Tuesday night, Oct. 10, HBO ran Susan Lacy’s 147-minute biographical documentary “Spielberg”, about the trend-setting filmmaker Steven Spielberg, now 70.
The documentary starts with a clip from David Lean’s 1962 classic “Lawrence of Arabia”, which I saw twice (the second time in 1989 at the AMC Uptown in DC). Spielberg says that seeing the transformation on Peter O’Toole’s character from two particularly striking scenic shots made him want to become a filkmmaker.
By age 22, he had made a 140-minute sci-fi film called “Firelight”, which is a prelude to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, although at the end of the earlier film we learn that the aliens want to turn people into zoo animals.
One of Spielberg’s most striking early successes was “Duel” (1970), between a motorist and a truck, where Spielberg introduced new techniques of camera movement to carry along the psychological transformation of his central characters. Spielberg defends his refusal to make the truck explode at the end; the slow death of the road rage assailant is seen as much more fitting.
I would see “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” twice, the second with a friend the night of the Jan. 20, 1978 blizzard in New York City when being in Times Square was fun. Spielberg says that music was the way the aliens could show their commonality with humans. The film used models of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (even playing with mashed potatoes to make a model of such) as a visual conduit to anticipate what would happen.
He goes on to explain “The E.T.”, which at first did not envision presenting an alien.
Another sequence, of course, was the “Jaws” movies, which Spielberg insisted be filmed in the water (with a mechanical shark). I can remember segments from this film being shown in the upstairs lounge (above the disco) in the Gay Nineties in Minneapolis. “Jaws” was based on the novel by Peter Benchley, which tended to make fun of its hapless characters, going so far to mention how a police officer central character had lost all the hair on his legs from the chafing of over-starched uniforms. Does this really happen?
“The Color Purple” would be a different kind of period piece, without John Williams as composer. The film is memorable with the performances of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. Spielberg held back in allowing a lesbian subplot really come forth in this 1985 film.
“Schindler’s List” would become one of Spielberg’s most important historical films, with its own commemoration of the Holocaust, as a German businessman tries to shelter Jews from the Nazi raids. Spielberg explains his use of black-and-white with the girl with the red bonnet. I remember seeing the film at the Avalon in Washington DC.
Spielberg also discusses his 1998 film about D-Day, “Saving Private Ryan”, with Matt Damon as the private. The film, rated R for only its battle violence, shows men reacting to seeing their own legs blown off, or their own guts hanging out as they die. Spielberg considers it a horror movie, which children should not see. The physical desecration of men in battle makes an existential point, that no matter how much we pretend to honor war veterans, it is the men themselves who make the personal bodily sacrifices, whereas for most of us life will go on as normal afterward. There are no victims, only casualties. No wonder enemies of America tend to view civilians as partially complicit combatants.
The film covers the founding of DreamWorks, which is described as an independent film studio — its first film was “Peacemaker” (1997), an early film about nuclear terrorism prescient of today (which I saw shortly after moving to Minneapolis at the Mall of America). The studio, which has often affiliated with Paramount or Disney for final distribution, is pretty much viewed now as a major. It actually got a national security visit after 9/11.
Toward the end of the film, Spielberg makes the political point that we have to solve these big world problems of inequality and environmental destruction, or many of us will pay personally. He doesn’t want to run for president.
|Director, writer:||Susan Lacy|
|When and how viewed:||HBO, 2017/10/10|
(Posted: Wednesday, October 11, 2017 at 3:45 PM EDT)