A Loving Retrospective. With James Murphy
With Ready Player One in Cinemas and Indiana Jones 5 on the way, and as Collider Videos listed their top 10 Spielberg films, we take a look at some of the moments that define the director’s unique genius and legacy on film..
This is not an exhaustive list. As the critic John Campea says, ‘all film is subjective’. What I’m focused on here are unique visual signature shots and magic moments that can only be Spielberg. They might be from universally known and beloved movies or more neglected gems in the director’s prolific, varied and endlessly fascinating back catalogue.
So, in no particular order..Here. We..Go!
1: The List is LIFE..
Schindler’s List is a great film. It’s a measure of Spielberg’s genius that whilst this does not shy from the horrors of the holocaust, it still functions as a kind of espionage / sabotage thriller. Schindler works as a kind of James Bond ethical hedonist, infiltrating the Nazi machine to do good whilst remaining something of a bad lad.
The atmospheric, sensual details are not lost here, with every venture into black market goods or high life amidst the low, making a strong visual impression. Cigarette smoke, cognac glasses, cuff-links, stockings: all ‘there’ , alongside the darkness.
There is even some tragic irony in the character play. Above all: immaculately crafted, career best performances from Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, in a film of epic scope and palpable profundity.
One montage scene: ‘The List is Life’, somehow, just somehow, encapsulates the heart, soul and brilliance of Schindler’s List.
For more information on the Holocaust and studies on its legacy and the prevention of Genocide see The Shoah Foundation.
2: Cracking windscreen glass..with extra fries..
The Lost World: Jurassic Park is, for some reason, neglected in the Spielberg canon and by no means beloved by fans of either the preceding film or its director. But it is important. This is a rare sequel for Spielberg: he knew Universal would make one, with or without him. And he did not wish the original film’s legacy to be tainted by inferior products, erroneously associated with his name, as with the Jaws sequels.
It was also his first film, post Schindler’s List. It is therefore, by its very nature, a ‘darker’ and more mature adventure than expected. It remains a first rate piece of entertainment, assuring audiences that the director would continue to vary his projects between the worthier, more substantial historical films and the popcorn friendly crowd pleasers.
Are there flaws? Of course. The premise is thin and the humour is stretched; Pete Poslethwaite is underused. The kid is token. There is still some of the far too pretentious and pleased with itself dialogue that blighted the first ‘Jurassic‘ film. The last act is a late add-on and should have formed its own episode in the series.
But the film remains a fast paced, provocative, fun, atmospheric adventure thriller, with a believable chemistry between leading man Jeff Goldblum and counterpart lady, Julianne Moore; both convincing in the action and exposition.
The stand out scene: THAT cracking glass shot. Rain! Mud! Blood! Glass! Peril! T-Rex in the background! Some fast food-related, gallows humour! And a final uplift?..before a brief pause for breath and then right back into the action. Spielberg at his very best..
3: D-Day Landings
Saving Private Ryan. There was never, has never, will never be ANYTHING quite like this on film. Ever. This is not a representation of war. It IS war.
I remember feeling drained and saddened by seeing it in the summer of 1998, shattering any notions of the faux heroism one believes they may eventually grow into as a still maturing adolescent.
Would I rather have come away, emboldened and feeling ready to fight similar battles? Of course. But here’s the beauty of the scene : each and every character, extra, everybody, somehow personifies the kind of real world heroism required to win wars.
So it’s not quite as simple as the director telling us to be pacifist or that ‘war is bad, peace is good’. Far from it. This is a tribute to true heroics, whilst reminding one of that virtue’s devastating cost. This is the most visceral, vulnerable reality of war. It also reinvented the mechanics of film: with shutter speeds, lighting and editing styles transformed, forever.
Spielberg was rightly awarded best Director at the Academy awards for these scenes alone. I do see why Shakespeare in Love won best picture, though. The opening of ‘Private Ryan‘ is a film in itself but the rest is almost redundant; the aesthetic and moral mission fulfilled, already?
Shakespeare in Love is by contrast a more rewarding film, overall: literate, clever, romantic, rich. Tough call. But as a piece of art, science, philosophy, morality and revisionist history? NOTHING beats the opening shots of Saving Private Ryan. Released the same year as Terrence Malick’s beautiful Thin Red Line: similar moral meditation on war; differing cinematic method.
Trivia: much of the film was shot in Ireland with expert help from Irish Defence Forces.
Christopher Nolan consciously avoided hyper-realism / gory violence in 2017’s DUNKIRK, and consulted Spielberg to that effect.
4: ‘Top Men’; ‘Bureaucratic Fools’; ‘Well I know what I’ve got here’ / The Ark is Put Away..
Raiders of the Lost Ark is clever and classic, throughout. So it is difficult to narrow down the scenes that truly sum up its multiple layers of appeal.
The bit where a tired Indy (Harrison Ford) shoots the swordsman. The truck! The submarine! The boulder! The Ark is unveiled! Etc. But the closing moments of the film do a pitch perfect job of wrapping it all up, summarising its main motifs and leaving just a teasing hint of further possibilities.
