Saturday, March 31, 2007
Unlike other successful young American filmmakers of the last two decades, Spielberg did not attend any of the major American University film programs. Largely self-taught, at the age of 16 his first feature was a two-hour science fiction movie titled Firelight. Firelight was premiered at a local movie house in Phoenix (Arizona). In 1969, his short film Amblin was instrumental in gaining him a job with Universal Studio’s television unit. There he directed episodes of Columbo, The Psychiatrist, Queen Marshall: Counselor at Law and Marcus Welby, M.D.". He also made three television movies, which included Duel (1971). Duel was released in theatres across Europe, where it won critical acclaim and commercial success.
Duel is the story of a salesman (Dennis Weaver) who is pursued by a giant diesel truck. The driver of the truck is never seen nor is the motive explained. This factor creates suspense in the movie.
Spielberg’s first production film was The Sugarland Express (1974). Pauline Kael has described this movie as "one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies." The film is based on the true story of a Texas woman and her escaped convict husband who fight the law to regain custody of their baby. His choreographed car chases and deft handling of suspense and comedy are remarkable. Poor marketing could be one of the reasons for the failure of this memorably entertaining and poignant feature at the box office.
Spielberg’s second production Jaws faced a lot of production problems. The troubles chiefly owed to a young inexperienced director, a dissatisfied crew and a malfunctioning mechanical shark. In spite of these hurdles Jaws emerged as a classic tale of adventure that propelled Spielberg to the A–list of Hollywood directors.
His next film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind displayed the first development of his cinematic interest in the amazing world of children. In this film, Francois Truffaut is a scientist who has an open faith in the existence of extra terrestrial beings. The aliens in this revisionist work are initially terrifying. His works are infused with his childhood memories of the 50’s and early 60’s of American middle class suburbia. He has remarked that the experience was like "growing up with three parents – a mother, a father and a TV set." In Spielberg’s films, the characters are rarely at ease with their surroundings. When Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) has his first encounter with the extra terrestrial, he acknowledges the acceptance of greater powers in the universe.
Riding high after two blockbusters, Spielberg decided to try his hand at producing a colossal big budget comedy. His attempt resulted in 1941 (1979), a loud, and wildly uneven film about paranoia. The setting is a small coastal southern Californian town after the attack on Pearl Harbor. 1941 was perceived as a huge and indulgent flop but however in the ultimately run it yielded a profit.
One of Spielberg’s signature films is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here, along with George Lucas and Harrison Ford, he introduced Dr. Indiana Jones, the celebrated archaeologist, teacher and adventurer, in the film that became the most popular of his screenings.
Spielberg’s next film was E. T. – The Extra Terrestrial for which he is best known. E. T. was an instant classic and a masterpiece as well. The film experience is overwhelmingly emotional. Here, Spielberg’s ability to portray imaginative possibilities beyond the realm of reason, is a result of his childlike sense of wonder. In 1982, he admitted, "I feel I’m still a kid. I’m 34 and I really haven’t grown up yet."
Spielberg’s The Twilight Zone - The Movie (1983) is a remake of an episode, which was scripted by Richard Matheson. It concerns old people who can be children again only if they strongly desire to be so.
As a young filmmaker, Spielberg seemed to favor the child’s world of harmless adventure as was featured in his production The Goonies (1985). In Empire of the Sun (1987), he presented the World War II through the eyes of his young protagonist. Back to the Future is a transitional work, which deals with the subject of time-travel fantasy. Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom deal with racism and imperialism. The Color Purple (1985) is a film inspired on a novel by Alice Walker. It speaks of racism, wife beating and lesbianism. Some politically minded critics condemned The Color Purple. This project was commercially risky, as it mostly featured a black female and unknown cast. The reaction of the intelligentsia was not a favorable one. However, the audiences, especially the black women, perceived it as an aspect of African–American history which was given full-scale Hollywood treatment. The film earned $100 million and Walker, Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey became stars.
In Empire of the Sun, Spielberg chose far riskier material than the prevalent norm for Hollywood blockbusters. Here, Spielberg along with Tom Stoppard (screenwriter) brought together the contradictory themes of an American filmmaker and British novelist J. G. Ballard. In this movie, the effects of colonialism and war are displayed from a child’s perspective. Here, traditional Spielbergian imagery like a strong back lighting and joyful depictions of childlike awe and wonder are used extensively.
Always (1989) is Spielberg’s first romantic film. It depicted issues of emotional commitment, loss and mortality, which are commonly faced by aging people.
In Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade the European topography is used. Here the emphasis is on the family of Dr. Jones. The rift in the relationship of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery makes up for the highlight of the film.
Through Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg created the fantasy series, Amazing Stories (NBC, 1985-1987). Besides being the executive producer, he also provided it with many stories. Spielberg lured many talented film directors to direct for TV. This included Martin Scorsese, Robert Zemeciks, Paul Bartel, Danny DeVito, Joe Dante and Clint Eastwood. Though it was lavishly produced, many of the stories were unsatisfying. Spielberg achieved greater success with the children’s cartoon series, Tiny Toon Adventures.
Hook (1991) was Spielberg’s long awaited return to fantasy land. Hook is a lavish update of the Peter Pan story. Earning over $ 60 million, the film left an everlasting impression on the minds of audiences.
Jurassic Park (1993) is an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel on dinosaurs. The film was a breakthrough in the field of special effects. However, the caricatures were quite shallow. Surprisingly, Spielberg did little for its publicity. However, Jurassic Park became one of the biggest moneymakers of all time. Schindler’s List (1993) deals with the World War II concentration camps. This film reflects the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler on the Jews. Schindler’s List was filmed in black and white without any well-known stars. It is adopted from Thomas Keneally’s Booker Prize winning 1982 novel (based on a true story). This increasingly restrained documentary styled drama earned Spielberg the most respectful recognition of his career. Janet Maslin, who is a critic of New York Times has remarked, "It should be noted, if only in passing, that Mr. Spielberg has this year delivered the most astounding one-two punch in the history of American cinema. Jurassic Park now closing in on billion dollar grosses, is the biggest moneymaker of all time. Schindler’s List, destined to have a permanent place in memory, will earn something better." Spielberg is widely recognized as one of the masters of world cinema. This recognition owed a lot to Schindler’s List. This film won almost every film industry award of 1993. There awards included the Director’s Guild of America, the Golden Globe Awards, seven Academy Awards (out of 12 nominations) and Oscars for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay.
Following the triumph of Schindler’s List, Spielberg resumed producing lavish mainstream entertainment, and produced The Flintstones (1994), Casper (1995), Twister (1996), Amistad (1997) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). He directed Lost World: Jurassic Park II (1997), Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan. Saving Private Ryan is a film equal to Schindler’s List in all respects and has been praised by critics as no other films have so far. His future projects as director includes AI, Minority Reports and Memoirs of a Geisha among others.