Dec 26, 2011

The unbearable lightness of Spielberg

"... For Spielberg, violence is no Hemingway-esque test, it’s just an awful thing to be avoided at all costs and to be faced only if it’s absolutely unavoidable. He’s in the line of Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, Woody Allen—a self-preserving adventurer, a timid homebody cast into troubled waters, an unambiguous opponent of death and anything that may cause it... The lust for violence is as alien to Spielberg as is lust itself; there’s no place in his work for any perverse ecstasy of suffering or of its infliction. (And far be it from this timid desk-jockey to suggest otherwise. But I’d hardly call my own modest comfort the engine of art—rather, it’s what I look to art to challenge.) Spielberg is an Id-free filmmaker, one with seemingly no wildness and no sympathy, overt or latent, for the devil. And it seems somehow churlish to feel cheated by its absence, as if one were ragging on niceness itself. Given Spielberg’s incontrovertible commercial success, calling out the hollow core of his work feels like laying oneself open to the charge of élitism, of “hating Hollywood” (a glance at my best-of lists should make it plain that I don’t)—as if it were the job of anyone but a studio publicist to endorse the industry as a whole rather than its best works." — Richard Brody, The Front Row
Firstly, I agree that Tin Tin ring a little hollow next to Spielberg's best work, but I do not agree that all of his work is hollow, and suspect the age-old prejudice against optimists is at work here.
“It’s a strange critical phenomenon that only works of art that are ‘edgy’ or ‘scary’ or ‘dangerous’ are regarded as in anyway noteworthy,” wrote Nick Hornby recently. ““Can’t we let them console, uplift, inspire, move, cheer? Please?” One should tread carefully: Brody has the critical consensus of a century to back him up. “Like the orange, Matisse’s work is a fruit bursting with light,” wrote Apollinaire in 1918. Picasso’s work, on the other hand “offers a thousand opportunities for meditation, all illuminated by an internal light. Beyond that light, however, lies an abyss of mysterious darkness... is this not the greatest aesthetic effort we have ever witnessed?” Got that? Light = lightweight. Dark = the greatest aesthetic effort in the history of mankind. (Matisse was aghast at his friend’s bias. “If people knew," he said, "what Matisse, the painter of happiness, had gone through, the anguish and tragedy he had to overcome . . . they would also realise that this happiness, this light, this dispassionate wisdom which seems to be mine, are sometimes well-deserved, given the severity of my trials.”) For Matisse vs Picasso read Lennon vs McCartney, Spielberg vs Scorsese, Morrissey vs the Pet Shop Boys, or any other of the cultural multiple choices by which it is determined whether you are un homme serieux, with the soul of a Russian, or a irretrievable lightweight with the depth of a puddle. When Carol Ann Duffy recently wrote in the pages of the New York Review of Books about a Ted Hughes poem that “seems to touch a deeper, darker place than any poem he’s ever written,” (it was about who Hughes was shagging the weekend Slyvia Plath committed suicide) we assume she meant it as praise. "Dark means serious,” commented Peter Steinfeld wrote on the Commonweal blog. “Dark means shadows. Dark means not evading the sad and inexplicable complexities of life.”

Why though? Why is darkness more profound? Press most people on the issue and you don't get much more than tautology in response: "it just is." I strongly suspect the reasons may be more temperamental than philosophical. For my part, I simply prefer McCartney to Lennon, Spielberg to Scorsese, and Matisse to Picasso and I do so because I have the same recoil from morbidity that Brody has from untormented artistic souls. I do have any argument to hand to prove that optimists have it "right," that they are "better" than pessimists. I do take mild issue with the assertion that Spielberg "is an Id-free filmmaker, one with seemingly no wildness and no sympathy, overt or latent, for the devil" but I would not contest it's underlying truth. What bugs me is that Spielberg is seen as a lesser artist on account of it. Where is it written that "perverse ecstasy of suffering", "sympathy for the devil" and a "lust for violence" are prerequisites for genuine artistic achievement? I get that these things look sexier on one's CV, but why not delight, consolation, light-heartedness, transcendence, good cheer and sympathy for the better angels of our natures that sit in the cockpits of brightly-colored UFOs? What about — to use a slightly embarrassing term — spiritual values? The equation of darkness with profundity is a largely 20th century development, traceable in part and in broad outline to the decline of organised religion. Roll back the centuries and things start to lighten up, quite literally. The Renaissence is shot through with shafts of Godly radiance; in Paradise Lost, He is variously described as "the Eternal coeternal beam," "bright essence increate," and "pure ethereal stream,” obscured by his own brilliant light, an image unmatched in Western culture until the release of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977. Try as I might I cannot find that film "hollow" or certainly any more so than the morbidity of Aronofsky or the misanthropy of Fincher. Maybe there's no argument to be won here. Half the problem, it seems to me, is that cultural Eeyores are the only ones interested in arguing such things; which is why they always win the arguments. Arguing the toss against optimism is what they spend their time training to do. (I picture an Al Qeada-style training camp, in which Beckett wonks compete with Schopenhauer nerds on the monkey bars to see who get to the perverse ecstasy of suffering first. But that's enough about the offices of The New Yorker.) Which is why I was so heartened to read this, in A O Scott's review of War Horse:—
"Mr. Spielberg’s answers to this question tend to be hopeful, and his taste for happy, or at least redemptive endings is frequently criticized. But his ruthless optimism, while it has helped to make him an enormously successful showman, is also crucial to his identity as an artist, and is more complicated than many of his detractors realize. “War Horse” registers the loss and horror of a gruesomely irrational episode in history, a convulsion that can still seem like an invitation to despair. To refuse that, to choose compassion and consolation, requires a measure of obstinacy, a muscular and brutish willfulness that is also an authentic kind of grace."
There. A generous, lovely thought.


