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Uneven Steven

Steven Spielberg
A Man and His Monsters: When he's not busy putting an extra spin on his résumé or making big, serious movies about big, serious topics like the Holocaust and slavery, director Steven Spielberg spends his time bringing thunder lizards back to life with dazzling special effects.

The monster strikes again--Steven Spielberg's success has come at a high price, for him and for the movies

By Richard von Busack

AT 50, DIRECTOR Steven Spielberg is the colossus of the movies. Complaining about his influence is like complaining about plate tectonics. When people hear the word "filmmaker," they think "Spielberg," in the same way they think "Shakespeare" when they hear the word "playwright." Spielberg's name is a code word for everything modern American cinema is known for: big effects and bigger sentiment.

Spielberg's latest film, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, the summer's one guaranteed blockbuster, is not as full of sentimental foolishness as its predecessor. The acting is sharper this time, especially by a family of tyrannosauruses--Mr. and Mrs. and young master--as wise as elephants, especially compared to all the humanity trying to corral them.

Dinosaur resurrector John Hammond (Richard Attenborough, more like Santa Claus than ever) sends a reluctant chaos expert, Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), to investigate the other island where the creatures are nesting. Malcolm's girlfriend, Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore), who just happens to be the world's leading dino specialist, has already gone to the island.

For kid appeal, Malcolm's precocious daughter, Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester), has stowed away for the journey. (Give Spielberg much credit for the color-blind casting, but Kelly's character doesn't exist for real. Her lines are 150 artificial, as when she begs her father to set limits: "Ground me or something. Send me to my room.")

There are flashes of a more mature Spielberg in the scenes of Malcolm's kvetching and the use of overlapping dialogue--even if this tactic seems more like aimless showing off than the speedy storytelling of a Howard Hawks film.

The usual three climaxes are all impressive. The first is a literal cliffhanger: Harding lies helpless on a sheet of glass that slowly teeters under her weight 600 feet above an angry surf. The second is a "leaping lizards" sequence in which a pack of devilish velociraptors pick off an expedition in the tall grass. The third and best climax features a tyrannosaurus' understandable outrage at being shipped to suburban San Diego (the spirit of Lester Bangs has its revenge).

Lost World doesn't stint on the thrill-ride excitement, but the scenes without the dinos are as slow as molasses and as organic as Twinkies. What haunted me the most was the one bit of acting that Spielberg ran right over, a moment that begged to be slowed down and looked at harder: Harding, in a sleeping bag, an oval of light on her face, as she is awakened by the sounds of a tyrannosaurus stealing up on her tent.

It's as if Spielberg were blind to the qualities of Moore and Peter Postlethwaite (in a minor white-hunter part). The movie doesn't have any cohesion, sense or poetry, even cheap movie poetry. It's fun while it lasts, but once this crowded, rootless movie is over, it gives the slightly sad feeling of missed opportunity.


Complete filmography for Spielberg.

Official web site for Lost World.

A page of links to Jurassic Park and Lost World sites.


JUST IN TIME for the release of The Lost World, Spielberg is the subject of two new biographies: one by John Baxter, and the other--better, if quite reverent--by Joseph McBride. One of the finer minds in film criticism, McBride has written indispensable volumes on Orson Welles and Frank Capra. More than just a chronicle, McBride's biography is the author's way of answering those critics who have been less than respectful about cinema's most successful director. (In a footnote, McBride admits that he used to date Anne Spielberg, the director's sister.)

What Steven Spielberg: A Biography reveals is that Spielberg had his enormous success all planned from the beginning--almost in utero, if you believe his family, especially his mother, who is quoted as saying, "If I knew how famous he was going to be, I'd have had my uterus bronzed."

McBride stresses his image of Spielberg as the loner, the otherworldy kid destined to become one of the most famous men in the world. While other filmmakers of his age tried to escape the tottering studio system in the late 1960s, Spielberg was burrowing in.

The legend Spielberg used to tell interviewers was that as a young man he squatted in a disused office on the Universal Studios lot until he had a chance to direct. It wasn't that simple, as McBride discovered, interviewing the executives who knew Spielberg when he was making his first films. Spielberg, an admitted "control freak," was busy tailoring his history from the beginning, lying about his age so that he could get credit for making his first movie before he hit 21.

In a sense, Spielberg was the fossil amber that held the studio system's saurian DNA. Spielberg--and his imitators--brought the studios back from near-extinction. He refined the broad appeal unique to the Hollywood movie, but this achievement had a price: The Hollywood movie for adults has since become rare and not, as it was before Spielberg, commonplace.

