Across the landscape of cinema there are few directors for which the titles “entertainer” and “auteur” can be used to describe them in the same sentence. Steven Spielberg is one of those directors.
Born in 1946, Spielberg first visited the cinema at the age of five. Unimpressed with the film he saw and the lack of magic that he expected from his first cinematic experience (if he was disappointed at five years old I can only imagine it was a shit film), he set about making his own films on 8mm film in his backyard with siblings and friends. Like some of the great storytellers around today – Tarantino, Shyamalan, Jackson – Spielberg set about honing his craft as a hobby and has being doing so ever since.
Spielberg effortlessly moves from one genre to another, film after film, always consistent and reliable, creating an everlasting movie that instantly becomes associated with that genre. War? Saving Private Ryan. Adventure? Indiana Jones. Horror? Jaws. Sci-Fi? Close Encounters of the Third Kind/E.T. The list rolls on. Throughout his 40 year career Spielberg has delved from one project to another with the same boundless enthusiasm and passion for film.
Hailed as a founder of the ‘Summer Blockbuster’ with Jaws, on the surface it could be easy to say that Spielberg is ‘safe’. He’s mainstream, capable of putting bums on seats. He’s sentimental, not too risky and casts reliable and talented actors. Yet you only need to look at his films individually compared to his catalogue as a whole and you realise that within them he defines the genre as well as leaving his mark on it. True, there are some of his films that are safe – The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can, Always – they are fun, sentimental and entertaining but they don’t leave the same impressions that his other films do. BUT – Spielberg has created, developed and produced some of the most iconic and everlasting movies in cinema history. He has brought to our screens films that will remain in the lexicon of cinema for as long as it is admired and studied. His films are featured in the majority of the ‘Top 10’ compilation lists compiled by cinephiles and reviewers. It’s almost a guarantee that everyone owns at least one Spielberg film in their collection – Jaws, E.T., Indiana Jones, Hook, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park to name but a few. It is an elite club of filmmakers that can be attributed to such a diverse catalogue that is consistent with the needs of the audience and the staples of the genre.
Let’s also consider the fact that Spielberg has had a hand in other iconic movies, predominately those ‘80’s films that are now cult classics. There will always be generations of movie-goers that stay faithful to a particular period in movie history, usually the period they grew up in, the decade they discovered film for themselves and the films that remind them of more innocent and youthful times. Yet some films transcend this; they dig their heels into society and the culture of film and they refuse to budge. They are films that surpass time because they become applicable to generations of audiences; they are the films made decades ago before you were even a twinkle in your Father’s testicles yet you can still relate to them. This is true of films ranging from The Wizard of Oz to The Matrix but right now we are in a period where the ‘80’s is the middle ground; where those that grew up in that decade have handed down their most cherished films to sons and daughters, to friends and family. The ‘80’s in film is worthy of a blog post in itself because I consider it to be one of the best decades in film, but if we hand pick a few iconic films from that decade we can see Spielberg’s hand gently caressing them: Back to the Future Part II and Part III; Gremlins; Poltergeist; Inner Space; *batteries not included; and my personal favourite, The Goonies. We can see from his involvement in these kinds of films whether it be as a writer, producer or executive producer, Spielberg has a knack for nailing entertainment. These films mentioned, as well as his own, can easily be found on ITV on a Sunday afternoon; the films that you can land on halfway through and stay with until the end. At the core of his earlier films and in some of his latter films there is a thematic affixation with childhood, with the notion of adventure and discovery. Even Roy Neary in Close Encounters has a boyish, child-like fixation with his close encounter. This theme resonates with the audience of his films because though we grow older, those characters remain the same and they allow us to engage in nostalgia – not only with the film itself but with the times we were in when we discovered the same enthusiasm for adventure that those characters still do.
It is unusual these days to find a filmmaker that crosses between genres and few in history have navigated this with success. There is always the possibility to muddle or confuse when dealing with so many genres; some filmmakers’ style just isn’t suited to certain genres. Yet with the majority of Spielberg’s films his style of directing – the nuances he has as director in the way he positions his camera and the way he evokes the right reaction from his actors – are precise and evident. He always places the action at the centre of the frame by using all aspects of the mise-en-scène place the action centre stage. He uses very claustrophobic over-the-shoulder shots, where the face of the character is pushed to the corner of the frame, the shoulder of the other character filling the space out of focus. He uses wide lenses and pushes slowly in to the subject to reveal to the audience the source of the action. It is these trademarks that Spielberg applies to his films that allow you to understand you’re watching a Spielberg film. The staples of the genre remain but his mark is placed and this makes the film refreshing to watch and unique within that genre. This is what makes Spielberg an auteur, the true author of his films – you always know you’re watching a Spielberg film even if you can’t always put your finger on why.
Steven Spielberg has enjoyed a prolific forty year career in the film industry and has helped to develop the industry not just as a director but as the owner of a production company and the producer of some important films. He is a household name; an entertainer and auteur. Though he may not always be to everyone’s taste, to the wider audience, to those to whom movies matter: his importance is felt and his presence will remain.