The career of Steven Spielberg has been vast. Spanning five decades, he has crossed genres with more success than most of his contemporaries. In the grand scheme of cinema I believe that those who are drawn to his masterful work can be categorized into two groups. This partition between the two revolves around his seminal classic Schindler's List and separates his career into two parts. While his films, early and recent alike, follow common themes; there is also a subtle divide. These themes ranging from the lost boy to obsessions to family issues have been orchestrated throughout the majority of his films. For the purpose of this essay let's call them Pre-93 and Post-93: the former being prior to 1993 and Schindler's List, the latter being everything 1993 and on. The aforementioned themes, along with significant moments within the director’s personal life, paint a picture of a man evolving within his work.
Obsession is defined as ‘an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person's mind.’ Spielberg was not a stranger to this. In his adolescence he rarely had time for school, friends, sports, girls, or any other regular teenage activity. This did not change with adulthood as he has averaged around seven films a decade, often the productions over lapping.
His first venture within the motif came in the 1977 ground-breaking work in science fiction, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. At the time, there was very little widespread success for films in the
Close Encounters is the quintessential film about obsession in the Spielberg canon. It is not exclusive to Roy, but buried in every frame of the movie. Roy, Barry, and Jillian are possessed by images of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. The images beg them to find it. Roy and Jillian venture all the way to the tower after the extra-terrestrials take Barry. They happen upon a governmental exploration into the very lights and images they have been obsessed with themselves. Claude Lacombe spends the entirety of the film searching for signs of contact, of different encounters, finally succeeding in the final act of the film by communicating through lights and sounds with the aliens before they return the humans (including little Barry) they have picked up. They greet the government officials kindly before taking Roy back with them. There is no warfare; there is no violence, only the introduction of new life to people on Earth.
Obsession is hardly unique to this early film. In the pre-93 films mentioned earlier, there are numerous instances beyond CE3K, some more notable than others. E.T. is obsessed with finding his way home. Quint is haunted by the shark attacks that occurred in the Pacific after his warship the USS Indianapolis went down and the sharks picked off the men one by one. Indiana Jones’s father, Henry Jones, is inflicted by a life long search for the Holy Grail. Spielberg explains that the senior Jones teaches Junior "an important lesson, which is that men have work to do, obsessions to follow, and that, much as they might occasionally wish it were otherwise, family obligations must take second place to these matters." These are illustrations of men consumed.
These are also illustrations of a creator not yet ripened by manhood. Regarding Close Encounters Spielberg clarified years later, "I wrote the story in my late twenties, and I don't think today, being a
There is no flowing current throughout Spielberg’s filmography quite like the Lost Boy; the ultimate lost boy being Steven Spielberg himself. As a result of moving often in his formidable years, he was always the new kid. His father, who he described as a workaholic, was often absent. The absence only grew after his parents divorced. Considered a nerd by many of his classmates, even called ‘Spielbug’ behind his back, he found solace in the world of film. In 1958, to satisfy the quest for a merit badge in Boy Scouts, he made a nine-minute video entitled the Last Gunfight. The rest, as they say, is history. Beyond divorce and a less than cool persona, he also struggled with anti-Semitism in the largely WASP neighborhoods he grew up in. All of these afflictions defined his films.
Most of all, these childhood hardships produced the lost boy who created one of the most beloved films in history, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The movie would prove to be an extremely personal one, “for me E.T. was the quintessential story of my childhood.” Described as a contemporary fairy tale, E.T. is as much about humans as it is about aliens. Elliott, the ten-year-old loner, is trying to find his place in a world that has been turned upside down with the separation of his parents. He finds this safe haven in the form of a little alien that is left behind by a group of alien botanists. Elliott and E.T. share a bond that is both emotional and metaphysical. The cute little alien is desperately needing to go home. During the journey that ensues to help E.T. accomplish his goal, Elliott harnesses the help of his brother and his brother’s friends who shunned him before.
This is not dissimilar to Spielberg’s experiences in the seventh grade. In Joseph McBride’s biography a former schoolmate of Spielberg’s, Steve Suggs, explains what it was like to be involved in the young filmmakers amateur production Fighter Squad. “I remember telling my mom about it afterward. Here was this kid who was sort of a nerd and wasn't one of the cool guys; he got out there and suddenly he was in charge. He became a totally different person, so much so that I as a seventh grader was impressed. He had all the football players out there, all the neat guys, and he was telling them what to do. An hour ago at home or on the campus, he was the guy you kicked dirt in his eyes. It was miraculous. It just blew me away." The parallels between Elliott and young Steven Spielberg are absolutely intentional. “E.T. began with me trying to write a story about my parents’ divorce” he’d later explain in an interview. It was the ‘alien and the alienated’ and it spoke to him.
Though it was his most personal use of a lost boy, it would hardly be his last. With Empire of the Sun he described the movie as " the death of childhood. The story is probably quintessentially more about the death of childhood than anything I've made before or since." Based on a true story, Jim is separated from his family as the attack on Pearl Harbor takes place. The silver spoon is immediately ripped from his mouth as he is forced to learn how to survive in less than satisfactory realities of abandonment and Japanese internment camps. Jim, a boy with his head in the clouds, has a passion for aviation that does not waiver during the hardest moments. In one of the most beautifully orchestrated scenes in Spielberg’s film career, Jim witnesses an American airstrikes while screaming “P-51! Cadillac of the sky!” While his world crumbles, he still holds on to the childlike wonderment that categories the pre-93 Lost Boy.