SPIELBERG WAS the son of a nonconformist mother and a career-driven, somewhat remote electrical engineer father. The Spielbergs followed the westward demographic wave of the 1950s, from Ohio to Pennsylvania to Phoenix to Saratoga, Calif.

Blocked from the night thoughts to which he was privy when interviewing Capra (the biography was unauthorized), McBride calls upon the sorrows to darken the story, writing of Spielberg's pain as a Jewish son in some very gentile parts of the country: Arizona and Saratoga.

Spielberg himself has said (in interviews with Barbara Walters and David Anser, and in a follow-up letter to the San Jose Mercury News) that he encountered anti-Semitism in his year (1964­65) at Saratoga High School. McBride interviewed more than 55 local people for his book, including Spielberg's high school friends Don Shull, Mike Augustine and Gene Ward Smith, uncovering only scattered incidents that justify Spielberg's claim that his time in Saratoga was "hell on Earth."

Spielberg's other sorrow, his parents' divorce, is reflected, says McBride, in the director's frequent images of broken families, visible from one end of the director's work to the other. McBride stresses this trauma so often that, like a weary psychiatrist, you want to sigh, "Get over it."

A skilled moviemaker from an early age, Spielberg was riding in a limo to the local premiere of one of his first movies, Firelight, when he was just 17. Although badly troubled and overbudget, films such as Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind turned into major hits that also epitomized the image of the new '70s sensitive man in the figure of Spielberg's regular star, the brash but wounded Richard Dreyfuss.

A string of triumphs followed: E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, the Indiana Jones franchise, Jurassic Park (one of the most popular movies ever made)--a career, in short, of unparalleled force, satisfied ambition and unlimited success.

McBride savors production details: Spielberg experimenting with a chimp on roller skates to play E.T.; the mechanics of the startlingly tricky camerawork inside the car in his big-screen debut--and one of his best films--1974's The Sugarland Express (which had its disastrous premiere in San Jose).

The Sugarland Express is a key movie for Spielberg in that it not only shows his remarkable technique, but also begins the filmmaker's long obsession with the subject of parents separated from their children. The concern comes up (again) in The Lost World, with Goldblum's Malcolm patching up a messy relationship with his daughter. The Sugarland Express, however, shows us--for the last time in Spielberg's career--that reuniting a family can have a cost, with Goldie Hawn's character tricking and inadvertently killing people to get her hands back on her child.

Love Spielberg or hate him, his films usually have rousing openings: consider the outstanding crowd scenes at the beginning of Empire of the Sun; the all­armed forces fight scene early in 1941; and the game of keep away with a vial of poison antidote, like a scrimmage on the dance floor in an Astaire and Rogers movie, in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

To shade what soon becomes a depressing litany of overachievement, McBride reflects on some of the ruthlessness necessary to a Spielberg-sized triumph. There's a quote from Julia Phillips, the sharp-tongued producer of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that the director is "the ultimate writer-fucker"--in other words, a credit thief, as was Capra before him. McBride also reminds the reader of Spielberg's background involvement in the notorious Twilight Zone accident in which two children were killed while working as extras illegally at 2:20 in the morning.

McBRIDE, going over some of Spielberg's lesser films, feels it's time to reappraise such failures as Hook and The Color Purple. In defending the most notorious miscalculation a calculating filmmaker ever made, McBride quotes Whoopi Goldberg's complaint about the latter film: "As soon as there's a movie with a black cast that is not [all] singin' and dancin' they [meaning critics] bitch and moan about it."

How could McBride let that one get away? It was precisely the singing and dancing in The Color Purple--Spielberg's melding of Alice Walker with The Music Man--that made the director's worst movie the kind of nightmare not soon forgotten. McBride's book is in the right place at the right time; post­Schindler's List, it's almost like siding with the Nazis to have any reservation about Spielberg's work.

So define your critics and define your Spielberg. Is he the man who unleashed the dinosaurs and took the risk of making a three-hour black-and-white movie about the Holocaust? Is he the young genius who directed the astonishing Duel? Is he the producer of Poltergeist, which I prefer to E.T.? Is he the visionary of the new suburbs? (You never saw how remote, how half-finished, how lonely, these subdivisions in the West were until Spielberg brought them to the big screen.)

Is he the Spielberg whose passion for cartoons has contributed significantly to the energy of his filmmaking, leading him to co-produce Robert Zemeckis' Who Framed Roger Rabbit and to help sponsor the career of the Frank Tashlin of the 1980s, Joe Dante (Gremlins).

