CITIZEN SPIELBERG Lester D. Friedman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006, 345+ pp.
DIRECTED BY STEVEN SPIELBERG: POETICS OF THE CONTEMPORARY HOLLYWOOD BLOCKBUSTER Warren Buckland. New York: Continuum, 2006, 246 pp.
As in so many areas of life and cinema, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that two scholarly books devoted to Steven Spielberg are out. The bad news is that only one of them-Lester D. Friedman's Citizen Spielberg- lives up to its stated mission: to give Spielberg his rightful place in film history.
Friedman claims to have written the first complete analysis of Spielberg's cinema, and he does so from a generally laudatory perspective. Although I have a few respectful quibbles with Friedman's analyses of individual movies, I admire his intellectual courage in bucking the tide of anti-Spielberg invective. In doing so, he takes on almost the entire field of academic film studies, including this reviewer. Friedman strives to "engage in ongoing dialogues . with Spielberg's harshest critics, not ignoring the flaws and failures in his artistic canon but also reclaiming ignored elements of value and significance" (3). In short, he wants to present a balanced portrait of Spielberg as an evolving creative phenomenon.
In his introduction, Friedman sets up a series of straw persons to vilify. Notably, there are the envious scholars, for whom "Spielberg is . . . the man they love to hate because he fields the best players, controls the biggest budgets, draws the biggest crowds, reaps the most profits, and wins far too often" (1-2). Furthermore, those in this cohort "position Spielberg as . . . a technically gifted and intellectually shallow showman who substitutes spectacle for substance and emotion for depth" (2).
In response to this criticism, Friedman proffers an "irony defense," suggesting that critics too often equate the director's views with the ideology of his protagonists. He suggests that "far from the lock-step fascist aesthetic his detractors attribute to him, Spielberg's cinema is filled with opportunities to contest and even contradict the attitudes of his characters" (5). Maybe, but do ordinary viewers notice these subtle ironies and assume that Spielberg is critiquing his heroes? I don't think so.
Nonetheless, Friedman is honest about Spielberg's deficiencies, including that he "seems incapable of creating complex female figures" (8). Those women are often clichéd secondary characters or barely present at all. Although generally disposed to praise the films, Friedman is willing to critique the director on other ideological and aesthetic grounds. Indeed, I found myself agreeing with Friedman's summation: "Spielberg has evolved into a director of thought and spirit . . . demonstrating a stunning intellectual growth and emotional maturity that was once impossible to imagine" (10). My caveat is that Spielberg deserves such praise only for his more recent projects.
In chapter 1, Friedman deconstructs Hook through the lens of the director's psychobiography: Spielberg had just become a father and "couldn't be Peter Pan anymore" (18). The analysis of A.I. is also based on biographical details, since Kubrick and Spielberg "both were middle-class Jewish boys who loved technology and felt severely alienated from their childhood environments." However, "the austere and coldly intellectual Kubrick . . . would seem to have little in common with the hyperkinetic and viscerally emotional Spielberg" (47-48).
Also in chapter 1 are analyses of two Spielberg classics, E.T. and Close Encounters, which Friedman concedes could be considered "fascist." As he puts it, "[Close Encounters] strikes a jingoistic American chord" (56); he then goes on to list half a dozen narrative events that buttress the point. "At its center," the film "reaffirms America's historical sense of Manifest Destiny . . . Close Encounters wraps itself in the flag" (56). That is what leftist critics have been saying since 1977. …