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The Big List o’ Lists

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To begin with some actual news, James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, announced this morning the latest 25 films to be added to the National Film Registry, bringing the total number of titles on the list to the nice round figure of 500. The NFR isn’t meant to be a “best” list, but rather a reckoning of films that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant, and more broadly symbolic of the many different kinds of American cinema that merit preservation (full disclosure: I’m a member of the committee, the National Film Preservation Board, that advises the Librarian on the selection). To that end, the annual lists have increasingly moved beyond the borders of Hollywood narrative filmmaking to include avant-garde, independent, documentary and sponsored work; this year, there’s even a student film (Mitchell Block’s 1973 “No Lies”).

The new additions, in alphabetical order:

1) The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
2) Deliverance (1972)
3) Disneyland Dream (1956)
4) A Face in the Crowd (1957)
5) Flower Drum Song (1961)
6) Foolish Wives (1922)
7) Free Radicals (1979)
8) Hallelujah (1929)
9) In Cold Blood (1967)
10) The Invisible Man (1933)
11) Johnny Guitar (1954)
12) The Killers (1946)
13) The March (1964)
14) No Lies (1973)
15) On the Bowery (1957)
16) One Week (1920)
17) The Pawnbroker (1965)
18) The Perils of Pauline (1914)
19) Sergeant York (1941)
20) The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
21) So’s Your Old Man (1926)
22) George Stevens WW2 Footage (1943-46)
23) The Terminator (1984)
24) Water and Power (1989)
25) White Fawn’s Devotion (1910)

For more information on the individual titles, go to the NFPB site, located here. The smiley in shades next to “Hallelujah” seems to represent the unsolicited opinion of WordPress, the excellent and otherwise unassuming program that underlies this blog; in any case, I can’t figure out where it came from or how to get rid of it.

In less consequential news, the DVD columnist of the New York Times has choked up a list of “ten notable DVDs” issued this year. It can be found, along with the usual vain attempts at self-justification, here.

And finally, just to prove that I still have one foot in the 21st century, here’s my alphabetical list of the best movies I saw in the last twelve months, which I hope will soon be overwhelmed by contributions from the readers of this space:

A Christmas Tale/Arnaud Desplechin
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button/David Fincher
Diary of the Dead/George A. Romero
The Fall/Tarsem
Gran Torino/Clint Eastwood
Sparrow/Johnnie To
Still Life/Jia Zhang-Ke
Tropic Thunder/Ben Stiller
Wall-E/Andrew Stanton
Wendy and Lucy/Kelly Reichardt

382 comments to The Big List o’ Lists

  • Garcia

    Hey Mike,

    Is this is reference to me asking to be pointed in the right direction concerning writings on teh pantheon? If so, I appreciate it, but I was really being sarcastic when I wrote that. I’m familar with Sarris and his book, although when I was writing my post it didn’t come to mind. I’m a big fan of Sarris. I can’t wait for his reviews to come out, and his past work has definately help show me the way when I was just starting this affair with cinema. I agree that it is essential reading.

    Thanks.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘I’ve long thought Spielberg, love him or hate him, has had the most interesting late career period of any director since Kurosawa. Now that would be an interesting comparison to work out…’

    Do you mean Kurosawa Akira? If that is who you are refering to, Kurosawa had hard career after AKAHIGE (1965.) International projects failed, DODESKADEN (1970)was big failure and caused bankruptcy of comapny he made with Kobayashi Masaki, Ichikawa Kon, and Kinoshita Keisuke. He was ashamed of causing trouble for his colleagues and tried to comit suicide. He could not make movie in Japan without outside finance until MADADAYO (1993.) This movie was commercial and critical failure so he could not make any more movies before accident when he broke his hip. After that he could not make movie at all. One more movie will be released, GENDAI NO NOH, documentary about modern Noh production started in 1984. Kurosawa filmed 50 minutes and rest of movie will be made according to his plan.

    Kurosawa Akira’s late career was more like John Ford, because Japanese film industry ignored him after commercial failure, Japanese critics also dismissed him. Similar to John Ford after 7 WOMEN.