The other Spielberg is the executive producer or director of sticky, undifferentiated family entertainments, such as An American Tail, Casper, The Goonies, Hook and The Flintstones--The Movie (unearthing the "modern stone-age family" after The Simpsons had buried them as deep as Java Man).

Even in his more adult-tinged adventures, the childlikeness of his films make for easily read surfaces, simple narratives, points as pressing, and inescapable, as the metal stalactites in an Indiana Jones death trap. I've found that for all but a handful of Spielberg films, one viewing was always enough.

Ultimately, the most telling analysis of Spielberg and his imitators comes from outside McBride's book, when McBride cites critic Peter Biskind (Seeing Is Believing), who writes that Spielberg's "aesthetic of awe" had helped "reduce an entire culture to childishness. ... To infantilize the audience, to reconstitute the spectator as child, Lucas and Spielberg had to obliterate years of sophisticated, adult movie-going habits." The trend toward interesting Hollywood films of the 1970s was destroyed by Spielberg's jackpots, and the art is just now beginning to recover from, to use the subtitle of McBride's book on Capra, "the catastrophe of success."

The corollary question is, Who are the critics? McBride claims that "the full-throated romantic mood of visual storytelling is not fashionable by postmodern standards of contemporary film critics." He contends that "a popular artist is automatically and unfairly suspected of not being an artist."

The fond press reception for the desperately mushy Sling Blade proves that there will always be critics with a hearty appetite for "full-throated romantic mood." For years, Spielberg has been honored with reverent coverage--take, for instance, the 1985 Time magazine article beginning "Once upon a time there was a little boy named Steven, who lived in a mythical land called Suburbia."

Not enough critics are annoyed by Spielberg's comment "I've always wanted to be accepted by the majority." There aren't many who consider the methods by which that acceptance is obtained and few who rebel against Spielberg's apotheosis now. Detailing the life of the titan, McBride is puzzled with a contemptuous sort of puzzlement: Why do elitist critics hate Stephen Spielberg?

Aside from the critical dog pile atop The Color Purple, few critics are repelled by the sentimentality, the profound sexlessness of most of Spielberg's work. (How many critics called Spielberg on the dismal scene of Attenborough eating the melted ice cream in Jurassic Park?)

In his darkest material, about death or fascism, the seriousness Spielberg flirts with is always overruled by a happy ending, whisked away on a skirl of John Williams music. Even his stories about the Holocaust and American slavery (as in Amistad, his upcoming prestige film for Christmas) come with happy endings. At this point, a person wanting to sell a script to Spielberg might well seek out an inspirational true story about Chernobyl or Hiroshima.

WHAT CAN Spielberg want? He has an Oscar--after a little grade-grubbing. He has the studio; he is extraordinarily wealthy; he has the family that is obviously so important to him.

It's also said that Spielberg has the largest private selection of Norman Rockwell paintings in the world and that he has the fire power to protect it too. (His is "the finest gun collection in Southern California," according to Charlton Heston.) He has left in the dust anyone who mocked him as a kid.

He shouldn't care what the minority thinks--why should McBride, for that matter? Reading McBride, you get the chill that strikes your spine when you work for one of those corporations that demands consensus. McBride is so defensive that he even calls those who haven't fallen for Spielberg's mood movies "elitist"--a word meaningless in a profession that tries to seek out and spotlight the best.

"Elite" is from the Old French root eslire, to choose--and choosing is what a critic does for a living. Calling a critic "elitist" is like calling an accountant "mathist." Besides, there aren't that many critics in the country you could accuse of elitism. Siskel and Ebert--now there's a pair of steel-spectacled, vinegar-blooded intellectuals.

Elitist or not, all critics alike go into theaters expecting a sense of surprise and wonder--a sense that's for the most part been hammered out of us by the Spielberg University of fantasy and special effects, and the viscous strains of the John Williams Symphonette Society.

At his worst, Spielberg's the Norman Rockwell of the movies, a filmmaker for the reading-impaired and the television-addicted, fascinated by the homily, the food fight, the swelling violins, the fat-boy joke and the resurrection. Even at 50, Spielberg, in Bertolt Brecht's phrase, is a kid laughing because he hasn't heard the bad news.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (PG-13; 134 min.), directed by Steven Spielberg, written by David Koepp, based on the novel by Michael Crichton, photographed Janusz Kaminski and starring Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore and Richard Attenborough.

Steven Spielberg: A Biography by Joseph McBride; Simon & Schuster; $30 cloth.

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From the May 29-June 4, 1997 issue of Metro

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