Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

On Haskell's Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films

Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

On Haskell's Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films

Article excerpt

On Haskell's Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films (Jewish Lives series). By Molly Haskell. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017. 248 pp., ISBN 978-0-300-18693-2 (hc), US $25.00.

In 1991 Steven Spielberg was asked to select a signature image that best illustrated the spirit and style ofhis work. The New Hollywood wunderkind-turned-mogul chose the beautifully surreal moment in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (USA, 1977) when Barry (Cary Guffey), the little boy, opens the front door to his rural Indiana home to "that beautiful but awful light, just like fire coming through the doorway."1 As Spielberg recounts, "And he's very small, and it's a very large door, and there's a lot of promise or danger outside that door." The potential of promise and danger in this moment suggests a deeper connection with the director's early obsessions with the dreams of otherworldly visitors, and the nightmares of suburban sprawl. The benign sights and sounds of Spielberg's suburbs, as he shows us in Close Encounters, E.T The Extra-Terrestrial (USA, 1982), Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, USA, 1982), and even Empire of the Sun (USA, 1987), belie a strong sense of danger that lurks just beyond the façade of safety in the backyard.

The blurring of these edges, between safety and danger, has served as the lynchpin of Spielberg's work from the salad days of Duel (USA, 1971) and The Sugarland Express (USA, 1974), to the blockbuster behemoths of Jaws (USA, 1975) and the IndianaJones adventures (1981-2008), to the more portentous and ambitious A.I. Artificial Intelligence (USA, 2001) and Lincoln (USA, 2012). At the same time the director's ambivalent relationship with his own Jewishness has provided a pivotal subtext to the coming-of-age narratives, always on the edges of his early work (the casting of Spielberg stand-in Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws and Close Encounters springs to mind), reconciled in Schindler's List (USA, 1993), and disillusioned in Munich (France, Canada, USA, 2005).

The bifurcated themes of middle-class American boyhood and the postwar suburban Jewish experience coalesce in the critical discourse of Spielberg's work. As biographers and scholars contend, for the young Spielberg there was safety and salvation in the movies, particularly studio-era epics like Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (USA, 1952), Vincente Minnelli musicals like An American in Paris (USA, 1951), and John Ford Westerns like The Searchers (USA, 1956). After being given a Bolex 8mm camera by his father, Arnold, the adolescent Spielberg channeled his creativity into elaborate home movies and, later, mini features starring his mother, Leah, and his three sisters. The themes of religious detachment and reconciliation also find their fullest expression in recent academic studies of Spielberg's work, which often seek to read the director's style and influence as a byproduct of his childhood anxieties of fitting an Orthodox Jewish boy into a quintessentially gentile social world.

The critical approach so common to auteur studies of filmmakers favors this kind of mythmaking, especially when it aims to distill a career-to say nothing of an artistic point of view-into a tangled assortment of childhood traumas and Gestalt psychology. Lester Friedman's Citizen Spielberg, published in 2006, manages a highwire act of weaving the "lost boy" narrative into the larger fabric of Spielberg's Jewish identity, his penchant for cutting-edge audiovisual technologies, and his uneven relationship with the critical community. Friedman revisits each film by contextualizing its critical and scholarly reception against an interpretive framework that underlines the symbolic and thematic consistencies of Spielberg's authorial style. These readings, while not uncommon in Spielberg studies, tend to diminish the accomplishments and creative input of his closest collaborators, including composer John Williams, editor Michael Kahn, and director of photography Janusz Kaminski. …

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