    Spielberg reviewed script for YUME (1990) and asked for changes that Kurosawa made. To me YUME was weakest late Kurosawa movie.

  • Kent Jones

    JJ, Spielberg doesn’t leave me cold at all. It’s just that my feelings for him don’t run so deep. Lars von Trier and Theo Angelopoulos (with a couple of exceptions) leave me cold.

    On the other hand, I have no idea what you mean with the comparison to Kurosawa. I’m in complete agreement with Junko on that point.

    Junko, YUME may not be a masterpiece, but there’s real greatness in it.

  • JJ

    Kent, glad to hear Spielberg works for you. And we wholly agree on the other two.

    Re: Kurosawa, I just meant they both went through periods where they were both considered to be somewhat washed up and out of favor, then came roaring back with third acts to their careers that produced some of their best work. There was this whole stretch of Spielberg films–The Color Purple, Always, Last Crusade, ect–that made people go, “Well…he made some great movies once…” Then he made Jurassic Park, which was a phenomenon if not a great film, then he made Schindler’s List, and since then he seems completely reinvigorated as a director, trying all kinds of new things, not relying on his old “chilchood sense of wonder” reputation, and usually surprising even his detractors with at least some element of each new film.

  • jbryant

    Spielberg must be given credit for his attempts to grow as a filmmaker, even if he falls short of our fave pantheon directors. He’s no deep thinker, but he’s been trying, off and on, for a good while now. His sensibility comes through, but at least he works with varied material which isn’t always “Spielbergian” on its face.

    My disappointment with Crystal Skull has a lot to do with its lack of ambition compared to most of the rest of his post-Schindler’s output. I think it has some fine set pieces and moments — it’s not like the guy suddenly forgot how to make a shot — but the script is really lacking (especially in effective humor). I’m always amazed when these long-gestating projects, which float in limbo for years while the makers “wait for the right script,” finally go ahead with the “wrong script.” That said, I’m interested in seeing it again, post-hype.

  • Kent Jones

    JJ, I sort of see what you mean, but who ever thought that Spielberg was “washed up?” I just don’t remember that happening, critically or commercially. Plus, didn’t he make EMPIRE OF THE SUN during that time? I don’t like the whole thing, but it’s one of his very best movies by any stretch of the imagination. Actually, didn’t Kurosawa raise an objection to the moment where the young, eager Japanese flyer fails to take off?

    More importantly, Spielberg has never, ever had to struggle to get anything made the way that Kurosawa did with each and every one of his last films, and he never will. Spielberg sits at the head of an empire. I’m not saying that this disqualifies him from greatness, but it certainly puts him in an extremely different relationship to filmmaking.

    Finally, I disagree that he was reinvigorated as a director at any point in the recent past. Apart from its set pieces, WAR OF THE WORLDS seemed like an extremely tired and rickety piece of work to me, and I found MUNICH borderline unwatchable.

  • John M

    Forgive me for my hairy self-promotion, but since Desplechin and Martel are getting more than a few mentions here, I’ll post a couple interviews I did with them. If anyone’s interested in their processes, these might pleasantly fill a few minutes…

    Desplechin:
    http://www.thereeler.com/the_blog/arnaud_desplechins_gift_that.php

    Martel (with visual aids!):
    http://www.thereeler.com/the_blog/a_woman_under_the_influence.php

  • Tony Williams

    For those interested Wayne State Universirty Press will soon publish THE COMPLETE FILM CRITICISM OF ANDREW BRITTON with introduction by Robin Wood. I assumed that there was some familiarity with critical cultural discourse apart from Sarris and that the term “Reaganite Entertainment” would be understood. David Bordwell has criticized the loose use of the term
    “Zeitgeist” bur Andrew’s essay BLISSING OUT relates these 80s films to the historical climate very well as does his fine essay on Vietnam War Films “Sideshows in Vietnam.”

