Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Nothing Much to Phone Home about (with Exceptions): Four Books on Spielberg

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Nothing Much to Phone Home about (with Exceptions): Four Books on Spielberg

Article excerpt

Warren Buckland, Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster. New York: Continuum, 2006.

Lester D. Friedman, Citizen Spielberg. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Andrew M. Gordon, Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

Nigel Morris, The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light. London: Wallflower, 2007.

In his introduction to Citizen Spielberg, Lester Friedman paints himself as a mock-heroic figure, bravely shrugging off the condescension of senior figures in the Society for Cinema and Media Studies as he steps nobly into the breach to address the shocking lack of 'a single comprehensive scholarly study of [Spielberg's] films' (1). Whether or not one buys this shtick, it is striking that few have claimed Spielberg as 'subversive' or 'transgressive' (even with such terms debased into statements of personal taste or consumer niche), let alone treated him seriously and at length as probably the major, above-the-line force in American film-making since the mid-1970s. Indeed, Spielberg's significance seems even to confound those who would champion him. Warren Buckland, who insists that we must recognise the various economic and social networks in which 'Spielberg' signifies and circulates, and who argues that the post-classical mode of production has fundamentally changed the role and nature of film authorship, nonetheless likens Spielberg to Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller before they were 'discovered' by Cahiers du cinéma, and thus reduces him to just another author of film texts. Nigel Morris contends that '"Steven Spielberg" offers a promise analogous to stardom and genre', a status 'arguably unprecedented except by "Disney" and "Hitchcock"' (4), but likewise steps back from the major implications of such a view to focus more closely on the recurring textual features of Spielberg's films. Such apparent contradictions are perhaps inevitable. Of the many problems facing those who wish to engage with Spielberg's work is his sheer output. Since 1974, he has directed twenty-four and a quarter feature films, with The Trial of the Chicago 7 in production, Tintin in pre-production and Interstellar and Lincoln announced as subsequent projects. Half a dozen of these films are in the top twenty-five box-office successes of all time and five of them are in the American Film Institute's list of the hundred best films (Friedman 3). According to IMDB, he has 113 producer or executive producer credits since 1978. In addition to fiction films, he has also been involved in television drama, animation, documentary and video games, and in 1994 he co-founded Dreamworks SKG, Hollywood's first new studio in seventy years.1 How is one supposed to master all this material, or find ways comprehensively to discuss it?

The four books under review find different solutions. Nigel Morris opts for (more or less) chronological encyclopaedism: he restricts himself to films directed by Spielberg, beginning with Close Encounters of the First Kind (US/UK 1977), 'the earliest of his films that most graphically demonstrates recurrent concerns', and then leaping back to the television movie Duel (US 1971) to trace these concerns 'chronologically, film by film' (7). Friedman attempts a similar encyclopaedism, but carves up the films into five (rather arbitrary) categories - sf and fantasy, action/adventure melodrama, monster movies, Second World War combat films, social problem/ethnic minority films - and devotes a sixth chapter to Schindler's List (US 1993). Andrew Gordon focuses on only the first of the Friedman's categories, but places rather more of Spielberg's work in it. Warren Buckland claims his focus is on the blockbusters - not, it transpires, all of them, nor just them2 - but despite discussing fewer titles than the other authors, he falls rather more spectacularly into the trap of encyclopaedism. …

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