The Darkness of Steven Spielberg

ET Movie

Within the logo of Amblin Entertainment lies one of Steven Spielberg’s most iconic images: a boy flying on a bicycle with a shrouded extraterrestrial friend in tow. This image also provides a fitting summary of how Spielberg’s films have been popularly understood – as wondrous, spectacular articulations of imagination seemingly possible only through an affirmative style of filmmaking. But there’s also that other side of E.T. that’s absent within Amblin’s logo, that side that’s about the paranoia of a government that coldly quarantines and dissects a force it doesn’t understand, the parts of the film that met your childlike wonder with a stark nightmare.

The tensions between these two poles of Spielberg’s work are explored in depth in a new book by film scholar James Kendrick, whose “Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconsideration of the Films of Steven Spielberg” approaches the storied oeuvre of the most successful living filmmaker from the vantage point of his evident but less appreciated darker themes – his propensity to meet wondrous imagination with the worst tendencies of human nature. In fact, Kendrick argues that the dominant way we interpret Spielberg – as something of a reliable architect of affirming cinematic entertainment –prevents us from fully appreciating the depth and complexity of a director whose work oscillates on the pendulum between light and darkness, hope and despair.

Here’s what Kendrick had to tell us about the darkness brooding within Spielberg’s films.

Your book is called “Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconsideration of the Films of Steven Spielberg.” What do you mean by each part of this title?

The title derives from a term that Pauline Kael used to describe E.T. She described it as a “dream of a movie” and a “bliss-out.” What Pauline Kael was trying to get at is how engaging it was emotionally and how it swept her away. She described it as a very feel-good movie, as a movie that gets into your mind and makes everything feel right and lovely. The term got appropriated by a British critic named Andrew Britton, and he used it in order to be rather critical of Spielberg and wrote a famous essay about American cinema during the Reagan era, and Spielberg’s work in particular, titled “Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment.” He leveled a lot of criticisms at Spielberg as being reductionist and infantile and too conservative and reassuring.

When I look at Spielberg’s films, I see something that cuts through the middle of these two things. A lot of his films are uplifting and rejuvenating and do provide a lot of conventional pleasures. But at the same time, I felt drawn to the recognition that there’s a lot of darkness in his films that, even through his most popular blockbuster films, there exists this palpable darkness.

The thesis of this book called to my mind the ending to Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, in which the destruction brought to Earth ends rather arbitrarily, and you see the nuclear family come back together in this house that somehow wasn’t subject to damage. It’s technically a happy ending, but it’s not an ending that’s sustainable, or really overcomes the vast destruction that’s come before.

You see this time and again in his work. He’s drawn toward very dark, often violent subject matter. In general, he tends to be an optimistic person, and he wants to find the good and draw that out. So he’s in no way a nihilistic filmmaker at all, but I think you nailed it on the head when you said they’re “unsustainable.” The kind of happy ending is not enough to overcome everything that’s happened before it. With the ending of War of the Worlds, you have to take into account the harrowing experiences that the characters have been through. The Tom Cruise character having to cold-bloodedly murder another man in order to protect his family, for instance. And the Dakota Fanning character, his daughter, spends the film being horrifically traumatized over and over again.

War of the Worlds 2005

This is typical of Spielberg’s films. His films are often associated with childhood, and there’s this misconception that his films are sunny depictions of suburban childhood. But I would not want to be a child in a Spielberg film! They are constantly being abducted, enslaved and traumatized.

Empire of the Sun. Poltergeist. ET. Saving Private Ryan. Schindler’s List. They all have sort-of happy endings, but it’s not enough to recuperate what’s come before.

So the conventional narrative of film history postulates that in the ’60s and ’70s, there emerged this “film school generation” that birthed a New Hollywood dealing overtly with topical political themes and unafraid to discomfit audiences and explore the darkness of American life. Then the story goes that Spielberg and Lucas came around and inadvertently invented the modern blockbuster, thus putting to a close this previous era of stark, topical, un-pandering realism in favor of escapist family entertainment. But your book troubles that narrative. It allows us to think about Spielberg as, yes, quite different from Scorsese and Coppola and Ashby, but not so dissimilar from them as well.

Rather than bracketing Spielberg outside the New Hollywood, Spielberg is very much a part of that. Now, he had something of a more populist mindset of a filmmaker than, say, Robert Altman or Brian DePalma. But he shares a lot of qualities with them. If you look at his ’70s films, they have some of the same elements of ambivalence, a lack of closure, concern with social and familial decay. They hit certain buttons playing well to mainstream audiences, but we look over the ambiguities in favor of the spectacle and popularity of his films.

For example, everyone knows that Jaws is considered the first American blockbuster, changing the ways films are marketed and distributed. But there are darker elements to it that are very much in line with New Hollywood. For instance, there’s a great deal of embedded social criticism. The town mayor is willing to put the populace at great risk in the financial interest of the town, putting money ahead of human beings, and the coroner is willing to go along with this. In a scene near the middle of the film, where everyone on the beach has been driven into a panic because they believe the shark is out there, people are running out of the water, falling over each other. And for no good narrative reason, Spielberg cuts briefly to a low-angle shot in the water of an unconscious man who has been trampled by all the people trying to push themselves out of the water. This is not a particularly flattering portrait of humanity.

If this had shown up in a Scorsese film or an Altman film, it would have been understood very differently. But in a Spielberg film, it’s overlooked. Spielberg is largely misunderstood as this conservative, reassuring filmmaker.