This same wonderment can be found in characters like Roy in CE3K while discussing Pinocchio with his kids. He is searching for meaning in an otherwise ordinary life. Indiana Jones with each successful adventure, stating that various artifacts belong in museums as opposed to being in it for the money. These lost boys have a certain amount of genuine innocence that makes it easy to root for them. This begins to change with Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler being very much the anti-lost
Following this break from the standard, what lies ahead is a new brand of the lost boy. These lost boys in the post-93 reality come with their fair share of warts. While the pre-93 lost boys are not perfect, there is always a condition from there on out. David, the mecha boy, is not a real boy at all. He is lost because it was programmed within him. He did succeed far beyond his creator’s hopes, but it was still systematic. John Anderton, the protagonist played by Tom Cruise in Minority Report, is miserably lost. After literally losing his son in a public pool, he devotes himself to stopping murders with the government designed Pre-Crime. If only he could have had the pre-cogs envision his son’s disappearance. It plagues him heavily as he turns to drug use and his marriage dissolves. Frank Abagnale Jr is a young teenage con man on the run in Catch Me If You Can.
What was once lost for Spielberg has been found, in part due to the success he found in his personal life around this time. In 1991 he married Kate Capshaw, who he met on the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. E.T., his ultimate lost boy film, largely prepared him for the steps forward that would be taken in the following decade: “it gave me the courage, based on its success, to start to tackle more adult subjects. E.T. gave me a kind of free pass to fail.” Becoming a father of seven over the decades also was largely thanks to this film, “E.T. was a great experience for me because I wanted to be a dad after making it. I wasn't a father and I kind of became a father to those three kids, especially Drew Barrymore, and so that movie sort of changed my life in a very tangible way.”
The final theme is one that has been mentioned ad nauseam in discussions about Steven Spielberg’s filmmaking. Family issues, in particular non-present fathers, are ingrained in the fibers of his work. Despite finding out his error later in life, he always attributed his parents’ divorce on his father. Even once he found out that his mother actually had fallen in love with another, he had a hard time letting go of the thought. "It's still a mystery to me, but even though my mother was like an older sister to me, I kind of put her up on a pedestal. And my dad was much more terrestrial, much more grounded, much more salt of the earth. And for some reason, it was easier for me to blame him than it was to someone who I was already -- exalted." Out of this grew a theme that sticks with most viewers and critics alike.
preoccupied with watching the sky. In E.T., Elliott’s father is not present as a result of his parents breaking up. He’s mentioned in the film as being off in Mexico with a woman named Sally; this is upsetting news to his mother. During a zeppelin ride in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Indy gives a disheartening speech about the absence of Henry Jones, “What you taught me, is that I was less important to you than people that have been dead for several hundred years and in other countries, and I learned it so well, that we've hardly spoken for 20 years.” The examples mount beyond just these.
Around 1993 Spielberg reached out to his father at the urging of his wife. Their reconciliation had a profound effect on his life going forward. He explains that “one of the worst things that happened to me was the voluntary fall out with my father and then the greatest thing that ever happened to me was I finally saw the light and needed to love him in a way that he could love me back.” At this time, there is a sweeping change through his movies. In the pre-93 era of films the father was non-existent or the bad guy, in the post-93 era they become loving heroes. In Minority Report John is obsessed with the loss of his son. It wrecks his world to have lost him. In A.I. Professor Allen Hobby creates David because he pines his dead son who we learn David was modeled after. Richard Schickel in his book Steven Spielberg: a Retrospective opines about Catch Me If You Can, “If the movie has a love story, it is between the Abagnales, senior and junior.” This type of relationship doesn’t seem possible in the pre-93 film set. War of the Worlds shows a father's natural predisposition to save his kids at all odds. Spielberg saw the role of Ray Ferrier as “a deadbeat father who’s not very good with kids and has to become a pretty great dad pretty quickly in order to save their lives and protect his little world from falling apart.” By the end of the film there is a great reconciliation. In the new post-93 platform of Spielberg films, families are complex but necessary.
There is a moment in E.T. when the kids are racing to return him to his ship. Oppressors abound are chasing them before John Williams’ music takes them (and the audience) into iconic flight. But before this they run into some other bikers who wonder what they are doing. Elliott says, “He’s a man from space. We’re taking him to his spaceship.” The answer is cringe worthy, “Can’t he just beam up?” Elliott sums it up by simply saying, “This is reality, Greg.” In my estimation the pre-93 viewers are Elliott. They subscribe to the fantasy, to the hope that comes with everything Spielberg had to offer in his early films. The other bikers are the post-93, simply attributing the moments to something they’ve heard before, a more cynical view of the world. Where E.T. is a botanist alien, in War of the Worlds the aliens have been in hiding, plotting. War of the Worlds being made in a post 9/11 world. Schickel ponders the significance of Spielberg placing the aliens already on Earth but hidden, waiting. “The knowledge that the aliens have been planning this invasion for millennia is a clear indication of their intelligence and complete meanness of spirit, a warning that they may be unstoppably malevolent.” This is a far cry from E.T.
Millions upon millions of individuals have settled into dark theaters or onto their couches to watch the works of Steven Spielberg. Whether the person is drawn in by the hope of the wonderment found within morality and the human condition, or if they subscribe to the enjoyment of sentimental realism, they know they are in for a treat. These two different types are provided with a master class in storytelling. Perhaps the divide simply has to do with maturity and this is all a long way of saying he grew up, that we all grow up. Spielberg, talking about how some pictures take decades to come to fruition (such as Schindler’s List) where as some race in (like War Horse,) he asks "can't I be both?" If he can be, then can't we all?
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