Political intrigue, a determined yet still vulnerable, academic action adventure hero, romance, Washington steps and then THAT image of a box being nailed down and left in a warehouse of infinite possibility, a la Citizen Kane and Rosebud..genius!
5: ‘Over the Moon’..
ET is a beautiful, wonderful film. At once the most childlike and imaginative yet deeply emotional, mature and ‘adult’ in the Spielberg canon. As with all Spielberg products, it is difficult to highlight one moment above others in the movie.
The opening images are rich and distinctive, mixing his trademark blue shards of light with rattling of keys and beats of a John Williams‘ score. There are comedy moments galore (ET gets drunk; recognises Yoda on Halloween : ‘home’).
But the one, majestic, definitive moment? Well, there is a good reason this became the basis of the Amblin Entertainment logo. Adorable cinematic alchemy.
6: ‘Everybody Runs’ / ‘He’s Going out the Front Door’.
Two films in joint place here. Very different in tone and genre but from a similar era in the Spielberg back catalogue. 2001-7 saw an experimental phase of sorts, with the Director adhering to his ‘one for me, one for them’ philosophy by still making action /adventure / crowd pleasers of sorts, yet splicing those with a provocative profundity.
There was the Kubrick tribute of AI, the Pink Panther/early 007 esque caper in Catch me if You Can. The unremitting grit yet still sci-fi imagination of War of the Worlds. The ‘bitter pill’ of MUNICH.
But the two that stand out for me?Minority Report and The Terminal. Differing genres, shared concerns. That’s a work pattern Spielberg is repeating today, with two offerings this year (The Post and Ready Player One: released in the midst of the Trump Presidency and increased concern over Facebook / privacy /election influencers).
Minority Report and The Terminal are models of acute aesthetic attention. Production design as character in itself. Whilst retaining a sense of soul and substance amidst the distinctive styles. Visual and intellectual feasts; edutainment; popcorn as nourishment.
And there is a shared motif of running: away from wrongful arrest / destiny; towards freedom / exploration and love. Two Toms: Cruise, Hanks. ‘A’ Game, Top Flight stars. Ideally suited to Spielberg’s style, despite none of his films depending on star power for their success and indeed, frequently casting unknowns to that effect.
Toms Cruise and Hanks are both GREAT at that RUNNING! Be it for comedic or romantic, thrilling or fantastical effect. They give full speed here; propelled by first rate direction from Spielberg. Great editing and correlation between these self contained scenes and the pictures’..well..’bigger pictures’.
7: ‘Anything Goes’ / ‘You lost Today, Kid..but that doesn’t mean You have to Like it’…
Two joint clips again. Very different; yet thereby illustrating Spielberg’s versatility. Equally brilliant, thereby reflecting his consistently crafted composition. There is a succinct and precise clarity, economy and vigour at play here: setting up the stories in question, whilst existing as self contained mini movies. Musical. And action /adventure/child rites of passage into the man.Clever use of the Paramount logo, too.
Two different openings: one common character in Indiana Jones, thereby proving, if any were needed, that Spielberg can master any genre and that the Raiders films are his greatest vehicle for modelling that skill. Indiana Jones as both character and series can be whatever Spielberg chooses it to be, in concert with key players such as Harrison Ford and John Williams.
The opener from Temple of Doom is a musical tribute to Cole Porter and Busby Berkeley. One can see how in love Spielberg is with Kate Capshaw here and it’s endearing that he married her and still speaks so fondly of the time they met on set and fell in love. Capshaw’s Willie Scott is an underrated ‘Jones’ Girl. Love her. Just as much as Alison Doody in The Last Crusade. Give them a spin off. Together!
Trivia: Kate Capshaw was a leading light in special needs education and wrote a specialist paper on best practice in the field, before winning the part in ‘Temple of Doom. Inspirational stuff, to teachers AND actors or those who daydream being a bit of both. 😉
Spielberg will revisit musicals again for a remake of West Side Story, just announced (casting now).
The opening to Last Crusade is a different affair to ‘Temple of Doom and necessarily so. And yet: both sequences share that same specifically Spielberg spark of pace, energy and enthusiasm, wired to generate pure cinematic charm. At once stopping and warming one’s heart; racing from comedy to action and back again, via the right measure of organic emotional warmth and balanced by boys’ own adventure perils.
Notice how Spielberg manages to tell the origin of Indiana Jones in one montage, capturing all the key visual signatures, with young River Phoenix (RIP) blending, seamlessly and logically into an older Harrison Ford.
Nowadays? That path of the hero, acquiring their key motifs, would no doubt form an entire trilogy, television spin off, or something? And laboured with a final line in closing scenes ‘YOU ARE NOW INDIANA JONES’. Last Crusade’s opening is by contrast is a far more elegant affair, serving both plot progression and character depth.
Pure class. And yep: gives one hope for Indy 5, as this part prequel /sequel formula can easily be ‘raided’ (!) again; thereby retaining rather than relegating Harrison Ford as leading man, whilst facilitating further franchise development.
Ready Player One is on general release.
Indiana Jones 5 is scheduled to shoot in 2019 for release in 2020, with Harrison Ford in the lead and Spielberg on director duties. West Side Story follows shortly after.
James Murphy will Return. ‘I’m like a bad penny: I always come back’. 😉