  1. Excellent post. I have a strong taste for the tragic myself, but I agree there is a common intellectual prejudice against the optimistic vs. the pessimistic as if showing the dark side of life is inherently more truthful. And while appreciating tragic art I don't care much for the purely morbid or cynical.

    Phil P

  2. This post has been rattling around me head since I first read it, Tom. I have loved and followed your writing for years, but this one seems... uncharacteristically all wrong.

    It's not the optimism that tends to thieve artistic credibility from a Hollywood filmmaker these days; it's emotion of any sort. It’s drama. It’s if they move us in any way, with a genuine understanding of theatrical ebb and flow.

    The films that get plaudits from the highbrow critics these days are not necessarily negative – they are, increasingly, just utterly blank. They value the aesthetic so highly, they’ve forgotten to add any theatre at all.

    In recent times, *Drive*, though better on second viewing for me, and though sassy and full of great music and pictures, is still an astonishingly pointless 90-minute music video. *Tinker, Tailor..*, though original and stark, and rightly matching the source material’s undramatic bent, instead managed to suck ALL feeling out itself. It was like watching a slideshow of stills; a hidden microfiche of a movie, watched on an OHP. You mention Fincher, but he’s been going the same route – *Zodiac* and *Social Network*, both on topics ripe for drama, were more like anti-drama for me, fearful of transporting the audience anywhere emotionally (SN’s Henley scene aside).

    Once upon a time, artisitic credibility was tied to thought, knowledge, expression; having something to say and saying it beautifully or powerfully, brilliantly bright. Now it is about mumbling something and giving nothing away – under the guise of being enigmatic (but in fact taken to such an extent that there is literally nothing left to absorb).

    There have always been aesthetes in cinema, of course, who were brilliant at the picture and experience, but often poor at the emotional narrative. (Kubrick sits in that group, so it’s not all bad, and there can be a real cinematic joy in that as an experience.) But now the cold aesthetic, the totally hidden narrative, has occupied the minds of most critics.

    Partly, I blame the Oscars, which have become so synonymous with a certain kind of heart-hoiking, by-the-numbers film, the truly artistic mainstream directors have been moved to immobility to avoid it. (And so the backlash against *The Artist*, an unashamed piece of classic, by-the-numbers boy-meets-girl storyline, that will make you laugh, cry and leave you dancing out of the theatre feeling utterly charmed).

    Perhaps you’re right and that fear of an unashamedly emotional journey is tied to the decline in religious belief; perhaps it is the opposite – an impulse to turn our backs on unfettered emotion when such ullulating drama in the real world tends to be most synonymous with religious fundamentalism.

    Personally, I think it is more obviously the expression of a world in which agreed notions of artistry in cinema have become gradually, impercepibly infected by – and are now curiously indistinguisable from – not just notions of “cool”, but teenaged notions of cool. The louche, disaffected boho outcast sitting in the corner of the classroom, saying nothing, is the most culturally desirable. Visible expressions of feeling, frustration, rage, delight are off the menu, and the one who embodies dispassion at the high school party holds all the cards – the one who can best affect being unaffected.

    That’s why, for me, Spielberg still can’t get the credit he deserves.

  3. On the other hand, he blew his two best opportunities, so he’s far from perfect at it himself.

    Liam Neeson’s breakdown at the end of *Schindler’s List* (“We could have saved more! Here, Itzhak, take my ring, that’s 100 more!”) was just a devastatingly awful artistic decision, ruining so much of the jawdroppingly brilliant, subtle ambiguity before it.

    And I seem to remember a review in The Sunday Times at the time – so quite possibly yours – that talked about just how disappointing it was in *Private Ryan* when the soldiers started to speak …. and in such jawdroppingly crass dialogue too (“Hey, 5 guys looking for one guy, where’s the sense in that, Sarge? You do the math!”) That first 30 minutes should have sewn up the artistic Victoria Cross for Spielberg. What followed shattered it.

  4. (Apologies for the overly long posting. I am on a deadline. This has been a nice diversionary tactic.)