    As Robin has pointed out, Andrew’s work has been deliberately ignored and mnarginalized by a certain part of the critical establishment as seen in the lack of response to his essay on “Postmodernism” The Bourgeois Intelligentsia in the Age of Reagan” and his attack on SLAB theory (as Bordwell defines it), “The Ideology of Screen” which took a dominant school of thought to task. When I once went for an interview as Film Officer in some part of England, I was met with the response to Andrew’s essay on Screen. “How DARE Andrew Britton write this article! Nobody will read Screen anymore.” Naturally, I did not get the job.

    I think this comment stands for itself and invite those interested to read this collection and engage in the debate his work never received in his lifetime.

  • Garcia

    Kent, I’m curious, if you don’t mind, why was Munich borderline unwatchable? I had the opposite reaction. I thought it was immensely watchable but that it didn’t really amount to much. It’s a movie that thinks it has a lot on its mind but has nothing to say. And those final scenes! Some of the most ridiculous and wrongheaded cross cutting I can remember.

    Tony, I’m familar with the Britton essay Blissing Out, but not much more of his writing I’m afraid. I’ll definately pick of book when it comes out. I do understand term Reaganite Entertainment in so much that I understand what he’s getting out, I just don’t see the point in classifying movies like that. Of course the films themselves are going to reflect the times in which they were made. What Britton describes as films that are “politically retrograde, narratologically over-simplified, and technologically over-determined” could be argued against pretty much any decade of film.

  • I wasn’t trying to be offensive about “Reaganite Entertainment”. I’ve seen the term, but never a clear definition.
    Googling reveals:
    Andrew Britton, “Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment,” Movie 31/32 (Winter 1986).

    Has this essay appeared elsewhere? I didn’t subscribe to the journal “Movie” in 1986.

    I can certainly see the links between RAMBO and Reagan. Will read Britton’s book when it appears.

  • If all is going to said in defense of Spielberg is that his work is reminiscent of classic works of earlier decades, it does not seem like a strong argument for his merits as a filmmaker.

  • JJ

    Kent

    I think he did make Empire Of The Sun, which I think is one of his best films, around that time. He also made Hook, which is probably his very worst. I mean, that was just as indulgent and extravagent as 1941 except nobody called him on it. I’ve heard stories that Spielberg, upon viewing the final cut of Hook, supposedly went into another room or his car and cried, because he realized what a waste the whole thing had been. Now, obviously this is not Kurosawa attemtpting seppeku because he was blacklisted, but still. If there was ever a moment when Spielberg seemed to have become something of a joke–to the general public, at least, which is how I remember him being viewed then–that was it.

    Then consider that a few years after his six-month, 100 million dollar party on a pirate ship with his buddies, Spielberg was making Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and regardless of your opinion of the final films, you gotta admit there seems to have a certain rediscovery of his artistic ambitions there.

    One of my theories of Spielberg’s career is that if he had followed Duel, The Sugarland Express, and Jaws with Catch Me If You Can and Munich, we would’nt be having this discussion. Those films felt to me like a clear return to the toughness of his early work, but I wonder if people can see past his 80s films to realize it. I mean, what if Scorsese had kept working for Corman and made I Escaped From Devil’s Island and Warrior Women Of The Arena (two films he actually developed in preproduction and almost directed) instead of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver? And then made Last Waltz and Goodfellas? Would people take those films as seriously or would they just be like, “Oh, former B-movie director Martin Scorcese continues to attempt to prove he’s a real director with this flashy, overblown crime drama….”

  • Tony,

    Was it Britton or Wood who wrote about “empty illusionism”? A term I think is apt in regard to parts of Spielberg’s work.

  • Whoops! I meant “empty allusionism”

  • Kent Jones

    Garcia, it has something to do with the way the characters interact as they walk down the street, sit around a dinner table and talk (there’s a lot of that in MUNICH), speak to one another on the phone. One of the actors who was in MUNICH is a friend of mine, and he told me how much Spielberg loved working with the actors. All I can say is that you’d never know it from the movie, or from many of his movies for that matter. It’s rare that I believe the people in his films. It’s as Junko said: it’s like you’re waiting in line at an amusement park for the next ride, or in the case of this movie, the next assassination raid. When I watch Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley in SCHINDLER’S LIST, I feel like I could be watching Jack Klugman and Tony Randall in THE ODD COUPLE – except it’s not as good. In MUNICH, the assassins are kind of this noisy, talkative gaggle of humanity, the French “Groupe” is another. The rhythm of conversation seems to have been set by a metronome. This also drove me nuts in A.I.