He’s been set up as the foil against other New Hollywood filmmakers. Especially because Lucas, with whom he’s been often unfairly lumped, and he found substantial success at the box office while other filmmakers were increasingly marginalized. So the assumption is that Spielberg sold out in some way, especially as the ’70s are viewed as this time in which artistry and social consciousness infiltrated the studio system. So if those filmmakers inevitably failed it must be the fault of Spielberg or Lucas – this is the narrative that’s traditionally been told. There’s some truth to that as Hollywood re-found its conservatism in the ’80s, but I don’t see Spielberg’s films as so simple as all that.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind gas masks

In somewhat recent news, he’s distanced himself from the blockbuster mentality that he’s accused of, for lack of a better phrase, being a conspirator in.

You can see in his film choices of recent years that he’s moved away from traditional, blockbuster-like narratives. I think this began in the mid-1980s when he was on top of Hollywood after Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T., and he turns around and makes The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. He moves explicitly away from traditional genre fare, making a drama about turn-of-the-century segregation from a female perspective as well as an unconventional war film.

Also, we tend to think back on ’70s films like Close Encounters of a Third Kind as blockbusters. But this was a risky film in the ’70s: sci-fi was not a dominant genre when he made it, and nobody had really tried a UFO movie since the ’50s. But because it was successful and put within that narrative of blockbuster filmmaking, those risks tend to get ignored.

In the book, I write about the fact that this movie is centered on Richard Dreyfuss’ very unsympathetic character: he’s a bad father, self-absorbed, and limited in a lot of ways, and the entire movie hinged on him deserting his family.

You devote an entire chapter to a particular film often overlooked in considering Spielberg’s career. Why is 1941 essential to understanding Spielberg?

1941 doesn’t fit the conventional Spielberg narrative about the development of his career. But if you look at the darker elements of Spielberg’s career, 1941 begins to make a lot of sense. It’s a very strange movie, and it’s not an entirely successful movie, but it has been unfairly dismissed.

It’s a slapstick comedy in the vein of Animal House set during WWII, built around the panic people felt in southern California after the bombing of Pearl Harbor because they thought the Japanese might come after them next. This is about as unlikely a topic for comedy as you can possibly imagine. And 1941 is extraordinarily critical of human behavior, revealing all of its characters to be different levels of absurd. It speaks to a little chunk of anarchy that exists in his filmmaking. The co-producer, John Milius, described the film as socially irresponsible, and that’s not what you think of a Spielberg film.

You contextualize it by talking about the dark war films about Vietnam during the 1970s. And while Catch-22 is another good example, not many Hollywood films took that lens toward WWII, which is typically thought of as “the good war.”

For Spielberg to mock American patriotism, the war and the American military, and portray these characters as incompetent and inept, was a big deal. Spielberg originally wanted to cast John Wayne as one of the generals. Spielberg met Wayne at Joan Crawford’s funeral. And when Wayne actually read the script, he called Spielberg and chewed him out, saying it was the most unpatriotic and insulting thing he’d ever read and that he hoped Spielberg would never make the movie, calling it a disservice to veterans and the war.

You write in the book about how Indiana Jones is a more complicated hero than we typically think.

Indiana Jones is a beloved, storied icon of American culture. But he’s not the kind of simplistic, straight-up hero we tend to regard him as. He’s connected to the ’70s New Hollywood films typically described as centered around “losers,” as you rarely have a traditional hero in these films, like Harry Caul in The Conversation or Jake Gittes in Chinatown.

There are some aspects to Indiana Jones that allow him to fit in a superhero mold – he has an alternate identity, he goes on these adventures all over the world. He’s also modeled after western heroes, especially adventure movies from the ’40s and Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But in Raiders of the Lost Ark, his heroism is constantly complicated, called into question, and in some instances is absolutely undermined.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

For example, everything during the build up that reveals him at the beginning of the film paints Jones as someone who is insidious. He’s shown from behind, cast in shadow, shot from a low angle, his face is kept off-screen, and John Williams’ music is very foreboding. Even when he comes into the light, Williams uses traditional villainous music. This is not the introduction of a hero.

When Indiana Jones’ theme first shows up in Raiders, it’s when he’s escaping this South American tribe trying to kill him at the behest of a rival archaeologist. He swings on this vine trying to get away from them, and he looks absolutely absurd. It is the most un-heroic moment in all of the Indiana Jones films. He looks awkward and clumsy, and splashes down into this river with his legs askew. It’s comical and almost ridiculous.

When I watched the film, I couldn’t help but think that Spielberg is playing with us. He’s playing with our expectations of heroism. If you look at the creation of the character, this is borne out. Lucas wanted to make Jones into a James Bond character, a suave, debonair playboy and a super-heroic character. Spielberg wanted to give him flaws and cut into that heroism.

I love the ending of that film because Jones becomes expendable. The Nazis have found the Ark of the Covenant, accomplishing their goal, then they open it and destroy themselves.

Yeah, the last action Jones takes as a character is to become captured.

In terms of reconsidering Spielberg’s overall career, how would you summarize his worldview as a filmmaker?

What I get from Spielberg in looking over the body of his work is that he’s a very conflicted artist. To me, that makes him fascinating, I think that Spielberg fundamentally views the world through a lens that suggests that there’s a possibility for good, that humanity is not perpetually blighted and irredeemable. But you can’t ignore the horror and violence and the suffering that has existed all through human history. So when he makes historical films, they are films about historical atrocity: slavery, racism, war, the Holocaust. Again and again, he’s drawn to these moments in time that summarize the worst in humanity. But he tries to redeem that. He doesn’t try to find a silver lining, but he does try to find the possibility for redemption.

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James Kendrick is Associate Professor of Film and Digital Media in the Department of Communication at Baylor University. His previous books include “Film Violence: History, Ideology, Genre” and “Hollywood Bloodshed: Screen Violence and 1980s American Cinema.” You can purchase “Darkness in the Bliss-Out” from Bloomsbury Press.