and on showing us how ordinary people respond to these challenges. Spielberg elaborated himself on this idea in an interview with Michael Verona about Poltergeist:
“I think people lead lives where their deepest wish is that something would interrupt the mundane everyday routine. And someone (or something) comes into their lives that disturbs everything, disrupts everything, makes them suddenly have to work at life and live it [to the fullest].”
It is the response of his characters that typify the Spielberg vision; these are not disaster movies in which the audience draw is to see things destroyed, or monster movies, or tragedies. These are movies in which people become heroes and in which they are made, through the intrusion of sharks or aliens or ghosts or dinosaurs, to discover and re-discover awe: the awe of believing in aliens (Close Encounters, ET), of discovering the immensity of a great white shark (Jaws), of finding the strength to hold a family together (Poltergeist, Jurassic Park), of rediscovering the spiritual amidst the secular (Indiana Jones, Schindler’s List). Catch Me If You Can is the last of Spielberg’s movies I truly love because it is the last in which I detect the filmmaker’s own sense of awe infusing the spirit of the movie – he seems irrepressibly amazed at just what Frank Abagnale got away with as a conman.
In fact, I would dare to go so far as to say that a true and deep sense of wonder and awe might have made Ready Player One a great Spielberg movie (it certainly would have made it a better one) even with none of its other many problems fixed. It is the story that more than any other in his later period should have offered him unlimited opportunity for tapping into his own strengths, for displaying the energy, enthusiasm, and joy his earlier films display, and for creating magic. Instead, we have a movie that comes off as Spielberg doing an impression of himself, while so overwhelmed with what CGI can do, he forgot to try anything else.
Perhaps the beginning of this decline in Spielbergian magic was The Lost World, the ill-advised sequel to Jurassic Park and forerunner to the cash-grab Jurassic movies we are still being subjected to. Lost World is a movie that trades not in nostalgia for the past and for childhood innocence but for a previous movie – it displays a kind of meta-nostalgia. There is a single phrase in Lost World that explicitly describes the problem and starkly draws the line between the brilliant original and its lamentable offspring: “Oh yeah, ooh, ahh, that’s how it always starts,” Ian Malcolm says derisively, “but then later, there’s running and screaming.” This seems to signpost Spielberg’s losing battle (which is all of ours) against contemporary cynicism.
With the spectre of postmodernity and its trendy pessimism invoked, let’s round off this consideration of “Spielbergian magic” with a parade of some of its finest examples:
• Quint’s boat manifesting the leap into the belly of the beast as the camera frames our heroic trio sailing out of the harbour through the skeletal jaw of a shark hanging in the window of Quint’s shack. Although Jaws is ostensibly a “realistic” movie, this moment sends the chill of anticipation down my spine, reminding me of thrilling adventure movies in which, rather than hunting a shark, our heroes might fight pirates and find treasure.
• The delicate trill and subsequent bellow of those iconic 5 notes played to communicate with the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Just hear it in context – to try and describe or explain the wonder they produce is to miss the point. There is a reason Spielberg’s aliens “speak” in music and not words, after all.
• Every trap door, secret passage, close escape, and ancient riddle in the Indiana Jones trilogy that neutralises the “anaesthetic of familiarity” (Richard Dawkins’ phrase) from the world and promises us the adventures believed in as a child, if only we will leave the comfort of our homes and follow our feet.
• Like the “Spielberg face” there is something known as “Spielberg light”, which the director himself has referred to as “God light”. It often reminds me more than anything of the projection of a movie onto the screen. Maybe this is, in the end, what Spielberg magic really is: the distillation of the excitement and imagination and escapism and adventure and exploration of the edges of normality that are quintessentially cinematic, all expressed in a single vision.
A lack of magic is not the only, or even the main, reason I am not a fan of Spielberg’s later work. I am also deeply bothered by his switch from people as the central focus of his films to ideas as the focus of his movies. He explicitly said the first Jurassic Park was not a monster movie, because the people matter more than the scares, but the follow-ups have been nothing but monster movies. Schindler’s List was not a “Holocaust movie” he insisted, because a single man was at the heart of its story, but Munich and Bridge of Spies are out-and-out political stories, with characters simply being the things that make events happen. The titles give this away: the names in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan against the non-personal entities of Munich and The Post.
Milan Kundera once claimed that every novelist’s work is an “explicit vision” of what The Novel is; by virtue of the inexhaustible number of writers writing and variety of books published, this means that the novelist’s work is one statement in a conversation about what literature can be. That type of openness is vital to the spirit of literature, just as closed articulations intended as full stops to ideas are inimical to great art. We should not ask our books or movies to act as such door closers. As Borges tells us, “The concept of a definitive text belongs only to religion or fatigue.”
In spite of this, we still tend to look for final declarations that can express a totality of what literature, or art, or cinema is, definitively and for all time. I suspect this also has something to do with how cinephiles often compile casual lists of “greatest movies” and “best directors” and “the films I couldn’t live without”. There is often an impulse in our choices to choose the movies that are composed of most of the qualities that make cinema great and avoid films that appeal to a niche interest or specific quality that appeals to us only in particular moods. I think there is a danger in asking any art form to be all things to all people. Better to be the finest example of a focused idea.
Spielberg’s movies are, in this way, limited by their narrow range of what they offer cinematically. But I don’t dismiss his films for this. They are not grand statements about cinema as a whole or broad encapsulations of everything that makes cinema great. They are instead paeans to and daringly brilliant examples of magic – cinematic and everyday magic. This might not be the most important or perhaps noble of things, but it is indispensable to a reality worth living in. Both cinema and life itself cannot do without a sense of awe, wonder, and marvel – and Spielberg’s early movies are full of such magic.
Thanks to my patrons:
I am grateful to everyone who has shown their support through Patreon, and an especially huge thank you to Hayley Whitehouse-Jones and Max Smith. Patrons get early access to the essays, exclusive content, and are vital to keeping Art of Conversation going. Click here to be part of the conversation at my Patreon.
• Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence (1922)
• ‘It’s still a thrill to tell a story,’ says Steven Spielberg, article for bestoflasvegas.com (2018)
• The Films of Steven Spielberg, Douglas Brode (1995)
• The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera (1968)
• Obras Completas 1, Jorge Luis Borges (1989)
• Why CG Sucks (Except It Doesn't) RocketJump Film School [YouTube] (2015)