    Attunement to movement and gestures within the frame, emotional continuity – these are elements that I find extremely important in movies. I only see it fitfully in Spielberg.

  • Garcia

    I’m glad you wrote that. I was scratching my head, halfway through a post, trying to figure out what the heck empty illusionsim is and what might the opposite of that be.

    Anyway, it might have been Noel Carrol. I know he did write about allusionism in a few of his books. Although I believe it’s pretty much what annoyed Britton as well.

  • Tony Williams

    Well, Michael, if they didn’t they should have.

    JJ has raised some very good points about Spielberg who had the potential of being a good director, reached some height with EMPIRE OF THE SUN, and then retreated into his own type of immature filmmaking.

    I’ve never forgiven him for dropping the dates in SCHINDLER’S LIST immediately at the point where German defeat seemed inevitable thus avoiding any critical questions as to why Schindler changed direction. The film may not be Spielberg’s version of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS as somebody said but many problems affect this highly acclaimed film. Furthermore, his case does illustrate difficulties with the old rigid application of auteurism in the past when enthusiasts stated, “A good director can not make a bad film” while a “mise-en-scene talent such as Huston can never make a good film. Every director often finishes with a mixed body of work but some have more demerits than others.

  • Garcia,

    Yes, it may have been Noel Carrol in his comments on Hill’s THE DRIVER. (Though I like some of Hill’s work, especially “Wild Bill”.) In any event, we have various learned students/disciples of Carrol, Britton and Wood amongst us to settle the question.

    You wrote:

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘this is not Kurosawa attemtpting seppeku because he was blacklisted, but still. If there was ever a moment when Spielberg seemed to have become something of a joke–to the general public, at least, which is how I remember him being viewed then–that was it.’

    Kurosawa did not attempt seppuku. He cut wrist and throat. This is not seppeuku. He was not black listed.

    After suicide attempt Kurosawa made Suntory Whiskey commercials and gave many magazine interviews. Certain Japanese critics did not take him seriously after that. Japanese movie industry did not want to risk money for his movies because he wanted to make big movie that would be expensive. Mosfilm financed DERZU UZULA but also had problem making this movie too. Script was changed, but still it was good movie especially 70mm version only shown in Soviet Union and Japan.

    Like Kent says, every movie that Kurosawa made after DODESKADEN was a struggle to get made. Kurosawa Produtions was not like Spileberg production empire. After AKAHIGE his reputation was highest but than went down in Japan. Most Japanese critics did not like KAGEMUSHA, RAN, YUME, HACHIGATSU NO KYOSHIKYOKU, MADADAYO. But studio made investment because of foreign financing except for MADADAYO. Japanese public liked KAGEMUSHA, RAN and HACHIGATSU NO KYOSHIKYOKU.

    I said YUME was weakest of late movies, but it is good movie. I did not mean it was bad movie. But seeing original script with Kurosawa’s illustration shows it could have been great movie
    Yes, Kurosawa had objection to that scene in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, but he wrote open letter to Spielberg about MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA when Spielberg was going to direct that movie. Kurosawa said to make the movie in Japan with Japanese actor in Japanese language. Kurosawa could suggest prodution designer, cinematographer, etc. if the movie was made in Japan. Spielberg did not answer and finally did not direct movie, but his company produced it.

    I have similar view to Kent about Spielberg. If he was great filmmaker then it would not matter if he only made science fiction movie or adventure movie, because great filmmaker could make great movie from any genre or from low budget. But Speilberg is not great filmmaker to me.

  • Garcia

    Kent,

    Fair enough. Again, I’m no champion of Speilberg, and for the most part think that many of his movies are really over rated, albeit obviously not by those who frequent this joint. I’m still get bent out of shape over the fact that The Thin Red Line was virtually ignored because it came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan. It feels as if the years have started to right that wrong. However, the child to adult kind of analogies due bug me.

    I have to say that I do have a soft spot for Jaws, but am willing to admit that I might not be able to see the forest through the trees on that one. I’m 34 years old and that movie was a seminal one for me growing up. Not just as a filmic experience but for the family connections that movie has for me. I honest to God love everything about that movie, but again the forest through the trees thing.

  • c mason wells

    JJ, I don’t know if Spielberg rediscovered his artistic ambitions post-HOOK so much as his ambition to win awards…

  • Kent Jones

    Michael, I think the piece in question by Noel Carroll first appeared in October in the early 80s. It was called “The Future of an Allusion,” I believe.

    Junko, I know that when he was still thinking of directing MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, he was talking to Maggie Cheung about being in the film, so I guess he never intended to follow Kurosawa’s advice. Since Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi appeared in the finished film, I guess no one followed it.

  • Some of Kent’s and Junko’s spot-on comments on Spielberg reminded me of another comment on Spielberg’s cinema ala RAIDERS: the cinema of Chicken McNuggets. All the goods parts had been processed for easy consumption. Alas, I am having a terrible time remembering who said this. I think Johnathan Rosenbaum quoting J. Hoberman.

    I would like to add more to this discussion then just quotes by other people, and thus may be doing what I accuse Spielberg of, but it will have to wait till after work.

  • John M

    “I don’t know if Spielberg rediscovered his artistic ambitions post-HOOK so much as his ambition to win awards…”

    Yes, it’s true, Spielberg certainly is unique among Hollywood directors in his need for awards and affirmation. Oh, and money.

    Paging Zemeckis, Scorsese, Fincher, Ford, Wyler, etc…

  • Garcia

    I hope this isn’t too idiotic a question; in any case, it is sincere. What is the difference between the allusions that characterize the so called “post classical” cinema of today, and a allusions of, say, Goddard? I sometimes feel as if I need an annotated bibliography to really catch all of his references. Of course, his are not all references to cinema, so this may be a difference. Doesn’t most art make reference to other works of art?

    Perhaps it’s not simply the allusions that are the problem, but films that are nothing but their allusions? This is something that I’ve always thought was the case with someone like Tarantino.

    Any maybe I just answered my own question. I’m not sure.

  • jbryant

    Kent: Based on only one viewing, I thought Spielberg’s War of the Worlds was one of the most effective sci-fi/horror thrill machines I’d ever seen. I have yet to take another look to see if that opinion holds. But at the time, my only real problems with it were the brief narration bookends and the groan-inducing Beach Boys “lullaby” Cruise sings to Dakota Fanning.

    I’m not Armond White when it comes to Spielberg, but I do find much to like in most of his recent films, even if its more craft than artistry.

    Cue someone swooping in to demand a stop to all this Spielberg talk.

  • John M,

    Yes, I know. Those who fail to see that Spielberg is a great filmmaker have not done their work.

  • Garcia

    The Scorsese Saga of him winning a best director Oscar really upset me. During the Gangs of New York/Aviator years I was working for a studio in Hollywood and got to see all the Oscar campaigning. It really felt as if people were begging to give him the Oscar for no other reason than “it was his time.” I believe our good old Robert Wise even wrote a letter to the editor of Variety saying essentially that. I always hoped that behind the scenes he could not have cared less about winning the damn thing, but that might be a little too naive on my part. It truly breaks my heart to think of someone who I genuinely regard as a cinematic hero, who pretty much helped me decided that I wanted my life to be making movies (I saw Goodfellas in the theaters when I was sixteen and it blew me away; it was a life changing experience), groveling for an award. I have always hope that in reality that was not the case, but it sure felt that way at the time.

  • Shawn Stone

    Kent, As I remember it (I haven’t seen it in 20-plus years) FIVE DAYS ONE SUMMER is beautiful. Just glacially paced, even for Zinnemann. I looked it up on IMDb . . . my God, that was Lambert Wilson in that movie.

  • garcia,

    Very briefly: I think it does have to do with the fact that, as you say, that the films: “are nothing but their allusions.”

    I find that when Godard makes a reference, he is creating new meanings and forms, both in the quoted work and within his own film. I find that Scorsese also has this dialectical nature and very much believe he was attempting to create a new language of narrative cinema beyond the classical style in “Bringing Out the Dead” and “Gangs of New York”. Of course, I believe one can see this as early as “New York, New York”.

  • Garcia,

    I forgot to ask: do you think that the Oscar mongering I believe routinely practiced by the Weinstein Brothers tipped the scales a bit?

  • Kent Jones

    jbryant, once I got past Tom Cruise pretending to be a blue collar worker from New Jersey, I loved the opening invasion, the river crossing, etc. 20 minutes trapped in a basement with Tim Robbins, on the other hand, was more than I could take, and the scene where Tom Cruise crawls up into the alien to retreive his daughter was just ridiculous. The narrative lost credibility for me pretty quickly. What can I say?

    Garcia, the interweaving of allusions in Godard is so dense that it amounts to some kind of ongoing dialogue with western civilization. Such can not be said of KILL BILL. On the other hand, I found his tender attachment to the “source materials” of KILL BILL I very moving, like a DJ with his vinyl.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Re: FIVE DAYS ONE SUMMER. Although it was released in 1982 I saw it much later (probably very late eighties) while we were writing the Zinnemann entry for 50 ANS. I liked it so much that it ended by being the Zinnemann film that got the longest comments in the entry — which entry was, in true auteurist fashion, somewhat lukewarm in its apraisal of the Zinnemann oeuvre. The film is a great, unexpected final statement, something like Huston’s THE DEAD. I really would have to see it again though.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    The widespread contempt for Spielberg among in-the-know cinephiles reminds me of the wide-spread contempt for Oscar Peterson among in-the-know jazz buffs.And now that I think of it, I know for a fact that our good friend Blake Lucas dislikes both Spielberg and Peterson. I happen to like both artists, which probably places me among the ranks of hopelessly square middle-brows. But then, as invited, I’ll swoop in to suggest (if not demand) “a stop to all this Spielberg talk.”

  • Jean-pierre,

    Jack Angstreich and I have always wondered what you thought of Spielberg’s work after RAIDERS, which I seem to recall you were very disappointed by, if not hostile to, in “American Directors.”

  • Garcia

    I can’t remember who paid for the campaign for The Aviator (whether it was Warner Brothers or Miramx), but the Weinsteins were definately behind the Gangs of New York campaign. I was actually fairly naive to the whole campaign thing and was a little surprised to see what goes on in order to “win” an Oscar. The dirty campaign stuff that goes on behind the scenes is staggering. The way the argument for Scorsese to win for best director was made essentially was, “we know this is a pretty flawed movie, but this guy is the greatest living American film maker and he deserves to have one. This is the time” That year Miramax sunk a lot of money for Chicago to win best picture over Gangs. They set up a position that if you didn’t vote for Scorsese you were creating a sin against movies. As I remember, The Aviator campaign was not as agressive.

    One of the better things to come out of the Weinstein’s being free of Disney and cash poor is that they can no longer through that Oscar weight around.

  • JJ

    Garcia,

    I remember that Robert Wise thing about Gangs. THAT was truly the Weinsteins at their Oscar-grubbing lowest.

    I had the same experience with Goodfellas, seeing it with my father when I was 12 1/2. (Years later I had the chance to tell Scorsese that and he winced and put his hand to his forehead.) Afterwards, my father was like, “Reminds me of the guys who used to sell Rt. 128 specials (i.e. hijacked goods) in Nonantum at midnight when Nixon was president.”

    I’m like, “I KNOW MY PURPOSE IN LIFE NOW! CINEMA!!!”

    And I thought this qoute might be of interest:

    “The differance is that Marty does this all on his own terms. He does’nt fret about what’s going to “work” or “not work” for an audience. His concern is what’s true to his characters and what’s right for their feelings. If he can work that out–and he always does–then he goes right ahead, and lets teh audience catch up with him. And if they don’t, Marty does’nt wait around for them. I admire that too. Maybe I even envy him.” –Steven Spielberg

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Michael, it’s a little bit unfair to ask me what I think of post-RAIDERS Spielberg when I just spoke in favor of a moratorium on Spielberg-bashing (or limpling defending). I’ve just re-read my Spielberg essay, which I hadn’t done since publication. I’m surprised that I was so negative, although I can’t say I was wrong. With Spielberg, as with most directors, I find it difficult, impossible really, to accept or reject the whole of the output. I intensely dislike THE COLOR PURPLE and JURASSIC PARK but admire EMPIRE OF THE SUN (although it arguably features aspects that are somewhat similar to PURPLE’s.) Watching CLOSE ENCOUNTERS when it opened at the Ziegfeld in New York was quite a memorable shock (a few months later another viewing in a third-rate theater was a relative disappointment; the film seemed to need the support of the Ziegfeld’s superior projection and sound system — that may or may not say something about how “superficial” Spielberg’s cinema is).

    No matter how many reservations (mostly nit-picking) I admire SCHINDLER and RYAN and I even was impressed by WAR OF THE WORLD. Haven’t seen his latest. I don’t feel like expatiating — there’s been enough of it already — but Spielberg is definitely not someone you can dismiss the way so many people seem to dismiss him, with a vengeance.

  • Jean-pierre,

    In all honesty I do not see how I was being unfair, being that it struck me that you wanted to have your say on the Spielberg discussion on this thread, slap all our hands, and then ask that for the discussion to be over.

    Misreading intent and fair or unfair besides, I do appreciate you taking to the time to answer a question Jack and I have very much wondered about.

  • Kent Jones

    The whole idea of “dismissing” anyone is kind of silly in the final analysis. Once I was talking to a film critic who told me how terrible he thought Spielberg was, and claimed that his camera eye was inferior to Michael Bay’s. It seemed ridiculous at the time and seems even more ridiculous now, but it has to do with the phenomenon of targeting a filmmaker for moral abjection and then finding everything in his/her work objectionable. It’s just as silly with De Palma. I don’t like his films much either, but to deny his formidable talent is a mistake. If you claim to see absolutely nothing of value in his work, then I think you’re performing a tricky mental operation. On the other hand, there’s the reverse phenomenon of the great filmmaker, whose every move is not just intentional but praiseworthy.

    I like MINORITY REPORT, a lot of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the first 40 minutes of EMPIRE OF THE RUN, and a lot of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. I also like Oscar Peterson, especially when he’s playing behind Fred Astaire.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Michael: “unfair” was not the right word, and I apologize. And of course it’s always pleasant to hear that some people have read your stuff and even wonder about you think. Gee, you made this old man’s day!

    Kent: I completely agree with your post. And Peterson is great behind anybody, especially Billie Holiday in those wonderful 1952 Granz sessions with Charlie Shavers, Flip Phillips, Barney Kessel… They’re as dear to me as any great movie. But we’re drifting off topic.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Michael, I meant “about what you think.”

  • Garcia

    All right, one more point about Speilberg and I’m done. In regards to Minority Report, it’s a perfect example of a Speilberg movie being visually exciting and narratively very weak. The vision of the future is remarkable, the action scenes are exciting and clever, the filmmaking itself is great, but the script has such a plot hole that the movie really falls apart for me. So these pre-cogs can see premeditated murder far in advance but crimes of passion are more difficult. The main character’s murder was not premeditated, it was a crime of passion. There is no way he’d have the 72 hour warning he got. That’s not just a small paradox. The film sets up rules, rules that it really didn’t need to set up in the first place, and then asks you to ignore them minutes later.

    That being said, the movie still has so much going for it that I actually DO just ignore this glaring story issue everytime I pop it in for another go.

  • Michael Dempsey

    Here’s a vote for Jean-Pierre’s position on Steven Spielberg. Like it or not, this filmmaker-mogul-cultural phenomenon is not legitimately dismissible merely with a flick of the wrist or a terse put-down, even a cogently phrased one.

    Only (if at all) after much more detailed examination can he be relegated to wherever he ranks above or below Edward D. Wood, Jr. — and that ranking might soon need re-consideration (upward or downward), since Spielberg doesn’t seem to be contemplating retirement.

    Comments by Kent and Junko offer suggestive openings toward taking Spielberg-the-director down however many pegs, but they need amplification (perhaps via articles or books). So do worthwhile perspectives offered by some of his defenders.

    I find myself stuck thus far between the two positions. The first three “Raiders” films were almost unwatchable to me (and so I’ve skilled the fourth thus far). The same applies in spades to such misgotten bombs as “The Color Purple,” “The Lost World,” “Always,” and “Hook.”

    But I’m full of admiration for his treatment of D-Day in “Saving Private Ryan” (despite the clots of mushy uplift that damage that picture), the sequence of the concentration camp commander in “Schindler’s List” trying and failing to be “good,” and Morgan Freeman’s lengthy, silent, utterly fixed stare (a master class in acting all by itself) in “Amistad” at Djimon Hounsou pouring out a stream of incomprehensible suffering in an untranslated African tongue.

    Such scenes might be just isolated gems that don’t come close to justifying the long dominant hype about Spielberg the Demigod. Maybe his work really is fundamentally incoherent, fatally addicted to splashiness and the transient pop acclaim it so often generates.

    But I doubt that a mere hack (even if he’s done lots of hackwork) could also have done these pieces of work even if they prove to be only disconnected fragments of excellence.

  • Jaime

    I’m okay with fundamentally incoherent pictures.

    And Ed Wood made GLEN OR GLENDA? which earns him a place in *my* pantheon, even if it’s the first and last of his films I get a chance to see.

    And I know I’m not alone there.

  • Stephen Cone

    Well put, Michael Dempsey. I’m on your’s and Jean-Pierre’s team, though I think I like him a bit more than you guys.

    There is something very Israel/Palestine, Religious Right/ACLU, Fey/Palin about the futility of arguing Spielberg, isn’t there? And I can’t think of another filmmaker who’s created this significant a gap between the smart, passionate film lovers on this blog. Which, you know, at the end of the day, is probably to Spielberg’s credit. But the widespread disdain remains for me one of the great mysteries of cinephilia.

    Fun catching up, by the way. My vacation (to 75 degree South Carolina) was a vacation from all things blog (excepting a quick pop-in or two).

    Kent, how was the Fincher interview? I read the NY Times recap. Will a full transcript be made available, I wonder?

  • Stephen Cone

    For those who might appreciate this kind of thing and haven’t yet seen it, the 2008 TCM Remembers might be the most beautifully-edited, quietly perfect IN MEMORIAM I’ve ever seen. Here it is:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmheOWja1RE

  • Kent Jones

    I just don’t get all this stuff about rankings or hackwork. Maybe someone said Spielberg is a hack somewhere. I know I certainly didn’t. There’s not something very Religious Right/ACLU in arguing about Spielberg, but in arguing about where any filmmaker should reside on some mythical scale of ultimate value. With Edward D. Wood at the bottom and…who at the top? Murnau? Mizoguchi? Which name should go higher? It’s crazy.

    There’s nothing simple about Spielberg. His strengths and his weaknesses sit very close together.

    Stephen, Fincher was great. I’m not sure if it was recorded.

  • John M

    Michael,

    “Yes, I know. Those who fail to see that Spielberg is a great filmmaker have not done their work.”

    Oh snap.

    Really, all I can think to say right now is oh snap.

    And….now I’m going to sleep.

    John

  • Michael Adams

    Shocked that only one person, the inestimable Glenn K., has mentioned SHINE A LIGHT, the most entertaining 2008 film for me, as well as one of the best photographed and edited. The music’s pretty good, too.